Text: Philippians 3:4-14
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Series C
Listen to the sermon here.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This morning’s epistle lesson holds a special place in my heart. This text from Philippians was the text where the lights went on for me. As many of you may know, I was not always a Christian. In fact, I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In my early 20s, I had been questioning much of what I thought was true. That’s when I came across this passage. What St. Paul the Apostle wrote here was like being hit in the head with a 2×4. The lights went on, and I saw what I had never seen before. What was it about this text that was vitally important to bring me out of one religion and into the Church? We’re going to look at that this morning.
Everything is Loss
Paul, the apostle, tells us what he thought were the advantages of his former life in Judaism. So, imagine a spiritual bank book with two columns, gains and losses. Paul focuses first on the profits—the things that he thought would give him confidence at the final judgment. He felt that his spiritual ledger was all finely balanced. In terms of his relationship with God, it turns out Paul had nothing on the “losses” side at all. Paul thought he was in the clear every way he looked at it. 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).
Paul’s confidence had two points. First, there was the confidence that came from his birth. “Circumcised? On the eighth day. Race? Israelite. Tribe? Benjamin. Descent? Hebrew through and through” (Phil. 3:5). Since he was part of God’s people, he thought that was an automatic gain. Second, there was confidence that stemmed from his performance. These are things he had personally achieved instead of inheriting. “Observance of the law? I was a Pharisee. Zealous? I persecuted the church! Official status under the law? Blameless” (Phil. 3:5-6).
Does that mean that his spiritual bankbook was in credit — overflowing with a surplus? Certainly not! Paul would have been guaranteed clear entrance to heaven if salvation were by works. And at one time, Paul considered all that to his profit. He thought he had all the advantages that would have helped him gain an eternal reward. But something changed. Paul realised his books were out of balance. Many items appeared to give him a surplus, but they needed to be placed on the other side of the page instead. They are part of the loss column rather than the gain column.
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 thought won him God’s favour 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 tight for him. They did not give him any righteousness 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 it nothing more than garbage that smells up the house and needs to be hauled out and thrown away. They were not a surplus. On the contrary, they also stood to cost him everything; they were a loss. They had left him spiritually bankrupt.
In what are you placing your confidence? What are you putting on the credit side in your spiritual bank book? You see, you have considerable debt, a colossal loss to balance out. God says 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 your members. God takes care of you. He provides you with all you need to support this body and life. The Creator 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 need to see that you are spiritually bankrupt in and of yourself. 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.
Christ Pays Our Debts
Paul now goes far beyond merely saying that the things he boasted about are a loss. He moves every single thing over to the loss column until one thing remains. Paul has discovered something to put on the credit side. Everything else he can imagine can only be a loss in comparison. He has found something to make up for our massive debt to God. And that ‘something’ is a person: 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. Some think they are members of God’s people since they try to keep the law. Others are regarded as members of God’s family because they trust in the sufferings of Jesus Christ. 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 we possess comes from Christ’s faithful obedience to the Father on the cross, where he willingly suffered and died to pay back the entire debt of your sins. The way we share in Jesus’ faithfulness is by faith – our trust in the promise that we are forgiven because of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. 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, that’s what 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 you have, and continue to have, 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 your 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 about knowing God personally. Facts are essential, but it is more than simply knowing facts about Jesus. We must know 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 did I notice in this text which rocked my world? Simply this: nothing is more important than Jesus. What work would you dare put alongside his suffering and death? Think of anything 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, our gratitude, the centre of our love, and our hope. Place your constant confidence and trust in Christ Jesus and 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.