Righteousness from God
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Righteousness from God

Philippians 3:1–3  (ID: 2015)

Paul repeatedly exhorted the church to beware of false teachers who promoted works and rituals as means of earning God’s favor. Such legalistic approaches glorify human achievement over God’s grace, destroy the joy of genuine faith, and dilute the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. Urging us to set aside confidence in self-effort, Alistair Begg teaches that we should instead worship in God’s Spirit and glory in Christ’s accomplishments.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Philippians, Volume 2

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

Sermon Transcript: Print

Our Scripture reading this morning comes from the book of Philippians and the third chapter, and we’re going to 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.”


Now, before we study this passage together, let us go to God and ask for his help:

Father, in our frailty and weakness we come to you, unable to understand, or speak, obey, or apply the truth of your Word without the divine enabling of your Spirit. So come, then, by the Holy Spirit, we pray, that both speaker and hearers may be under the instruction and tutelage of your Word. And get glory to your name, we pray. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

I wonder if you notice that this little section here of Philippians chapter 3 contains some fairly strong statements by the apostle. Indeed, there is perhaps no place in all of his writings where he says such graphic and potent things as here. I’m thinking primarily of his reference to these individuals in verse 2 whom he describes as “dogs,” which, as you would recognize, is not politically correct to regard people in that way or to address them in that way. And yet, nevertheless, there is something of pressing importance that demands of Paul such a graphic statement concerning these characters. In the same way, as you allow your eye to scan the text, you find that in verse 8—although it has been cleaned up a little in the New International Version, as with other modern translations—he considers things in his life which were formerly a basis, a platform, for his proud standing, he considers them now as “rubbish.” But in actual fact, in the King James Version, if you have it with you, the word is “dung.” Not exactly a very politically correct word—the kind of word that makes small boys giggle and makes their mothers very distressed. But that is the word that Paul uses.

What if the things we regard as putting us in profit with God are actually a loss?

So, with the emphasis on “dogs” and “dung,” you know that this is a matter of striking import. Because he is not simply using terminology for effect. He is clearly not picking up, as it were, the street parlance of his day in order to let people know how “hip” he is. No, every word that he uses under the inspiration of the Spirit of God is there by God’s explicit design. And therefore, it is imperative for us to understand just why it is that he is so concerned. And here in these eleven verses, we are given an insight into the apostle’s heart, and we also receive instruction underscoring for us just how vital and crucial is the nature of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. And it is to this issue of the gospel that I want us to look as we seek to expound this section. We won’t get beyond the third verse this morning, I’m sure, but in order to introduce us to the exposition, let me make use of an analogy.

Imagine for a moment that in the course of a month you have made a number of deposits to your bank account. You didn’t simply drop them through the metal box in the hole in the wall, but you actually went into your bank, you took one of those deposit slips, you marked it with your account number, and you attached to it the check that you were presenting for deposit. And you didn’t just do it once; you did it on a number of occasions. And on each occasion, you made a note of your deposit. And indeed, you had tallied it in your mind, so that by the end of the month you were feeling fairly confident in relationship to your bank balance. And then your statement came. And when you turned to it and looked at it, you were horrified—because what you thought was there wasn’t there. And indeed, it quickly became apparent to you that all the money that you had been paying into your account, thinking that it was going in, was in actual fact going out—that each check that you had deposited had been transferred as a debit rather than as a credit, so much so that instead of being in profit at the end of the month, you were actually in loss.

Now, that’s a serious situation, because it’s the very reverse of what you had thought was the case. It wasn’t simply that your balance showed that these things had not been credited to your account, so that it was as it was before the deposits were made—so that it was a kind of neutral experience, it had gone missing somewhere. That would be bad enough! But what had actually happened was that every transaction which you had anticipated being a credit—let’s say you put $150 in—it wasn’t there; it was debited to the tune of $150. And so, you turn your statement over, and you look, and you are in deep debt.

