Early yesterday morning, I was conducting final preparations for facilitating an adult Sunday school lesson leading a college-aged group through Piper's Don't Waste your Life. I was substituting for the regular teacher that day, who was off at General Assembly. In the particular lesson I was facilitating yesterday, Piper focused on Philippians 3.7-8, which is a segment out of one of my favorite passages in Scripture. So yesterday morning before the class, I put something together that I thought was pretty cool. I discovered, however, that while my analysis of the passage may have been educational, my own attitudes were quite an object lesson. Stay tuned.
In order to get a better appreciation for Php 3.7-8, one really has to look at the larger context which arguably starts at v4 and goes through v9. Here, we find an incredible statement by Paul in building a doctrine of human merit based on his own experience. For the class, I attempted to show the flow of the passage visually. In verses 4-6, Paul is giving us his resume and qualifications for boasting in the flesh. Paul is describing his pre-conversion state here, and there is a clear intensification of his credentials in these 3 verses. Paul was circumcised on the 8th day, but that's not all. He is among the people of Israel, but that's not all. He is from the tribe of Benjamin, but that's not all. He was a Hebrew of Hebrews, but that's not all. In regards to the law, he was a Pharisee, but it gets even better than that. By the time we get to v6, Paul proclaims that in regards to legalistic righteousness, he was faultless. This is the pinnacle of human merit; it doesn't get any better than this. Paul is presenting his case to his audience that if anyone has a right to boast in the flesh, it is him. If that's the game we're playing, everyone else is playing minor league ball.
But then something incredible happens. Beginning in v7, Paul takes this unparalleled resume of human righteousness and systematically treats it with greater and greater contempt. In his post-conversion understanding that begins in v7, he tells us that he now considers all of the stuff of vv4-6 as loss for the sake of Christ. But that's not all. In v8, he tells that he considers everything as loss compared to knowing Christ. And then he tells us that he's not just treating his once magnificent credentials as loss, he actually considers them to be sewage (most modern translations translate the Greek word skubala as 'rubbish' or 'garbage', but that is a VERY sanitized translation. In Paul's day, skubala was often used to describe excrement. This is one of those cases where the King James actually gets it right in translating skubala as 'dung'.). You can just feel the amplification of abhorrence in the flow of Paul's thought. Finally in v9, Paul makes his ultimate point in this passage - it's not about his righteousness, it's about Christ's righteousness, and thank God this is so.
The way I presented this visually to the class was to draw a mountain, with vv4-6 showing the uphill progression of pre-conversion human merit on the left side of the mountain, and then vv7-9s downward progression of post-conversion human merit on the right side of the mountain.
When I had finished drawing this out in my prep work before the class, I looked at it and thought, "Ya know, this is pretty good stuff." I hadn't copied this out of any commentary; it was something I came up with totally on my own. I was feeling pretty good about myself.
And then it hit me. Here I was, in the basement of my house two hours before the class, boasting in myself and in my efforts in analyzing the very passage that condemns boasting in myself and in my efforts! Immediately, Calvin's words about this passage became front and center - where pride and arrogance are, there, we can be assured, Christ is not known.
Philippians 3 teaches us many things. One thing it teaches us is that boasting in human merit and ability comes with the extremely likely danger that we will puff ourselves up, become prideful, and be known by our arrogance. I am living proof that Reformed folks are just as susceptible to this as anyone. What makes us unique as Reformed people is that we are doctrinally unapologetic in confessing without caveat that if it's all ultimately about human merit, there is no one who stands a chance of being right with God. It is utter folly to think otherwise, unless someone really thinks their resume of human merit is far superior to Paul's in Philippians 3, in which case, they've just demonstrated their own arrogance rather than any righteousness.
Our daily challenge as Reformed folks is to live out our own theology with care, and to be constantly aware of how our sinful tendencies pervert our own walk. As I learned yesterday, it's not enough to understand the Scriptures and be able to communicate its truths well. We have to be on guard for how we ourselves are often first in line to fail our own litmus tests. This requires a degree of honesty and self-examination that few are willing to engage in. But it's what we're called to, and we'll be better off for it, even if it means going in front of a classroom full of people as I did yesterday, and holding myself up as an object lesson for how not to be.