I Want to Know Christ
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I Want to Know Christ

Philippians 3:4–11  (ID: 2020)

If God’s favor could be earned, Paul’s impressive religious résumé would have secured his acceptance. After he met Jesus, however, Paul’s accomplishments and pedigree no longer mattered to him; he only desired to know Christ and be found in Him. Walking us through the doctrine of justification, Alistair Begg explains that our righteousness comes from our union with Jesus, not our works. Though unfit for heaven, we need not fear judgment, because our sins were judged in Christ.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Philippians, Volume 2

Take Dead Aim Philippians 3:1–4:23 Series ID: 15002

Sermon Transcript: Print

Can I invite you to take your Bible and to turn with me to Philippians, and to chapter 3. And let me read from the first verse:

“Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.

“Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

“If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put 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; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, 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 is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”


Father, we pray now that you will come by the Holy Spirit and teach us from the Bible—that you will “make the Book live to us, O Lord”; that you will “show us yourself within your Word,” that you will “show us ourselves, and show us our Savior, and make the Book live to us.”[1] For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

Well, this morning, we’re picking up where we left off last time. We had begun last time by noticing that Paul had introduced this third chapter of Philippians with a striking exhortation: in verse 2, “Watch out for those dogs”—not exactly a political correct statement, we noted, but a very, very important one. And he had followed his exhortation with a word of explanation in the third verse; he described the identity and the activity of those who were the true circumcision. And his description there of men and women as being part of the true circumcision might be equally read, “those who are the true believers,” or “those who are the true Christians.” So, many times in the Old Testament, men were tempted to think that as a result of some external feature they would be identified as the true believer, when, in point of fact, God through the prophets was concerned always to make clear that the genuine circumcision was that circumcision of heart.

And these individuals, he explained in verse 3—the true circumcision—were identified by the fact that they “worship by the Spirit of God,” they “glory in Christ Jesus,” and they “put no confidence in the flesh.” In other words, for them, worship is something that emerges from within them; God has redeemed them and transformed them and placed his Spirit to live within them, and so they find themselves worshipping God in the Spirit. It is spiritual activity. Dead men can’t sing. And as a result of God’s Spirit within them, they worship. Also, they glory in Christ Jesus as their Savior. They are identified with Jesus, and they are believing in Christ. And they put absolutely no confidence in the flesh. If you asked them, “Are you going to heaven?” and they replied in the affirmative, and you said, “Upon what do you base your assurance?” they would point to nothing in themselves; they would point only to who Christ is and what Christ has done.

Now, in verses 4–6, Paul then provides his readers with a personal illustration of this truth. You will notice that he changes from the plural in verse 3—“for it is we who are the circumcision”—to the singular in verse 4: “though I myself have reason for confidence,” and he goes on to say, “If anyone thinks he has reason for confidence, I have more.” So, while he is describing something which was true of this group who are now in Christ, he says, “Let me just give to you a personal illustration of what I’m on about.”

Now, it is important that we realize that these Judaizers—for that’s who they were, individuals who were saying it was Christ plus these various things—these Judaizers were making their appeal to people not on the basis of some lesser commitment, but in actual fact on the basis of a stronger commitment. These were zealous individuals. And they would come around the fringes of faith, and they would appeal often to the young Christian to really live for God, and they would say, “If you want to really live for God, then there are certain things that you need to do. There are laws that you need to obey. There are standards up to which you need to come.” Because the converts to Christianity were zealous. They wanted to know Christ. They wanted to follow Christ. That’s a feature of somebody’s newfound faith. And so they were not as susceptible to someone coming along diluting the demands of Christ, as it were. The real test lay for them in the individuals who would come around and say, “Now, I know that you want to be serious about these things; let me tell you what’s involved in being a true Christian. If you are really a proper Christian—if you are a real believer—then you will want to make sure that you are doing all of this.”

Cults always fish on the fringes of faith—always trying to find those who are either disillusioned with what they have experienced in formalized religion or who are concerned to be very zealous.

