I loved scary movies as a kid. There was a time in my childhood when I was very easily frightened, but around the age of 11 or 12 that sort of vanished and it took quite a bit to really scare me. And so I really enjoyed scary movies because I loved the thrill of being genuinely startled. And not many movies got to me, but when I did see a movie that really made me jump, I just got such a kick out of it.
A few years after that, I got saved, and I began reading through the New Testament. And it wasn’t long in my reading of Matthew’s gospel that I was confronted with the most terrifying thing I had ever conceived of. And that terror was not childishly thrilling; I took absolutely no pleasure in the fright that had come upon me as a result of what I’d read. The text was Matthew 7 verses 21 to 23, where Jesus says that not everyone who calls Him Lord will enter the Kingdom of Heaven—that there are people in this life who will go to their graves thinking that they are a true child of God, fully expecting to go to heaven and be with Jesus, but who will spend eternity in hell. On that day they’ll see Jesus, and will be bewildered at the look on His face as He looks at them. And they’ll say, “Lord, did I not prophesy in your name? Did I not work miracles in your name? Did I not this? Did I not that?” And Jesus will say, “I never knew you. Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.”
I simply can’t imagine anything more terrifying than that. And it’s the sober reality of that terrible day that is one of the reasons why a key theme throughout the New Testament is describing the nature of a true Christian—distinguishing who is a Christian and who isn’t—delineating what a true Christian looks like, what fruit will be born as a result of the divine life quickened in their soul. And we come, this morning, to one of those very passages which outlines the characteristics of a true child of God. And that is Philippians chapter 3 verse 3, where Paul says:
Well this morning, we come to one of those passages this morning in Philippians 3:3, where Paul says: “For we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.”
And in order to properly understand the intent of this passage, we need to place it in the context of the flow of though tin which it comes. We observed last week that as Paul comes to the third chapter of his letter to the Philippians, he makes a decided transition both in his subject matter and in the tone in which he’s writing. Throughout chapters one and two, Paul has spent quite a bit of time addressing his pastoral concerns regarding a variety of relational matters in the Philippian church. They are to be unified (2:1–2), to be humble (2:3–4), to be actively pursuing practical holiness, both individually and corporately as the people of God (2:12–16). And they are to serve one another sacrificially and from the heart, after the pattern that they’ve received in the Lord Jesus Himself (2:5–11), and then also from the three Gospel-driven ministers: Paul (2:17–18), Timothy (2:19–24), and Epaphroditus (2:25–30). And so as Paul has begun instructing the Philippians on what it means to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ (1:27), his emphasis has been on these decidedly relational implications of the Gospel.
And we mentioned that the tone—the atmosphere of the letter throughout these first two chapters—has been remarkably positive, overflowing with the love and affection that exists between Paul and the Philippians. Paul thanks God for the Philippians with joy and confidence (1:3–6). He longs for them all with affection of Christ Jesus, because, he says, he has them in his heart (1:7–8). He addresses them as his brethren (1:12; 3:1), his beloved (2:12), and his partners in the gospel (1:5, 7). He intends to make every effort to visit them again, despite the difficulty of his circumstances (1:25–26; 2:24). He repeatedly speaks of his joy and calls the Philippians themselves to rejoice—using those words 11 times in the first two chapters alone.
And then, as a sort of hinge for his thoughts as he comes to chapter 3, he exhorts them again, verse 1, to “Rejoice in the Lord.” And with that echoing exhortation, Paul both sums up the atmosphere of joy that has characterized his letter up until this point, and then pivots upon it in order to address, now, pastoral concerns of a doctrinal nature in chapter 3. As we come to this third chapter, we learn that Paul is just as concerned—not just that the Philippians are unified, not just that they’re humble, not just that they’re progressing in sanctification and serving one another—but that they understand doctrine, and that they vigilantly guard themselves against the corrupting errors of false teaching. As the Philippians face the destructive heresies of legalism and antinomianism—two systems of doctrine which distort the Gospel of Christ at its very core, the one by adding to Christ’s work and the other by subtracting from it—as they face the threat of those false teachings, Paul devotes this entire chapter to defining what it means—and what it does not mean—to be a true Christian.
