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'Anti-works' never works

This morning I led a little bible study in Philippians 3:1-11.  We went away feeling that we shouldn't build or glory in our spiritual CVs.  Instead we should count them as loss - dung even.

So we resolved once again to be anti-works-of-law, anti-flesh, anti-the-circumcision-sect, anti whatever is anti-grace.

But of course that's not really Paul's point is it?  Paul's not interested in going from circumcision to anti-circumcision.  Anti-circumcision is also rubbish (Gal 5:6; 6:15).  You can be a determined opponent of works righteousness and still know nothing of Christ.  All you've done is erect another basis for your right standing with God (understanding grace).

The opposition Paul makes is not between works-of-the-law and anti-works-of-the-law.  Instead it's the difference between works-of-the-law and knowing Christ (which is a synonym for faith).

Paul doesn't compare his legalistic righteousness with an abstract ideal called "grace".  He compares it with the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord, in Whom he is hidden.  That's what made him consign the spiritual CV to the dung-heap.

If we try to consign our own boasts to the dung-heap by will-power we'll never achieve it.  Being 'anti-works' never works.  The only solution is, v7 - the sake of Christ, v8 - knowing Him and v10 - continuing to want to know Him.

I walked away from our study thinking, Why didn't I ask the most obvious question when considering Philippians 3? The most obvious question is, What's so great about knowing Jesus?

In answering that, the rest falls into place.


12 thoughts on “'Anti-works' never works

  1. david

    I do agree that being anti this, or pro that are both equally unimportant in relation to knowing Christ. What I would say though, is that - and I'm not trying to be simply contrary - knowing Christ is not something else that we can "do" instead being pro or anti works. What I mean is, that I would add to what you have said the provisio that we don't know that we know Christ because of any kind of activity in our heads, our brains, or our minds; we know that we are in Christ (and thus know him, are known by him) because we trust the message of the gospel. This is of course true regardless of whether we always feel it to be true or not.

    My worry is that what you have written my be construed by some people (i.e. me) that "knowing Christ" is something extra to trusting in him rather than in legalistic works righteousness. That is, I don't know him apart from my trust in him; a trust which can only be articulated through an evolving understanding (in large part through your blog) of grace-not-works. So while I broadly agree with what you have written, I can also see the potential for a free-floating fear that there is never any certainty of that this trust may translate into actually knowing Christ., when in fact this trust in part constitutes what it means to know him.

    I would add also, though, that in my experience people always tend to focus on the sin to which they are least likely to be tempted (i.e. anglicans towards irreverant spontaneity, charismatics towards intellectualism, materialistic christians towards the occult, lazy people towards works-based-righteousness, and cold-hearted zealots towards antinominalism).

  2. Glen

    Hi David,

    Yes, on the one hand we want to avoid preaching salvation by mysticism. 'Knowing Jesus' is not an internal mental work to be whipped up by certain devotional techniques but simply a beholding of Christ in the gospel. (This is why I said knowing Jesus is a synonym for faith).

    On the other hand I want to avoid preaching salvation by appreciation-of-a-doctrine. Faith is irreducibly personal - it's faith alone in Christ alone. I think we get into all sorts of trouble when we offer grace as an impersonal doctrine and then encourage faith as the acknowledgement of a state of affairs. I think the assurance problems in that paradigm are far greater. (What kind of *gift* is this, and how can I know I've received such a gift?)

    But yes we must always hold out Jesus in the gospel and encourage a simple looking to Him clothed in His gospel promises. In this way we must avoid salvation by devotion.

    Is that getting at your concerns here, or have I missed the thrust of it?

  3. david

    Hi Glen
    Thanks for replying. You have more or less answered my concerns, and I agree absolutely that knowing Christ should never be confused with either merely assenting to a doctrine of grace, or whipping up a devotional feeling towards it.

