This blog is devoted to discussing the pursuit of eternal life.
Discussion and participation by readers is desired,
but contributions should correlate to the book,
The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology
of Perseverance & Assurance

Thomas R. Schreiner
& Ardel B. Caneday

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Some thoughts on "confidence in the flesh"

This morning John Piper preached on Philippians 3:1-16. As I sat and listened, I pondered the text rather carefully. I offer a few thoughts for your consideration.

For convenience, as you read my entry, below is the text. Since I offer comments on only the first portion of 3:1-16, I provide only that portion for your reading here.

1Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.

2Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8Indeed, 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 9and 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— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Three times Paul uses the expression, "confidence in the flesh" (3:3-4). The first and third uses of the expression entails verbs (οὐκ ἐν σαρκὶ πεποιθότες and πεποιθέναι ἐν σαρκί ἐγὼ μᾶλλον; respectively). The middle use employs the noun (καίπερ ἐγὼ ἔχων πεποίθησιν καὶ ἐν σαρκί). It is difficult to escape the sense that Paul's concern, exhibited in his threefold use of this expression entails misplaced confidence, confidence that grounds itself in stuff of the earth, yea, of humanity, rather than of heaven and of God. Yet, what we all have tended to do rather routinely and uncritically is to assume that we know that Paul expression unequivocally refers to "works righteousness."

What if, however, we have been misreading this passage by uncritically taking the lead from our forebears who took their lead uncritically from their forebears, traced back, particularly, to our great Reformation father, Martin Luther? Now, before anyone leaps all over me and charges me with having fallen prey to the New Pauline Perspective, as if that were the worst possible malady that anyone could contract these days, please consider my thoughts. Keep in mind that I am posing a question and not making an assertion.

I am not calling for a radical departure from the interpretation that dominates among Protestants who take Paul's Letter to the Philippians seriously. What if Paul's objection to the "dogs," "the evildoers," "those who mutilate the flesh" is of the same sort as we find in his argument in Romans 2? In Romans 2, Paul's indictment of Jews (2:1-29), following his indictment of Gentiles (1:18-32), is not for any alleged effort by Jews to achieve their righteous standing before God on the basis of doing what the law of Moses required. Quite to the contrary, Paul indicts Jews (apart from Christ) for supposing that possession of the law and possession of circumcision would insulate them from God's wrath in the Day of Wrath. In other words, Paul does not indict them for attempting to achieve self-righteousness by doing what the law required. Instead, Paul indicts them for presuming in a kind of self-righteousness as a birthright, by virtue of possessing the law and by possessing circumcision.

I realize that the distinction that I have sketched above may seem subtle. Some may dismiss my point as a distinction without a difference. I beg to differ, however. The distinction may seem subtle, but it is a real distinction with an important difference. (For expanded discussion of Romans 2, see pages 165-167 in The Race Set Before Us.) This is not to suggest that Scripture elsewhere does not indict efforts to achieve a righteous standing before God on the basis of accumulated merits with God. Biblical teaching concerning human depravity cuts the ground out from under such false notions.

Now, given Paul's opening comments in Philippians 3, does it not seem quite reasonable to understand that his objection to putting confidence in the flesh is not grounded in some alleged effort to achieve righteousness on the basis of doing what the law required? Instead, does it not seem reasonable to understand Paul's derogatory and indicting comments concerning the "dogs," "the evildoers," "those who mutilate the flesh" along the same lines as we ought to understand his indictment of Jews (apart from Christ) in Romans 2:1-29? Is it really reasonable to take Paul's description, "the evildoers" (τοὺς κακοὺς ἐργάτας), to refer to people who kept the law of Moses? Is it not more likely that Paul is referring to people who failed to obey the law but put their confidence in possessing circumcision? Is this not more likely, then, why Paul calls them "the evildoers" and mocks them as "the dogs" (people who mocked the Gentiles as dogs) and "the mutilation"? We ought to pause over this latter expression. Paul exploits a Greek language play on words between "the mutilation" and "the circumcision." On the one hand, Paul says, "Watch out for the mutilation" (βλέπετε τὴν κατατομήν ). On the other hand, he says, "We are the [true] circumcision" (ἡμεῖς ἐσμεν περιτομή). For English only readers, mutilation in Greek is katatomē and circumcision in Greek is peritomē. Dan Wallace gets it right when he says, "Kata means ‘down’; katatome is a rare word that, etymologically, had the force of ‘cutting down,’ ‘cutting off.’ When Paul speaks of the mutilation he really means that these folks botch the job and whack off precious body parts!" (cf. Dan Wallace's "Pauline Scatology").

