Sermon on Philippians 3:4-14, for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost 2020 (A), "Two Very Different Claims"
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. During October, I am going to highlight some Reformation themes from our Scripture readings as I have done in the past, leading up to the 503rd anniversary of Luther’s nailing the 95 Theses. October 31, 1517 marked a monumental turning point in the history of the Christian church, as Martin Luther began to reopen the Scripture and led a reexamination of how the teachings of the church compared to the Bible, and led a return to God’s Word. Key among those rediscoveries of Biblical teaching was the teaching of “righteousness.” For October, as “Reformation month”, we will examine the Biblical concept of righteousness.
In Philippians 3, Paul contrasts two very different kinds of claims we can make before God. Human beings stand “before God”, who is the Creator and Judge of all. We can’t hide or escape His judgment. Digging our head in the sand and saying there is no God, is like a toddler covering their face to hide. Usually people just don’t want there to be a God so they can escape accountability and live how they want. But rest assured, God survives quite independently of our human opinions. Whether we like it or not, we all will stand before God and give an account one day. The question is, what kind of claim will we try to make before Him? What are the two claims that Paul says we can make?
The two claims are these: claim our righteousness or Christ’s righteousness. “Righteous” is ancient courtroom language meaning a person is just or innocent. They have not violated the law. Unrighteous means unjust or guilty; that a person has violated the law. Claiming our righteousness means we think we are innocent measured by the law. Claiming Christ’s righteousness means we admit we are guilty by the law, but as an act of faith we cling to Christ’ mercy. These are the two very different claims we can make before God as Judge. God must accordingly render a verdict—righteous or unrighteous, guilty or innocent.
Why we would ever choose to claim our righteousness is troubling, but sadly we just can’t let go of our pride or self-confidence. Paul was relentlessly against anyone who wouldn’t let go of confidence in their own flesh. By nature we just couldn’t accept the free gift and leave it at that—we have to feel that we earned something or gained it ourselves. We don’t like to feel like undeserving beggars.
So Paul says I’ll show you how this goes. From his perfect pedigree as a Jew to his flawless zeal in obeying the law and surpassing all his peers in education and outward morality, he seemed to have all the bragging rights. Paul was more than a match for anyone you could put forward, résumé to résumé. Until he met Christ and was struck blind, and all his pride and self-righteousness was dashed to the ground. The Living Jesus converted Paul, and he gave it all up. No more boasting in his righteousness. Once in a while, like here in Philippians or in the book of 2 Corinthians, when he encountered other braggarts and those claiming their own self-righteousness by the law, he would dust off the old résumé and show how foolish it was to argue this way—as though God should be impressed.
But can’t we just add our own righteousness to Jesus’ righteousness? Add our righteousness by the law to His righteousness giving by faith? It would be like making an extra deposit on top of the big gift that Christ gives by faith. But Paul strenuously argues NO! Whatever you try to add to Christ is really a subtraction. If 100% of the glory and credit belongs to Christ Jesus—as Scripture hammers home—then any bit of credit we try to add… 5%, 1%, or even .001%...actually takes away from Jesus’ 100% credit. We end up stealing a tiny bit (or more) of His glory. So Paul trashes his own self-righteousness. Why be so foolish as to claim it before God? He says he counts it all loss—a debt, a negative, a literal pile of crap. He uses a more colorful word: skubala in Greek, to make his point—but it usually gets toned down as “rubbish,” “refuse”, or “dung” in English.
Listen again how Paul compares these two claims before God: “as to righteousness under the law, [I was] blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 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 9 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”. Paul was “blameless” by the “righteousness under the law” but he counts it as loss for the sake of Christ. The surpassing worth of knowing Christ so far exceeds anything his righteousness by the law was worth, that Paul counts it as a loss, a negative, rubbish or crap. Worthless. Fit for the toilet or the trash heap. No advantage to keep or parade this or show it to God to claim His approval. The only claim Paul is willing to make, and urges every one of us to make, is the righteousness through faith in Christ, that depends on faith. This priceless treasure is all we need as we stand before God our heavenly Judge. Christ’s righteousness alone is sufficient.
Righteousness by the law is measured by how well I have obeyed. That’s how the judgment must be made. Objectively I am then either guilty or righteous based on the law. Unfortunately there’s no grading on a curve here. It’s pass or fail. If we fail in one point, short of perfection, it’s game over, we’re guilty of all the law. But the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, is based on Jesus’ obedience to the law. Again, who wants to measure their record against His? Even if you are the Apostle Paul with a stellar record, it’s a terrible idea. Only Jesus passed with flying colors, obeying the law perfectly. So claiming Jesus’ righteousness by faith should be a no-brainer, but we have to surrender our own righteousness first.
What’s this look like in God’s heavenly court? We plead guilty before God of all sins when we repent or confess our sins. We lay down our pride, not just confessing our open and obvious sins and faults, but especially our boastful pedigree or résumé—whatever good works we would be most tempted to put our confidence in. Whatever we would pridefully claim before God as the basis for our own righteousness—the examples of our charity, our church going, our acts of service for others, our schooling, our achievements, our reputation in the community—things that may be good in themselves, are NOT to be boosted before God as a claim for our own righteousness. Isaiah said our “righteous deeds are like filthy rags.” Paul says the best of his life was skubala, rubbish. So in God’s heavenly court we tear it all down, all the towers of self-righteousness in our imagination, all the imagined praise we think we deserve for our good works, we count it loss, to gain Christ.
The parable of the Pearl of Great Price pictures this. Sell everything, go for broke, to attain something of priceless worth. The righteousness of Jesus is of priceless worth. Only you can’t purchase it. You can’t earn it. It’s not for sale. It’s God’s incredible free gift in Christ Jesus. Proclaimed in God’s Word. Gift-wrapped and delivered to you in Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. It’s the gift of what Jesus did at the cross, fast forwarded through time to you now—freely and with thanksgiving. God gives legal standing to this claim alone—the righteousness of Jesus, His Son. Only by the legal defense of His perfect righteousness can we stand before His throne and claim His mercy. And those who claim it in Christ Jesus, repenting of their sins and trusting in Him, will not be denied. His mercy is overflowing, and it’s of priceless worth. So let nothing hold you back or hinder you. Take the Pearl of Great Price!
In God’s heavenly court, holding that pearl of surpassing worth, the righteousness of Jesus’ Christ, we stand with confidence and reverent awe at the goodness of our God and Savior. Who am I that I should be loved like this? Paul clearly rejects the answer that would recite his pedigree and achievements. Paul instead embraced the answer that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Tim. 1:15). That’s the best answer for us too, when we ask, who am I that I should be loved like this? Say it again: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” It’s nothing we deserved, but it’s an overwhelming testimony to the grace and mercy and goodness of God. Our good works would just spoil the mix and mess up the equation of our righteousness before God. Take it for what it is, a free gift of grace from our Loving God. Mixing in our works and self-righteousness just misses God’s purposes and His love, and it obscures the free nature of His gift toward us, the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Truly these are two very different claims to make in God’s court. One is our righteousness by the law, the other is righteousness by faith in Christ. The choice is clear, we just have to throw away all our selfish and prideful reasons for the wrong choice. God has entrusted judgment to Jesus alone, and it’s only by His righteousness, His perfect defense that we stand before God as forgiven, loved children of God. Praise be ever to His Name! Amen!