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Lesson 17: The Losses and Gains of True Christianity (Philippians 3:4-9)

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At the end of World War I, General Pershing sent word to the troops in Europe announcing a victory parade through the streets of Paris. There were two requirements for the soldiers to qualify to march in the parade: They had to have a good record; and, they had to be at least 186 centimeters tall. Word came to one company of American soldiers and the excitement built about how great it would be to march in that victory parade. Being Americans, no one knew for sure just how tall 186 centimeters was. But the men began comparing themselves, lining up back to back to see who was the tallest. The taller men in the company were ribbing the shorter ones, “Too bad for you, Shorty! We’ll think of you when we’re in Paris!”

Then the officer came to find out if there were any candidates for the parade. He put the mark on the wall at 186 centimeters. Some men took one look at the mark and walked away, realizing that they weren’t even close. Others tried, but fell short by a small amount. Finally, the tallest man in the troop stood up to the mark and squared his shoulders. But he discovered that he was a quarter of an inch shy of the mark (6’ 1/2”). When those men compared themselves with themselves, some thought they were tall enough to qualify. But when the standard came, it proved that none qualified.

It is commonly thought that the way to get into heaven is by being a good person. People who believe that compare themselves with others and think, “I’m good enough because I’m better than my no good neighbor who drinks beer and watches sports on TV every Sunday. I usually go to church; I don’t get drunk (at least not on Sunday); I don’t gamble (sure, I buy an occasional lottery ticket, but I don’t gamble as much as he does). I don’t hit my wife (we yell a lot, but I’ve never hit her!). I pay my taxes (well, at least most of what I owe; nobody declares everything!).” That’s the way people justify themselves and convince themselves that they’re going to get to heaven. They compare themselves with others and figure that they’re in the top half that’s going to make it.

How good does a person have to be to get into heaven? Jesus made it clear in the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). In that sermon, Jesus hit at the Pharisees, who thought that they were good enough to qualify for heaven. They had never murdered anyone. But Jesus said that if we’ve been angry with our brother, we have broken God’s law and are guilty enough to go into the fiery hell (Matt. 5:22). The Pharisees prided themselves on never committing adultery. Jesus said that to lust after a woman in our heart is to break that commandment (Matt. 5:28). The absolute righteousness of God, not just in our outward behavior, but in our thoughts, is the standard we must live up to if we want to get to heaven by our good works.

God’s Ten Commandments are like a ten-link chain that holds a boat to a dock. It only takes one broken link to cause the boat to be swept away by the current and dashed to pieces by the waterfall just down stream. Some, who are pretty good people outwardly, may look at someone who has broken every link in the chain and think, “I’m better than he is.” But one broken link is just as effective as ten broken links in plunging that boat to destruction. That’s why Paul concludes in his argument in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Or, as he puts it in Galatians 2:16, “by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.”

In spite of the repeated clear teaching of God’s Word, the error persists that everyone who by human standards is a decent person, will get into heaven on the basis of his good deeds. At the root of that persistent heresy is pride, which is what keeps most people from Christ and the gospel. As we saw in our last study, Paul was plagued by a group of false teachers, called Judaizers, who infected the churches he founded with a subtle error that appealed to pride. They did not deny that a person must trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. But they added works, especially the Jewish rite of circumcision, to faith in Christ as an essential requirement for salvation. Paul strongly warns the Philippians to beware of this subtle, but damnable, error (3:2).

In our text, he goes on to argue that if ever there was a person who could be right with God on the basis of keeping the Jewish law, it was himself. He had the credentials by birth; he had the track record by experience. But on the Damascus Road he came to realize that all those things he was counting on for right standing with God were worse than worthless. He threw them all on the trash heap and laid hold of Christ through faith. In warning us against this counterfeit Christianity, which still persists today, that mixes faith in Christ with faith in good works, Paul shows that ...

True Christians count all human merit as loss in order to gain Christ through faith.

The picture here is a ledger sheet of your life. Before Christ, you entered on the asset side a number of things that you thought were gains that would qualify you for heaven. But, if you’ve truly met Jesus Christ, you had to take all those things and move them to the debit side of the ledger:

1. True Christianity means writing off all human merit as loss.

You cannot cling to the notion of your own goodness and be a true Christian. True Christianity requires that we see the utter worthlessness of the best of our worth or works when it comes to commending us to God so that we give up all trust in such things (Isa. 64:6). And, while not all conversions are as sudden and dramatic as Paul’s was, every person who is truly converted will have the same radical change of focus that Paul experienced. You will recognize that there is no place for human goodness of any kind as justifying evidence in the court of heaven. If you are trusting in anything you are or anything you have done for eternal life, you abandon it and throw yourself completely on the mercy of God through the cross of Christ.

