An Interview with the Apostle Paul on True Righteousness

Thanks for joining me today, as I interview the Apostle Paul again to help us better understand Philippians 3. Let’s get started.Paul, thanks for joining me again. Can you tell me why you wrote Philippians 3:2-17?
To write the same things to the Philippians is no trouble to me and was safe for them.

Okay, well I love a good review, too! Any other reasons you wrote this section you’d like to mention?
[I want them to] look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.

Paul, you are fired up! Why?
[Because] we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.

Okay, I see. There is a Jewish group pressuring the Philippians to live a more like Jews than Christians by putting their confidence in human works (like circumcision) rather than in Jesus.
I myself, though, have reason for confidence in the flesh also.

Hmmm. Interesting that you say that. Can you expand on this?
If anyone else thinks he has a reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more.

That sounds pretty bold—almost arrogant. Why would you say something like that?
[I was] 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.”

Okay. I get it. You are saying that you are as Jewish as it gets and that no one can hold a candle to you when it comes to righteousness based on religious accomplishments.
[Yes] but whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.

Christ is better than the religious pedigree you just mentioned?
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

Knowing Jesus is better than religious accomplishments. Fascinating. So, you’ve given it all up for Jesus?
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as dung.

Dung! All joking aside, you essentially just said that your flesh is “full of it.” In other words, your self-empowered, religious works can’t ultimately help you. And that’s why you lost them, right?
[I lost these things] 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.

So righteousness is the key. Now I get it. If I may, let me paraphrase to help our readers. You are counting your religious accomplishments as dung–basically flushing them down the toilet, as it were–in order that you might have a true righteousness that depends on what Jesus did, not what you do. What’s the purpose of losing all this?
[It’s so] that I may know Jesus and the power of his resurrection.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Okay…because the flesh is like dung, it only produces death, not life. Any other reasons?
And [so that I] may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.

This sounds a lot riskier than taking matters into your own hands. This must produce something extraordinary?
[It’s so] that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Of course, life again. Jesus-righteousness produces life and eventually resurrection. Self-righteousness produces death. Can you achieve this resurrection now?
I have [not] already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

So the Jesus-righteousness God gives us through faith that promises us future resurrection doesn’t give us a free pass to be inactive or lazy in the here and now?
[Again] I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward toward what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

What about those who trust in Christ but are not “pressing on,” as you put it?
Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything they think otherwise, God will reveal that also to them. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. [I encourage them to] join in imitating me, and keep their eyes on those who walk according to the example they have in us.

A very gracious way to end, Paul! Again, thanks to the Apostle Paul for joining us in discussing part of his letter to the church in Philippi. Be sure to read all of Philippians 3.


Thanks for joining me. Be sure to check out my other interview with the Apostle Paul on faith, works, law, and gospel.

“1 Corinthians 15:55”

A song by Johnny Cash, taken from the Apostle Paul:

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Grief, where is they victory?
O Life, you are a shining path.
And hope springs eternal, just over the rise,
When I see my redeemer beckoning me.

Oh row my ship over the waves of your sea
Let me find a safe port now and then
Don’t let the dark one in your sanctuary
Until it’s time to pack it in

O, row, row my ship
With the fire of your breath
And don’t lay a broadside on your ship as yet
Blow ye warm winds
When it’s chilly and wet
And don’t come to soon yet
For collecting my debt

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Grief, where is they victory?
O Life, you are a shining path.
And hope springs eternal, just over the rise,
When I see my redeemer beckoning me.

Oh let me sail on
With my ship to the East
And keep my eye on the North Star
When the journey is no good for man or for beast
I’ll be safe wherever you are

Just let me sail into your harbor of lights
And there and forever to cast out my night
Give me my task
And let me do it right
And do it with all of my might

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Grief, where is they victory?
O Life, you are a shining path.
And hope springs eternal, just over the rise,
When I see my redeemer beckoning me.

