Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:2-3).
Writing from Prison, Paul instructs the Philippian church about the gospel. While locked up in prison, false teachers arose preaching a works based righteousness pointing to the keeping of the law as a conduit for justification. Warning the Philippian church against these false teachers, Paul draws a sharp contrast between works-righteousness and faith. He warns against confidence in the flesh, that is, justification with God based on keeping the law or on good works.
Just as in Paul’s days, there are false teachers today who oppose the gospel by preaching legalism. John Hendryx defines Legalism as
“any attempt to rely on self-effort (even partly) to either attain or maintain our just standing before God” Writing on the same subject, Nicholas Batzig defines legalism as “an attempt to add anything to the finished work of Christ. It is to trust in anything other than Christ and His finished work for one’s standing before God. The New Testament refutation of legalism is primarily a response to perversions of the doctrine of justification by faith alone”
World religions can be categorised into two. Works religion and Faith religion. The former–works religion emphasises a system of ‘do’s and don’ts’ and hopefully if our good deeds outweighs our evil deeds, then the arguments follows that we will be saved by God. Works religion thrives on good works and the keeping of God’s law for righteousness. The latter–faith religion emphasises faith and trust as the only means to be saved by God.
Christianity is a faith religion (Heb11:6). Christianity acknowledges we cannot earn our salvation or please God by ourselves and our good deeds: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law”(Rom 3:28).
Christianity emphasises faith in the finished work on Calvary by Christ Jesus for our salvation (1Cor 15:3-5): Justification By Faith Alone. This is a core, foundational message of Christianity. Anyone or group of persons or a denomination that doesn’t believe in this is not qualified to be called Christian.
Sinners that we are (Ps 51:5, Rom. 3:23), we are unable of ourselves to please God. We are dead in trespasses and sins; our will held in bondage to sin and all we can do is hit the highway of sin and move away from God. The Prophet Isaiah will say “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned— every one— to his own way…”(Isaiah 53:6).
Naturally, we are enemies of God and will not seek to please Him in anyway. This however doesn’t suppose we are incapable of any good deed. Indeed the worst of sinners still have people they feel affectionate towards. But our corruption is such that, even our good deeds are abominable before God. Again Isaiah will say; “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment”(Isaiah 64:6).
The King James describes this vividly: “our righteousnesses are as filthy rags”. When I first read this, I thought to myself: “rags are already discarded for “filthy use”. To further describe it as “filthy” means the situation is that hopeless. Works rigtheousness is indeed hopeless because in our best moments, we are lost in the brightness of God’s holiness. God demands perfection, and none of us can attain to that. This means we must look outside of ourselves to attain the perfection demanded by God. We must look to Christ; “the founder and perfecter of our faith”(Hebrews 12:2).
The gospel is under threat where legalism and self-righteousness thrives. Paul spares no harsh words in describing these false teachers. He calls them “dogs and evil doers”. Indeed, to circumvent justification by faith alone with justification by works or good deeds is evil and a damnable heresy. “…any attempt to please God by one’s own efforts and draw attention away from Christ’s accomplished redemption is the worst kind of wickedness.”.
Does this mean a person who professes Christianity can live anyhow they please? No! God forbid, Paul says in Romans 6:1-2. Peter’s says “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1Peter 2:11KJV). However, none of our good works and rightful living counts towards our justification. Justification is by faith alone.
No one stands justified before God apart from Christ’s imputed rigtheousness. The righteousness that saves us is outside of ourselves. It is Christ’s righteousness. Anyone who doesn’t know this righteousness by faith through Christ has no peace with God.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1).
1:NASB(ebook): The MacArthur Study Bible; notes on Phillipians 3:2-3