The Apostle Paul pulled no punches in his warning to the Philippians: “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Philippians 3:2). What provoked Paul to employ such invective? It was the false teaching of the Judaizers, Jewish Christians who were urging Gentile believers to undergo circumcision as a means of conforming to the Mosaic law. Whatever their motive may have been, Paul saw their teaching for what it was: a denial of the truth that we are made right with God solely by faith in Jesus Christ. By adding a work to grace (circumcision), they destroyed grace and thus threatened to destroy souls. And so Paul furiously thundered against the Judaizers.
But how seductive their teaching must have been to the Gentiles! “Here’s something you can do to ensure your right standing with God, here’s an external mark you can rely upon as a guarantee of your salvation.” Since we naturally seek, to use Paul’s words, “to put confidence in the flesh” (v.3), we are vulnerable to any appeal to do some work for our salvation, or to seek our righteousness in some external identifier.
Paul knew that from experience. Before he knew Christ, he had every reason to put confidence in the flesh – he was “a Hebrew of Hebrews,” and a rising star among the strictest sect of the Jews. If anyone could be saved on the basis of who he was or what he had accomplished, it was Saul of Tarsus. But when he came to know the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus [his] Lord,” he realized that everything he had once trusted in for his righteousness was all so much “rubbish” (v.8).
We might also “put confidence in the flesh.” Perhaps you’ve grown up in a multi-generational Christian family and have been involved in church your whole life. If so, praise God! But if your rich Christian heritage is your grounds for the hope of salvation, then, like Paul’s impeccable Jewish credentials, it’s mere rubbish. Or maybe you’re not “religious” at all, but you consider yourself a good, moral, ethical person. That’s certainly better than being a bad, immoral, and unethical person. But no amount of personal integrity can save you from sin and death. If your hope is your basic human decency, that too is worthless for attaining salvation and eternal life.
We cannot put confidence in the flesh because in ourselves there is no righteousness worthy of God. We have all sinned and fall short of his glory (Romans 3:23). We need the righteousness that comes from God himself, and that’s exactly what he gives us when we entrust ourselves wholly to Jesus Christ for salvation. By grace, we receive in Christ “the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9), and with that righteousness, eternal life, joy, and peace.
Soli Deo Gloria!