And we mentioned last time that great nugget of wisdom from John Calvin, who said that a true pastor—a truly good shepherd—has two voices: one for gathering and guiding and comforting his sheep; and another for frightening and driving away the wolves and thieves that would seek to devour the flock (Calvin, Pastorals, 296). And so in chapter 3 verse 1, Paul speaks gently to his sheep, and calls them to rejoice in the Lord Jesus Christ, knowing that joy in Him is the antidote that immunizes the child of God against the deadly viruses of any false system of salvation. But then, as a good pastor, he employs that second voice that drives away the wolves and arouses a healthy vigilance in the hearts of the flock, when he calls the Philippians in verse 2 to, “Beware of the dogs! Beware of the evil workers! Beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” In what is some of the most scathing, violent, serrated language that Paul uses anywhere in his letters, he issues this Gospel-driven warning for the Philippians to beware of the damning doctrine of the Judaizers—those professing Christians who taught that circumcision and the observance of the Mosaic Law was necessary for salvation. And we observed in those three epithets by which Paul warns against the Judaizers the severity of the kind of false teaching that corrupts and undermines the Gospel of the grace of God, and destroys people’s souls as a result.
And so as Paul has called the Philippians to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel by withstanding persecution from unbelievers, by being unified, sanctified, and humbly serving one another, he now calls them to steadfastly battle against false teaching in a manner worthy of the Gospel. And since the nature of the Judaizers’ false doctrine is to distort what it means to be a true child of God—namely, by adding to the Gospel the necessity of lawkeeping—Paul makes a positive statement about the nature of true Christianity. As he equips the Philippians to contend earnestly for the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3)—“to strive together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil 1:27)—he outlines three distinguishing characteristics of a true child of God. Look with me at verse 3. Paul writes: “For we are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.”
And it is my prayer that as we look into these three distinguishing characteristics of a true child of God this morning, that every one of you will see yourself, and your own Christian experience, in the reflection of these verses—that as we examine these marks of a true Christian that you will be able to exclaim from the depths of your heart, “Yes! By God’s grace, that’s me!” And that the experience of God’s grace in confirming the Lord’s salvation to your own heart would cause you—all the more—to worship Him through the Spirit of God, to glory in Christ Jesus, and to put no confidence in your own flesh.
The True Circumcision
But before we jump right into examining these three distinguishing characteristics of the true Christian, we need to grasp the significance of the opening phrase, “For we are the circumcision.”
And I put the emphasis on that word “we” intentionally, there. The NAS tries to bring out the force of the original by supplying the word “true” before circumcision; if you have the New American Standard you’ll see that the word “true” is in italics, indicating that it’s not in the original text. But it’s better to leave “true” out and emphasize the word “we,” which is emphatic in the Greek text—both by its sheer presence in the sentence (it’s not necessary to make the sentence work in Greek) and by its position in the phrase (it’s thrown to the very front for extra emphasis). Paul is very clearly contrasting the Judaizers—who called themselves the circumcision—with the true people of God: those who trust in Christ alone for their righteousness. He’ saying, “They may call themselves the circumcision, but we are the circumcision.”
Now as we reviewed last time, we know that circumcision was the divinely ordained sign of the Abrahamic Covenant. It was the divine seal of Yahweh’s covenant love and fidelity to His ancient people Israel, the descendants of Abraham. God promised Abraham that a great nation would come from his descendants, that they would dwell in peace in the land of Canaan, and that that nation of descendants would be the instrument through which Yahweh would bless the entire world (Gen 12:1–3; 15:1–21). And the sign of marking out that nation as peculiarly and specially belonging to God was the sign of circumcision. Every male belonging to Israel—whether he was born a Jew or even if he was a convert to Judaism—was required to bear this mark of identity. And if he didn’t bear the sign of circumcision in his flesh, Genesis 17:14 says, in a bit of a wordplay, “that person shall be cut off from his people; [for] he has broken My covenant.”
And so circumcision was the baseline mark of identity for the Jews. To belong to God’s people was to be circumcised. And as we said last time, that sense of identity carried right on through to the time of the Apostle Paul, so much so that in the New Testament we see the Jews referred to simply as “the circumcision,” and Gentiles as “the uncircumcision” (cf. Eph 2:11). But now, with the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ—the One who is the fulfillment of the covenants—the One who is the substance which all of the symbols of the Old Covenant pointed to—now that He has come and accomplished salvation through His death and resurrection, the sign of circumcision has found its fulfillment in Him! Physical circumcision always pointed to the true, inward reality of a vital relationship with the One and Only God. That’s why as early as Deuteronomy chapter 10 we read about the circumcision of the heart (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4)—the cutting away, as it were, of the fleshiness of the heart, awakening it from its deadness and making it pulse with the lifeblood of spiritual realities.
