Religion vs. the Gospel | Philippians 3:2-3
Brian Hedges | July 12, 2020
Let’s open our Bibles this morning to Philippians 3. All of us have heard the expression or seen signs that said, “Beware of dog.” Often people who have dogs in their backyard—a watchdog or something—will post those signs. I don’t know when those signs came into existence, but it would have taken on a new meaning for a preacher named Andrew Asboe, in around 1918 or 1919.
This is a story that comes from John Barry’s historical look at the Spanish flu, called The Great Influenza. It is a fascinating, compelling history of that pandemic. I started reading this several months ago when we found ourselves in a pandemic. I wanted some historical perspective, was curious about what happened in the Spanish flu, and so I’ve read through that excellent book.
I was really struck by this story about Andrew Asboe. This took place in Okak, which is a small village in northeastern Canada. It was a village of just 266 people, and this is how John Barry describes it. He says, “Two hundred and sixty-six people had lived in Okak, and many dogs, dogs nearly wild. When the virus came, it struck so hard, so fast people could not care for themselves or feed the dogs. The dogs grew hungry; crazed with hunger, they devoured each other, and then wildly smashed through windows and doors and fed. The Reverend Andrew Asboe survived with his rifle beside him. He personally killed over 100 dogs.”
That’s how bad the pandemic was in Canada at that time, and of course, during the Spanish flu, tens of thousands of people died; in fact, some estimates put it in the hundreds of thousands; much, much worse than what we’ve experienced in the last few months in our own country.
When I read that story about Okak, and actually over 200 people of that 266 population died, and I read the story about the dogs, it was just horrifying, but it made me think of this passage that we’re going to be reading this morning in Philippians 3, where Paul is essentially saying, “Beware of the dogs.” But he’s not talking about actual animals, he’s talking about people, and he’s speaking in very specific terms, speaking with irony about false teachers who were coming into the church pushing an agenda that was in conflict with the gospel. That’s the passage that we’re looking at in Philippians 3.
I just want to read two verses this morning, Philippians 3:2-3, and it’s really kind of an introduction to a longer section that we will pick up next week, verses 4-11. But there’s a lot to unpack here to try to understand the historical context, and there’s a basic point that I want us to get this morning, and that’s simply this, that religion is something very different from the gospel. Or, to put it the other way around, the gospel of Jesus Christ is something very different from mere religion. There’s a contrast between these two things, and you see that contrast in what Paul says in this passage. Let’s read it, Philippians 3:2-3.
Paul says, “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.”
Stop right there. Paul begins here with a warning. “Look out.” He says it three times, “Look out. Look out for the dogs, for the evildoers, for those who mutilate the flesh.” It’s important for us to understand just a little bit of the historical context.
This has to do with the heresy of the Judaizers, as we call them today. The Judaizers were essentially Jewish people who had seemed to convert to Christianity, they confessed faith in Christ, but they were pushing the Jewish law, the ceremonial law, onto Gentile converts, and essentially they were insisting that unless the Gentiles became Jews by adopting Jewish customs, Jewish rituals and ceremonies, and especially circumcision—unless the Gentiles would do that, they could not be saved.
You have it described in Acts 15, where the church addressed it. Acts 15:5 says that “some who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them [that is, the Gentiles], and to order them to keep the law of Moses.’” That was the issue.
This was threatening to divide the early church. They settled it in a council in Acts 15, and of course, Paul’s entire letter to the Galatians is really focused on this issue. It seems that even sometime later, about ten years later, probably, when Paul writes the letter to the Philippians, there’s still this party out there, there are still people out there who are pushing circumcision and law-keeping onto Gentile Christians, and Paul sees it as a tremendous threat to the church and to the gospel. So he writes this letter and writes the verses we’ve just read.
I want you to see three things as we dig into these verses. I want to try to give you both historical context, but also application for us today. I want you to notice the danger of religion, the claim of authenticity, and the marks of true Christianity.
