Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Righteousness, received and lived

I preached from the first half of Philippians 3 on Sunday, with its absolutely glorious statement of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.  Compared to that value, compared to the greatness of knowing Christ, everything else is rubbish.  Whatever we might have placed our confidence in, whatever we might have seen as our identity and security - all rubbish.  Even the good stuff is junk, by comparison to Jesus.

In Philippians the apostle Paul is making this argument against those who are advocating circumcision for Gentile Christians.  They don't seem to have been a present threat in Philippi, but since they seem to have turned up in all Paul's churches after a while it is not surprising that he warns the Philippian Christians to be on their guard.  Specifically, they are to be on their guard by rejoicing in the Lord.  By remembering that they worship by the Spirit and that they are able to boast in Jesus Christ, the Christians will be able to rebuff any temptations to put confidence in the flesh - that is to say, they will not be tempted to rest their identity, their security, their righteousness, in anything merely human, but will look solely to Christ and the huge privilege of knowing him.

Of course the folks advocating circumcision would probably not have seen themselves the way Paul saw them.  They almost certainly didn't think that they were seeking to put their confidence in the flesh!  They surely maintained, at least in their teaching, that righteousness was received by faith in Christ and not otherwise; had they not done so, it is hardly likely that they would have won a hearing amongst Paul's converts.  So what were they saying?  Here's my best guess at a reconstruction.

I think the circumcision guys would have agreed that righteousness - understood to mean a righteous status before God - was received by faith, on the basis of the work of Christ and particularly his death and resurrection.  But then there arises another question - how does that received righteousness translate into a pattern of life?  For the circumcision guys, the answer is circumcision - and presumably observance of other aspects of the Mosaic Law.  Righteous status received by faith translates into a righteous walk shaped by law.

And that is not absurd.  Couldn't they have pointed to the Old Testament for examples of this sort of shape?  Israel was rescued from Egypt - they received liberation.  But then they went to Sinai - the Law told them what a liberated life looked like.  You can - and from an OT perspective, you should - keep both these moments in mind, receiving liberty from God alone, and yet diligently seeking to live out that liberty via the Law.  So what's wrong with it?

You won't get the full story from Philippians 3 - you'd have to go to Galatians to see why that the unfolding of salvation history has made this understanding obsolete.  But in Phil 3 we get one aspect of it: Paul doesn't think they can do what they are doing.  In point of fact, those who require circumcision for 'lived out righteousness' will end up placing their confidence for 'received righteousness' in fleshly things.  Paul sees that underneath their apparent zeal to see a righteous behaviour (lived out) that corresponds to a righteous status (received), there is the desire to possess righteousness, for it to be something that belongs to me.  Paul does not have a righteousness of his own; it is all Christ's - whether righteousness received or righteousness lived out, all is Christ.  That is why conformity to the cross and suffering of Christ is so important for Paul.  Lived out righteousness does not look like achievement or possession; it looks, in fact, like shame and poverty.  It looks like that because this is the way of Jesus.  Righteous living is following in his footsteps.

But the circumcision party want something that belongs to them, a righteousness of their very own.  What could imply possession more fully than carving righteousness into your own body?  But having done so, how could you avoid placing confidence in the flesh - see righteous status as dependent on that fleshly work?  And that would mean losing Christ.

No, far better to admit that we will never possess righteousness, to ditch as junk every possible source of confidence, and to have only Jesus.

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