And Paul is saying: the reality that physical circumcision prefigured and pointed to has come in the Lord Jesus Christ! And so he says in Colossians chapter 2 verse 11, “…and in Him”—that is, in vital union with Christ—“in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.” You see, physical circumcision has found its fulfillment—not in the ordinance of baptism, which our paedobaptist friends misunderstand—but in the circumcision of the heart that is the miracle of regeneration by the Holy Spirit of God.
Now, can you see the genius of what Paul is saying here? He’s saying, “Those Judaizers—those dogs, those evil workers—they call themselves ‘the circumcision party’ because they trust in their circumcision to identify them as the people of God. You know what they are? They’re nothing but mutilators. They’re not the circumcision, they’re the concision,” as the old translations put it, trying bring out the wordplay in the Greek. “They’re not the peritome, they’re the katatome—the mutilators of the flesh! No, my dear Philippians, don’t be deceived! We—those of us—Jew and Gentile!—who have been united to Christ by grace through faith alone—we are the circumcision! We, and we alone, are the people of God! And we are marked out and identified as His people—not by the knife of Moses—but by the sword of the Spirit! By the Spirit who circumcises our hearts, who quickens in us the divine life of the new birth!”
And so the New Testament can speak of the Church as the people of God. It can speak of the Church with the same names and titles that were once applied to Israel. The Apostle Peter can call the Church, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (1 Pet 2:9). We can be grafted in to the rich root of the olive tree of covenant blessing (Rom 11:17). Because we are “sons of faith,” we can truly be called the descendants of Abraham (Gal 3:7, 29)—who, Romans 4 tells us, is the father not only of those who are of the [physical] circumcision, but also of those who follow in the steps of the faith of Abraham, which he had while uncircumcised (Rom 4:11–12). And so Gentiles can be reconciled to God in one body together with the Jews—not by becoming Israel—not by becoming circumcised—but by receiving the circumcision made without hands: the new covenant sign of regeneration, which belongs to all those who are united to Messiah Jesus through faith alone.
Well then, having considered that introductory remark, let us turn now to the three distinguishing characteristics of the true circumcision—three identifying marks that characterize the true people of God. What does it mean to be a true Christian? What characteristics mark out the true follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?
I. Worship by the Spirit
Number one: The true people of God worship in—or by—the Spirit of God. They worship by the Spirit of God. Now this word, worship, is the Greek word latreúo, which Paul chooses very carefully in this context. There are multiple words for worship in the Greek language, but in this context Paul chooses the word that in the Greek translation of the Old Testament referred to the service connected with formal religious worship. This was the word that referred to the priestly services Israel performed in the tabernacle and the temple—having to do with the sacrifices and the altar, the laver and the incense, all the instruments of formal temple service. In fact, the noun form of this word is translated that way in Romans chapter 9 verse 4. Paul speaks of Israel, his kinsmen according to the flesh, “to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service….”
You see, Israel was unique in their worship practices, because they were the only nation in the world to whom God revealed a way of ritual access to Him. Only one nation could claim that the priestly service and the sacrifices offered in their temple truly reached the attention of the God of heaven. And in the context of contrasting the Judaizers, who gloried in such access to God through the ritualistic worship of the Mosaic Covenant, Paul says that because of the great cataclysm that was the Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, the true circumcision no longer worships by such external means! They no longer worship by a temple, by a laver, by sacrifices, and by a priest! No, the true circumcision worships by the Spirit of God Himself!
“Don’t be deceived, my Philippians! All of those external, ceremonial aspects of worship that the Judaizers would have you submit to—they were all symbols that pointed forward to a greater reality! And that reality has come in the Lord Jesus Christ, who has inaugurated the New Covenant, and sent us the Comforter, the Holy Spirit Himself. And He now permanently indwells you, so that all true worship is no longer by the letter, but by the inward power of the Spirit of God who rules and governs your heart!” This is precisely what Jesus was speaking about to the woman at the well in John 4. She was asking about the proper location for worship—whether it was there on Mount Gerizim like the Samaritans said, or in Jerusalem like the Jews said. And Jesus said, John 4:21, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. … But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” You see, true, New Covenant worship, has nothing to do with external rituals, or human traditions, or liturgy, or even physical locations. True, New Covenant worship is fundamentally internal. It is fundamentally a matter of the heart.