I. The Danger of Religion
First of all, the danger of religion. Paul here is warning the church about the danger of false teachers, those who promote religion without the gospel, those who add law-keeping to faith in Jesus Christ. It’s a triple warning. “Look out,” he says, or, “Beware of the dogs.” Look out for the dogs.
When Paul says, “Look out for the dogs,” he’s not thinking about your sweet little pet. He’s not talking about dogs such as the dog we have. We have a beagle named Brittany, and Brittany is one of the sweetest dogs in the world. That’s not the kind of dog that Paul is talking about. He’s thinking of dogs in terms of scavengers or predators, much like the wild dogs in Okak, Canada, and he’s thinking specifically of false teachers who, with this agenda as Judaizers, would call Gentiles dogs. Essentially, he’s using irony, and he’s using their own terms against them. He’s saying, “It’s not the Gentiles, it’s not those who believe in Christ but without circumcision, who are the dogs; it’s those who are promoting this agenda of law-keeping.”
He’s perhaps also referring to Isaiah 56:11, which refers to the false shepherds of Israel. Isaiah says, “The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough. They are shepherds who have no understanding. They have all turned in their own way to his own gain, one and all.” In other words, these are shepherds who should be pasturing and shepherding the people of God; instead, they are fleecing themselves from the flock. They are devouring dogs, they are almost like wolves who are preying on God’s people.
So Paul here says, “Beware of the dogs.” Then he says, “Beware of the evildoers,” or literally, “the evil workers.” It’s not so much that these are people who were going about doing immoral things; it’s rather that they were promoting good works as the means of salvation, as essential for inclusion in the people of God. They were actually known as the good-workers, but again, with a note of irony, Paul calls them the evil-workers.
You might think of those who we think of as do-gooders, or as "goody two-shoes." You know, Mark Twain one time said that, having spent considerable time with good people, he could understand why Jesus liked to be with tax collectors and sinners! Maybe you’ve experienced that, too—people who are so zealous for their morality but there’s no Jesus in it and there’s no grace in it, there’s no joy in it—they’re so zealous for their morality that they’re always looking down their noses at others. They’re do-gooders, but Paul says they are evil workers, they are evildoers. Again, he’s speaking with irony.
Then he says, “Look out for those who mutilate the flesh.” The word he uses here is a very important word, and it’s a play on the word “circumcision.” He’s using a word, actually, that in the Greek Old Testament was used to describe the prophets of Baal, when they cut themselves and mutilated themselves in order to try to get this false god’s attention. He’s using that word for them. So, here’s the deal: they are promoting circumcision, but Paul says they’re really mutilators. They’re mutilating the flesh.
I think Matthew Harmon in his commentary clarifies the issue here. He says, “Paul skillfully uses a play on words to indicate a point that he makes elsewhere: physical circumcision is not required to be right with God. The irony here is as sharp as the circumciser’s blade. The circumcision that Paul’s adversaries promote as the path of obedience to the law of God is in fact a violation of that law in the advent of Christ.”
You remember how Paul says this so strongly, almost shockingly, in Galatians 5. Again, he’s speaking of those promoting circumcision. He says, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves.” That was the threat, and that was how severely Paul treated the threat to the gospel. What was this threat? It was the threat of law-keeping—adding ceremonial law-keeping to the gospel.
Now, most of the time we’re not faced with that specific threat, but we are faced with threats to the gospel all the time. They are threats that come in any form of addition to Jesus Christ. It may be the addition of a certain kind of experience, a certain kind of emotional or spiritual experience. It may be the addition of a certain social or political agenda. It may be extra-biblical rules and laws, legalism in that form.
It’s what C.S. Lewis describes in his book The Screwtape Letters. You remember how The Screwtape Letters is written in the voice of a demon, as a senior demon writes to a junior demon, teaching him how to tempt a Christian, whom he calls his patient. In one of the letters, Screwtape says, “The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep in the state of mind I call ‘Christianity and—’” Then Lewis gives a whole list of contemporary issues from—I guess this would have been the 1940s—Christianity and the crisis, and the new psychology, and the new order, and faith healing, and psychical research, and vegetarianism, and spelling reform. I mean, whatever it is, fill in the blank.