It wasn’t that they were susceptible to a substandard Christianity; they were susceptible to the notion of a super-standard. And that, incidentally, is why the cults always fish on the fringes of faith—always trying to find those who are either disillusioned with what they have experienced in formalized religion or who are concerned to be very zealous. And they come along, and they appeal to the notion of a super-standard so that they might be that beyond the average individual. “It is all too easy,” says Sinclair Ferguson, “for young or poorly instructed Christians to be deceived by an impression of superior spirituality.”[2]

And so Paul says, “I understand this kind of thing, I know these misguided and harmful ideas, because in my life prior to coming to Christ I was familiar with it all.” And he wants it to be clear that his opposition to the Judaizers isn’t based on jealousy. It’s not as if these people are coming around and talking about things that are alien to Paul. “No,” he says, “if you want to talk about Judaizers, I can out-Judaize any one of them. If you want to talk about reasons for finding confidence in yourself, I’ve got more than most people. If you want to boast about your achievements, then hey, let me be the first to stand up and boast.” And he is being somewhat sarcastic in his approach.

Paul’s Remarkable Pedigree

Now, what he does, then, is he provides these seven identifiable marks of things that previously provided him with reasons for believing that God would accept him. And I want to move just very quickly through each of them. You will find them right in front of you as you allow your eye to scan the text.

“If anyone,” he says in the second half of verse [5], “thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, or in who he is, or what he’s done, or what his background is, I’ve got more. Let me tell you,” he says. “First of all, I was circumcised on the eighth day.” Now, the Ishmaelites were circumcised at the age of thirteen. Proselytes to Judaism were only circumcised when they were in their adult life, having converted to Judaism. But Paul was an eight-day-er. There was no better position in which to be than to have been grounded in a context where your parents dealt with the demands of Judaism with studied exactness. And he was a product of that. The purity of his Jewish pedigree was never in question from the very day of his birth. That’s what he’s saying.

Secondly, “I’m of the people of Israel,” he says. All the privileges of the people of Israel are his by birthright. He wasn’t the child of proselyte parents. He was, as they say in Ireland, the real McCoy.

I meet people who come up to me and they say, “You know, I’m from Scotland as well.”

I say, “Oh, where were you born?”

And they say, “Connecticut.”

And I say, “Oh, but I thought you said you were from Scotland?”

“Oh,” they say, “well, you know, my family’s from Scotland.”

I said, “Oh, your mother was born in Scotland?”

“No, no, my mother wasn’t.”

I go, “What about your dad?”

“No, actually, my dad wasn’t born there.”

I say, “Well…?”

“Well, it’s about four hundred years,” they say, “you know, I think you have to go back. But I’m… but I’m Scottish, you know.”

Well, I admire your zeal, but you don’t really qualify, I’m sorry. You couldn’t play for Scotland in the World Cup, any more than I can play for America in the World Cup. The fact of your affinity with it doesn’t make you it. But Paul was “of the people of Israel.”

He was “of the tribe of Benjamin.” In other words, if you think of it in Scottish terms, he wasn’t only Scottish, but he came from a really good clan. So his name was, like, MacDonald. It wasn’t a lousy name like Begg. It was a name like MacDonald, or Cameron, or Angus, or Fraser. And when you heard it, you said, “There you go!” That’s exactly what this did: “of the tribe of Benjamin.”

Remember, Benjamin was a significant son—the child of Jacob and Rachel. Do you remember this from our studies in Joseph? There were two children, the children of Jacob and Rachel. One was Joseph himself, and the other was born at the expense of the life of Rachel. Remember, she died in giving birth to Benjamin; and she wanted Benjamin to be called Ben-Oni, “son of my sorrow,” and Jacob overrules it and says, “No, he will be called ‘son of my right hand.’”[3] And Benjamin is a significant figure in the patriarchal literature. And indeed, when the first king of Israel was crowned—none other than Saul himself—he came from the tribe of Benjamin. And you can just imagine that the parents of Paul, sitting down with the gift of this little boy, not only plan to deal with the early days of his life in commitment to Judaistic ritual, but they also said, “Why don’t we call him the name of the first king of Israel? There couldn’t be a better name for a Jewish boy than that. Let’s call him Saul. After all, our background is from the line of Benjamin.” In other words, his pedigree was excellent. If he’d been a dog, he would have had “K[K]C” after his name: “King’s Kennel Club.”