Now, the reason I mention that is because I want you to think along those lines in terms of the “bank balance” of heaven. What if—what if—the things we regard as putting us in profit with God are actually a loss? What if the things that we do, the events that we attend, the professions that we make, to which we attach such great significance—and, in the back of our minds, keeping our own little tally, believe to be entered as credits to our account—what if those circumstances, instead of being credits, are in actual fact debits? It would by any standards be a grave miscalculation. Because it is of eternal significance. As dreadful as the checkbook scenario might be, it pales into insignificance compared with the thought of standing before the bar of God’s judgment only to discover, when it is too late, that all that I thought to be a gain was actually a dead loss.

Now, that is essentially the context in which Paul is addressing these Philippian believers. We’re going to come later on to his own personal testimony to this truth, but for now, we begin at the first verse. And notice that he begins with a word of exhortation—indeed, an exhortation that comes in verse 1, and then another that comes in verse 2. The one in verse 2 is more germane to our issue this morning; therefore, I mention the first one only briefly.

Rejoice in the Lord!

Notice that he says, “Rejoice in the Lord.” The basis of the believer’s rejoicing is not in our fluctuating feelings, which are driven by our changing circumstances, but the basis of the Christian’s rejoicing is “in the Lord.” And Paul has addressed this already in the letter, in 1:18, 25–26; again, he has mentioned it in 2:18; and he is going to come to it again in chapter 4. “Well,” you say, “it’s interesting that he begins with the word ‘finally,’ and then goes on for another forty-four verses.” Yes, it is quite interesting! It’s an indication that he was a preacher, and the use of the word ‘finally’ doesn’t really mean a tremendous amount. It can mean a number of things to a number of people.

But in exhorting us to “rejoice in the Lord,” he also mentions—and I want you to notice this in passing—that it’s no trouble to him to be repetitious. That’s another feature of a preacher, incidentally: they say the same thing over and over again—hopefully in a way that is helpful and purposeful. But nevertheless, ministry of the Word of God is a ministry not of novelty, but it is a ministry of repetition. Indeed, it is a tyranny to think that you must always be novel in teaching the Bible. The Athenians in Acts 17, you will remember, were always very interested—they had an obsession—with novelty, and they liked to sit around and listen to and talk about every new idea.[1] And congregations can so quickly become like that. In a very subtle way, they may be communicating to their pastor, “Oh, don’t tell us that stuff again! We know that stuff. We would like something new. We would like something different.” Well, what is the teacher to do? Well, I think to follow the example of Paul: to recognize that “It[’s] no trouble for me to write the same things to you again,” because, in point of fact, “it is [actually] a safeguard for you.” No matter what it is, the basics are vital.

Ministry of the Word of God is a ministry not of novelty, but it is a ministry of repetition.

I wish I’d remembered the man’s name, but I didn’t think of it until I was sitting in my study earlier this morning, but one of the American astronauts who was on the space station Mir—I noted in the newspaper in the last two weeks, in an article—when the thing went wrong on Mir and they had certain of their vital functions shut down, he said that it was the things that he learned, I think he said in the seventh grade, when his teacher taught him essential truths about pumps, that he was able to bring to his recollection and which essentially saved his life. Now, the man has a size twelve brain. The man is immense in his capacities. But when he had to reach for something, he was reaching back to something that was elemental, basic, and which had been reinforced for him again and again. And that is true in just about every department of life. And it is certainly true in terms of our Christian pilgrimage.

Can I encourage you to beware the tyranny of the novel—of thinking that the answer to your Christian life is in finding something novel? Oh, there are days when we make fresh discoveries, and we rejoice in that. And certainly, when we first begin the pilgrimage of Christian living, everything is new, and every story has a dimension and a ring to it that dulls a little with familiarity. But what we need is the Spirit of God to come and bring freshness to stuff we already know; to let us see how much richer and how more impactful is the truth of God’s Word than we ever knew; to let us understand that our previous understanding of the Bible was comparatively superficial to what we have now been entering into.