But Lewis, again, speaking in the voice of Screwtape, says, “If they must be Christians, let them at least be Christians with a difference.” Christianity and—Jesus plus—! Listen, that’s always how religion comes. Even when it comes in Christian guise, it comes presenting not Jesus, but Jesus plus—; not Christianity, but Christianity and— It comes with this addition of something that you must do in order to be saved.
I like the way Tim Keller (and probably others) has put it, that the difference between religion and the gospel is the difference between “do” and “done.” Religion says, “Do. Do this, do that in order to be right with God.” Christianity says, “It is finished. The work is already done.”
Paul here is warning about the danger of religion. Christianity and, Jesus plus, adding law to the gospel as the means of our justification, of our salvation. So the danger of religion. That’s the first thing you see in this warning, and we need to beware of that danger as well.
II. The Claim of Authenticity
Secondly, we see here the claim of authenticity. Now, you know when something is authentic it means it’s real. It’s the genuine article. It’s the "real McCoy;" it’s something that has the marks of authenticity and something that you know is real.
Take, for example, any kind of historical artifact. If you know that it’s real, it holds some value; if it’s a forgery, it’s not valuable at all. One of my prized possessions (I have it hanging on the wall in my study) is an actual page from a transcribed sermon by Charles Haddon Spurgeon that was corrected by his own hand before he sent it to his publishers for publication. He actually touched it! Spurgeon actually touched a page that’s in my office! When I got that, I was just kind of in awe.
I don’t worship Spurgeon, but I admire him. He’s a great hero of mine, and to have something that he actually handled at one point is a wonderful treasure for me. But I could write those same words—the same words from that sermon—in my own hand, frame them, put them on the wall...it would hold no significance, it would hold no value, because it wouldn’t be authentic.
Paul here is concerned about authenticity, and he makes a stunning claim about who the authentic people of God are. The way he does it is a little hard for us to grasp, so I have to explain it, but let me just read the words and explain what Paul is saying here. Let me, again, read the text. Verse 2, “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision…” There’s the claim. We are the circumcision.
What an interesting and even strange way of putting it, in our ears! Why would Paul, when he is writing against the mutilators, the circumcisers, why would he say, “We are the circumcision”? What’s he saying here?
Essentially, he is saying we are the true people of God. We are God’s covenant people, we are the covenant community. You remember that circumcision was the sign given to God’s covenant people in the Old Testament. In Genesis 17, God gave the sign to Abraham, he gave it to his offspring. Every male that was born in the house of Israel was to be circumcised on the eighth day, and this physical marker identified them as those who were in the covenant with God.
But, even in the Old Testament, circumcision was always an external sign that pointed to an inward reality, what Deuteronomy 10 as well as the prophets describe as the circumcision of the heart. The idea was that there would be a cleansing of the heart, a cutting away of something from the heart, a change, a transformation of the heart, and the circumcision that they really needed was not the outward sign and symbol, it was the inward reality that God himself did as he changed the hearts of his people.
That’s what I think Paul has in mind when he says, “For we are the circumcision.” He’s taking the covenant sign and he’s applying it in its inward, spiritual reality, and saying, “We have experienced this, and we are the true people of God.”
Let Romans 2:28-29 be a commentary on, “We are the circumcision” (Philippians 3:3). In Romans 2, Paul says, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical, but a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man, but from God” (Rom. 2:28-29).
Do you see what Paul is doing? He’s using the language, he’s using the conceptual categories of the Judaizers, the false teachers, the law-promoters, the circumcisers—he’s using their very language, their very words, and indeed, he’s using Old Testament categories, and he’s applying it to the new covenant people of God, believers in Jesus Christ. He’s applying it to the church, and he’s saying, “We are the true people of God. We are the circumcision.”