Fourthly, he was “a Hebrew of [the] Hebrews.” Now, you can see, he’s just packing these things together. He was a full-blooded Jew. He spoke Hebrew—although they lived in Tarsus, which was Greek—he studied Hebrew, and he did so under Gamaliel in Jerusalem, who was one of the key teachers. He had, if you like, a private school education.

Far from it being a ladder to acceptance, God’s law is a mirror that shows me that I’m in the wrong and I can’t put myself in the right.

Now, what he’s doing is, he’s building his case. “If these factors were the key to acceptance with God,” he says, “you can see that I had them.”

Paul’s Impressive Achievements

Now, the first four on the list are his by inheritance. He had no control over these things. He benefited as a result of his pedigree. The next three he identifies are those which give indication of his own personal commitment and effort.

Look at what he says: “I was a Pharisee in relationship to the law. In regard to the law, I was a Pharisee.” It was obviously vital that the Jews kept the law. And the Pharisees were a sect that emerged in the second century before Jesus Christ. They were committed not only to keeping the Old Testament law, but they’d also added a whole host of their own laws to it so that they could be seen to be doubly meticulous. And it was incumbent upon all who joined the Pharisees to be committed to doing what Pharisees did. They were an all-or-nothing group. They were perfect for Saul, who was an all-or-nothing kind of guy. After all, there was nothing about Saul of Tarsus which was mealy-mouthed. There was nothing about him which trod up the middle line. He was either in or he was out. He was either with you or he was against you. You would never have asked Saul a question and found him doing a kind of dialectic: “Well, I think on the one hand, and on the other hand, and possibly here, and possibly there.” “No,” he would have said, “here, let me tell you straight.” It was perfect for him as a Pharisee.

In relationship to zeal, he was a persecutor of the church. He says, “If you doubt my zeal in relationship to Judaism, you can judge my enthusiasm for the Jewish faith by looking at my record, and you will see that I was active in persecuting the church.” He hated Christians, he hated the notion of Christ, he hated any who were involved in this crummy little group, as he saw them, and he had made it his express, devoted purpose in life to stamp it out once and for all—and he was doing so because he believed, as a monotheist, that that is exactly what God wanted, and that by doing so he would be putting himself in the best of positions with God.

And seventhly, he says, “As far as legalistic righteousness is concerned, you’ll find that I was faultless.” In other words, if people looked at his life and said, “Does he obey the Sabbath?”

“Absolutely. He doesn’t miss.”

“Does he do the external washings before he eats?”


“Does he observe the high holy days?”

“Without question.”

“Is he concerned to be ceremonial clean?”

“Absolutely. If you’re in his home, or you’re with him anywhere at all, you will see.”

In other words, as the people looked at his life and they said, “Does he keep all the things? Does he dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s?” the answer is, “Absolutely so.”

In that respect, he’s a lot like the young man who came to Jesus and was concerned to find out what you have to do to inherit eternal life. You see, that’s the question that many of you are asking this morning: “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” You ask that of all kinds of things: “What are the qualifications necessary to get into this school?” or “What do I have to do to get in there?” or “What do I have to do to join this racquet club? What is it in me that I can produce that will accrue to my account so that I may gain acceptance?”

That’s the question of the young man. He says to Jesus, “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus says, “You know the commandments: Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not give false testimony, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.” And the man replies, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.” Now what’s Jesus to say? “Oh, well then, I guess you have eternal life! Thanks for sharing that with me.” No. It says that Jesus looked on the young man, and he loved him. And he said to him, “Let me just ask you to do one thing, since you’re already got off to a great start: take everything that you own, and sell it, and give it to the poor, and then come and follow me.” And it says, “And at that the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, because he had great possessions.”[4]

Now, what was the issue? The issue was this: that all of his ability to keep the externals of the law did not put him in a right place with God. And if there was one thing in his life which pointed to the fact that he had set up a throne in his own life and he was sitting on it, it was his money. Now, Jesus could equally have pointed to another area. He could have said, “Well, I want you to leave behind this,” or “I want you to turn away from that.” The point is not so much the money—although Jesus makes the point that it is very hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,[5] because the temptation is for someone who has amassed money to say, “I did this, I achieved this, this is all mine. And therefore, I gain access on the basis of this.” Jesus says, “Give away all the basis of your access, and then come and follow me.” And he went away sad.

