Beware Of The Dog
Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.Philippians 3:2-7
Why’s Paul so hot under the collar?
Even though in the 21st century western world – where dogs are much more welcome in our hearts and homes – we still know that to call someone a dog is … not exactly a compliment. And if we find the term insulting today, how much more was it originally, in a society where dogs were seen more like rats with bigger teeth? How big an issue must we be talking about, for Paul to stick insults like this in the bible?
The doctrine of justification. The question of how we – who have rebelled against God and are, by nature, guilty – can become righteous. And that happens by faith in Jesus Christ. He bore the punishment and consequences of our sin so that we could be OK with God. Which is great. Sounds easy, but is actually pretty hard to stomach in practice. Tertullian said, “Just as Christ was crucified between two thieves, so this doctrine of justification is ever crucified between two opposite errors.”
The first great error is lawlessness – the one Paul dealt with in Philippians 2:12-16 where he warns against taking sin lightly – simply because we can be and have been forgiven.
The second great error is legalism – the one he deals with here. We could call it “Jesus Plus X” Christianity. Here the immediate concern is “Jesus Plus Circumcision” Christianity. Which, however they tried to dress it up, boiled down to: trusting Jesus ain’t enough, you need to cut the end of your pecker off before God’ll like you. Oh – and go easy on the bacon.
How do you end up going down that street?
Strange error? It came out of traditions (God’s promise to Abraham, Genesis 17:9-10) that were hard to leave behind. It was something clear and tangible and could be used to assess other people. It was a visible and highly symbolic ritual, where as faith … is just faith. Paul’s response? If anyone could be saved that way, it’d be him. But that stuff (“I count as loss”) is actually like a bad debt that doesn’t help at all. And it’s easy to find modern parallels – Jesus plus [this denomination/that brand of theology/bible version/dress code/attitude towards alcohol/area of ministry/spiritual gift/experience/mode of baptism/Other:_________________] (Delete as applicable).
The ironic thing is that it tends to be the good things that are the biggest problem – our love for Jesus leads us to do things which are good… but which transition from simply being expressions of our faith in Him: we start placing our faith in the things themselves. We, in Paul’s words, begin to place confidence in the flesh, relying on stuff we’ve done or the stuff we do. And when we do that, we undermine the very foundation of the gospel, because we start trusting our own accomplishments instead of Christ’s.
Is it fixable?
What, then, is the answer? As Paul does repeatedly, we should remind each other (and ourselves) of the gospel. Speak and think often of the extreme of the cost of our salvation and incomparable worth of knowing God (how freaked out should we be that we can even know Him?!). The cross gives us the perspective we need to view our (comparatively) puny acts. How could we add anything, anything at all, to that?
Oh – and be careful. With plausible sounding arguments, with rapid fire verse recall, there are people who will try to damage the confidence you have in Christ. They follow in the tradition of Satan in Eden; their teaching must not be tolerated. They are dogs.
How would you answer the question: “What does God think of me”? Does your answer focus on what you’ve done, or what Jesus has?