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Lesson 16: True Versus Counterfeit Christianity (Philippians 3:1-3)

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About 20 years ago a survey of 7,000 Protestant youths from many denominations asked whether they agreed with the following statements: “The way to be accepted by God is to try sincerely to live a good life.” More than 60 percent agreed.

“God is satisfied if a person lives the best life he can.” Almost 70 percent agreed. (Reported by Paul Brand & Philip Yancey, Fearfully & Wonderfully Made [Zondervan], p. 108.)

I have found that many church-going people, like these young people, are confused on the most important question in life: “How can I be right with God?” Many think that sincerity is a big factor. If you’re sincere, God will let you into heaven even if you’re a bit fuzzy on the truth. But that’s like saying that a man who swallows deadly poison, sincerely thinking that it is medicine, will get better. All the sincerity in the world is fatal if it is not in line with the truth.

Many also think that human effort plays a big role. If you try your best, even though you aren’t perfect, God will say, “I’ll let you into heaven because you tried so hard.” If that is what the Bible teaches, then it is so. But if it is contrary to what the Bible teaches, then trying your best to get into heaven is like trying your best to broad jump across the Grand Canyon. You’re not going to make it!

Have you ever been stuck with a counterfeit bill? You thought it was legal tender, but when you took it somewhere and offered it as money, the teller or clerk said, “I’m sorry, but this is counterfeit money. It’s no good.” The Bible teaches that Satan is a master counterfeiter, trying to pass off on unsuspecting people a version of Christianity that looks pretty good, but it is not going to be accepted by the bank of heaven. It’s traumatic to get stuck with a counterfeit bill; it would be far more traumatic to stand before God someday and hear Him declare that your Christianity is counterfeit!

In Philippians 3:1-3, the apostle Paul contrasts true and counterfeit Christianity. To understand this section of Philippians, you must know a bit of history. Soon after the gospel began to spread among the Gentiles, some Jewish men who claimed also to believe in Christ began teaching the Gentile converts that they could not be saved unless they also were circumcised according to the law of Moses (see Acts 15:1). They did not deny that a person must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, but they added to faith in Christ the keeping of the Jewish law, especially circumcision, as necessary for salvation.

The issue was debated and resolved in Jerusalem at a council of the church leaders where it was decided that Gentiles do not have to become Jews or be circumcised to be saved; but that every person, Jew or Gentile, is saved by grace through faith in Christ alone (Acts 15:1-29). But that decision did not cause Satan to give up his efforts to pervert the truth of the gospel. He continued to work through a group of men known as Judaizers who followed Paul on his missionary journeys, infiltrating the new churches and teaching their subtle error, that faith in Christ was not sufficient if a person did not also keep the Law, especially circumcision. Paul wrote Galatians to refute this error. He contends there that these men were preaching a false gospel and he calls down damnation on those who so pervert the true gospel (Gal. 1:6-9). The Judaizers are the men Paul is warning the Philippian church about in our text. The three terms in 3:2, “dogs, evil workers, and false circumcision,” all refer to one group, the Judaizers, who were promoting a counterfeit Christianity.

While the Judaizers no longer exist under that name, the core of their teaching is still quite prevalent. Thus our text is extremely important in helping us to discern what true Christianity is and to reject any counterfeit version. Paul is teaching that ...

To be true Christians we must put off all confidence in human merit and trust in Christ alone for salvation.

True Christianity relies totally on the person and work of Christ; counterfeit Christianity adds to this reliance on human worth or works. Concerning counterfeit Christianity, Paul warns,

1. Beware of counterfeit Christianity which adds human merit to the person and work of Christ!

The severity of Paul’s warning is underscored by his threefold repetition: “Beware ... beware ... beware ...!” Counterfeit Christianity is a strong danger for all of us because we’re all prone to pride and self-reliance. We all want to take for ourselves at least some of the credit for our salvation. We’ll be generous and grant that most of the credit goes to the Lord, but we still want to reserve a bit of the honor for ourselves. People will say, “I was saved by my own free will,” which implies, “I was smart enough or good enough to make the right choice.” But the Bible knocks our pride out from under us by clearly stating that our salvation does not depend on our will, but on God’s sovereign mercy (Rom. 9:16). Or, people will say, “Christ died for me because I was worthy.” But Scripture is clear that He died for us when we were unworthy sinners (Rom. 5:8).

Counterfeit Christianity glories in the flesh, which means, human worth or merit. The names Paul calls these false teachers reveal three common forms such human merit takes:

A. Counterfeit Christianity takes pride in racial or ethnic status, as if it put us in right standing with God.

Paul sarcastically calls these Judaizers “dogs.” He is taking a slur that the Jews used against the Gentiles and turning back against these false teachers. It referred to the packs of wild dogs that used to raid the garbage and eat anything they could find. Since the Gentiles were not concerned about clean and unclean foods, or about purifying themselves according to the Jewish rituals, the Jews viewed them as unclean dogs. Just beneath the surface was ethnic pride, as if being a Jew by birth made one right with God.

