Not Having My Own Righteousness

Philippians (11)


We come now to a particular gospel “turn” that is extremely troublesome to the carnal mind. The square peg of an “alien righteousness” does not go into the round hole of any “righteousness of my own.” Consequently, a great deal of ingenuity has been expended on trying to make the language of Scripture fit with how the carnal mind likes to work. We might even go so far as to say that this problem, this tension, is the driving engine of almost all new developments in theology. And that is not a good thing. The challenge always comes down to the unvarnished gospel versus the “cold clatter of morality.”

The Text

“But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:7–12).

Summary of the Text

In his previous life, prior to his conversion, Paul had been proud of his resume, proud of his heritage. All those things had been “gain” to him, but no more. He uses here the same word for gain that he had used earlier in Phil. 1:21 (kerdos), but in a way that shows a complete reversal of values. He counts all that as a loss for the sake of Christ (v. 7). He goes on to extend his surrender to “all things,” considering the loss of everything to be insignificant when compared to the excellency of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord (v. 8). More than insignificant, he counts every possible honor as skubalon—rubbish, garbage, offal, dung, muck, dregs, scrapings, or refuse (v. 8). He does not just know Christ now, he also strains to win Christ at the last (v. 8). He rejects his own righteousness, that righteousness which is “by law,” and wants to be found in Christ by faith, not having his own righteousness, but rather the righteousness which is “of God by faith” (v. 9). He not only wants Christ now, and Christ at the last, but also Christ on the journey (v. 10). This refers to the koinonia of his suffering, lining up with the Lord’s death, so that he might know the power of resurrection (v. 10). Experiencing the power of resurrection now means a promise of attaining to the resurrection of the dead at the last day (v. 11). Not that he has already made it, or already attained, because he knows that he has not, but he pursues it nonetheless. He wants nothing more than to apprehend that for which he was apprehended. He wants to seize upon that for which he was seized (v. 12).  

Screw It All the Way In

This is an area where we must pay close attention to the exhortation given by that great Puritan Richard Baxter, when he exhorted preachers to “screw the truth into men’s minds.” If we don’t take care to do that, this particular truth will always pop out again, rattle on the floor for a moment, and disappear into an obscure corner. This is a truth that is hard to hang onto.

Submitting to the Righteousness of God

There is another place in Paul where he summarizes this glorious truth, talking about how the exquisitely pious Jews, in all their zeal, had managed to miss it. What went wrong? Why did they miss it?

“For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.”

Romans 10:3 (KJV)

The word for submit here is hypotasso, and is the same word that is used in a number of other places or settings. Domestic servants, house slaves, are told to be subject to their masters (1 Pet. 2:18). Wives are commanded to be submissive to their own husbands (Col. 3:18). We are called to be subject to principalities and powers (Tit. 3:1). The young should submit to the elderly (1 Pet. 5:5). And so the problem that the Jews had was found in their unwillingness to submit to the righteousness of God. This is why the gospel is described by Paul as a message to be obeyed (Rom. 10:16), and why those who reject it are described as a disobedient people (Rom. 10:21).

In our text, Paul says that he wanted to be found in Christ, not having his own righteousness (Phil 3:9). In Romans 10, he says that the Jews went around trying to establish their own righteousness, and refused to submit to the righteousness of God (Rom. 10:3). This means that what we are talking about is not acknowledging that God, over there, is righteous. Everyone knows that. We are not acknowledging that, but rather trusting in. The righteousness of someone else is imputed to us, and so it is that every form of ego-credit vanishes.

Poisonous Pronouns

The poison of autonomy is therefore found in the personal possessive pronouns—mine, ours, and so forth. It is not to be found in the external things we cook up to do, which may or may not be noble and right. If I give all my possessions to feed the poor, but have not love, I am nothing (1 Cor. 13:3). This is because I gave away everything except my own righteousness. As long as I cling to that, I am clutching at my own essential unrighteousness.

And this is why the deepest repentance possible is not of the things we are ashamed of, but rather of the things we are proud of. Men are not truly converted until the day that their virtues humiliate them. This is why tax collectors and whores enter the kingdom first (Matt. 21:31). They know how valuable all their virtues are, which is to say not very, and which cannot be said for the theologians and scribes. 

Flannery O’Connor describes this principle wonderfully at the conclusion of her potent short story Revelation. At the climax of the story, Mrs. Turpin had been given a vision of a great procession into Heaven.

“Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black ­­­­niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.”

Flannery O’Connor, Revelation

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