For it is we who...put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself could have such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, persecuting the church; as to righteousness under the Law, faultless. But whatever was an asset to me, I count as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things as loss compared to the surpassing excellence of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God on the basis of faith.
Paul, The Apostle of Grace
The context of Philippians 3:1-9 concerns the following question: How does a person become righteous before God?
Righteousness before God is standing before God sinless, without any charge of guilt from God brought against a person for breaking the law, both internally (thoughts and desires) and externally (behavior), This person is viewed by God as innocent of breaking the law.
So the question of Paul’s generation was, "How can a person stand before God completely innocent of sin?". This was a topic that was discussed and debated among the religious leaders of Paul’s time.
The majority of religious leaders believed that a person’s ability to stand innocently before God was achieved through religious activity and morality, along with faith in Jesus. Combining faith in Jesus with religious activity and morality for righteousness was the predominant teaching of the religious leaders in Paul’s generation. Paul’s phrase for this belief was “confidence in the flesh”.
These religious leaders were invading cities and churches, seeking to undo the message of grace the ascended Jesus had given Paul, which Paul had declared in those cities and churches (Acts 20:23-24, 28-32). Often, Paul referenced them in his letters. These religious leaders were preaching a false gospel, proclaiming that a person must practice religious activity and morality, in addition to faith in Jesus, to become righteous before God. They proclaimed that “by grace through faith”, as Paul taught, was not enough to become righteous before God. They actually believed the “by grace through faith” message, which Jesus gave Paul to teach, was a dangerous message that would lead to careless, unrighteous living. Paul shared with the churches that the real danger was not the message of the good news of God’s grace, but the false message theses religious teachers were proclaiming. He warned the churches about the dangers of these false teachers, describing them as “dogs, those workers of evil, those mutilators of the flesh”.
Ironically, there was a time when Paul held to the same belief as these false teachers, he was one of them, confidently priding himself on his religious activity and morality for achieving righteousness before God (confidence in the flesh). However, after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, and the revelation of grace given him by Jesus, Paul’s belief changed from achieving righteousness by following religious requirements and moral laws to receiving righteousness by grace through faith in Jesus.
In Philippians 3:3-9, Paul contrasts his religious and moral life before grace for achieving righteousness in his own efforts with his life of faith after grace in receiving righteousness from God. Where Paul once took great pride in his religious activities and morality for earning righteousness, he now, since his revelation of grace from Jesus, considered his religious activity and morality as nothing compared to the righteousness God had given to him through faith in Jesus. He could now focus on enjoying a personal relationship with Jesus, rather than earning righteousness.
Just as there were religious teachers in Paul’s day preaching that righteousness before God comes through faith in Jesus plus religious activity and morality, they exist in our day as well. Religious flesh, confidence in the flesh as Paul put it, is alive and active in the pulpits of many churches where preachers boast in their religious activity and morality for righteousness and implore their people to do the same. One of these preachers whom I am familiar with proudly boasted that the only sin he has committed in a long time is speeding in his automobile!
Unlike Paul, they consider their religious activity and morality something to brag about. Yet, Paul considered his religious activity and morality as nothing compared to knowing Christ and having the righteousness that came by faith in him.
For those who have come to faith in Jesus, the good news of grace is that God freely, fully, and forever gave you righteousness. God sees you as righteous. You stand righteous before God because of what Jesus did for you on the cross. Jesus took all your sin upon himself at the cross, that is grace. God, then, gave you the very righteousness of Jesus when you placed your faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-24, 4:5, 23-24, 5:17; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21).
By grace through faith, you are righteous. On your best days you are righteous. On your worst days you are righteous. God sees you as righteous. Your righteous standing before God will never change because it is not based upon anything you have done but upon everything Jesus has done for you. Like Paul, you no longer have to achieve righteousness through religious activity or morality. All those things you now consider worthless compared to receiving God’s gift of righteousness. You can now truly know Christ in a personal way, because your focus is not on earning righteousness, but enjoying a relationship.
To read my other posts on Philippians, click below.