Somebody said to me in the last month—I can’t remember who it was—“Oh, I had just heard some of the tapes from the early sermons at The Chapel over on Fairmount Boulevard,” they said. “Oh,” I said, “you did, did you?” I said, “Uh-huh?” “Yeah,” they said, “ah, you know, you’ve got a lot better.” Which was a backhanded way of saying, “Man, those early sermons, they were bad.” And you know, they were. Spurgeon said, “Keep your old sermons so you can weep over them.” So I do! You pull ’em out, you look at them, you go, “Did I honestly say that? Did I really think that was what it meant? Goodness, gracious!” So, there should be growth. There should be development. Because the more we plumb the Word of God, the more the Spirit of God brings it to our awareness. And the very ministry of reminder is no burden to the teacher—he needs it—and is a safeguard to the listeners, teacher included.

Now, that’s his first word of exhortation: “Rejoice in the Lord.” We’ll come to that again before our study is finished in Philippians.

Watch Out!

Look at verse 2, because this is the emphasis: “Watch out,” he says—“Look out!”—“Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.” Paul was concerned because there were dangerous people who were moving around the Philippian church. Their teachings were destructive to the joy of genuine faith. Cults and false teachers are almost always joyless, if you’ve ever met them. There’s not really a lot of joy about them. They have a lot of information, they have a lot of charts and diagrams, but I haven’t found them with a lot of joy. And whenever you start to introduce elements to the essentials of Christian living which are actually contra Christianity, which are detrimental to the thing, then one of the things that will inevitably go is joy—joy. You can read all about that in John chapter 15—the vine and the branches, and so on. But Paul’s graphic description of these individuals makes it clear that these teachers are the opposite of what they claim to be.

And so, he describes them in this very direct fashion. First of all, he says, “Watch out for those dogs”—“dogs.” Now, you shouldn’t immediately think of your family dog. If you think immediately of a pet—you know, a golden retriever or something—and you’re going, “Oh, nice doggy,” then you’ve got it completely wrong. It would be helpful if you translated the word “curs.” Curs. C-u-r-s. As in Coriolanus—remember Coriolanus?—where the proletariat come to the senate, and he greets them, he says, “You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate / As reek o’ the rotten fens.”[2] Nice guy! I remember that ’cause my English teacher taught me it when I was fourteen. I don’t know why I remember just that quote; I think because I always wanted an occasion to use it—but, shouldn’t have used it just now.

Anyway—that’s the issue. Don’t think of a golden retriever. Think of a scavenger. Think of a diseased dog that moves around garbage cans, as it were, picks stuff up, and lays it down, and from whom, if you were to get a bite, the chances are that it would be a killing bite—and not simply because of the strength of their teeth. These teachers were insisting that in order to be a true Christian, it was necessary to add to faith in Christ certain things. So they were coming to the believers, who had discovered joy in the Lord, and they were saying, “Oh, wait a minute! Are you really a true Christian? Have you added to your faith in Christ the Old Testament ceremonial law? Are you doing this long list? Are you paying careful attention to the external rite of circumcision?” and so on. And Paul says, “They, in offering to you a ‘perfected’ Christianity, are actually distorting the truth of the gospel. Avoid them, watch out for them—dogs.”

They are, secondly, “men who do evil.” Now, this is quite dramatic, is it not? Incidentally, dogs or dog was the Jewish designation of a Gentile. The Jew did not refer to the Gentile as “Oh, there goes a Gentile,” but they would say to their friends, “I was in the market the other day and was surrounded by a number of dogs”—and he doesn’t mean pets or rabid animals, he just means Gentiles. And Paul says, “You folks who like to use that term about other people,” he says, “I want to tell you: you’re the dogs. And secondly, you who are so concerned about the externals and about doing the right thing, you actually are evil men.” “Watch out for these evil men.” Their whole commitment of their lives, their whole existence, is to set about to propound the absolute necessity of doing the right thing. And Paul says these men are the “men who do evil.” Why? Because they were insisting on legal observance as a qualification for grace. They were insisting on observing legal technicalities as a qualification for grace.

