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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.

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4 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!

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