Paul’s accounts balance in a very bizarre way. He has just declared that, in terms of his status as a member of God’s people Israel, he had nothing on the debt side at all. Every way you looked at it, he was in the clear. That is how he puts it in verses 5-6: “Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the Law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.” Does that mean, though, his account is in credit? He is in the positive, rolling in the black? Absolutely not! He strikes a line through all the items that looked as if they formed a credit balance and places the whole lot on the other side of the page instead. They are now part of the debt, rather than credit. He has gone from black to deep red. In terms of religion, he is bust, bankrupt, foreclosed.

What has caused this extraordinary piece of what we might call destructive accounting? Simply this: Paul has discovered something to put on the credit side in comparison with which everything else he can imagine can only be a debt. The something is, in fact, a someone: It is Jesus, the Messiah, the King, the One who was the subject of the hymn he records in 2:6-11.

That hymn remains important in the present chapter because what Paul says about himself in this passage and the following ones is quite close to what he said about Jesus. Jesus did not regard the huge advantage He had, equality with God, as something to exploit, to use to take from others as other kings do. Rather, He interpreted it as the vocation to take the penalty due to His people for high treason. That is why God exalted Him. So, here, Paul does not regard the huge privileges he had, which he listed in verses 4-5, as something of which to take advantage. Instead, he discovered in Jesus that the true meaning of membership in God’s people lay in Christ’s suffering and death to fulfill all righteousness, with the vindication of the resurrection of Christ as the basis for his own justification. Paul had nothing that would avail for his own justification. His works added nothing because it was his duty to be righteous under the Law. Even if he obtained that, it did not necessitate he was righteous before God. He had no credit because the Law could not atone for his sin. It could not render him positively righteous before the face of God, even though it gave him boasting rights before the Law.

Paul had no credit because the Law could not atone for his sin.

This is what he means by having Christ as his “profit” (3:8). Jesus renders him positively righteous and sinless before the Father, a suitable member of the covenant of grace, the household of God, a citizen of Christ’s Kingdom. Jesus, at last, has done what Israel (for all her privileges) had not and could not do. He has been, in Himself, the light of the world, the means of salvation, the doorway to the age to come, in which people do not look to their own religion for vindication, but to the One who vindicates because of His own righteousness accounted to them, an alien righteousness that now indwells those who have been regenerated. Meanwhile, Israel (including Paul himself before his conversion) had been struggling to be the people of God according to the Torah and the main result had been to set up law as a barrier of privilege between Jew and Gentile. That is why Paul now sees, and says, what he wants is none of those privileges. Rather, to gain the Messiah, to know the Messiah, to be found in the Messiah, to be defined by the Messiah’s faithfulness and righteousness and holiness, to know the power of His resurrection, which lies along the road of His suffering and death, not along the place of privilege (3:7-11).

It is all about Christ. For Paul, this is a matter of status: God regards all Christians as being “In Christ.” It is also a matter of personal knowledge: Not just knowing about Jesus the Messiah but knowing Him in a personal relationship as Christ defines the relationship. Thirdly, it is a matter of conformity of life: He is committed to the patterns of behavior that characterize the Messiah and are prompted and empowered by the indwelling Spirit of Christ within Paul and all those baptized into Christ. In baptism you are put into Christ (and thus clothed with His righteousness) and Christ is put into you (and thus you are ontologically altered by being indwelt by the Spirit of Christ to walk in the ways of the Kingdom that has come).

In baptism you are put into Christ and Christ is put into you.

The first of these is particularly important, and the theme of verse 9, which sums up a good deal he says at more length in Romans and Galatians. Paul draws out the contrast he has been talking about throughout the passage, between those who are regarded as members of God’s covenant people because they possess, and try to keep, the Jewish Law and those who are regarded as members of God’s covenant family because of what the Messiah has done and how He has translated them into the life of the last Adam, the new humanity, the new-renewed Israel. In 2:8, he described the Messiah’s achievement as His, “…obedience, even unto death.” Here he describes it as His “faithfulness,” but the two mean substantially the same thing. The way we share in “the Messiah’s faithfulness” is by faith. Our belief that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of God, the Lord of the World, and our loyalty to Him are the sign and badge that we have a credit balance consisting simply of Him, over against all the debts we could ever have from anywhere else. This is how and why the doctrine of justification by faith alone brings comfort and challenge to Christians everywhere.

Justification is not just about how someone becomes a Christian because of the atoning death and righteous life of Christ and His vindication through resurrection. It is also about the status the baptized possess, and continue to possess, as full members of God’s people, no matter who or what their parents may have been or what they think they could bring as a condition of negotiation or credit before the Lord. As verses 10-11 indicate, the faith which reaches out and embraces Jesus as Messiah embraces, in Him, the way of suffering and death which marked Him out. If sinners want to attain to the resurrection of the dead, this is the only way to go.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Philippians 3:4b-14.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Philippians 3:4b-14.