“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” (Phil 3:17)
Verse 17 preaches well, does it not? What pastor would not want his flock to imitate the Apostle Paul?
What Christian does not admire Paul’s singular devotion and faithfulness to the Lord? But, checking our enthusiasm for a moment, we need to stop and ask: Which man is Paul referring to when he says: “imitate me?” Because Paul describes two distinctly different men in Chapter 3, and if we are not careful, we can confuse them and misinterpret Paul.
Imagine the most “godly” Christian you ever met. The person is generous, honest and devout, tireless in service to the church, and is an expert in the Scriptures. That was Paul, if not more so. In Paul’s own words, he was: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (3:6) Paul was right up there with Job as to righteousness. He lived according to the law of God, including the Ten Commandments, tithing, fasting, praying, etc. Paul was, of course, describing his pre-Christian life, but upon his conversion did he not simply adjust and redirect all his energy, devotion and faithfulness to Christ? Is this basically the example he is placing before us to imitate?
But Paul had written something quite shocking about his pre-Christian life: “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” (Phil 3:8-9).
Upon his conversion, Paul relinquished his own righteousness entirely, and in fact counted all his godliness and works under the law as garbage. He set aside his own quest for righteousness in order to “gain Christ and be found in him.” Through faith alone in Christ, God gave to Paul a perfect “righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Therefore, the “godly” Paul, the one with the impeccable résumé of good works, is not the Paul he would have us imitate. Instead, Paul urges us imitate his teaching and life which seeks no godliness or righteousness of its own, but only the perfect righteousness of Christ which is ours by faith alone in Christ.
“For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” (Phil 3:18-19)
The question of the “righteousness” of a Christian, that is, is it ours by our works or is it Christ’s imputed to us by virtue of His work for us, is a big deal for Paul because you cannot have both or any mixture of the two.
In Philippi, there were “Christians” inside the church who Paul called “dogs.” (3:2) These were Judaizers who were trying to persuade the Philippian Gentile Christians to adopt aspects of Jewish law, including kosher food laws (“their god is their belly”) and circumcision (“they glory in their shame”). Paul calls them “enemies of the cross of Christ” because they were saying essentially that Christ’s blood shed for them was not sufficient alone to reconcile God and mankind. Something else in addition to Christ, said the Judaizers, must be added. Paul replies “absolutely not!” Either we are clothed with perfect righteousness that is ours by grace through faith alone in Christ, or we “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.”
Lest we read Chapter 3 as only interesting history, these things are also written as an example for us, because in every age the Gospel and faith always appear weak and insufficient to justify man before God. The issues are always the same: There must be something required of me; or Salvation and eternal life are too precious to be given for free; or Christians cannot be trusted with this kind of freedom.
The result is that we will not let God be God (Adam’s problem). We think we know better. Thus we add to or place conditions on God’s grace and plan of salvation, because we do not believe that Christ has done it all for us. Must I give more? Serve and volunteer more? Study the Bible more? Attend more church functions? Sin less? Vote and hold the right political opinions? Be a member of the right denomination or church? Experience or manifest the Holy Spirit in a certain manner? It is so tempting to begin by grace, but want to finish by works.
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Phil 3:20-21)
Jesus is very clear: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” (John 6:63) There is nothing that you or I can do to advance ourselves towards God; the flesh and its works are no help at all. But what does avail is God’s imputation of righteousness for Christ’s sake, through faith. God declares to us in his Word that the believer in his Son shall, for Christ’s own sake, have God’s grace and eternal life. He who knows this is able, as a citizen of heaven, to wait in hope for the last day, having no fear, no disposition to flee from God’s Word to one’s own futile works.
Once we come to a firm conviction that our righteousness is not our own, but is Christ’s righteousness imputed to us, and that this righteousness is apprehended by faith alone, then we are truly free to serve, not for God’s favor, but for the benefit of our neighbors who need our works, as it is written: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:10) These are not the self-chosen works that out of pride or guilt we offer to God to atone for our sins or to obtain His grace; these are the mostly unspectacular everyday works that God has prepared for us to carry out in our individual vocations, as spouses, parents, children, employers, employees, and in the service of our congregations.
Therefore, let us rejoice in our God and Savior Jesus Christ “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ ” (1 Cor 30-31). Amen.
“By grace I’m saved, grace free and boundless;
My soul, believe and doubt it not.
Why stagger at this word of promise?
Has Scripture ever falsehood taught?
No! Then this word must true remain;
By grace you too will life obtain.
By grace! None dare lay claim to merit;
Our works and conduct have no worth.
God in His love sent our Redeemer,
Christ Jesus, to this sinful earth;
His death did for our sins atone,
And we are saved by grace alone.
By grace God’s Son, our only Savior,
Came down to earth to bear our sin.
Was it because of your own merit
That Jesus died your soul to win?
No, it was grace, and grace alone,
That brought Him from His heavenly throne.” Amen.
By Grace I’m Saved, Christian Ludwig Scheidt, 1709-61, verses 1-3.