A. We must write off all inherited and acquired merit as loss.

Paul is challenging the Judaizers to a showdown, saying that he can match and excel any human goodness they want to glory in as the basis for right standing with God. He is proving that he did not change directions because somehow he couldn’t come up with the necessary credentials for the good works route to God. His list (3:4-6) contains four inherited and three acquired qualities which he formerly trusted in for right standing with God, but which he had written off as loss rather than gain.

Of the inherited qualities, he begins with circumcision, since that was what the Judaizers put at the top of the list. Paul lets them know that he wasn’t circumcised as an adult convert, but in accordance with Jewish law, he was circumcised on the eighth day. He was a blood-born citizen of the covenant nation of Israel, specifically of the tribe of Benjamin, in whose territory was the holy city Jerusalem, the tribe that provided the first king and later remained with the tribe of Judah in the southern kingdom when the northern tribes broke away. “A Hebrew of Hebrews” points both to his lineage and language, that he spoke the native tongue.

In addition to these qualities, Paul had worked hard to acquire a number of things which he thought would commend him to God. He had become a Pharisee, the strictest sect of Judaism. They sought to obey the Law in the most scrupulous manner possible, down to tithing even their table spices (Matt. 23:23). Also, as a Pharisee Paul was zealous to persecute the Christians, whom he viewed as rejecting the Mosaic Law. As to the righteousness which is in the Law, that is, outward obedience, you couldn’t have found any violation with Paul.

Let’s bring these inherited and acquired qualities into our cultural framework. I’ve asked some people, “Are you a Christian?” and they’ve replied, “Of course, what do you think I am, a Hindu?” They thought that because they were American and America is predominately Christian, therefore they are Christian. If you think that because you were born in a “Christian” nation or family, you’re therefore a Christian, you must write that plus off as a loss if you want to gain Christ by faith. Others think that because they were baptized, either as an infant or later, they are Christians. Others put faith in their church attendance or membership. Some trust in the fact that their doctrine is orthodox or that they have served faithfully in the church. The most common idea of all is that because I’ve always tried my best to live a good life, that will get me into heaven.

Please note that Paul was sincere, totally committed, zealous, faithful, outwardly righteous, and yet utterly wrong and headed straight for hell! He was using the wrong measuring stick, comparing himself with others and trusting in his own good deeds and dedication as the basis for his eternal destiny. But when he saw the blinding glory of the righteous Lord Jesus Christ, he was undone. He had to write off everything he had been trusting in as a total loss. I like the way Bishop Lightfoot brings out the nuance of the Greek text of verse 7: “All such things which I used to count up as distinct items with a miserly greed and reckon to my credit--these I have massed together under one general head as loss” (Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians [Zondervan], p. 148).

In verse 8 Paul not only calls his former credits a loss, but garbage. He may be playing off his calling the Judaizers dogs (3:2), meaning, “Let the dogs who eat garbage go after all my former deeds that I thought were good.” You must take every item of human goodness and merit and throw them in the garbage if you want to gain the righteousness of God through Jesus Christ.

B. We must continue to write off all human merit as loss as we walk with Christ.

Verse 7 looks at what Paul did starting at his conversion (the Greek perfect tense means a completed action with ongoing results); verse 8 emphasizes the ongoing aspect of it (present tense), that every time Paul felt any pride in human merit, in his dedication, in his many labors, in his persecutions, or anything that he had done, he would sit down with his ledger and move that item from the gain to the loss column.

Because we all struggle with pride, it can sneak up on us in many ways. We can take pride in our moral purity, in our faithfulness, in our devotional life, in our doctrinal correctness, in thinking that we are somehow better than other Christians. We must constantly put self to death by counting whatever we think is gain due to our efforts as loss so that we can more fully apprehend Christ as all in all. True Christians count all human merit as loss.

2. True Christianity means gaining the Lord Jesus Christ as our only basis for acceptance with God.

Paul expresses the same idea over and over here so that we don’t miss it: he counted all things as loss “for the sake of Christ” (3:7); “in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (3:8); “that I may gain Christ” (3:8); that I “may be found in Christ” (3:9); “that I may know Him” (3:10, which we’ll look at next week). Salvation centers in the person of Jesus Christ. If you have Him, you have it all. If you don’t have Him, you don’t have anything in terms of gaining heaven. What does it mean to gain Christ?

A. Gaining the Lord Jesus Christ means coming to a personal knowledge of Him.

Note, “Christ Jesus my Lord” (3:8). There are no group or family plans! Just because He is your parents’ Savior does not mean He is yours. Every true Christian can say with Paul that He is “Christ Jesus my Lord.” And while growing to know Him is a lifelong quest (as we’ll see next week), it begins at the point of salvation when He becomes to you “Christ Jesus my Lord.” If you have not personally come to know Jesus Christ as the one who died for your sins and was raised up so that you could be right with God (Rom. 4:25), you are lost.