Now, given this understanding, is it not reasonable that when Paul says, ". . . though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more," that he is speaking of a pedigree that is more authentically worthy of boasting about than the pedigree boast of "the dogs," "the evildoers," "those who mutilate the flesh"? Is it not reasonable to view this as Paul's point, namely, that the principal issue is not efforts to achieve a righteous standing before God on the basis of achievements but rather the notion that righteousness before God belongs to one by pedigree? Is not his own pedigree the thing that Paul puts forward: "circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, 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"? To be sure, this list entails his deeds as well as his inherited pedigree. Nonetheless, is it not conceivable that to read this as though Paul were speaking of earning a righteous standing on the basis of deeds accomplished misses the apostle's point because we import an idea that may not actually be present in his argument?

What if the confidence in the flesh, in this passage, is not specifically accumulation of merits with God done to achieve a righteous standing before him? What if the confidence in the flesh that Paul clearly repudiates, in this passage, is the following: confidence in religious inheritance (of the people of Israel), confidence in religious pedigree (of the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew of Hebrews), confidence in religious form (circumcised the eighth day), confidence in religious status (as to the law, a Pharisee), confidence in religious zeal (a persecutor of the church), confidence in conformity to external requirements (blameless)? Is this not an accurate description of what Paul repudiates as confidence in the flesh?

If my above questions are aimed in the right direction, does this not have an impact upon how we should understand the whole passage, particularly concerning the relationship between Christ and the law of Moses? It seems so, to me. One impact it should have is that we should observe that Paul's recitation of his inheritance and pedigree as a Jew is principally concerned with misplaced confidence, confidence that inheritance, pedigree, and possession of the law puts one right with God, regardless how one behaves. Indeed, those against who Paul brings forward his invectives of verse 2 place confidence in the flesh, yet they are aptly called "evildoers" (βλέπετε τοὺς κακοὺς ἐργάτας). They trusted in their inheritance while failing to do what the law required of them, like those Paul indicts in Romans 2.

This is enough for now. I will try to follow this up later in the week, if I can carve out some time to do so.

For further discussion of Philippians 3, please read pages 186-191 of The Race Set Before Us.


Note: Compare and contrast Paul's indicting words in Philippians 3:1, "the evildoers" (τοὺς κακοὺς ἐργάτας), with his commending words in Romans 2:13, "the doers of the law will be justified" (οἱ ποιηταὶ νόμου δικαιωθήσονται). In Philippians 3:1, he does not indict them for being "doers of the law" but for being "evildoers." Likewise, in Romans 2:13, he does not indict anyone for being "doers of the law" but for being "hearers of the law" (οἱ ἀκροαταὶ νόμου) without being "doers of the law," much like James argues, "Become doers of the Word and not only heaers, deceiving yourselves" (γίνεσθε δὲ ποιηταὶ λόγου καὶ μὴ μόνον ἀκροαταὶ παραλογιζόμενοι ἑαυτούς; James 1:22).


jgb said...

Dr. Caneday,

I read this passage just a few nights ago and had many of the same thoughts. I look forward to hearing more of your insights in this matter.

Have you ever thought about writing more extensively on the "New Perspective"? Perhaps a series of blog-posts regarding how you the ideas you express in The Race Set Before Us differ from those generally held by New Perspective adherents?

mark mcculley said...

I quote from Jason Stillman (Dual Citizens) on Romans 6:14, p 143: “According to this view, under law means under the condemnation of God’s moral law, and under grace speaks of the deliverance from this condition. Some problems arise from this view.

First, Paul usually uses the word law to refer to the law of Moses in particular…When Paul spoke to those saints in the churches of Galatia who desired to be under the law, was he talking to people who longed to be under the condemnation of the law?...

When Paul wrote that Jesus was born under the law, did he mean that Christ was born under the condemnation of the law? Under law means under the jurisdiction of the Mosaic covenant. Furthermore, if under law and under grace are existential categories describing an individual’s condemnation or justification, then Paul’s argument is a non-sequitur.

It is not justification but sanctification that frees us from the dominion of the sin.”

It is the idea in that last sentence which is the most objectionable (to me) in the "new perspective" on Paul. Of course, that reading of Romans 6 is very common to many Reformed people.

Like Lloyd Jones, or Sinclair Ferguson, they tell us that “freed from sin” in Romans 6:7 cannot mean “justified from sin” because this chapter is about sanctification and not about justification. It seems obvious to me that this is simply begging the question

The gospel is not that we all have moved forward on the redemptive-historical clock. The gospel is about God's salvation of the elect from God's wrath by means of Christ's death (and resurrection) in history.