And not only is true worship an inward, internal reality. It also encompasses all of life. While a Jew under the Old Covenant thought of worship as offering sacrifice at the tabernacle or the temple, the Apostle Paul urges us, Romans 12:1, by the mercies of God, to present our bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God. This, he says, is our spiritual service of worship. And there’s that same word again. You see? All of life is worship, friends! Our entire lives are lived beyond the veil, in the Holy of Holies, in the very presence of God Himself. And the sacrifices we offer are not the slain carcasses of bulls and goats offered through a priest. We present our entire lives—all of our being, everything we are—as a living sacrifice, offered by the very Spirit of God Himself.
Oh, GraceLife, do you know anything of this New-Covenant, Spirit-empowered, heart-felt worship? Have you experienced what it is to have a heart so full of the truth of God and the glories of Person and work of Jesus Christ that you are delightfully compelled to spend time with Him, to read His Word, to commune with Him in prayer, to sing praise to His name? Do you know something of that inward relish of the soul that is entirely delighted and satisfied by all that God is for us in the Person of Christ? Is there a warmth and a freedom, animated by the Spirit of God, by which your soul is lost in the praise and adoration of the God of your salvation? Has the glory and worthiness of the Lord Jesus Christ so permeated the depths of your being that you can exclaim with the Apostle Paul, “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain!”? Does your heart beat with the psalmist who says, “Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; For it is pleasant and praise is becoming” (Ps 147:1)? Who says, “I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy!” (Ps 43:4)? Oh, friends! do you worship by the Spirit of God?
Or is worship, for you, merely a cold formality? Is it only a matter of externals? Is worship merely going through the motions of another so-called “worship service,” standing when you’re supposed to stand, praying when you’re supposed to pray, parroting out a few songs and hymns while your mind is thinking about lunch, or the grocery list, or the football game? Has worship, for you, simply been a matter of being at the right place at the right time with the right people saying the right words that you’ve learned to say, but without any engagement of the heart? You see, you may go to church and fellowship group and Bible study, you may read your Bible, you may pray—you may perform all the external duties of religion, but if your heart is not set aflame to worship by the Holy Spirit of God, you are not a true child of God! “This people honors Me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from Me. In vain do they worship Me” (Matt 15:9).
Paul was telling the Philippians that the worship the Judaizers were calling them to was no true worship at all. And I can imagine them objecting, “But Paul, how can we love and worship and treasure an unseen, invisible Jesus more than a visible sacrifice, offered by a visible priest, on an altar I can touch and feel with my own hands? Isn’t something tangible better than something entirely invisible and intangible?” And you can hear that today How do I love a Christ that I can’t see in a statue, or in stained glass, or on a crucifix?” There’s only one way: The Holy Spirit of God makes the glory of Christ Himself more real, and more visible to the eyes of your heart than all those things that you can see and touch and hold in your hands!
Oh how glorious is that! What a privilege it is to be living in the age of the Spirit—to be indwelt by the living Spirit of God! And in the presence of that Spirit, how utterly foolish it would be—how blasphemous it would be—to suggest that mere external, ritualistic ceremonies could accomplish more than He can! That is why the true circumcision—the true people of God—worship by the Spirit of God!
II. Glory in Christ Jesus
The second distinguishing characteristic of a true child of God is that the true child of God glories in Christ Jesus.
Now this word, “to glory” is the Greek word kaucháomai, and it speaks of boasting in, or being proud of. This is a favorite word of the Apostle Paul, and we’ve seen it a couple of times in Philippians already. The noun form of this word appears in chapter 1 verse 26, where Paul tells the Philippians that he’s convinced he’ll be released and will come to them again, “so that,” verse 26, “your proud confidence may abound in Christ Jesus in me through my coming to you again.” And we saw it again in chapter 2 verse 16, where he exhorts the Philippians to faithfulness, “so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.” And so the word speaks of glorying in, boasting in, placing proud confidence in someone or something.
Now, the Judaizers boasted in the Law of Moses. One commentator writes, “The apostle’s references to boasting need to be understood against the contemporary backgrounds of the professional practices of the sophists, among others, and of the Jew whose basic attitude was one of self-confidence before God, convinced that his keeping of the law would bring honour to himself” (O’Brien, 362). And we see this confirmed by Paul’s statement in Romans chapter 2 verse 23. Paul is in that section of Romans where he’s demonstrating that the Jews cannot be justified by works of the law, and in verse 23 he says, “You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God?” You see, he characterizes the Jewish people as those who boasted in the Law. They trusted in their ability to keep the commandments of the Mosaic Law to provide them their acceptance with God. This is what they relied on for their righteousness. Their proud confidence was in the Law.
