No Confidence in. the Flesh

Philippians (10)


Everyone here has an inner life and an external life. If there had been no fall, no rebellion, there would have been a true unity between the two. But the entry of sin into the world made it possible for us to dissemble and to play the hypocrite. When this happens, a person takes advantage of the separation—he can now present one appearance to the world, a holy appearance, and he can keep a lozenge of diseased unholiness under his tongue. Nobody else can taste it.

The Text

“Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you it is safe. Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision. For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh. Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:1–6).

Summary of the Text

Remember that one of the themes of this letter is the necessity of rejoicing in the Lord. This theme is stated again here (v. 1). Paul does not mind repeating himself, which he certainly does here, and he regards the repetition as being a safety for them (v. 1). Sound doctrine is the foundation of all true joy, and so it is crucial that they be warned away from the false teachers. These false teachers he calls dogs (v. 2), evil workers (v. 2), and the party of mutilation (v. 2). They call what they are doing “circumcision,” but that honor actually goes to the orthodox Christians (v. 3). The true believers are the ones characterized by three things—they worship God in the spirit, they rejoice in Christ, and they put no confidence in fleshly work (v. 3). If it were possible for any man to have confidence in the flesh, Paul could certainly outdo him (v. 4). In proof of this, Paul pulls out his resume—circumcised on day eight, Israelite stock, a Benjaminite, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee concerning the law, a zealous persecutor (v. 6), and “blameless” if you wanted to call this kind of thing blameless.

Two Kinds of Blamelessness Under the Law

Throughout the book of Psalms, we see petitions lifted up on the basis of the psalmist’s innocence or blamelessness—“Judge me, O Lord; for I have walked in mine integrity . . .” (Psalm 26:1).

Zecharias and Elizabeth were blameless in this way:

“And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.”

Luke 1:6 (KJV)

But they were not sinless, as can be seen in how Zecharias was disciplined for his failure to believe Gabriel (Luke 1:19-20). If God were to mark iniquities . . . (Ps. 130:3). But they were nevertheless conscientious believers, and they were faithful to the covenant of their God—a covenant that made ample provision for sin. 

But prior to his conversion, Paul was not at all like this. He was blameless in the sense that all his papers were in order, but he was also a blasphemer (1 Tim. 1:13), and an insolent man (v. 13). His was an external blamelessness. Internally, his heart was a sewer rat’s nest of corruptions (Rom. 7:19-20).

One time I asked a leading theologian in a movement that is called the New Perspective on Paul whether or not he believed that Zecharias and Elizabeth, on the one hand, and Paul, on the other, were all basically in the same category—faithful and blameless observant Jews. Sure, Paul was something of a hothead, but were these three all “blameless according to the law” in the same basic way? This theologian said they were. But this is obviously false. Zecharias was regenerate and Paul, prior to the Damascus road, was unregenerate. The distance between them was the distance between Heaven and Hell. One had a filthy heart and the other two had cleansed hearts.   

My Bible is More Underlined Than Yours

The easiest thing in the world is to disparage the external markers of holiness that other traditions or religions hold as precious. In the Middle East, men can buy make-up that will mimic a callus on your forehead, the kind of callus that forms when you pray toward Mecca the way you ought to be doing. The bishop wears a mitered hat in order to accentuate his dignity. A pop evangelical preacher wears a Daffy Duck t-shirt to accentuate his relevance and approachability. Funny hat, funny shirt, tomayto, tomahto.

When the Pharisee and the tax collector prayed in the Temple, and the Pharisee prayed like a good Reformed man—soli Deo gloria—“I thank thee, God . . .” and he went home unjustified. But then . . . how many of us thank God that at least we are not like that Pharisee?

How many Reformed believers know that we cannot take any glory in the creature, none whatever, and somehow take glory in the fact that this is something we understand. Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines as well as upon flowing robes and stoles. We are fallen and can take ego-credit for anything, and can be quite proud of our humility.

We have to keep an eye on all these twists and turns. As the Baptist minister once put it, with a twinkle in his eye, “We Baptists don’t believe in tradition. It is contrary to our historic position.”

Heart Religion

What indicators can the devil duplicate? The devil can sign an orthodox creed (Jas. 2:19). The devil can quote Scripture from memory (Matt. 4:6). The devil can perform miracles (Matt. 24:24). The devil can conduct his temptations on the pinnacle of the Temple (Matt. 4:5). The devil can dazzle you the way a shining angel could (2 Cor. 11:14). 

What can’t the devil do? He cannot wash your sins away. He cannot usher you into joy. “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord.” If you were wearing a beautiful cross around your neck, and I were to use that as an illustration in the sermon, as a thing that some trust in instead of Christ, you could not fix the problem by taking off the necklace. It fixes nothing to replace the “necklace” with “no necklace.” This is because an unregenerate man can trust in “a necklace,” and he can also trust in “no necklace.” No, the thing must be replaced with joy.

“For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.”

Romans 14:17 (KJV)

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