“Whatever happens, my dear brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. I never get tired of telling you these things, and I do it to safeguard your faith. Watch out for those dogs, those people who do evil, those mutilators who say you must be circumcised to be saved. For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort…” (Phil 3:1-4).
We human beings so quickly and easily fall into the same error as Paul’s adversaries, “those dogs” mentioned in this passage. It is part of our fallen human nature to try to maintain control of our present situation and future fate. Even when it comes to saving faith we are more comfortable if we can do something ourselves to make it all seem more real and tangible. We can rest more easily in our standing with God if we can simply complete a spiritual checklist of religious rituals: say a prayer, go to church, do some charitable acts, go to confession, get baptized and so on. While these human rituals and acts may quiet our own uneasy conscience, Paul is adamant to remind us that they do nothing to earn favor with God or secure salvation.
Paul is confronting some Jewish Christians who still believe non-Jewish pagan folks who are coming to faith in the Lord Jesus must undergo the outward, physical act of circumcision in order to be saved. Paul is furious over this core misunderstanding of the good news of Christ. After addressing this group using some strong adjectives — “those dogs”, “evil-doers” and “mutilators” — Paul corrects their fundamental misunderstanding by asserting: “For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort…”
How are we saved? How do we identify who is truly a Christian? Is it by undergoing some sacred ritual or by performing the outward physical sign of circumcision? Absolutely not! Paul proclaims the good news that “We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us.” We put no confidence in human effort — whether it be trying to earn salvation by being good or ease our conscience by undergoing some religious ritual. The proof and sign that someone has been saved and is now part of God’s family in Christ is that the Spirit of God is present in their life and beginning to change them from the inside out.
While this is basic Christianity 101, I am shocked by how quickly even well-educated, long-time Christians fall back into this faulty (even heretical and blasphemous) line of thinking. For example, it is quite common in youth ministry to encounter anxious parents who are losing sleep because their teenage son or daughter has not yet been baptized or gone through Confirmation. In these conversations I try to ask them a few basic questions to get to the heart of the matter: Why do you want them to be baptized? Do you think they have an authentic relationship with God through faith in Jesus? Why do you seem so worried about them being baptized or going through Confirmation?
Usually such parents are unknowingly operating out of a mistaken belief that we cannot rely only on what Christ has done alone and rest in the fact that the Spirit of God is at work in them. We somehow feel the need to create a checklist and “do something” more to solidify it, i.e., some ritual like baptism or Confirmation class. We are acting like “those dogs” again; we have merely replaced circumcision with baptism, Confirmation or whatever human act we choose.
(NOTE: Let me say it again to be clear: Baptism and Confirmation are significant ways one publicly declares and affirms what God has already done in their life through Christ and by the Spirit. It does not accomplish anything new.)
Friends, this is very good news today! Don’t pass over this lightly. This is the gospel we proclaim: “We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort…” Let the power and profundity sink in before you move on with your day. I’m already feeling my self-inflicted burden of guilt on my back growing lighter. But let us also remember that in an age of ‘create-your-own-religion’ and ‘anything goes’ spirituality the Christian faith proclaims one true way to salvation and this gospel truth is something Paul says we must “safeguard” and “watch out” for lest we be led astray.
“Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 1:3).