How the Apostle Paul Did Frontier Missions

The apostle Paul is the greatest missionary Christianity has ever known, behind only the Lord Jesus himself. Paul was a frontier missionary. He went where no one had gone before. He blazed new trails. In God’s providence, Paul is the reason Christianity spread around the world.

While on the frontier, Paul had a lot of tools in his missional tool belt. Of course, all of his methods and strategies were subject to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This may actually be considered the supreme “characteristic” of Paul’s methods. Aside from walking in the Spirit, many other things characterized Paul’s frontier ministry, and these things still inform the church’s efforts today to reach the unreached. Here are five characteristics:

  1. Paul committed to preaching Christ where he has not already been named. In Romans 15:20, Paul makes clear that this is his intention and goal in his ministry. Paul saw himself as a minister of the gospel who would reach new people and not build on someone else’s foundation (Rom. 15:20; 2 Cor. 10:16). He was not a “pastor” in our modern sense. He was a multi-church planter who constantly moved from one location to another. This does not mean that in our day we should not plant churches in already reached areas; Paul’s time and ministry was unique as the church was in its formative stages. However, the principle still remains: there is great importance for the church to recognize and send those whom God has called to a Pauline-type ministry to spread the gospel among the unreached. This leads to a second characteristic of church planting.
  2. Paul’s missionary ministry focused on church planting. Paul’s goal was not to simply evangelize people in order to gain a host of individual converts. His goal was to evangelize and gather God’s people into local congregations. As mentioned above, Paul was not a planter-pastor who planted a church and stayed there for a long period of time. Once a church was established and functioning, Paul and his team moved on. This informs our missionary efforts today, reminding us that establishing local bodies of worshipers, not simply getting individuals saved, is our main task. This leads to a third characteristic of how converts and congregations were established.
  3. Paul’s preaching centered on the story of Jesus. Paul was less interested in evidential apologetics and philosophical debates and more interested in simply sharing the story of God’s work in the world. His goal was to “preach Christ” (1 Cor. 1:24; cf. Col. 1:28) as the center and climax of God’s unfolding story of redemption. In our day, preaching denominational distinctives or simply external morality should not be the content of missionary preaching. As Paul did, so too we preach Christ and the fact that he is the fulfillment of God’s redemptive drama. This characteristic leads to the next, which answers the question, “What happens after people believe in Jesus?”
  4. Paul desired to develop believers so that they might experience their inheritance in Christ and be ready for his second coming. Paul did not want shallow Christians. His goal was not to gain converts but to make disciples. He wanted mature believers who knew of the incredibly spiritual riches they had in Christ. The letter to the Ephesians, particularly 1:3-14, shows Paul’s heart to develop Christians to, in a sense, become what they already are in Christ. Paul wanted believers to be ready for Christ’s return (1 Thess. 3:13), and he was confident that God would provide everything necessary to make this happen (Phil 1:6; Phil. 2:13). The churches needed godly leadership to accomplish this, which is the last characteristic.
  5. Paul worked to develop local leaders over local congregations. Paul appointed and empowered elders in Ephesus to watch over and care for the flock (Acts 20:28). The pastorals explicitly show Paul’s effort to establish local leadership in churches. This is particularly important for our contemporary situation. Churches may mature and be effective with foreign leadership. However, for local churches to truly thrive and operate optimally there must be godly, indigenous leadership. Only then will the local believers “own” the life and ministry of the church.

These five characteristics are not exhaustive, of course. But they do provide a good “big picture” structure of Paul’s ministry. If you are a missionary, does your work reflect this model? What are some other characteristics of Paul that are essential to biblical missions? Let’s pray that all of our modern missionary efforts to unreached and under-reached people’s reflect God’s work through the apostle Paul!

Tremble Because God Did That, Not You

Here’s a portion of my sermon, “Work Out Your Own Salvation” from Philippians 2:12-13.

Paul doesn’t give us a three-step process for sanctification (there are very few, if any, of those in Scripture). Rather, he describes a heart disposition that characterizes “working out your own salvation.”

At the end of verse 12, he says to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” meaning, “You do not have what it takes, so be very, very, very aware of that it is all grace.”