What gives you significance? If you think about dying tonight and standing before God, what do you plan on pleading as your case before the bar of God’s judgment? What will you say to him?

On the Lord’s Day, some of you go away sad. Because you see your religious activities—your attendance at church, your prayers, and your Bible reading, and all the things that you’ve decided are on the list—you see these as a means of confidence before God. So when you do them, you feel confident, and when you don’t do them, you feel no confidence. You’re relying on them. You see the law of God or obedience to God as a ladder up which we climb to acceptance with God, rather than discovering that the law of God is to be written into our very hearts. And so, although I may not be guilty of theft insofar as I have a huge ton of money stuffed under my bed that I sole stole from the bank in Chagrin Falls, the fact is that I have stolen another’s reputation with a slanderous word, that I have stolen time from my employer, that I have stolen the good name of others, that I am not right before this law. When it penetrates the core of my being, I realize that, far from it being a ladder to acceptance, it is a mirror that shows me that I’m in the wrong and I can’t put myself in the right.

“Well,” says Paul, “that was it. If you want to think in terms of reasons for confidence—in terms of background, and who your father is, and what you’ve been doing, and where you were studying, and how you’ve been doing religiously—then,” he says, “that was all there.”

Paul’s Radical Transformation

He says, “But let me tell you where I am today.” Verse 7: “Whatever was to my profit—these things that I regarded as very profitable,” he says, “I now consider them as loss. And the reason I do is for the sake of knowing the Lord Jesus Christ.” Every advantage that he had previously considered a gain he now sees to be a loss.

Now, in a moment I’m going to show you just how that came about. But for now, notice that the radical change in Paul is seen in the way he calculates things. This is a little section, here, for those of you who work for Arthur Andersen, or Ernst & Young, or whatever else it is; this is a little accountant’s theology for a moment or two. And if you have a talk to give to some of your colleagues, you might want to look here; it would fit your background.

He regarded credits as debits. He thought that he was a spiritual millionaire, but he came to realize that he was spiritually bankrupt. He sat down, and he did a spiritual audit, and he reached the conclusion that what he had been entering in his ledger in the profit account should actually have been entered in the loss account.

For example, he thought in terms of his acceptance with God on the basis of all the things that he has outlined; these things were actually grounds for rejection. He thought that he was advancing in holiness; he wasn’t even on the path of holiness. The things that he was counting on as using as arguments in his defense were actually being picked up and used by the witnesses for the prosecution against him. In other words, when he prepared his brief, as it were, before the bar of judgment, and he decided, “Now, I need to go and plead my case before God,” he put together his ledger of activities. And in them he wrote them all down; he says, “I’m an eight-day-er as far as circumcision is concerned. I’m a Hebrew of the Hebrews. I have the right background. I went to the right schools. I was involved in the right activities. I wasn’t just a law keeper, I was a Pharisee. And I have it all here, and I want to offer it to you.” “Excuse me,” says the counsel for the prosecution, “could I just borrow that for a moment?” And so he takes the very stuff that he’s going to use in his defense, and the counsel for the prosecution comes over and he says, “I’d like to present my case against Saul of Tarsus.” And the very things that he has written down as a means of acceptance with God, the counsel for the prosecution picks up and says, “No, this is the basis of my prosecution.”

Do you see how radical this is? It’s so striking to me that people think they can just slide into Christianity, you know—they’ll just slide in and be a believer, slide in and be a Christian. “After all, I mean, there can’t really be that much of a difference, surely. I’m a fairly devout person, it’s Father’s Day, and I’ve tried to be a good dad. And I paid my taxes, I did my quarterly returns, I’m on track in relationship to that. Goodness gracious, it’s a nice morning, I’m in church, aren’t I? I could be playing golf, surely there’s points for that,” and so on. And we put together all the things in our ledger for the defense, and the Lord says, “Give me that over here, I’m going to take that and use it as the prosecution against you.” “What, religious stuff?” “Yeah.”

