We Always Need Reminders

Like most parents, I give my kids reminders with a borderline ridiculous frequency. Always look both ways. You’re not supposed to push your brother. Be careful going down the stairs. Use your inside voice. And on and on.

My oldest son, however, will occasionally reply with something like, “Daaaad. I already know that. Why are you telling me again?” I tell him that it’s always good to remember important things, even if we already know them. I’m not sure if that makes much of an impression at this point, but I comfort myself that someone like the apostle Paul agrees with me.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes this at the beginning of chapter three: “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you” (3:1).  What I find to me both interesting and important is what Paul moves immediately to address right after this. Verses 2-11 of the same chapter measure as one of Paul’s greatest expressions of the gospel. Take a look at vv. 4b-9 in particular:

If anyone else thinks he has reason 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, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith….
For Paul, “having confidence in the flesh” meant putting trust in human characteristics and/or efforts in order to earn God’s acceptance and favor. And he personally could boast of a resume that many of his contemporaries would have found exemplary. I won’t touch on them all, but notice that Paul mentions he was a Pharisee—one of the strictest Jewish sects in terms of following the Old Testament law. In fact, Pharisees often went beyond the law’s requirements. Consistent with this, Paul offers that he was “blameless” with regard to the law’s requirements (or so he once thought). 

Readers both then and now could be forgiven if they thought that Paul would follow this by urging his readers to imitate him in striving to earn God favor in a similar way. But he doesn’t. Instead, he completely rejects his former perspective. Everything he once might have counted in his favor, he now counts as loss, as completely worthless. 

What changed? Paul had met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus (see Acts 9). Confronted with the staggering goodness and holiness of Christ himself, he was forced to understand how far he fell short of it. To put it in other terms: imagine a world-class long jumper. During a competition he uncorks a jump that not only will beat all his competitors, it earns him a world record. He could legitimately say he is the best in the world, in fact the best there ever was. But what if he suddenly realized that the goal was actually to jump the Grand Canyon? Sure, he might get a good deal further than the rest of us, but he’d still be pitifully short. 

He was forced to admit that, like everyone else, he fell short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23) and deserved, not his favor, but his punishment (Rom. 6:23). But here the gospel begins to be good news, since he also came to understand what God offers to guilty sinners through his son. While his obedience was deeply flawed, Jesus’ was perfect. While his life deserved the punishment of death, Jesus’ death was sufficient to pay that price. While he could never earn right standing before God by his own efforts, Jesus is completely accepted and loved. To trust in Jesus instead of himself meant that God had credited all Jesus’ accomplishments and standing to Paul. 

He could gladly give up on an inadequate righteousness of his own gained through obeying the law, because he now had a righteousness from God that came through faith in Christ. He exchanged a fool’s trust in himself for trust in the grace of God. 

With all that said, I’m amazed how often I need Paul’s reminder. How often am I tempted, even if not consciously, to put my trust in something other than what Christ has done on my behalf? My “list” is somewhat different than Paul’s but the general idea is the same. What about you?  Even if you know the truth of the gospel, do you find yourself trusting in your own efforts to secure God’s acceptance? Do you need a reminder of “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”? 

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