  • If you wake up and have the desire to read the Bible, tremble, because God did that, not you.
  • If you go home happy to see your husband or wife after a long day of work and you are not a grumpy mess, tremble, because God did that, not you.
  • If you do not lash out at that classmate who has harassed you time and time again, but instead pray for them, tremble, because God did that, not you.
  • If you resist the temptation to look at someone in a way you should not look at them, tremble, because God did that, not you
  • If you delight when a friend succeeds, rather than succumb to jealously, tremble, because God did that, not you.
  • If you spontaneously offer to give something away that is precious to you, tremble, because God did that, not you.
  • If you joyfully sing to the Lord this morning, tremble, because God did that, not you.

It should make us tremble that even though we are Christians, we have no power on our own to do good. That makes God’s power and grace all the more astonishing.

Listen to the whole thing.

The Miracle of Striving

Often, the mystery of how we grow as Christians baffles us. There are some Christians who say, “God takes care of all the work. Those commands in the Bible simply show you that you can’t do them and need Jesus.” Others say, “No, you gotta clench your fists and get to work. God gets this rolling, but you need to seal the deal.”

I think both of those approaches to sanctification are wrong.

If we are going to be ruthlessly biblical however, we are going to see grace and effort working together. We are going to see that Paul is adamant that Christians need to strive, but all of their striving is by God’s power and grace. Earlier this week, I spent a devotional time in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24, where this idea is extremely clear:

12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.

23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

In one breath, Paul can command the Thessalonians to “be at peace,” “admonish,” “rejoice,” and “do not quench.” In the next breath he can say, “Now may God sanctify you completely.” How can he do this?

Paul understands that, at bottom, the Thessalonians will grow in holiness only by God’s grace. He also understands that his teaching, exhorting, and commanding are the God ordained means to accomplish what God wants in the Thessalonians. So yes, God is sovereignly working for the holiness of the Thessalonians (and us). On the other side of the coin, people have to actually do something. As John Piper has said, Christians have to act the miracle of sanctification. And who gets the credit for that acting? God. Therefore, it is not legalism for Paul to give a command, and it is not legalism for us to do so either.

Paul is clear that Jesus delivers from the wrath to come (1:10). He delivers through his perfect obedience and substitutionary death. The only proper response to being rescued by Jesus is love, joy, thanksgiving, abstaining from evil, devotion, and obedience. John Stott once wrote, “To teach the standards of moral conduct which adorn the gospel is neither legalism nor pharisaism but plain apostolic Christianity.” Those who have been saved by grace will respond with obedience. They will not obey perfectly, of course, and that is why salvation is all of grace. It is only by the grace of God that our soul and body will be kept blameless when Jesus returns (5:23). That is why Paul prays in verses 23-24, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you!” We do the acting, but God is the one causing the acting to happen in such a way that he gets the glory and ensures that we will arrive at the end the way he intended.

So what’s the difference for you and me? If someone asked me, “If you seek to do some act of obedience even though you don’t want to do it, isn’t that the definition of legalism?” my answer would be, “No, because my theology is right.” That might sound like a snarky answer, but think about it.  If I believe my rejoicing in God (one of Paul’s commands above) merits love from God, then yes, it is legalism. But consider an alternative. I strive to rejoice in God even when I don’t feel like it. I do it not to earn God’s love because I realize I am already loved in Christ through the gospel. No amount of rejoicing will earn more of God’s favor I already have. Instead, I know rejoicing in God is what God deserves in light of the gospel and that only rejoicing in him will bring true joy. I ask God to help me strive. I confess my apathy and laziness. I recognize that Christ is the treasure and some other comfort has subdued his rightful place in my heart. I realize that through my striving, God is working in me to kill idolatry, laziness, apathy, self-pity, etc. in order to find true happiness in him. Only when I strive this way is my striving not legalism but proper response to God’s grace in the gospel. 

And that kind of striving, my friends, is a miracle. It is a gift of grace, and that makes it all the more beautiful, lovely, and exciting. I want this for myself, and you. May God be gracious to do it!