Now, that’s exactly where he was. All he counted on as being accomplishments were actually failures.

Now, look at how he expresses it in verse 8. He says it in three different ways. He says, “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” He says, “If you want to know how I view these things now, while I’m not dismissive of my family background, while I am grateful for the heritage that is mine in Judaism”—he mentions that in Romans 9:4 and following—he is just not dismissive of these things, but in terms of what it means to be accepted before God, he says, “all of that stuff I consider a loss.”

“In fact,” he says, “I have lost all things.” Now, if you think about that, it’s true. Here’s a fellow who, in contemporary terms, had a wonderful home, a terrific background, a formalized education that was desirable by all. When he joined a religious party, he was able to attach himself to the all-or-nothing group, who were the most zealous. When it came to disdaining anything that was in opposition to the true blue Judaism, there was nobody that was further at the front of the pack than he was. And all of these things he had viewed as significant, and all of those things had given him significance.

What gives you significance? If you think about dying tonight and standing before God, what do you plan on pleading as your case before the bar of God’s judgment? What will you say to him? “Oh, well, my uncle was a deacon in the Second Baptist Church of Toledo, you know; my grandmother was a godly woman,” and all of those things—none of which are inconsequential, but the grace of God does not transfer through human genes.

“Now,” he says, “look at where I am. I’m in the jail. Look,” he says, “and let me just take my jacket off for you and show you my back. Look at this mess,” he would have said. “Have you ever seen a back like that?” He said, “Do you know how I got that, why I got that? I got that because I walked out in obedience to Jesus Christ. If anybody doubts that there has been a radical change in my life,” he says, “you don’t need to look to the numbers of people that have listened to me preach. I’m not here to claim,” he says, “that there are dramatic things that have happened as a result of who I am. After all, woe is me if I preach not the gospel.[6] I’m just a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. But I’ve actually lost everything. I used to be able to go into a city, and people said, ‘Hey, it’s Saul of Tarsus! Welcome!’ There were people, in contemporary terms, who kept me my own table in restaurants. That’s the way I used to be able to move around. And now the people say, ‘Pfft! Saul of Tarsus? Pfft! Who is he? Scumbag! Prisoner! Terrorist!’ I’ve lost everything,” he says. “If this is the credit, I don’t have any credit left. All I’ve got left is loss. Now, I considered it as loss for the sake of Christ; I’ve actually lost it.” And then he says, “In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that I count the whole shooting match rubbish, that I may be gaining Christ and be found in him—that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”

How? Well, look at how he explains it: “not having a righteousness of my own that comes [through] the law.” Look at that! What is my acceptance with Christ? What is my knowledge of Christ as my Savior? How do I know that Christ accepts me? Not because I come to him with a righteousness of my own, and I say, “Lord Jesus, I’m sure you would like to have me as a member of your group, because after all, look at how well I’ve done.” That was the Pharisees all the time. That’s why they couldn’t stand it when he spent time with a wee guy like Zacchaeus. “Why would he go into Zacchaeus’s house when there’s all of us nice guys here? When we’ve got all our righteousness, and all our robes, and all our prayers? Goodness, Zacchaeus maybe won’t even wash the dishes in the right way before they eat! He’s a sinner!”

Paul says, “I don’t come and gain Christ presenting a righteousness of my own, saying, ‘Do you know who my father was? Do you know how I was brought up? Do you know that I’ve really been quite a zealous person for you, O God?’” He says, “No, that’s not it. I don’t present a righteousness of my own, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”

You see, what we have here is the doctrine of justification—God’s declaration about the sinner on the basis of the sacrifice of his Son. By nature, I am condemned. By nature, I sin. I sin because I’m a sinner. I’m a transgressor. I park on the double yellow lines. I am an iniquitor, because inside of me, my mechanism is spinning all wrong. And if I am somehow or another to go before God and plead my case, I have nothing I can plead: “Here’s my life. Here’s my sin. You cannot view my life apart from the fact that I am a sinner.” Now I’m going to try and go to God like this. What can I bring? Even my good deeds are tainted. Even my best designs often are marred by their motivation. “Well then, if I can’t go in with this, where do I put this?”

