The Heart of the Gospel

Righteousness from God That Depends on Faith

European Leadership Forum | Wisla, Poland


When we enter chapter 3 of Philippians, we meet two great obstacles that stood in the way of Paul himself being the kind of Christian he calls us to be in chapter 2, and Paul himself being the kind of person God would accept. And even though we are not exactly like Paul, the same obstacles stand between us and God and between us and the Christian life.

The first obstacle is that Paul knows he is religiously superior to all of his opponents who are boasting in their religious superiority. So how will he ever count them more significant than himself? And the second obstacle is that this religious superiority can never be good enough to make Paul acceptable to God. So paradoxically, in one sense, Paul seems to be too religiously superior to be a humble Christian, and in another sense, he is not nearly religiously good enough to be approved by God.

And what we will see is that the triumph over both obstacles is, first, that Paul considers all of his religious superiority — his righteousness — as less than worthless. He calls it refuse or garbage or dung. And second, his acceptance with God is not based on his righteousness, but on the righteousness from God that depends on faith. In other words, the triumph that leads to Paul's acceptance with God and his ability to live the Christian life is the doctrine of justification by faith.

Obstacles to Humility

Let’s read the verses that show the obstacles. Verses 1–8:

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. 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 — though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 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.

On the one hand, Paul knows that his zeal and his law-keeping excel beyond all his opponents who are boasting in their achievements. Verse 4: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more.” Notice especially the last half of verse 6: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” So how was Paul going to count these “dogs,” as he called them in verse 2, as more significant than himself and serve them? That’s one obstacle. But the other is almost the opposite. Verses 7–8:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 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.

Paul takes all that real law-keeping in verse 6 — “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” — and he calls it rubbish. What then becomes of his acceptance with God? God gave holy laws. And he said “the one who does them will live by them” (Leviticus 18:5; Romans 10:5; Galatians 3:12). And now Paul says, “All my efforts to live by them — and they were the best efforts — are worthless in winning acceptance with God.”

Paul has now declared that he is religiously superior to all the people he is supposed to humbly serve, and that this superiority is worthless with God. So how will he be accepted with God? And how will he be able to serve his enemies with fearlessness and love? We find his answer in verses 8 and 9.

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 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.

Five Challenges to Justification

Before I try to give some explanation of these words, let me put this message in the context of my wider concern about the doctrine of justification in the last 20 years or so. In America, the debate about justification has died down a great deal in the last two or three years. That may mean that the historic Reformation teaching about justification has been solidified, or it may mean that the combatants in the doctrinal discussions have simply grown weary.

But I think John Owen is right that in the history of the church there are “innumerable subterfuges” of the doctrine of justification by faith, and in every generation there will be new confusions to look out for. Let me just mention five that have marked the last couple decades.

  1. The lines between evangelical faith and Roman Catholic teaching have been blurred.

  2. The claim has been made that the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s obedience is not in the New Testament.

  3. The New Perspective on Paul — especially N. T. Wright — has redrawn the map of New Testament theology in such a way that confusion is widespread as to just what justification is and how it relates to the gospel, conversion, and final judgment.

  4. Others have so merged faith and its fruits that the term “by faith alone” has ceased to provide a foundation for holiness, but is now virtually identical with it.

  5. And some have so changed the ordinary meaning of the word “righteousness” that the act of justification no longer refers to anyone’s right attitude or right action, but only to a courtroom verdict of acquittal.

The Righteousness of God in Union with Christ

Let's start with the way Paul uses the word righteousness in verse 6. Consider again verses 5–6: “As to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness in the law, blameless.” “As to righteousness in the law, blameless” in verse 6b is parallel with “according to zeal, a persecutor” in verse 6a.

So the natural meaning is: His zeal is expressed in persecution, and his righteousness is expressed in blameless behavior. So righteousness here has its very normal and usual meaning. It means the way one behaves when one behaves in accord with some right standard. His righteousness is his behaving rightly according to the law.

Then in verse 8, he says that he counts this righteousness — this stunning record of law-keeping — as rubbish. Verse 9 tell us why: His aim is that he might have righteousness from a source other than his own moral doing. Verses 8 and 9:

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 [including my law-keeping righteousness] and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 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.

He renounces his own righteousness that he had through law-keeping, and he turns to Christ as his supreme Treasure. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” And in this turning to Christ and turning away from all reliance on his righteous deeds, he experiences union with Christ. He is “found in him.” Found in him!

And in this union with Christ, he no longer has his former righteousness: “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law.” This is a clear allusion back to verse 6: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” And over against this righteousness from his own law-keeping, he now has “that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” In other words, my righteousness before God is no longer my own law-keeping, it is “from God.” Now it is through faith in Christ, not through law-keeping. It is through union with Christ. I am given this righteousness from God in union with Christ.

A Righteousness Not Our Own

Now think about the implications of this for a few minutes. One is that this righteousness in Christ from God is not a mere verdict. It’s not the mere status of acquittal. It’s the same kind of “righteousness” (dikaiosune) as in verse 6: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” That was his “righteousness” (dikaiosune) and now in Christ he has the “righteousness” (dikaiosune) of another. “Righteousness” meant someone’s behavior in verse 6. And that is the natural way to take it in verse 9.

In fact, it simply would not make good sense for him to say “not having a verdict of my own” or “not having the status of acquittal of my own.” A verdict of acquitted would be his own. What Paul is saying is that the record of his own behavior is now worthless as the basis of God being totally for him. He needs the righteousness of someone else.