Much of the strife in the world today stems from racial or religious pride. The Catholic-Protestant violence in Ireland, the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the Arab-Jewish conflicts in the Holy Land, Iraq’s persecution of the Kurds, the recent civil war in Rwanda, the racial tension in South Africa, and many more conflicts are due to people mistakenly thinking that their racial status puts them in God’s favor. Here in America, many of the white supremacy groups justify their ethnic pride and hatred of blacks and Jews on a mistaken understanding of the Bible.

Scripture is clear that while God chose the nation Israel as His people and still has a special purpose for the Jews, He is no respecter of persons when it comes to granting salvation through Jesus Christ (Acts 10:34-47). As Paul writes in Romans 10:12, 13, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call upon Him; for ‘Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’”

B. Counterfeit Christianity takes pride in human works as if they put us in right standing with God.

Paul calls these men, who prided themselves on their good works, “evil workers.” They thought they were obeying God’s law. Outwardly they were good, moral people, zealous for religious activities. But their religious works were evil in God’s sight, because they took pride in their own achievements and trusted in their good deeds as the means of making themselves right before God. Such trust in human works brings glory to man and nullifies what Christ did for us on the cross.

The Bible is clear that while we are saved by grace through faith apart from any works, genuine saving faith always results in a life of good works (Eph. 2:8-10; Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-8; James 2:14-26). But the order of faith and works is essential! No human efforts can commend us to God. A true Christian never glories in his good works, but glories in Christ alone, as we will see.

C. Counterfeit Christianity takes pride in religious rituals as if they put us in right standing with God.

Paul calls these men “the false circumcision,” which is a play on words. In Greek, circumcision is peritome; Paul calls these men katatome, which means “mutilators.” Just as the pagan priests of Baal in Elijah’s day cut themselves in a religious frenzy, so these false teachers were mutilating people through their emphasis on circumcision. They wrongly thought that the ritual of removing the male foreskin somehow gained them favor with God. But as Paul argues in Romans 4, even Abraham, to whom God first gave the rite of circumcision, was not made right with God through circumcision, but through faith.

Today there are many professing Christians who mistakenly think that religious rituals such as baptism or communion or attending church services or going through prescribed liturgies will get them into heaven. But, as Jesus told the religious Nicodemus, “... unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Thus Paul is strongly warning us to beware of trusting in any form of human goodness, human worth, human merit, or good works as the basis of our standing with God. Salvation is clearly shown in Scripture to be due to God’s choice, not due to our being worth it, “that no man should boast before God” (see 1 Cor. 1:27-31).

These verses also show us that it is the job of faithful pastors to warn the flock of such dangerous teachings. We live in a day marked by tolerance and positive thinking. Many Christians say, “Why attack those who teach error? Just preach the positives.” I have often been criticized because I preach against popular errors that have flooded into the church, such as the self-esteem teaching that runs counter to the heart of the gospel. There is also a strong movement toward unity, where doctrine is viewed as divisive and against love. Anyone who points out doctrinal error is labeled a “heresy hunter” who is against unity. But notice that even though Paul is exhorting the Philippian church to unity, it is not a unity devoid of doctrinal truth. If you didn’t need pastors to warn you of such subtle errors, verses like these would not be in the Bible.

2. Embrace true Christianity which relies totally on the person and work of Jesus Christ for salvation.

Note that Paul is reminding the Philippians of something they already knew (3:1). When he says “Finally,” he isn’t necessarily being like some preachers, who say that half way through their sermon! It can mean simply that he is turning to a new section. Although scholars differ on it, I believe that by “the same things” Paul is referring to his emphasis on rejoicing. He has mentioned “rejoicing” (1:18 [2x], 2:17 [2x], 18 [2x], 28) and “joy” (1:4, 25; 2:2, 29) eleven times already in chapters one and two! But, he’s going to remind them again, because it is such an important, central part of the genuine Christian life. He will hit it again in 4:4. It is no trouble to him to hammer on it, and it is a safeguard against the subtle danger of trusting in human merit. Rejoicing in the Lord is the great antidote to rejoicing in self-reliance or achievement. It takes our focus off ourselves, it humbles our pride, and it fills us with great hope to rejoice in the Lord.

A. True Christianity is summed up by, “Rejoice in the Lord.”

I understand “rejoice in the Lord” (3:1) to be a summary of true Christianity, while the three phrases in 3:3, “worship in the Spirit of God,” “glory in Christ Jesus,” and “put no confidence in the flesh” are simply other ways of saying the same thing. Test yourself by this measure: True Christians rejoice in the Lord.