You cannot add to being justified with God. You cannot subtract from being justified with God. Justification is full, because God gives to us Christ’s righteousness.

“Well,” says somebody, “that’s easy. What you try and do is whittle away at all this sin, try and reduce this as much you can, and try and replace it with something else, with righteousness. Try and get the righteousness column up and the sin column down.” Have you tried that? That’ll break your heart. There is no hope there.

See, the message of the gospel is not “Try a little harder and see if you can’t counterbalance the problem.” The message of the gospel is “Here is the Lord Jesus; here is my life and my sin. My sin is transferred to the account of Christ. He who was perfect and knew no sin became sin for us so that we might know the righteousness of God in him,[7] so that I may then stand before Christ clothed in the righteousness which comes about as a result of my union with the Lord Jesus Christ.” And that is why it is so important that I know myself to be united with Christ—that I have come to realize that here is the barrier, here is the provision, and I recognize the wonder of it all.

Down in the Southeast Indies, they take the word justification and they paraphrase it in a form of Pidgin English: “God, ’e say I’m alright. God, ’e say I’m alright.” They look at their lives, and they look at the Bible, and they realize that the bad news is “God, ’e say I’m all wrong. God, ’e say I can’t fix it. God, he say, ‘Here’s my Son.’ I trust in Christ; God, he say I’m alright.” How alright? Totally alright. Fully, finally, and invincibly alright.

On the basis of what? Not on the basis of a righteousness of my own that comes by way of the law, but on the basis of a righteousness that comes from God and that it is mine by faith. The declaration is full and final. You cannot add to being justified with God. You cannot subtract from being justified with God. Justification is full, because God gives to us Christ’s righteousness. Justification is final, because it doesn’t depend on my keeping of the law, but on God’s gift of his Son. Justification cannot be reversed and can never be destroyed. And it is invincible, because it is the judgment of the last day brought into present-day experience, so that I need not fear the bar of God’s judgment, because God has judged my sins in Christ as I have come to him not with a righteousness of my own but in an awareness of my great need of him. Have you ever done that?

You see, the three tenses of Christian living are right here. Not only does he mention the fact of our justification, which is a crisis. It’s not a process. It’s not something that you do over a period of time. You will go to certain churches, and they will tell you that: “Well, you can do your best.” I listened to a television program for as long as I could stand it the other evening, as somebody explained how you could get your friends through purgatory, and your family, and how important it was to continually say the Mass. “You can’t simply say because Uncle George is gone, now, for fifteen years,” said the priest, “that somehow or another you can leave off on that. Oh no!” he said. “You cannot leave off on that. Would you like,” he said, “to get to heaven, and to turn around and look at your Uncle George, and your Uncle George said to you, ‘Why did you leave me there for all that time? Why didn’t you keep saying the Mass for me?’”

Now, listen carefully to me: you don’t have to be a genius to understand that that idea and this truth cannot with any sense of logic at all live in the same house. You cannot have a justification which is full, final, irreversible, and invincible—that declares a man or a woman righteous in God’s sight and means for them they will be absent from the body and present with the Lord on the day they die—and the notion that I have just described to you from the television. They are two totally different gospels. And if you want to know what Paul thinks about the latter, read Galatians chapter 1.

Now, this justification—which is a crisis—leads to a process, which is sanctification, and it’s there in verse 10. And I don’t have time to work through it, you’ll be pleased to know. But he says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings.” You see, people would be saying, “What happened to Saul of Tarsus? What’s all this Jesus stuff that started with Saul of Tarsus?”