Paul does this in other ways in his letters. In Galatians 3 he says the believers, those who have faith in Jesus Christ, are the true offspring of Abraham. In Galatians 6 he says that the church is the Israel of God. Again, he’s speaking about circumcision, and he says, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. As for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them and upon the Israel of God.”
What is at issue here is what identifies us as God’s people. How can we make this claim of authenticity? How do we know that we are the true people of God? Here’s the warning. The warning is that many people look to the externals. They look to the ceremonies, they look to the rituals, they look to their morality, they look to their law-keeping. They think they color inside the lines, and therefore they must be right with God.
We all have to be aware of that. There are several ways you can think of application. As good Protestants, we might initially think of the Roman Catholic church, and how there are, I think, many Roman Catholics who will look to their attendance at mass, or maybe they’ll look to their baptism, or they’ll look to their church membership, or they’ll look to the confession to the priest, and they will think that because they do those things, therefore they are right with God.
Now, I will also hasten to say that I believe there are many genuinely Christian Roman Catholic people, who trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, in spite of what the official dogma of the Roman Catholic church teaches.
On the other hand, there are also many Protestants, even good Baptist folk, who essentially trust in a list of things they do. I have a friend who’s a preacher who a number of years ago was asked to do the funeral for a man that he did not know very well, and the man had been a member of a Baptist church. The man’s family was desperate to have some assurance from the preacher that their dearly departed loved one was indeed in heaven.
So they started going down the list of all the things they thought solidified the case. “Well, he was baptized in such and such a year. He walked the aisle. Look at his Bible; he signed this on this date,” and so on. Brothers and sisters, that’s just Baptist sacramentalism! That’s looking to your works, it’s looking to the externals, rather than to Jesus Christ and the work of Christ, the work of the Spirit in our hearts for salvation.
We must beware of that. Don’t depend on religion, don’t depend on law-keeping, don’t depend on ceremonies, don’t depend on your baptism. None of those things mean that you are a genuine Christian.
III. The Marks of True Christianity
What, then, are the marks of true Christianity? Paul makes this claim of authenticity (we are the true people of God), and then he gives reasons for it. I want you to notice here the marks of true Christianity; you see it in the rest of verse 3.
Paul says, “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.”
He says three things. We’re going to look at “no confidence in the flesh” more next week, because it bleeds into what Paul says in the next few verses, but let’s just notice especially those first two things: “who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus.”
(1) First of all, worship by the Spirit of God. The word “worship” there is an important Greek word, latreuō, and it really carries the idea of service, of devotion to the Lord. It encompasses more than just what we do at nine a.m. or eleven a.m. on Sunday morning. It’s not just when you sing, it’s not just when you raise your hands or when you pray or bow your head or take communion. All those things are important. Those are vitally important. We believe in corporate worship. But that’s not mainly what Paul has in mind. The word carries the idea of one’s whole service and devotion to God in one’s everyday life. It was the word used to describe the service of the Levites in the Old Testament, who were devoted to the service of the Lord.
Notice how Paul describes it. He says, “We worship by the Spirit of God.” Again, I think there is here a contrast between worshipping by the Spirit of God and worshipping in another way, not by the Spirit. I think probably what he has in mind is worshipping by the letter, worshipping according to the law.
Listen to Romans 7:6. “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” Do you hear the contrast? There’s a new way, there’s an old way. There’s a new covenant, an old covenant. The new way is characterized by the work of the Spirit of God.
Listen, this is always what the Old Testament was pointing to. The old covenant was always temporary, it was always provisional, it was always leading to something else, to something better. It was always pointing in a different direction. In fact, when you get into the Old Testament prophets and you read their language, they talk about a new covenant or an everlasting covenant—they begin to give terms to that new covenant—they are terms that then get fulfilled in the New Testament.
