“Christian Status”

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.

Philippians 3:7-8

We have a compulsion to define ourselves based on external criteria: what we do, where we come from, to whom we are related. We reveal this tendency in the ‘ice-breaker’ questions we ask and answer in our introductions: “What do you do?” “I am an accountant…” “Where are you from?” “I’m from Northern Virginia…” “Who are you related to?” “You may know so-and-so who lives in such-and-such a place…” Sometimes we define ourselves not only by what we do but how well we do it, not where we are from but how well we are respected there, not our family’s name but the prestige and popularity of our family.

There is a dangerous, sneaking pride at the heart of this self-identity that says, “This is who I am, this is what makes me unique and gives me status.” It was this sense of superiority that the apostle Paul found so repulsive and poisonous to the church that he calls those who advocate it “dogs,” “evildoers,” even “mutilators of the flesh.” These are rather severe words, especially coming from the one who told us to “always let your speech be gracious, seasoned with salt.” (Col. 4:6) What led such a meek man to speak in such a bold way?

He was talking about those who put “confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). Such people trusted in external factors for their status with God, things like their Jewish ethnicity, tribal heritage and religious denomination. So Paul lays out his own credentials: “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.” (Phil. 3:5-6) His point being that if anyone had reason to put confidence in the flesh it would be him. His resumé would impress any Jewish contemporary. He was a staunch member of the strictest sect of Judaism, culturally pure in his refusal to adopt Hellenism, zealous to the extreme, faithful to the law of Moses, highly educated, a rising star among the movers-and-shakers of Jerusalem.

But none of this mattered to him. He put zero stock in his pedigree. His worldly status was all—using the financial terms of credit and debit—a big “loss.” Why? Because Paul found something so valuable that “everything” else compared with it was a liability. He calls these human accomplishments “rubbish” in comparison (except the Greek word is much more vulgar!). Of course, that something was actually a someone: “Christ.” And in order to gain Christ he had to “suffer the loss of all things.” He had to give them up, forfeiting his place in Jewish society, his reputation, his career, his connections, his national and ethnic pride, even his own moral record. Like the disciples before him, Paul “left everything and followed [Christ].” (Mk. 10:28)

Rather than trust in his own accomplishments, Paul “gloried in Christ and put no confidence in the flesh” (3). He left all the earthly accolades behind “for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” and gaining him. More than that, Paul wanted to 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” (9). That is, Paul knew that he could never achieve a right standing with God except through faith in Christ.

Real status has nothing to do with outward things. We have our own form of social posturing in the West that is just as reprehensible as the version in Paul’s day. We put confidence in ourselves and gussy up our flesh by taking pride in our own performance, our moral upbringing, our education, our career, our wealth, our personality and our achievements. If we possess any of these things, we must be willing to consider them as “rubbish,” place them in the debit column of our spiritual accounts and cast them off if we want to gain Christ.

There are only two ways to live: we can “put confidence in the flesh” or “glory in Christ.” (Phil. 3:3) Every other religion and philosophy teaches a form of self-salvation. They teach that you can lift yourself up if only you try a little harder, have the right background or know the right people. The gospel tells us this is impossible. The only status that matters is a right standing with God. The only way to gain that status is through putting all our confidence in him and not trusting in ourselves. This is why eternal life is presented as a gift to be received, not a reward to be earned. Where is your confidence? What is your status?