What does this mean? It means that the Lord Jesus Christ is everything to a true Christian. Christ, and Christ alone, is our salvation. Without Him, we would be lost and without hope. In Him we are saved and have hope! As Paul puts it (1 Cor. 1:30-31), “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”

Also he wrote (Col. 2:10-11), “In Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and 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.” This is what Paul is referring to when he calls true Christians “the circumcision” (Phil. 3:3). It is a spiritual, inner work performed on us by Christ. So when Paul tells us to rejoice in the Lord, he means that the Lord is everything to us and we are in Him. So we are to focus our thoughts on Him and what He has graciously done for us through the cross. We will be filled with joy in the Holy Spirit as we daily walk with our eyes on the Lord Jesus and what He is to us.

“Rejoice in the Lord” also means that true Christianity is not just a matter of the head, but also of the heart. It involves and is built on sound doctrine which is grasped by the intellect. Our minds must appropriate the great truths of who Christ is and what He did for us on the cross and what He has promised to those who believe in Him. But, if it stops there, you are not a true Christian. A true Christian is marked by what Jonathan Edwards called “religious affections.” His emotions or heart is affected, so that he rejoices in the inner person as he thinks on the blessedness of what Jesus is to him.

A Christian leader and seminary professor, who has been in ministry for over 20 years, told me that his wife, due to her “dysfunctional” upbringing, had never felt God’s love and that she did not understand His grace. In spite of all the teaching and training to which she had been exposed, he said that when she heard me preach on God’s grace and love, it just went right past her. He attributed this to the fact that her father had been a cold, unemotional, unloving man. I shocked him and made him angry when I responded, “If your wife has never felt God’s love in Christ and has never been moved by the great truth that Christ died for her sin, she isn’t saved.” True Christianity is not merely a matter of subscribing to the great doctrinal truths of the Bible, although it is built on that. It is a matter of God changing our hearts, so that we rejoice in the Lord. This summarizes true Christianity. But, also,

B. True Christianity is marked by “worship in the Spirit of God.”

Jesus said, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). True worship is the inner sense of awe, gratitude, and love for God that stems from an understanding of who God is and who we are in His presence. The false teachers were making worship a matter of outward ritual. Paul is saying that true Christians are marked by inner worship prompted by the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Spirit works submission in our hearts so that we bow before God, caught up in love and praise, giving all glory to Him for His great salvation!

C. True Christianity is marked by “glorying in Christ Jesus.”

The King James Version inaccurately translates, “rejoice in Christ Jesus.” The word is “boast” or “glory.” Paul is basing this on Jeremiah 9:23-24: “Thus says the Lord, ‘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,’ declares the Lord.”

Have you ever been around a boaster? He goes around telling everyone how wonderful he is, how smart he is, how much he knows. Christians should go around telling people how wonderful Christ is, how great He is, how merciful, how kind, how powerful, how awesome, how righteous, etc. Boasting in ourselves is sinful pride; boasting in the Lord deflates our pride and gives all the glory to Him. True Christians confess, “The only thing I’m great at is being a great sinner; but Christ Jesus is a great Savior!”

D. True Christianity is marked by “no confidence in the flesh.”

Counterfeit Christianity builds a person’s self-esteem: “You’re great, you’re worthy, you’re somebody!” True Christianity humbles all pride and confidence in self. As Jeremiah 17:5, 7, 8 puts it, “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the Lord.... Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and whose trust is in the Lord. For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit.”


Why do people ignore strong warnings? I guess they think that somehow it doesn’t apply to them or that it isn’t to be taken seriously. On our vacation, we went to the Columbian icefields in Jasper National Park in Canada. You can walk to the edge of one of the glaciers, but there are signs in several languages warning of the extreme danger of walking onto the glaciers. The signs even explain why it is dangerous: there are hidden crevasses, covered by recent snowfalls, where you can easily fall to your death. A ranger told us that a year to the day before we were there, a man had gone about 60 feet out onto the glacier and had fallen through the snow into a crevasse where he died before rescuers could free him. Yet in spite of the clear warnings, dozens of people were wandering hundreds of yards out onto the glacier!

Paul warns us, “Beware of counterfeit Christianity!” You could fall into it if you disregard his warning! Just as you would examine a suspect bill to see whether it is true or counterfeit, so you should examine your heart: True Christians put off all confidence in human merit and trust completely in Christ Jesus for salvation. They rejoice in Him and all that He is to them. Beware of any false substitutes!

Discussion Questions

  1. Some argue that to preach the lordship of Jesus in salvation is to add works (submission) to faith. Why is this a false charge?
  2. Why is human depravity (= inability to seek God; Rom. 3:10-18) an essential factor in the true gospel?
  3. How does “rejoicing in the Lord” sum up true Christianity?
  4. In what ways does counterfeit Christianity look like the real thing? In what ways is it essentially different?

Copyright 1995, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: False Teachers, Soteriology (Salvation)

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