Cults and false teachers are almost always joyless. They have a lot of information, they have a lot of charts and diagrams, but I haven’t found them with a lot of joy.

Now, Paul, throughout all of his writings, has been absolutely clear in refuting this. And, for example, in Romans chapter 3—and you can turn to it if you choose, I’ll read it for you if not—Romans 3:19, he says, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteousness in his sight”—that is, in God’s sight—“by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” So, it’s not that this is a matter of marginal debate. It’s not that what we have here is a kind of sideline issue where these men have got a little idea that isn’t too harmful. What we have is a direct collision with the gospel. Paul has made it clear that no one will ever be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law. And these dogs are moving round the Philippian church and saying, “If you don’t do this, and you don’t adhere to that, and you don’t subscribe to this, you will never be declared righteous in God’s sight.”

The prerequisites that they were laying down were those of human attainment, those of outward ritual. And all of the emphasis on human attainment and outward ritual was drawing attention away from the Lord Jesus Christ and was distorting and diluting the sufficiency of his death upon the cross. And Paul had come into the riverbank, you will remember, in the establishing of the church at Philippi, he had gone to the place of prayer, the Lord had opened the heart of Lydia to believe the gospel, others had been added to that group, and there was a joyful community present.[3] And then come these individuals alongside, and they’re saying, “You know, you’re not really in Christ unless you do this. You’re not a true Christian, you’re not a perfect Christian, without this.”

And unless a man or a woman has a solid understanding of the gospel, they will be absolutely at sea in endeavoring to respond to this kind of initiative. Legalism in all of its forms is an enemy of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. When Jesus tells the story, remember, in Luke chapter 15, of the father’s love for his two boys, both of whom were lost, do you remember how the one boy—who had taken leave of his father, and had gone away into a far city, and had wasted his substance with “riotous living,”[4] as the King James Version says—how he had come to his senses, and he had decided that he would come back to his father and confess to him that he was absolutely useless and hopeless and didn’t deserve to be a son and should just become a servant? And his father had responded in such a wonderful way: gave him a new robe, gave him a new ring, gave him new shoes, and gave him a really fabulous party.

And as the party began to get in full swing and there was singing and there was dancing, his older brother, who’d been out in the fields, comes by, and he hears this amazing event going on. And a servant comes to the elder brother and he says—as the brother inquires, “What’s the party?”—“Oh,” he says, “your brother is here! Your brother is back! And your father has decided to have this wonderful party!”—the servant presumably assuming that the brother would go, “This is fantastic! Let’s go in and enjoy this!” But the brother, you see, was a picture of the legalistic Pharisee.

Jesus began to tell these stories because the Pharisees were muttering that he was going in to be with sinners.[5] You see, legalists and Pharisees will never understand Jesus hanging around with the woman at the well, with the woman taken in adultery, with all of these different people, because their assumption is, “If this man was really a holy man of God, if he really was the Messiah, then he would be with us—all of the righteous, robe-wearing individuals. And he has gone again, now, into the house of Zacchaeus. What kind of person is this?” And the elder brother represents them. And Jesus tells the story to make it clear. The elder brother, when his father comes out to him to entreat him—his father comes out and says, “Come on! It’s right that we do this. It’s important that we do this.” And the elder brother says in Luke 15:29, “Look!” You can imagine him sticking his finger in his father’s face: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.”

Doesn’t that reveal a lot? That’s the legalist talking. That’s the Pharisee. They don’t understand grace. They don’t understand redemption. They don’t understand why it is that God redeems sinners. And so their response is, “Listen, all these years I’ve been slaving for you, and I never disobeyed any of your rules! My attendance has been perfect. My tithing has been super. I’ve stepped up to the plate for everything you asked me to do. And how would you always have a party for a kid like this, who went away and spent his time with prostitutes?” “Where did you get prostitutes from?” his father must have been saying to himself. There was no mention of prostitutes. Let me tell you something: the Pharisee, in condemning sin, will always condemn his own dirty mind. And the elder son declares that he lives as a slave within proximity to the father, who represents God, and that is all he knows—slavery and obedience to rules. That may be religion, but that is not Christianity.