For example, Ezekiel 36:26-27. The Lord says, “I will give you a new heart and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
When Paul says, “We worship by the Spirit of God,” that’s probably what he has in mind. The ministry of the Holy Spirit in the new covenant, following the advent of Jesus Christ, the power of the indwelling Spirit in our lives that changes us and transforms us so that the whole of our lives becomes service and devotion to God, empowered by the Spirit.
It’s always when the church recovers this, this understanding of the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit for genuine Christianity, that’s always when the revivals come.
Just think about the Great Awakening in the 1730s and ’40s. I’ve recently been reading quite a bit in biographies of George Whitefield. Whitefield experienced both of these things. On one hand, before he really understood the gospel, he was the quintessential legalist. He had joined the Holy Club there in Oxford. It was this group of a dozen to two dozen young men who were pursuing God with spiritual disciplines and rigor, but there was no gospel, there was no joy. There was not any real, deep trust in Christ and his saving work. They didn’t really understand the gospel.
It was killing Whitefield. Listen to this description. This comes from his journal, when he describes his experience during this time. He says, “I began to fast twice a week for 36 hours together, prayed many times a day, received the sacrament every Lord’s Day. I fasted myself almost to death all the 40 days of Lent, during which I made it a point never to go less than three times a day to public worship, besides seven times a day in my private prayer; yet I knew no more that I was to be born a new creature in Christ Jesus than if I had never been born at all.”
The turning point came when his friend Charles Wesley gave him a book by the 17th-century Scottish Puritan Henry Scougal, called The Life of God in the Soul of Man. Scougal essentially said that in order to be saved one had to have this experience of new birth, become a new creation in Christ Jesus, the life of God had to be imparted into one’s soul, so that one became a new person.
Whitefield read this, and the change did not happen immediately. In fact, it just pushed him further into the rigor of his spiritual disciplines. He started withdrawing from society and from his friends, he started making choices with his diet and his sleep and things that he would do that would just be harder and harder and harder on his body, trying to humble himself to get to the point where he could be saved! It was so bad that there were points where he would go out in the cold, the ice-cold frigid winter weather, without gloves on his hands, and he would stay outside until his fingers began to turn black. He was getting frostbitten. He would stay all night in the cold outside. He made himself so sick, he was so emaciated physically, that a doctor put him to bed for seven weeks. He was literally killing himself trying to be saved.
But finally the change came, and it came when he began to understand the gospel. Listen to how he describes it. He says, “God was pleased to remove the heavy load, to enable me to lay hold of his dear Son by a living faith, and by giving me the spirit of adoption to seal me, even to the day of redemption.” It’s when he laid hold of Christ by faith and he received the Spirit of God that his life began to change.
Within a couple years, of course, he was preaching this; he was preaching justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, and he was preaching new birth through the power and the ministry of the Holy Spirit; and thousands were brought into the kingdom.
Why tell this story? Well, partly because it’s good for us to know some church history, partly because I think it illustrates what Paul is saying here, worshipping God by the Spirit of God, the power of the Spirit in our lives; and partly because I just want to awaken us to this crucial distinction between religion, which can tick off all the boxes of things that you think you must do in order to be a Christian, the distinction between that and the gospel, which points you not to yourself and not to what you do, but to what Jesus Christ has done and what he now does in our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit.
I don’t want us to duplicate Whitefield’s experience of misery before finding Christ, but I do want us to lay hold of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, by a living faith, so that we ourselves have experienced the power of the Spirit in our lives.
Maybe you need this word this morning. Listen to these wonderful words from the hymn-writer James Proctor, when he said,
“Weary, working, burdened one,
Wherefore toil you so?
Cease your doing; all was done
Long, long ago.
“Till to Jesus’ work you cling
By a simple faith,
Doing is a deadly thing;
Doing ends in death.
“Cast your deadly doing down,
Down at Jesus’ feet;
Stand in him, in him alone,
It’s not what you do, it’s what Christ has done.