B. Gaining the Lord Jesus Christ means a positional identification with all that He is.

When we personally come to know Christ as Savior and Lord we are placed in Christ, so that all that is true of Him becomes true of us. In Him we are blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:3; see also vv. 4, 6, 7, 9, 11, 13; 2:4-6). At the instant we abandon trust in our own good works and put our trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ, we are placed in Him. God the Father views every believer through the merits of His Son. This standing or position before God is given to us through faith in what Christ did for us on the cross.

A dad took his son and some of his son’s friends to the carnival. He bought a roll of tickets to the rides. He was standing at the turnstile where he handed a ticket to his son, to his son’s friend behind him, to the next boy, etc. Then a boy whom the dad didn’t recognize came along and held out his hand. The dad yanked back the ticket and said, “Who are you?” The boy said, “I know your son.” So the dad gave him a ticket, too. God treats everyone who truly knows His Son the same as He treats His Son.

Part of that position we inherit in Christ is a righteousness that is not of our own, derived from keeping the law, but the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith (3:9). There are two ways to go about qualifying yourself for heaven, but only one will work. The way that never works is to try what Paul tried before his conversion, to attain a righteousness of your own by attempting to keep God’s law. It is an attempt to commend yourself to God by your own good deeds. The reason it cannot work is that it is always at best an external righteousness. It cannot deal with the corruption that is in every fallen, rebellious heart. It can never come close to keeping the spiritual nature of God’s law which is that we must love God with all our being and love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

The other way, the only way to be right with God, is to receive the righteousness that comes from God through faith. We can never attain to God’s perfect righteousness. Because of His great mercy, God sent His Son Jesus who perfectly fulfilled the law of God both in its requirements and in its penalty on sin, which is death. The astounding offer of the gospel is that apart from human works, God takes your sin and puts it on Jesus and He takes His righteousness and puts it on you. This transaction takes place the instant you believe in Christ as your Savior and Lord.

If it all happens at that instant, then why does it sound as if its a process? Paul says that he continues counting all his former merits as garbage so that he might gain Christ and be found in Him, which suggests he is looking toward the day of Christ in the future. How so? F. F. Bruce explains that though Paul was already in Christ, “his ambition to be found in him on that great day can be realized only if he is continuously and progressively living in union with him during this mortal existence, and to this end Paul gladly jettisons everything else, including his formerly prized righteousness that comes from the law” (New International Biblical Commentary [Hendrikson Publishers], pp. 114-115). In other words, those who are in Christ by faith must continue to walk as they received Christ Jesus the Lord, not depending on their own works as the basis of their standing with God, but on the finished work of Christ. On the day of judgment, human works will be revealed as worthless; righteousness from God by faith will stand.

3. True Christianity means gaining Christ and all that is in Him through faith in Him.

Faith is not something we must work up; it is simply the hand that takes what God freely offers. Salvation does not depend on our faith, but on Christ and His faithfulness. Faith does not save us or make us righteous; Christ saves us and God declares us righteous based on what Christ did on the cross. Faith is simply receiving what God has promised. It looks to God, not to itself, and not to any human merit or works. Even faith is the gift of God, so that we cannot boast in it (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29).


In the 1730’s in England, a young man named George Whitefield desperately wanted to be right before God. As a student at Oxford, he was part of the Holy Club, along with John and Charles Wesley. The members of that club rose early every day for lengthy devotions. They disciplined themselves so as not to waste a minute of the day. They wrote a diary every night in which they examined and condemned themselves for any fault during that day. They fasted each Wednesday and Friday and set aside Saturday as a sabbath to prepare for the Lord’s Day. They took communion each Sunday. They tried to persuade others to attend church and to refrain from evil. They visited the prisons and gave money to help the inmates and to provide for the education of their children. Whitefield nearly ruined his health by going out in cold weather and lying prostrate before God for hours, crying out for deliverance from sin and Satan. For seven weeks he was sick in bed, confessing his sins and spending hours praying and reading his Greek New Testament. Yet, by his own admission, he was not saved, because he was trusting in all these things to save him.

Finally, “in a sense of utter desperation, in rejection of all self-trust, he cast his soul on the mercy of God through Jesus Christ, and a ray of faith, granted him from above, assured him he would not be cast out” (Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield [Cornerstone Books], 1:77; see pp. 60-77 for full account). The burden of his sins was lifted, he was filled with joy, and he went on to become the great evangelist used of God in the First Great Awakening.

Thankfully we do not all have to go through the agony of soul that George Whitefield went through. But we must all come to the same place he did, where we throw overboard as worthless all trust in human merit and cling to the Lord Jesus Christ as our only basis for acceptance with God. If we lose all our pride and self-trust in exchange for Christ and His merit, we gain everything!

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is trusting in Christ plus our own good works not to trust in Christ at all?
  2. Some argue that to preach submission to Christ as Lord for salvation is to add works to faith. Why is this fallacious?
  3. How would you counsel a person who said, “I’d like to believe in Christ, but I just don’t have faith”?
  4. If Paul was already “in Christ,” why does he make it sound as if it is an objective yet to be gained?

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: Faith, Sanctification, Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life

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