What kind of message would it have been to the prodigal in the pigsty, you remember, who had got himself in such dire straits that this Jewish boy was now feeding pigs, which is nowhere for a Jewish boy to be on any day? And nobody gave him any food, and he began to be in want, and it says that he “would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine”[6] were eating—King James Version. In other words, he was about to eat the pig swill when finally—the lights went on for him. What kind of good news would it have been to go to the prodigal and call out to him in the pigsty, “Hey, prodigal! I have good news for you.” “Oh, yes you do?” And he looks up and meets your gaze, and you say to him, “Do your best. Do your best.”

Legalism in all of its forms is an enemy of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Do you know, loved ones, that that is exactly what some people think the message of Christianity is? “Do your best. God helps those who helps themselves, so I better help myself, and then maybe God will help me. Maybe if I can get started, he will finish it. Maybe if I show myself interested, he will come alongside me and help me.” And I pray God that none of you that sit regularly under the teaching of the Word of God in Parkside have any notion of that. To the degree that you think that you have heard that here, I want to apologize for my total absence of clarity. The good news is not, “Do your best.” The good news is, “Your best is never good enough!” How could that be good news? I’ll tell you in a minute or two.

“Dogs,” “evil men,” “mutilators of the flesh.” You see, these teachers were insisting that salvation was not only a matter of faith—faith, that is, in Christ’s atoning sacrifice—but along with it there had to be the external rite of circumcision. And Paul had made it perfectly clear that to add circumcision to the work of Christ was not to enhance it but to destroy it. And so he addresses this issue with such forceful language because to imbibe this kind of teaching will be to face tragic consequences. In fact, when he writes to Timothy about false teaching in his second letter, he talks about those who indulge in “godless chatter” and who “become more and more ungodly,” and whose “teaching [begins to] spread like gangrene”[7]—a graphic picture, if you’ve had the occasion, the sorry occasion, to watch a friend or a loved one be eaten up by this blood poisoning, and as you’ve watched as various amputations have had to take place.

I wish, somehow or another, that I had the faculty to make clear to you how crucial this is for the church in our generation—that the battles that are being fought at the moment on a larger scale are actually battles for the very nature of the gospel itself; that from a human perspective, the issue of the church in the West at the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century teeters on the verge of total disintegration in relationship to these things. And people who apparently have been well taught are saying to themselves, “But I don’t understand why we have to make such a big deal about this. I don’t see why it is so important that we have to be so… so clean, and so particular, and so concerned about the inroads.” Have you seen gangrene? Do you know what concern they take with that, to try and arrest it? That’s what Paul’s taking about. He says there’s people, and they’re moving amongst the Philippian church. These are the people that are his “joy” and his “crown.”[8] He loves these people. He wants to make sure that when he gets to glory, he’ll see them there. And therefore, he is opposed to anyone and anything that will interfere with that. So he says, “You gotta look out. Dogs! Evil men! Mutilators of the flesh.”

Worshiping by the Spirit of God

Now, in the third verse—and with this I want to conclude—having given this exhortation, he then gives a word of explanation: “For,” he says, “it is we who are the circumcision. These men are making a big fuss about circumcision, about an outward feature. But we are the true circumcision,” he says. This is a way of saying, “We are the true believers. We are the true Christians. We are the true covenant people of God.”

We don’t have time to trace it through the Old Testament, but you can do it as homework. And you will find, for example, in Jeremiah chapter 4, that God says to his people by his prophet Jeremiah, “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts.”[9] When Paul writes at the end of Romans chapter 2, addressing the Jews who were tempted to believe that simply on the basis of their lineage—their externalism—that they were accepted by God, he makes this unbelievable statement, which is as glaring in its impact to a twentieth-century Jew as it was in the first century: “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly.”[10] Isn’t this interesting? You go to your neighbor or your colleague at work and say, “You know what? I don’t think you’re actually a Jew.” They say, “What do you mean?” “Well, you’re not a Jew if you’re only one outwardly.” “Nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.”[11] Well, then how is a man a Jew? “No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.”[12] And so he says, using the picture, “For it is we who are the circumcision.”