But Paul says, in Philippians 3:3, the true circumcision—the true people of God—glory in Christ Jesus! All of their trust, all of their hope, all of their confidence for their righteousness before God rests squarely upon the One who has accomplished righteousness on their behalf: in Christ Jesus alone. They rely entirely on Him for their acceptance before God. They exclaim with the Apostle Paul in Galatians 6:14: “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!” In all the shame and scandal and foolishness of the cross of Christ—while the world sees it and hides their face in disgust, the true child of God boasts in that shameful cross. He sings with Edward Mote, “On Christ the Solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand!” And with Augustus Toplady: “Not the labor of my hands / Could fulfill Thy law’s demands. / Could my zeal no respite know, / Could my tears forever flow. / All for sin could not atone, / Thou must save and Thou alone. Nothing in my hand I bring / Simply to Thy cross I cling. / Naked, come to Thee for dress. / Helpless, look to Thee for grace. / Foul, I to the fountain fly. / Wash me, Savior, or I die!”
And so to glory in Christ Jesus means, first, to place all of our trust and our confidence in Christ for our righteousness. But it does mean more than believing in Him. You can believe in something, but not be proud of it. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “Many people believe in one cause or another, and are prepared to give their general support, but others are on fire on behalf of their cause, they are zealous and keen and active, and are prepared to shed the last drop of blood in their veins for it. They are proud of it; they glory in it. That is the word” (Life of Peace, 35). Pastor John says it is “boasting with exultant joy about what a person is most proud of” (MacArthur, 222).
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this concept of boasting is to turn to an Old Testament text that Paul himself quoted multiple times in the New Testament, and that is Jeremiah chapter 9. Turn to Jeremiah chapter 9, verses 23 and 24. There the Lord says, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things.”
Now what would it mean for a wise man to boast in his wisdom? It would mean that such a man is smart and he knows it. His mind is constantly occupied with having the right answer, and demonstrating to others that he’s smarter than they are. It means that he derives his identity from his intellect. He considers a great deal of who he is to be defined by his intelligence. If someone is shown to be smarter than he is, he’ll feel small; but when he can demonstrate his superior intellect, he’s on top of the world. In other words, he derives his satisfaction from his wisdom. And of course, he takes every opportunity to broadcast his wisdom; using big words, quoting obscure pieces of literature, bragging about how he had solved this or that problem. He’s always talking about his wisdom in one way or another.
And how about a man who boasts in his riches? This is a man whose money is constantly on his mind. He’s always ruminating on it, reminding himself of how much money he has in this or that bank account, or this or that stock. He daydreams fondly about his big houses, his expensive cars, his luxurious vacations. He sneaks glances in the mirror to admire his expensive clothes. In his mind, this is who he is: a rich man. If he were to somehow lose his wealth, he would feel like he’s lost himself—like he wouldn’t know how to act. But because he has money, he rests in the security that money brings. He trusts in it for his peace and satisfaction. And of course, he never misses an opportunity to brag to others about his wealth. He loves talking about the money he made on a good investment, about how good the Ferrari handles on tight turns, about how relaxing his last vacation in the South Pacific was. You just can’t shut him up! He’s boasting in his riches.
And Paul says, the true child of God boasts in Christ Jesus. His mind is continually filled with thoughts of Christ and His glory. He is constantly meditating and ruminating on the wondrous mysteries of the Person of Christ—how all the fullness of deity could dwell in bodily form in this God-man; how the One who spoke the galaxies into existence with a word could have been born as a helpless child; how the One who sustained the entire universe by the word of His power, could have at the same time been being sustained by the nourishment and protection of a teenage girl. The one who boasts in Christ Jesus marvels at the love and wisdom of God put on display in the Gospel, whereby this innocent Savior voluntarily undergoes the full exercise of the wrath of His Father that He never deserved to know, bearing the punishment against the sins of His people, and then rising from the dead three days later in triumphant victory over sin and death! He trusts in Christ with every fiber of His being. He relies on His work in the Gospel to merit his acceptance before God. And he derives his identity entirely from his union with Christ. There’s an inward exultation and joy when he thinks about His Savior; he’s proud of Him, the way a child is proud of his older brother or his father. And so of course he can’t stop speaking about Him. Christ is constantly on his lips. He wants everyone to hear about this glorious Savior and the work of His Gospel, and so he goes around boasting about all that He is, proud of and celebrating the reality that he belongs to Christ.
