Text: Philippians 3:4b-14
Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost / Proper 22, Series A
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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
A story is told of the nineteenth-century Anglican pastor, poet and theologian John Keble. As a young Oxford don in the early years of the century, he held at one point the office of college bursar. Few clergy then, or now for that matter, were trained in the art of balancing columns of figures; and in one particular year Keble’s accounts were stubbornly out of balance by nearly two thousand pounds. Eventually he figured out why the ledger was out of balance. He noticed that the date written at the top of the page was an exact match for how much the books were out. He had accidentally added the number of the year—it must have been somewhere near 1820—into one of the columns of figures.
There are many methods of creative accounting, but normally balancing the books is a matter of putting together a certain number of items on the credit side, a large number of items on the debit side, and calculating them to see how close they come. That’s the picture Paul is working with in our epistle reading.
The Flesh brings only Spiritual Bankruptcy
Paul the apostle recounts what he thought were the advantages of his former life in Judaism. He thought that his spiritual ledger was all finely balanced. In terms of his status as a member of God’s people, Israel, he had nothing on the debit side at all. Every way he looked at it, Paul thought he was in the clear. Paul had placed his confidence in the flesh. “If anyone else thinks they have reason to trust in the flesh, I’ve got more,” says Paul (Phil. 3:4).
So, imagine a spiritual ledger with two columns, gains and losses, Paul focuses first on the gains—the things that he thought would give him confidence at the final judgment. Paul’s confidence had two points. First, there was confidence which stemmed from his birth. “Circumcised? On the eighth day. Race? Israelite. Tribe? Benjamin. Descent? Hebrew through and through,” (Phil. 3:5). Second, there was confidence that stemmed from his performance. These are things he had personally achieved instead of inheriting. “Torah-observance? A Pharisee. Zealous? I persecuted the church! Official status under the law? Blameless,” (Phil. 3:5-6).
Does that mean, though, that his account is in credit — overflowing with a surplus? Certainly not! If salvation were by works, Paul would have been guaranteed clear entrance to heaven. And at one time Paul considered all that to his profit; they were all advantages that would have helped him gain an eternal reward. But now, Paul realises his books were out of balance. In fact, all the items that looked as if they formed a credit balance, all of it needed to be placed on the other side of the page instead. They are really part of the debit column, rather than the credit one.
Ever since that blinding experience on the road to Damascus, Paul’s eyes of faith were opened, and he now realised that his spiritual ledger radically changed. All those things he took confidence in were actually to his disadvantage. They stood in the way of his having a right relationship with the Lord and kept the gates of heaven shut up tight for him. They did not gain any righteousness for him but only led him away from the true righteousness in Christ. They were now all to his “loss.” Those old ideas needed to be abandoned as totally useless and worthless.
Everything he used to put his confidence in—his birth and his performance—Paul now considered as nothing more than garbage that smells up the house and needs to be hauled out and thrown away. Not only were they not for his profit, they stood to cost him everything; they were a loss. They had left him spiritually bankrupt.
What are you placing your confidence in? In your spiritual ledger, what are you putting in the credit side? You see, you have a huge debit, a huge loss to balance out. God says that we should fear, love, and trust in him above all things (Sm. Cat. I:1-2). Instead we don’t. God has commanded us to love our neighbours as ourselves. We haven’t done that either. On top of that, God has made you. He has given you your body and soul, and all you members. He takes care of you. He provides you with all that you need to support this body and life. He defends you against all danger and guards and protects you from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in you. For all this, you already owe God all your thanks, praise, and obedience (Sm. Cat. II:1-2). So what will you place into the ledger to balance out that debt? How will you repay God? Your good works? Your prayers? Your church attendance? Living a good life? Being religious? Telling others about Jesus? Helping those in need? Social justice? You owe all that to God already. It’s what you’re supposed to be doing. You absolutely need to see that in-and-of yourself you are spiritual bankrupt. There is nothing in the world you can put into that credit side to balance out what you owe to God. Instead, you sin daily in thought, word, and deed, by what you have done and left undone, and the debt increases.
Faith in Christ gives Spiritual Wealth
Paul now goes far beyond merely regarding the things he boasted in as a loss. He moves every single thing over to the loss column until one thing remain. Paul has discovered something to put on the credit side in comparison with which everything else he can imagine can only be a debit. He has found something to put on the other side to finally make up for our massive debt to God. And that ‘something’ is in fact a someone: it is Jesus, the Messiah, the crucified and risen king. The plus side of Paul’s ledger is now pure. Paul’s loss column reads everything; his gain column now reads Christ.
There are two categories of people: those who are think they are members of God’s people because they try to keep the law, and those who are regarded as members of God’s family because they trust in what the Jesus has done. Jesus, as the Messiah, has at last done what we could not. We are saved by the faithfulness of Jesus, not our own faithfulness. Jesus was faithful, “even to death, yes, even the death of the cross.,” (Phil. 2:8). The righteousness that we possess comes from Christ’s faithful obedience to the Father on the cross, where he willingly suffered and died to pay back the full debt of your sins. The way we share in Jesu’s faithfulness is by faith – our trust in the promise that because of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, we are forgiven. Because of Jesus, we have a credit balance consisting simply of him. No longer do we have any debts hanging over us. We are justified, declared to be righteous. The righteousness a holy God demands of us, he credits to us in Christ. We have spiritual wealth, because we have Jesus.
This isn’t just about how someone becomes a Christian. It is about the status that you possess, and continue to possess, as full members of God’s people, no matter who you are or what you‘ve done. It is not, “I was justified.” It is, “I am justified”. It’s just the same way with marriage. You don’t say, “I was married” if you wife is sitting next to you. You say, “I am married. This is a matter of status: God regards all Christians as being ‘in Christ’. It is also a matter of personal knowledge: not just knowing facts about Jesus, but knowing him in a personal relationship — listening to him speak through the Word and trusting his promises. It is, also, a matter of conformity of life: being committed to a repentant life that seeks to put sin to death, and strives to imitate the Messiah.
So what in the world would you make of higher importance than Jesus? What work would you dare put along side him? Think of anything at all in this world, and it does not compare with Jesus Christ. Our solitary confidence is Jesus Christ. Our only boast is in Jesus Christ. Our sole delight is in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the centre of our worship, the centre of our gratitude, the centre of our love, the centre of your hope. Place your constant confidence and trust in Christ Jesus and in nothing else. Our only boast, our only confidence, our only hope must be in Christ. Salvation is all of grace because of Christ’s faithful work. Saving faith is abandoning all those things with which we would credit ourselves, and relying instead on the faithful work of Christ on our behalf. He is your only hope. Christ alone stands in the credit column, and nothing else.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.