And how is that apparent? “Well,” he says, “first of all, those who are the true covenant people of God are identifiable by the fact that they worship by the Spirit of God”—“who worship by the Spirit of God.” Remember the words of Jesus to the woman at the well when she asked about worship? She said, “Do you have to worship in Gerizim, or do you worship in Jerusalem?” And Jesus says, “Woman, a time is coming and has now come when those who worship the Father will worship him in spirit and in truth, for those are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.”[13] In other words, it’s not about externalism. It’s not about location. It’s not about ceremony, it’s not about rigamarole. “In Christ,” he says, “the old age of ritual and of ceremony and of special sanctified places is gone.”

From time to time people say to me, “Well, you know, I don’t think it was good that we did such-and-such in the sanctuary.”

I’m always a little naughty; I say, “In the where?”

They said, “In the sanctuary.”

I say, “Well, I didn’t know we had a sanctuary.”

“Oh, yes,” they said, “yes, we do, we have a sanctuary.”

I say, “Well, you may have one, but I haven’t got one.”

“No,” they said, “the room, you know.”

“Oh,” I said, “the big room! The big room.”

“Well, you don’t just call it ‘the big room,’ do you?”

Yes! I call it—purposefully—“the big room.” This is “the big room.” This is not a sanctuary. There is no sanctuary! Our hearts are now the sanctuary of God. It is the gathering of the people of God. You want to gather in a warehouse? There’s the sanctuary—the people, present. You want to go outside? There’s the sanctuary. But it’s not in a special room that is kitted out in a special way for special events involving special people. In Christ, all of that is obliterated. And, in fact, there is a danger, I would suggest to you, in creating special little places. And the only reason that we would do so is the practical facilitating of worship. But beyond that, I wouldn’t even touch it. And the early church, you will notice, grew without any emphasis on those things. And it was centuries before they even began to gather in their own buildings. So, to insist on ritual, to insist on ceremony, to insist on sanctified places, is like lighting a match to see if the sun is shining, and it’s noon, and the sky is completely clear. Why would you light a match when you are blinded by the glory of what is going on? And these people were coming and encouraging the people in Philippi to go back and light these little matches, and to engage in these little rituals, and to keep these little rules.

The good news is not, ‘Do your best.’ The good news is, ‘Your best is never good enough!’

Paul says, “You’ll know that you’re a member of the true circumcision because you worship God from your heart.” What does that mean? It means exactly that: that you worship God from your heart—that worship is not a burden to you. And I’m not talking style. I’m talking actual worship. I’m talking about, “The heaven declares the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.”[14] I’m talking about walking out in the night, and the response of your heart is, “All the earth bows down and sings praise to your name.”[15] That when you find that your body functions, and your eyes work, and your toes work, and your hands work, that you’re saying, “I praise you, Lord, for this! I worship you.” That you found that within your life the Spirit of God enables you to cry, “Abba, Father!” and you’re saying to yourself, “Where did that come from?”

I’ll never forget the young lady who came to me to tell me that she burst into tears in morning worship. I said, “Well, what happened?” She said, “I had been coming to this church for months, and I haven’t liked you, and I haven’t liked what you said, and I haven’t liked anything about it, but I had to keep coming back. And this morning, I don’t know what happened to me, but suddenly, in the worship and in the study of the Word of God, I just have been flooded by tears, and my life has been broken into, it seems.” I said, “That’s exactly what has happened.” That’s exactly what happened to Martin Luther: his life was broken into. He had bells and smells and rules and regulations and rigamaroles—he had everything going. But he didn’t worship God by the Spirit.