Oh friends, can you see anything of yourself in this description? Does your heart pulse with affection and adoration and exultation in your Savior as I speak of these things? Be stirred up to boasting in Christ—celebrate Him with me as I read this excellent passage from Martyn Lloyd-Jones: “Is there anything that you can conceive of or imagine that you need or want for your soul? It is all in him: ‘in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily’ (Col 2:9). There is nothing that the soul of man can need in time or eternity but that it is in Christ. You need pardon? There it is. You need reconciliation to God? The man Christ Jesus is the one and only mediator between God and man. You need new life and a new nature? You receive it from him. You need strength and power? He sent the Holy Spirit that you might have it. You need an Advocate with the Father? There he is, seated at the right hand of God. You tremble at the thought of death and of going to face God in the judgment? You are assured that you will be clothed with his righteousness and he will present you spotless. What else do you need? He is everything: Prophet, Priest and King, the All in all. … The man who believes that, must make his boast in Christ” (Life of Peace, 40–41).
Oh GraceLife, is that Christ to you? And if it is, do you boast in Him? Do you glory in Him? Is He the occupation of your thoughts and affections? Is He the One around whom you shape your life and seek to derive your benefit? Do you seek satisfaction in Him? Is He the bottom of your joy? Do you delight to spread the fame of His name to your friends and co-workers and relatives? Can you be ashamed of a Savior like this? Can you be embarrassed to speak of the person and work of One so glorious? so lovely? so compelling? Oh if you have ever tasted for just one moment the sweetness of the sufficiency of such a Savior, you would shout with the Apostle Paul: “Whatever things were gain to me—whatever else I used to boast in: riches, strength, wisdom, reputation, education, achievements, occupation—those things I count as loss—I count them as rubbish for the sake of gaining Christ!”
III. No Confidence in the Flesh
And that leads very naturally to the third characteristic of the true child of God that Paul outlines in this text. The true child of God, number one: worships by the Spirit of God; number two: glories, or boasts, in Christ Jesus; and finally, number three: He puts no confidence in the flesh. And this is really just the negative aspect of the second characteristic. They are two sides of the same coin. The one who glories in Christ Jesus puts no confidence in the flesh.
Flesh, here, is a comprehensive term that denotes “anything apart from Christ on which one bases his hope for salvation” (Hendriksen, 153). And you’ll see, by looking at the verses which immediately follow, that in this context “flesh” refers to all those human achievements and advantages that one might put his hope and confidence in for his acceptance before God. Paul says, “If anyone was going to boast in the flesh, it’d be me. I was circumcised, and so I could boast on ceremonial grounds. I’m of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin—a Hebrew of Hebrews—and so I could boast on hereditary grounds. I was a Pharisee, so zealous that I even persecuted the Church, and so I could boast on the grounds of my upbringing and social standing. And as far as anyone looking at me from the outside could tell, I was found blameless concerning the righteousness which in the Law, and so I could boast on moral grounds.”
But then in the ledger of his life he adds up all of those attainments—all of those grounds for boasting—and in the light of the glory of Christ, he moves every last one of them from the “assets” column, to the “liabilities” column! He counts everything that he might have considered to his advantage as loss—as refuse—in comparison to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord! And in that narration of his own testimony teaches us the great evangelical doctrine of total depravity—that sinful man, in his natural state of sinfulness, is absolutely powerless to achieve one iota of righteousness before God!—that if man will have any hope of salvation he will have to abandon everything in himself and despair of earning any part of it!
