Dear saints in Christ Jesus,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
You are a work in progress. You are the Lord’s work in progress. In the opening verses of St. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, he reassures us, “I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). It is a comfort to know that even though Jesus Christ, your Saviour, has already completed everything necessary for your salvation when He gave His holy, divine life for you on the cross, He still has more to give.
Two weeks ago we meditated on verses from the first chapter of this epistle, which emphasizes that the Lord is bringing us to completion through our suffering. Through the sufferings which we endure Christ is conforming our life to His own. Just as we share in the sufferings of His earthly life we also fully anticipate sharing in the glory of His eternal life when He comes again.
Last week, in the second chapter of the epistle, we heard how Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant” (2:5-6), is bringing us to completion by conforming us to Himself resulting in our own humble service to one another.
Today, as we meditate on the Epistle Reading taken from chapter 3, St. Paul emphasizes that we dare not consider these good works as evidence that we have accomplished anything before God, but rather that any good that has arisen through us counts for nothing. It all has to come from Christ.
Last week I mentioned Martin Luther’s writing on Two Kinds of Righteousness, which he based on verses from this epistle. He explained that one kind of righteousness is the righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only righteousness that is perfect and can save us. In addition to this perfect righteousness of Christ, there is a second kind of righteousness that a Christian exhibits in their own life. This righteousness is not perfect, and cannot save us. In fact, it can be harmful to us if we begin to place our trust in this imperfect righteousness of our own, instead of in the perfect righteousness of Christ.
It sounds strange to say that our good works could be harmful. In fact, this became a major controversy among Lutherans. The Majoristic Controversy, named after the Lutheran George Major, who advocated expressions such as “Good works are necessary for salvation,” which echoed the Roman Catholic objection to the Lutheran teaching based on Scripture that we are saved by grace through faith alone, apart from the works of the Law. Lutherans have always maintained that good works are necessary because God commands them, but they cannot save us, and so they are not necessary for salvation.
This is straight from God’s Word in Ephesians 2: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8-9). In today’s Epistle reading, St. Paul brutally applied this to the good works in his own life. “If anyone thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3:4b-7).
St. Paul came to know that his works were not helping him in the way of salvation. Not only did he come to know that some of his works were in outright opposition to God, like the persecution he led against Christians, but also his blameless life led according to God’s own holy Law had led him to place his confidence, not in a salvation provided by God for him, but in his own righteous life lived according to the Law which although blameless in the eyes of men could never be perfect according to God’s standard.
Any confidence in his own religious accomplishments would not allow him to trust in Christ Jesus for his salvation. He had to learn, not only that these works according to the law brought him no gain before God, but were in fact a loss because they kept him from trusting in Christ alone. “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends of faith” (3:7-9).
These are the two kinds of righteousness that Luther elucidated for us: the saving righteousness of Christ that comes to us through faith; and the righteousness of the law, a righteousness of our own which we have to count as nothing in regard to salvation, even counting it as a loss and as rubbish, and harmful if we were to trust in it.
On the basis of God’s Word here in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the Formula of Concord settles the major controversy about good works and declares: “If people want to draw our good works into the article on justification and base their righteousness or confidence in salvation upon it and thereby want to merit God’s grace and become saved, then not only we state but Paul himself repeats three times in Philippians 3 that works are not only loss and rubbish for such people but even harmful. However, the fault lies not with the good works themselves, but rather with the false trust that is placed in such works in opposition to the express Word of God” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration. IV. 37).
God is bringing you to completion, not only by building you up in good works like the endurance of suffering and the humble service you offer to those around you, but also by tearing down the ivory towers of these very good works when they become your confidence for salvation or a good standing before God. Every edifice founded on your own doing is a danger to your salvation, which can only be in the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, the holy, divine, Son of God.
Dear saints of God in Christ Jesus, our comfort does not rest in the knowledge that we have endured suffering, or that we are really good at serving others, or in any form that our righteousness might take. Our comfort is in the righteousness of Christ, which God has freely given you through faith. By breaking down everything else in which we place our trust, God secures our salvation in His grace given in Christ Jesus alone. The righteousness of Christ covers you. His life, death, and resurrection is your salvation, your saving righteousness.
This can be a painful working of God in you. There are many of your righteous deeds that are hard to cast down from the trophy shelf. They are truly good when done in faith and out of love for others, but that faith and love in you is imperfect and tainted by your sinful nature. You cannot help but do these things with some measure of a self-serving motive, or a desire to prove yourself better than others and good enough before God.
It is good that we serve our neighbours and endure suffering for the sake of Christ, but these are not the things that save us. And because we cannot but see in them the reason why God should overlook our sins and be glad to have us at work in His kingdom, they must be torn down, thrown on the rubbish pile, flushed away like refuse. Those are Paul’s own metaphors about his own righteousness: his years of intense study of God’s Word, his life guided scrupulously by the Law of God, his intense passion to defend and advance the cause of the one holy LORD.
In your home improvement projects there is a demolition phase, where you tear out the old in order to make room for the new build. And it is not just making room, but getting rid of what does not work, and the rot, and the danger that lies beneath so that you are not just placing new fixtures on top of a faulty foundation. “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Matthew 21:42b).
God is at work in you, renovating you for eternal life in paradise. He is remodeling you into the image of His Son, the image lost in our fall to sin. That means that a lot has to be thrown out as rubbish, even some things that don’t look too bad, or that may have an emotional attachment. Those stuffed trophy heads have to go.
In a lecture on Isaiah, Martin Luther alluded to our epistle reading and said, “Let us cast away our idols. Let us not hesitate and say, 'Perhaps there is still some good in them, I want to see’” (AE. 16. 263). That is how my home gets filled up with junk. “There may be some future use for this item. My old stereo system still has some life in it. Grandpa built that cabinet.” All the while the Lord wishes to rebuild us into the image of His Son, to cover us with the righteousness of Christ Jesus in such a way that is not just a veneer, but changes the very foundation of our being, no longer built on sins of pride and self-centredness, but on the selfless sacrificial love of Jesus.
He who began a good work in you is still at work to make a beautiful plantation of the LORD. “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield good grapes, but it yielded wild grapes” (Isaiah 5:1-2). It hurts to be dug out and cleared of stones, but that is how beautiful properties are created. Let us not resist the Lord’s continued work in our lives, but conform ourselves to the image of His Son, and that means digging out and clearing away anything, even our own righteous works, that would take the place of Christ as our righteousness before God. They may look shiny and useful but they are wild and full of rot.
Let us cast away our unfruitful works of self-righteousness lest we cast out the Son and be the object of God’s wrath rather than of His working. “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” 3:8-11).
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.