You see, the real questions isn’t, “Well, are you a Christian?” “Yes, I’m a Christian.” “Tell me why.” “Well, somebody said you have to do this, and I did it.” No. That doesn’t sound like the New Testament description of a Christian. New Testament description of a Christian is that the Christian worships God by the Spirit; that whereas before God was alien and remote—“Father” was not in our vocabulary—all that has been changed. It’s from the inside.

For example, did you watch the opening game of the World Cup? And did you care? Ninety percent of you, flat out, “No.” The fact that three-quarters of the world has turned its gaze to France doesn’t matter in America. I understand, that’s okay. Watch tomorrow, it will be wonderful—Germany against the United States. But in that opening game, it wasn’t arm’s length for me. I had to watch it on video ’cause I was gone, and I sat late in the night, agonizing and excruciating, and going up and going down. And when we scored the winning goal for Brazil, I didn’t go, “Ope! That’s a bit of a problem.” I can’t tell you all the things I did. Why? Because it’s in me! It’s completely in me. It’s not an act. I’m passionate about it. You can’t take it out of me.

Now, that’s what it means to be a Christian. Worship is not a chore. It’s not something that you have to do. It’s not something that you learn to practice. It’s something that God does. He makes you a worshipper. Are you a worshipper?

See, the woman at the well knew about worship in terms of external religion, but she didn’t know about the living water. When she got the living water, she couldn’t be shut up. She’s going from place to place going, “You gotta come and see a man who told me everything I ever did.”[16] Is that your life? You can’t wait to get into the environment of your alien and pagan friends to say, “You know what? I’d love to tell you about a man who told me everything I ever did”?

Glorying in Christ Jesus

So, they “worship in the Spirit,” they “glory in Christ Jesus”—instead of glorying in ritual, instead of glorying in the excellent report card that they had created for themselves. These individuals recognize that they had done nothing to save themselves and that Christ had done absolutely everything for them. That’s what it means to “glory in Christ Jesus.” If you started adding circumcision, or rites, or rituals to the work of Christ, you are effectually destroying it, because it denies the sufficiency of his grace to save us.

Do you glory in Christ Jesus? In those dying moments at the end of the day, before you fall asleep, in that little window of opportunity when you can often think about things in life and death—if you think in that instant, “You know, maybe when I put my head on the pillow tonight, this will be the last time that I ever have opportunity for life? Maybe my next appointment is before the bar of God’s judgment?”—in that moment when you think that way, what do you say to yourself to bolster your confidence as you fall asleep?

Now, let me tell you: be careful. ’Cause if what you say is, “I’ve had a very good week. Therefore, I’m sure I’ll be okay. I have been meticulous in my observance. I had four out of four in the morning service, and two out of four in the evening service, and the evening service is double points than the morning service, I know that. I have done this, I have done that, I’ve done the next thing, and after all, and so on, and therefore I can fall asleep”—you know what? You better not fall asleep. You better get up and go walk around your house, ’cause I’ll tell you what: you’re relying on the wrong thing. Because here’s the real deal: before you fall asleep and you think about your life, you say, “I’ve had a lousy day. In fact, this is the fifth lousy day in a row that I’ve had. But I’m going to fall asleep. And if I sleep the sleep of death, I will wake up in the presence of Jesus.” Why? Because of what another has done, not because of what I have done.

Putting No Confidence in the Flesh

So all my glory is in Christ Jesus. I “worship by the Spirit,” I “glory in Christ Jesus,” and I correlatively “put no confidence in the flesh”—“no confidence in the flesh.” What does that mean? “The flesh” is just another name for external privileges. Paul’s going to mention this in a moment or two; we’ll come to that later. But in other words, he says, “I’m not putting any confidence in my upbringing, my natural qualities, my gifts, my possessions, my traditions, my education. All these things are totally irrelevant.” In the issue of the gospel, they are. How shocking is that?