You see, becoming a Christian is a bit like a house or a shop changing owners. Let’s say, for example, that there is derelict cottage at the end of your street. It’s been that way for a long time. And it’s all overgrown, and the walls are broken down, and the door is hanging off its hinges. And then, as you take your normal walk, as you walk your dog, you go down, and you’re about to walk past it in the way that you always do, and you do a double take, and you look back, and you say, “There’s something different here.” And you pause to your companion and you say, “Is there something different about this?” And you look at it, and you say, “Yeah, it looks to me that somebody has started to renovate that. Oh, well I wonder how that could have happened.” And as you go back the next day, there is a further work of renovation, until suddenly it’s beginning to be transformed before your gaze. Well, you see, somewhere in a lawyer’s office, a transaction took place, a title deed was signed, ownership was changed. And the new owner began to renovate the house as a result of his new ownership.

That’s what happens when you are justified. You are declared righteous in God’s sight—if you like, the house of your life is already in its transparent beauty—but the process that accompanies it through your journey is that Christ then begins to work at you and to change your life, to change your affections, to change your desires. “‘All I once held dear [and] built my life upon,’[8] these things are no longer the same significance to me.” Why not? Because of the title deed—it has been completely changed. But it is not simply a declaration in a room somewhere; it is a transformation in a life somewhere. Don’t come to me and tell me about the title deed that you hold in your Bible—in the flyleaf of your Bible somewhere—if there’s no transformation in your life. Because when he comes to take ownership, he comes to change it all.

So, we are justified, declared righteous, not on the basis of anything we have done; we are sanctified, and he uses suffering as one of the means to conform us to the image of his Son; and he says, “And we’re looking forward to the day when we’re glorified.” He says—verse 11—“and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection [of] the dead.” Paul wants to know this Christ progressively and passionately. And he says, “And somehow, there’s going to be a day when I attain to the resurrection of the dead.” Is he doubting it? No, I think he’s just being humble. I think he’s simply saying this: “Is it really the case?” he says with bated breath. “Can it really be so—will it be so—for a sinner like me, who even now isn’t perfect”—verse 12—“so painfully aware of my past, all of the dreadful things that I did; so horribly aware of my present imperfections, my weakness and my stumblings… And yet,” he says, “somehow, I’m going to attain to the resurrection of the dead.”

Why the Change?

Now, let me conclude with this thought: if we had spoken to Saul of Tarsus in the early days and said to him, “Saul of Tarsus, do you think you’ll go to heaven?” he would have said, “Without question I’m going to heaven.” And then we would have said to him, “So, why do think you’re going to go to heaven?” And he would have said, “Well, because I was circumcised on the eighth day, I’m of the people of Israel, the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, a Pharisee in the law, zeal persecuting the church, legalistic righteousness faultless.” Now he says, “I’m not going to heaven on the basis of that at all. In fact,” he says, “if you try and rely on that to get to heaven, you’ll never get to heaven.” What brought about the change?

I think there’s two things. Well, there’s a host of things. There’s two things I want to mention in conclusion: The day recorded for us in Acts chapter 7, when Stephen had made his great speech, a wonderful sermon. The people who looked at Stephen saw that his face was shining like an angel. He made this speech concerning the history of the people of God and the wonder of the glory of Jesus. He told the people that he could see heaven open and the Son of Man—namely, Jesus—standing at the right hand of God. That’s how he finished his sermon; he says, “And I can actually see heaven open, and I can see Jesus!” And at that point they began to run and yell and shout and say, “Let’s deal with him.” And they picked up stones, and they began to hurl them at him, and as he knelt on the ground, they just crushed his head with stones and beat his body. And a gentleman stood off to the side, very appropriately distancing himself from the sorry scene. And he said to the group, “You can leave your coats here. Leave your coats here. Why don’t you put your jacket down here? It’ll give you more pivot when you throw your stones.”[9]

Now, on that day, when he went home to his bed and he put his head on the pillow, he had a number of scenes that would have comingled in his mind: one, the horrible scene of the life being literally beaten out of this young man Stephen; and then he would hear his own voice saying, “And you can leave your coats here. You can leave you coats here. You can leave your coats here.” And it wasn’t much time after that when, as he goes on one of his other pursuits, and as he goes down the Damascus Road, he is struck by a bright shining light from heaven. And he hears a voice from the heavens saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?[10] Isn’t it hard for you to keep kicking against the goads? Don’t you find that your legs are bloodied as you continue to resist me, as you continue to hold out against me?”—in the way that some of you continue to do Sunday by Sunday by Sunday. You kick against the idea of submission, you kick against the idea of acknowledging your need of Christ, and the backs of your legs are bloodied and blue, metaphorically. And the Word comes to you again and says, “Oh, isn’t it hard for you to keep kicking against this?” And he says, “Who are you, Lord?”[11] And suddenly, in an encounter with Christ, it’s all made new.

