“We couldn’t carry this off by our own efforts, and we know it—even though we can list what many might think are impressive credentials. You know my pedigree: a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book. The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ.” (Phil 3:5-7 MSG).
Paul had all the proper religious credentials to be admired and respected as a holy, devout religious man. The religious circles he hung around desired to be as “spiritual” as Paul. He hung around the right people while avoiding the wrong. He was raised in an upright religious family. He went through all the right rituals, knew the answers to all the religious questions, was a bold defender of his faith and won every Bible debate. He would have held the equivalent of a PhD in Bible & Theology had he lived today. Paul was a religious teacher par excellence and stout defender of the faith.
And he was completely amiss when it came to what God had actually been up to in the world in the events surrounding Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection. Paul thought he had all the answers, knew his Bible and was on the right side of the theological fence regarding this prophet named Jesus and the movement he started. But Paul was dead wrong.
Jesus interrupted Paul on the road to Damascus, flipped on the light and turned Paul’s life completely upside down. The hot-headed persecutor of the early Christians was suddenly commissioned to be God’s agent of proclaiming the crucified and resurrected Christ to the entire Roman empire. But he had to encounter Christ first. We all do.
It’s been said many times and bears repeating: Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship. It’s a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Furthermore, Christianity is not a system of beliefs and practices by which we “work” our way toward favor with God. Instead, Christianity is unique in that it tells the story of the God who out of his great love and compassion for his wayward creatures comes toward us to forgive, redeem and restore. All ground for boasting is therefore gone. We can only receive God’s salvation as pure, unconditional gift.
When you encounter this Christ and receive this divine gift, you begin to look at all those religious badges of boasting differently. Well, we begin to think like Paul who said, “The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ.”
Where does that leave us today?
First, should we not learn a lesson about spiritual blindness and the danger of thinking we have a corner on what God is up to in the world? Paul was a sincere — and sincerely misguided — Bible teacher and theologian before he encountered the risen Christ. Had he lived today, he would be leading a ministry, teaching Sunday School, encouraging others to live purely according the Scriptures and railing on “those unrighteous sinners over there.” If Paul could be so mistaken, then so can we. Let’s keep humble and open-minded as we seek God through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Second, where do we slide towards religious pride and boasting (e.g., ministry involvement, advanced Bible degrees, generous tithing)? How do we try to earn God’s favor (e.g., church attendance, daily devotions, doing good works)? What religious badges of boasting do we flaunt openly or cling to privately? Let’s get out the trash can and start cleaning house of all such things that come between us and the unconditional gift Christ is offering us!