See, it’s very shocking. If you’re not shocked by it, you’re not hearing it. Because we live our lives with the notion that by nature, somehow or another, what we are and what we have achieved will be able to secure our entrance to heaven. We are, we tell ourselves, just as good as the next man, just as good as the next girl, and therefore just as acceptable to God as others are. Oh, we know we made a hash of various things, but since we assume that God is grading on the curve, the fact is that we’re going to be okay, as long as we stay within the right kind of percentages. So we play the percentages. But when we trust in those things, we don’t trust in Christ. When we rely on those things, we don’t rely on Christ. And the hallmark of the true Christian is, they “worship by the Spirit of God,” they “glory in Christ Jesus,” and they “put no confidence in the flesh.”

Worship is not a chore. It’s not something that you have to do. It’s not something that you learn to practice. It’s something that God does. He makes you a worshipper.

You see, that’s the difference between the young boy and the older boy in the story, isn’t it? The young guy puts no confidence in the flesh. He says, “I’m in deep difficulty. There’s not a thing I can do. I can’t even get myself a decent meal. I don’t have a dime to get myself out of this problem. There’s no place for me to go except back to my father and say, ‘I’ve sinned against heaven and in your sight, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’”[17] He goes back up the road, and what does he get? He gets a kiss, he gets a shower, he gets a ring, he gets a robe, he gets shoes, and he gets the best cotton-pickin’ party you’ve seen in a long time. But the guy who stands outside and says, “Hey, look: all these years I’ve slaved for you and never disobeyed you,” what does he get? He gets the darkness, and the coldness, and the emptiness of his own desserts.

Augusta National is a golf course everybody wants to play, right? If you go in the dining room, you have to have a green jacket. “Well,” you say, “that’s good, ’cause I have a green jacket.” No, not just any green jacket; you gotta have the green jacket. The privileges are directly accruing to those who are worthy of the green jacket. How do you get the green jacket? You can win the Masters, or you can buy a membership. The membership waiting list will outlive your grandparents, and the chances of you winning the Masters, unless you’re a tiny boy here at the moment, are very slight. Therefore, what do you know for sure? You’re not going to be in the dining room at Augusta National. ’Cause the only way to go in there is with the jacket.

At the marriage supper of the Lamb, in the book of Revelation, nobody goes in there without the robe. “Oh,” you say, “well then, I’ve gotta get one of those robes. Can I buy it?” No. “Can I earn it?” No. “Well then, I’m in deep difficulty.” Yes. Unless another has done on our behalf what we could not do for ourselves.

You see, that’s the good news of the gospel. That’s why Paul is so concerned. “Watch out,” he says, “for dogs, evil men, mutilators of the flesh. We’re the true circumcision,” he says. “We worship God in the Sprit, we glory in Christ Jesus, and we put no confidence in the flesh.” Is that a description of you?

Let us pray:

O God our Father, look upon us in your mercy, we pray, and grant that in a multitude of words we might hear your voice. Show us how easily the spirit of the elder brother rises in us; how unlike us is the response of the prodigal; how utterly dependent we are upon you. Because in our affluence, we have learned that access to certain places is all about our upbringing, our education, our gifts, our qualities, and our achievements, and therefore it is shocking to realize that none of this counts before the bar of your judgment. Shock us into penitent faith, we pray, and clothe us with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. For his sake we ask it. Amen.

[1] Acts 17:21 (paraphrased).

[2] William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 3.3.

[3] Acts 16:13–15 (paraphrased).

[4] Luke 15:13 (KJV).

[5] Luke 15:2 (paraphrased).

[6] Luke 15:16 (KJV).

[7] 2 Timothy 2:16–17 (NIV 1984).

[8] Philippians 4:1 (NIV 1984).

[9] Jeremiah 4:4 (NIV 1984).

[10] Romans 2:28 (NIV 1984).

[11] Romans 2:28 (NIV 1984).

[12] Romans 2:29 (NIV 1984).

[13] John 4:20–23 (paraphrased).

[14] Psalm 19:1 (paraphrased).

[15] Psalm 66:4 (paraphrased).

[16] John 4:29 (paraphrased).

[17] Luke 15:18–19 (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.