    I suppose that for myself, I have taken such a long time to recognise the good news of the good news for what it is, that I find it hard to imagine merely assenting to the doctrine of grace alone without an accompanying relationship with Christ. The doctrine is so counter to my own nature of what I would want or expect from a god, (because I would like to earn my salvation, to feel that I in some way owned it) that simply assenting to it - unlike simply assenting to a belief in God, which is easy and natural - seems genuinely bizarre to me. It would be like paradoxically turning the idea of knowing Christ into an idol.

    Your blog is genuinely encouraging, though, and I really value the way in which you attempt to peel back the various ways in which it is possible to turn the gospel into a means of avoiding the gospel. Thanks!

  4. Brian Midmore

    In deed . We can make an idol out of soteriology. Believing the right formula of salvation becomes the means of salvation. Soteriology becomes our saviour. But no. Jesus the Messiah is the saviour and it is faith in him that saves not faith in salvation. Beware lest anyone draw you away from the simplicity which is Christ.

  5. Brian Midmore

    Rom 3.31. Through faith in God's Messiah we fulfill the law. If we set antilaw against law we arrive at antinomianism. Paul however is describing two paths:
    1) back to the old covenant with the law which was sought by Israel by doing the works of the law but which led to sin because of the weakness of their flesh.
    2) Faith in Gods Messiah which leads to Christians doing the law because now they are transformed by Gods Spirit and have the law written on their heart.
    Its how we seek the law of righteousness that counts. It is either by works or by faith (in Christ).

  6. Glen

    I agree Brian. First - "Jesus is Lord" is the essence of the gospel. I've actually tried to structure 321 as the explication of that truth. Because He's Lord - He shows us the true God (3); because He's Lord - He rules the world as the second Adam (2); because He's Lord He's my Master (I'm 1 with Him). It would be possible to teach doctrines (like Trinity, Adam and Christ, and union with Christ) in abstraction from Jesus Himself, but the true gospel is looking to Him as Lord and therefore as the One who defines God, the world and me.

    Secondly - we fulfil the law through faith in God's Messiah. I'd just add the detail that Paul adds in Romans 3, that specifically our faith fixes on "His blood." This really does rule out our works as any kind of contribution to salvation. At the cross we have nothing to offer. But, you're right, having received life from Jesus in His resurrection we are set on our feet to walk in the works God has prepared for us.

  7. Brian Midmore

    Romans 3.25 does mention his 'blood', but in other places the focus is on his Lordship and resurrection e.g. Acts 17.31, Rom 10.9 with no mention of the crucifixion.

    Do good works avail for salvation? Well what is certain is that if we walk in the flesh we shall die and if we walk in the Spirit we shall live. As a Christian fulfills the law he/she finds life. Thus good works are not just a happy byproduct of salvation but they lead to salvation. Now justification is another thing altogether since we are justified by faith in Christ alone.

  8. Brian Midmore

    1 Cor 5 illustrates the fact that lawlessness leads to death. Instead of walking in the Spirit this man has chosen a different path. He has stopped following the pillar of cloud and has gone back to his pagan ways in Egypt. Paul solution is excommunication which will lead to judgement. Paul does not suggest preaching the gospel afresh to this man. It is the mans behaviour that threatens his salvation not his faith. He has stopped being a law doer which leads to life and has become a law breaker that leads to death. Simples.

  9. Chris W

    It's an identity thing as well though, isn't it? What Paul is 'rubbishing' is his Jewish identity compared with his identity in Christ. If we reject salvation by "works" (things we do) but not salvation by identity (who we are - Jew/Gentile, male/female etc.), then we're really just falling back on works, no matter how we cut it.

    And this has enormous potential for application. Because if we're conservative evangelicals attending middle-class churches then there's a huge danger that we can equate salvation with "being part of this cultural group" instead of "being found in Jesus Christ".

  10. Brian Midmore

    When we become a christian we set out on path. Yes we arrive on the east bank of the red sea through baptism but we havent yet got to our final goal. It is the Spirit that leads us there. We have 2 options 1) go back to Egypt 2) keep following God's cloud with the people of God. If we keep doing 2) we will get to our destination the salvation of our souls. Doing 2) will involve us doing righteous stuff. The works we do are not earning us salvation they are part of walking in the Spirit along God's righteous path.

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