If I were to ask a succession of people to come up here and tell me how it was they came to Christ, I’d hear the story over and over again, the same as Saul of Tarsus: “Well, I met a young man,” or “I met a young woman, and I couldn’t explain how they lived their life or what they did. There was something about their countenance. There was something about their lives.” I was speaking with somebody just the other day involved in a business transaction. The man with whom he was dealing was concerned to deal with all of the details. But he turned to this individual, a Christian and a friend of mine, and he said to him, “You know, irrespective of whatever happens with this business deal,” he said, “I would like to spend a weekend with you. Because I recognize that you have something that I do not have, and I want to know what it is.” And that was the encounter with Stephen. And then the encounter with Christ—the painful discovery that he was utterly unworthy of God, that he was utterly unfit for heaven, that he was utterly bereft of salvation; and the joyful discovery that in that unworthy, unfit, useless predicament, Christ had sought him, Christ had humbled him, and Christ had saved him.

That’s what happens when you are justified. You are declared righteous in God’s sight.

What of you this morning? How will it be apparent in the life of an individual who has been transformed in this same way? Well, we will find ourselves saying—often with fits and with starts, and with fumblings and failures—but we will find ourselves saying, “At the core of my being, I want to know Christ. I want to know him progressively and passionately. And I am amazed that ‘I, oh so unworthy, still am a child of his care, for his Word teaches me that his love reaches me everywhere.’”[12]

“Oh,” you say, “well, I came for Father’s Day. I didn’t expect this. I thought we’d have seven principles on how to be a good dad.” Listen, I thought about that. I’m working on those principles too. Father’s Day’s only been in existence officially since 1972—thought up by a lady sixty-two years earlier. And it’s a good thing, and I hope you have a wonderful day. But I thought of all the fathers who would come, and I said, “What is the best gift that I could ever give a father on Father’s Day?” I decided it must be this: to tell you that “the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”[13] And the best Father’s Day you will ever know is the Father’s Day when you bow as a dad and simply say, “Lord Jesus Christ, I admit that I’m on the wrong side of this equation. I believe that you died to declare me right before God. I’ve considered the implications of what this will mean. And I don’t want this service to end but that from my heart you hear my cry, ‘Lord I believe. Help all of all my unbelief.’”[14] And the papers will be signed, and the renovation process will begin. And I can guarantee you what a wonderful change will be brought about.

Father, look upon us in your mercy, we pray, that in an abundance of words we don’t miss the point. Give us ears to hear and eyes to see. Grant us repentance and faith and the grace necessary to lay hold upon your great and precious promises. Save us from our pride and from thinking that we can come before you on the strength of all of our endeavors. Help us to do the calculations. Turn us the right way up. Let us take a spiritual audit. How dreadful to think you have thousands in your bank account, and write checks on the strength of that, only to discover that it’s all been a debit. And how horrible for that to be the case in spiritual terms. Turn our lives, then, the right way up, we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me.” Paraphrased.

[2] Sinclair Ferguson, Let’s Study Philippians (1997; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2018), 74.

[3] Genesis 35:18 (paraphrased).

[4] Matthew 19:16–22 (paraphrased).

[5] Matthew 19:23 (paraphrased).

[6] 1 Corinthians 9:16 (paraphrased).

[7] 2 Corinthians 5:21 (paraphrased).

[8] Graham Kendrick, “All I Once Held Dear (Knowing You)” (1993).

[9] Acts 6:15–7:58 (paraphrased).

[10] Acts 9:4 (NIV 1984).

[11] Acts 9:5 (NIV 1984).

[12] Charles A. Miles, “Wide, Wide as the Ocean” (1914). Paraphrased.

[13] Romans 6:23 (KJV).

[14] Mark 9:24 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.