And that’s why Paul adds this final phrase! You read this and say, at first glance, “He’s just repeating himself! He’s making the same point twice! He’s already said that the true Christian puts all his hope and trust and confidence in Christ for his salvation. What need is there to repeat that by saying, “and puts no confidence in the flesh”? But you see, my dear friends: native to sinful humanity—the natural disposition of all of our sinful hearts—is that very Judaizing spirit that Paul condemned in the first century. By our very nature, our sinful hearts constantly seek to put confidence in the flesh, even if it’s just a little. And that’s what the Judaizers would say they were trying to say! “Of course we glory in Christ Jesus! Amen! We believe in the cross, in penal substitutionary atonement, in the resurrection! We believe that faith in Christ’s work is necessary for salvation. We just need to keep the Mosaic Law too!” And that is exactly what that harlot of the Roman Catholic Church teaches! “Oh, we believe in salvation by grace! We don’t teach justification by works! We believe that we are saved by faith in Christ’s work on the cross! We just need to preserve and increase our justification through our good works!” (cf. Council of Trent, Canon XXIV). No, no, my friends! Christ will do everything, or He will do nothing! And so the true child of God puts no confidence in the flesh, because he knows, like Paul in Romans 7:18, that nothing good dwells in my flesh!—that all my righteous deeds are like filthy rags (Isa 64:6) when compared to the standard of God’s holiness by which I will be judged!
Oh dear friends, does this describe you? Does the testimony of John the Baptist spring delightfully from your soul that in the matter of righteousness before God, “[Christ] must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30)? Or do you trust in yourself, even in part? What will be your confidence on that great day? “I attended Grace Community Church for 40 years. I was baptized by John MacArthur! I’ve listened to every sermon they’ve ever posted on Grace To You. I’ve read every study note in the MacArthur Study Bible!” Or perhaps a bit more seriously: “I understand that I was a sinner, but I surely wasn’t as bad as other people! Lord, did I not serve in the homeless shelter and at the pregnancy center?! Lord, did I not take an interest in politics and world issues; did I not fight for justice and the betterment of society in Your name?! Lord, did I not raise children who all know you?! Lord, did I not study my Bible?! Did I not go to seminary?! Didn’t I serve you in ministry?!” And He will look at the filthy rags of your righteousness by which you seek to gain access to heaven, and He will declare to you, “I never knew you. Depart from me.”
Oh dear friends, let it not be you. Let it not be you. Turn from yourself. Make your boast in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence—absolutely no confidence!—in the flesh!
Well, there we have the three distinguishing characteristics of the true child of God. While it is certainly not an exhaustive list, these three marks identify the one who is born of the Father, united to Christ through faith, by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. We see the true Christian’s fundamental attitude and posture toward God is one of worship by the Spirit of God. We see his fundamental attitude and posture toward Christ is one of utter dependence and trust, of boasting and exulting in all that He is for us and all that He has done for us. And we see that his fundamental attitude toward himself is one of utter despair apart from the grace of Christ: that he puts no confidence in the flesh—no confidence in anything he is or anything he has done to commend himself to God.
And dear friends, I put to you again the questions I have been asking you all along: do these characteristics distinguish you as a true Christian? And I’m not talking about absolute perfection. Paul himself says in verse 12: “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect….” Of course we all fail to do these things as we ought. But I’m speaking about the direction of your life. By the grace of God, can you see something of yourself in these descriptions? Do you delight to worship God with an engaged heart, warmed and animated by the Holy Spirit Himself? Can you taste the sufficiency of an unseen and invisible Christ more sweetly through His Spirit than through all external religious duties? Do you find all of your confidence, all of your boasting, all of your glorying in the Person and work of Christ? Is He the bottom of your joy, the very bedrock foundation of all your affections? Does He demand your attention and adoration, does He fill your thoughts and meditations throughout the day, do you delight to speak of Him to others, are you proud to be His and to own Him as yours? And do you renounce all claims to righteousness on the basis of yourself and your own achievements? Do you happily release all claim to your own righteousness, and joyfully rest in the alien righteousness of Christ?
Dear friend, if you are honest with yourself as you survey your own heart, and you discover as you’re sitting here this morning that you have answer, “No,” to those questions, my friend: don’t ignore the pain of that conviction. That is the conviction of sin by the Holy Spirit Himself, testifying that whatever you might have thought before, you’re not a true child of God. But the Good News is that you may become one today. The door of Gospel-mercy yet remains open to all those who would forsake their sin and trust in Christ alone for their righteousness. If you have never done it before, do it now!
Abandon all confidence in the flesh—abandon all hope to enter God’s kingdom on the basis of your own good works and human achievements—and set all your confidence, all your hope, all your trust, all your dependence upon the Rock of the righteousness of Christ. Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed. Sin has been atoned for. Wrath has been satisfied. Salvation has been accomplished. Death has been conquered.
Build your hope on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Stand on Christ—the Solid Rock. All other ground is sinking sand.