(2) He does this work in our hearts by the power of his Holy Spirit; we worship by the Spirit of God, and then it leads to the second thing, we glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.
The word “glory” there literally means “to boast.” In fact, it’s the word that’s translated “boast” over and over again in Paul’s letters, especially in the Corinthian correspondence, but also in Ephesians 2:8-9. You know these verses. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, but it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” That’s the word. And Paul here says that we boast in Christ Jesus and no confidence in the flesh.
Here’s the deal: everybody’s going to boast in something, everybody’s going to depend on something. Everybody is going to have confidence in something when it comes to your relationship with God. You’re either going to be looking to yourself or you’re going to be looking to Christ. You can’t do both at the same time.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones says that “it is the hallmark and acid test of the Christian...The great test that differentiates between those who are Christians and those who are not is the place of Christ in their lives. Is he central? Is he essential? Is he absolute?”
Listen to one more passage, 1 Corinthians 1:30-31. It’s a wonderful passage. Whitefield actually preached on verse 30 and called it the believer's "golden chain of privileges.” Listen to these privileges and the reason why we boast in Christ. Paul says, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
Why do you boast in Christ Jesus? Why glory in Christ Jesus and place no confidence in the flesh? Because in Christ you get wisdom. You get it from Christ. In him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. He is the way of salvation.
In Christ you get righteousness, because through his doing and through his dying you are saved! Through his obedience and his righteousness credited to your account you are justified. Through his death and his resurrection, and being united to him in his death and resurrection, the same verdict that God pronounced on Jesus when he raised him from the dead is pronounced on you: “This is my son, and I am pleased with you. You are justified in my sight.” Why? Because you’re in Christ; his righteousness is yours.
But only do you get righteousness, you get sanctification. There is transformation, there is life change, you do become a new creation in Christ. You’re sanctified, you’re set apart, you’re made holy. So not only are you declared righteous, but you are made righteous; you are sanctified. But how? Through union with Jesus Christ, as you die to sin and you live to righteousness through his death and resurrection.
You also get redemption. What is redemption? It’s what we’re waiting for. It’s the glorification of the body; it’s the redemption of this world in which we live and the redemption of our bodies, when we are made like unto Christ’s glorious body, when we are set free from sin and death and sorrow and decay and every tear is wiped away.
We get all of that in Jesus, and therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
Do you remember these words?
“I will not boast in anything,
No gifts, no power, no wisdom;
But I will boast in Jesus Christ,
His death and resurrection.
“Why should I gain from his reward?
I cannot give an answer.
But this I know with all my heart:
His wounds have paid my ransom.”
Religion or the gospel? What are you trusting this morning? Are you trusting in your baptism, are you trusting in your church membership or your church attendance, your giving, your Bible reading, your praying? Are you trusting in the Ten Commandments? Are you trying to live by the Sermon on the Mount?
Listen, all those are good things. None of them will save you. There’s only one place you can place your trust and your confidence, and that’s in Jesus Christ and in Christ alone. Let’s pray.
Our gracious God, we look to you now for your grace and mercy. With gratitude in our hearts we thank you for the gospel, we thank you for the good news that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works. We thank you for your Son, Jesus Christ. We thank you that he died for our sins, that he rose from the dead, and that in him there is all the fullness that we need, in him there is salvation, in him there is new life, in him there is transformation, in him there is forgiveness and pardon for all of our sins.
My prayer, Father, is that at this moment every Christian in this room would renew their confidence and their faith in Christ and in Christ alone, that we would cling to him with all of our hearts, and that every person in this room who is not a true Christian would right now abandon the self-salvation project and, instead of trying to earn your favor, would receive the free gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. May today be the day of salvation.
Father, as we come to the Lord’s table, may we come with not only open hands but with open hearts, so that as we take the bread and take the juice we are by faith feeding on the Lord Jesus himself and what he has done for us. We don’t trust in the elements, we trust in the Savior to whom they point. So meet with us now we pray, in Jesus’ name, Amen.