Christ’s Righteousness Seizes Us

Another thing we can say about this righteousness that Paul has “in Christ” according to verse 9 is that it’s not Paul’s new Spirit-empowered behavior. Paul is not replacing the righteousness of old law-keeping with the righteousness of new law-keeping. There are at least three reasons for saying this.

  1. The language of “being found in him” with this new righteousness that is not his own puts the emphasis on union with Christ and the way we find Paul in Christ. It seems most natural to think that Paul is emphasizing his position in Christ and the new righteousness he has there, which would not be the imperfect behavior he is going to refer to in a moment, in verse 12 — “Not that I have already attained or am already perfect . . .”

  2. The righteousness that Paul renounces as “my own” is not called fleshly or legalistic in verse 9. That’s not what he focuses on. He simply calls it “my own” and “from law.” The term “from law” (ek nomou) is used four times in Paul (Romans 4:14; Galatians 3:18, 21; Philippians 3:9), and each time it is naturally translated as a simple reference to “law-keeping” with no necessary self-reliant connotations. Paul is simply saying that one way to have a righteousness is to pursue it by law-keeping, that is, by having a behavior that measures up. That would be one’s own righteousness, even if it were done in reliance on God because it is one’s own behavior, not that of another. And Paul is despairing of his own behavior as a sufficient righteousness to support God’s irrevocable acceptance.

  3. When Paul gets to verse 12, he shows that the way he thinks about his new Spirit-empowered behavior is that it is imperfect and not the basis of his standing with God but the fruit of it. “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” I think the link here with verse 9 is that Christ’s “making Paul his own” or “grasping” Paul or “seizing” Paul (katelemphthen hupo Christou) is essentially the way we are “found in Christ.” Christ makes us his. He takes us. Seizes us.

So the way Paul thinks about his pressing on in life — the living of his life of Christian obedience — is not that this living is the foundation of his acceptance, but that Christ has made Paul his own in such a way that he is now “found in Christ” and, as such, already has a perfect righteousness that is not his own. So he presses on to become perfect because in Christ he is perfect. “Cleanse out the old leaven . . . as you really are unleavened” (1 Corinthians 5:7). So for these three reasons I don’t think Paul means in verse 9 that his new righteousness in Christ is his own new Spirit-enabled behavior.

Christ’s Righteousness Imputed to Us

The third thing we can say about the righteousness that Paul has in Christ is that the most natural way to understand this righteousness we have in Christ is that it’s the perfect obedience of Christ that is counted as Paul’s because Paul is united to Christ (this is the doctrine of imputation). And the reason I think this is the most natural way to understand Paul here is not only because of the contrast with his own obedience in verse 6, but also because of the links with Christ’s perfect obedience in Philippians 2:8.

Philippians 2:8: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” This is astonishing. Do you see what Paul does here in summing up the earthly life of Christ from birth to death? He sums it up as one great act of unrelenting obedience to God. Look at Philippians 2:8 again, “Being found in human form [that’s the birth Christ, the beginning of his life], he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross [that’s 33 years of perfect obedience summed up in the words “becoming obedient” climaxing in his obedient death].”

Isn’t this the way Paul was thinking Romans 5:19 when he wrote, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were appointed sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be appointed righteous.”

Because of this obedience — this birth to death obedience — many are counted righteous. I think this is what Paul means in Philippians 3:9,

That I may be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law [my old law-keeping obedience], but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith [the perfect obedience that God counts as mine in union with Christ.]

Jesus Overcomes Obstacles to Humility

Let’s go back now to Paul’s two obstacles. The first obstacle is that Paul knows he is religiously superior to all of his opponents who are boasting in their religious superiority. So how will he ever count them more significant than himself? And the second obstacle is that this religious superiority can never be good enough to make Paul acceptable to God. So paradoxically, in one sense, Paul was too religiously superior to be a Christian, and in another sense he is not nearly religiously good enough to be approved by God.

Paul’s answer to the second obstacle — and it is the answer for all of us everywhere in the world in every culture, whether Europe, or Asia, or Africa, or America — is that he turns away from all dependence on human deeds and away from all preference for human treasures above Christ. He turns to Christ and embraces him as his supreme treasure, including his perfect righteousness. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Christ is his supreme treasure.

And be found in him [in union with 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.

Christ is the only ground for his acceptance with God. God is one hundred percent for Paul — and one hundred percent for you not because of your righteous law-keeping, but because of Christ’s perfect obedience, including a sin-covering, wrath-absorbing death.

And Paul’s answer to the first obstacle is that his superiority over his adversaries has been shattered by the life and death of Jesus. His so-called righteousness is not only worthless in winning the favor of God, it is also worthless in making him more significant than others. This means that the beautiful doctrine of justification by faith alone is what makes the fearless unity of love among believers possible. It destroys all human pride. It makes humility possible and necessary. And in the process it doesn’t destroy us. It opens the door to everlasting joy — “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Justification Achieves Our Full Acceptance

In sum, justification by faith alone is the basis for our full acceptance with God, and the basis for sanctification — or the humble, fearless unity of love we saw yesterday. In conclusion, I would simply observe in response to the longing that God send a great awakening to Europe, that this is the doctrine that God has made the means of awakening over and over.

Luther made it central in the great awakening of the Reformation. Wilberforce wrote only one book in his life and said that this doctrine was the backbone of all his reforms. Jonathan Edwards pointed to five sermons that God blessed in the First Great Awakening in America (1740s) and said this doctrine was the one God chose to bless most powerfully. And I would add that where Roman Catholicism holds sway, this is the doctrine that will make the issues clearest and cause the gospel to shine most brightly. So let’s study this great truth, let’s preach it and teach it and publish it and make it the foundation of our lives of fearless unity in God.