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8

ladder-to-heavenThere's a famous short piece by JC Ryle called "Suppose an Unholy Man Went to Heaven." It's only about a thousand words but it's had a wide influence. I've heard it quoted approvingly a number of times.

Ryle begins:

Suppose for a moment that you were allowed to enter heaven without holiness. What would you do? What possible enjoyment could you feel there? To which of all the saints would you join yourself and by whose side would you sit? Their pleasures are not your pleasures, their tastes are not your tastes, their character not your character. How could you possibly be happy, if you had not been holy on earth?

The bishop then spells out the heavenly life in stark contrast to earthly pleasures. Therefore...

heaven would be a miserable place to an unholy man. It cannot be otherwise. People may say, in a vague way, they "hope to go to heaven", but they do not consider what they say... We must be heavenly-minded, and have heavenly tastes, in the life that now is, or else we shall never find ourselves in heaven, in the life to come.

If all this sounds like salvation by works, Ryle has a verse: "Without holiness no man shall see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14).

He repeats the verse again and again - it seems pretty much the foundation of his case. But he ignores the way holiness (or "sanctification" - same word) is used throughout Hebrews - 2:11; 9:13; 10:10; 10:14; 10:29; 13:12.  In virtually every case it's a declared status, won through the sanctifying sacrifice of Christ (e.g. "we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." (Heb 10:10)).

In only one of the verses cited above is sanctification mentioned as an ongoing process - but even then the process is anchored to a definitive salvation:

By one sacrifice Christ has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:14)

It's true we must be holy to see the Lord. It's also true - and the whole book of Hebrews proclaims it - that Christ's sacrifice alone gives us that holiness. Yet Ryle seems to want to locate this saving quality within us.

He understands that folks might protest at this. So he addresses the objection we all feel...

You may say, it is impossible to be so holy and to do our duty in this life at the same time: the thing cannot be done. I answer, "You are mistaken." It can be done. With Christ on your side nothing is impossible.

Did somebody say infused grace? And make no mistake, the thing to be achieved here is heaven itself. If anyone complains at this achievement of glory, Ryle reminds us...

It is in religion as it is in other things, there are no gains without pains. That which costs nothing is worth nothing.

There it is - no pain, no gain. And finally the whole thing is unmasked - it's actually a very worldly way of considering holiness! Religion is like all other things, a costly, painful achievement which we make on our way to heaven. Surely Ryle is not being heavenly-minded enough! Surely he's not considering spiritual things spiritually. In the end, doesn't he prop up the whole enterprise on a carnal foundation? Holiness is like everything else, the achievement of hard work.

It seems to me that Ryle isn't being spiritual enough. Now it's true that Ryle says more in his book "Holiness." And there he stresses that holiness comes in Christ alone and he counsels us to seek it in Christ. But there's also all this stuff as well which, if you ask me, seriously undermines the 'Christ alone' teaching he wants to uphold.

Where does it go wrong?

Well fundamentally, in these teachings, everything important about holiness gets located in us and not in Jesus. And from that foundational error flows a characteristic problem with Ryle's presentation. For Ryle the "holy" trajectory for everything seems to be in and up and later.  'Come in out of the world, lift yourself up into heaven so that later you'll enjoy salvation.' All godly travel is coming in from the nasty world and up into glory, white-knuckling it now because later it'll be worth it.

But if Jesus Christ - the Holy One of Israel - defines holiness for us, we get a very different picture.  Because we are so carnal and unable to work up a holiness of our own, therefore Christ descends with His sanctifying love that reaches outwards and downwards, to be felt now. Holiness is Jesus-shaped. It means being met in our filth now, cleansed, and then swept along with Jesus to extend ourselves out into an unclean world, stooping down to the gutters of this world and in this way experiencing now the life of heaven.

It's really not about preparing ourselves for heaven later - it's about living the heavenly life now: the life of self-forgetful, neighbour-loving, cheek-turning, enemy-forgiving love.  That's holiness. It's Christ's own life which He has given us in the gospel. It's ours to live now - not as some qualification for heaven later.

So then, be holy! But define holiness Christianly - i.e. according to Christ.

Be holy! But let Christ's holiness thrust you outside the camp (Heb 13:12-13)

Be holy! But realise it's Christ's gift, once for all, not your continual achievement.

Be holy! But know that the point is to live Christ's life now, not to earn His blessing later.

Be holy! But don't be so carnal as to think it's the ladder to heaven.

Be holy! But make sure it's Spiritual holiness - the gift of Christ's Spirit to you - the very life of heaven to be enjoyed here and now on earth.

Be holy because Jesus your Lord is holy. And right now you're in Him.

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Luther PreachingI've written previously about The Trendy Trifecta - Trinity, Grace and Idolatry. We love to preach them but it's so easy to speak of these topics anthropologically. We preach Trinity because it connects with our need for love. We preach grace because it gives us our motivation for the Christian life. We preach idolatry because it explains our psychological struggles with sin.  On reformation day, let me say a couple more things about that middle topic: grace. Here are four things it's important to affirm as we speak of grace:

Grace is not a substance.

Quite often among those who want to spotlight God's grace, it's spoken of in impersonal terms, as a concept, even as a liquid that Christians should be drunk on. Grace, Grace, Grace, they say. And I think "She sounds great but I think I'll stick with Father, Son and Spirit."

Remember the medieval church was all about "grace" too. But, again, it was more like a liquid, dispensed through the sacraments with the priests controlling the taps. Certainly we Protestants have done away with such intermediaries, but the chief error is the thought of grace as a substance.  Properly, grace is the Father's free gift of Jesus given by the Spirit. He's the One we proclaim, not "grace" in the abstract.

Grace is not, primarily, a motivation 

Again the medieval church was full of "grace" as a motivator. Infused grace filled you up and helped you live the Christian life. Ironically, there are many who say we need a reformation today (Amen, may it come) but they seem to champion "grace" chiefly in terms of its motivational qualities. Apparently Jesus, freely given to me, is mostly important because of the gratitude fuelled ethics that flow from His gift. And then it becomes very important to discern the motivations of my heart - whether they've originated by command or promise.

Well... motivation is important but that's not where the law/gospel distinction should be pressed. In the bible, God graciously saves me in Jesus and gives me the new life to live. So off I go - and yes, I work it out with blood, sweat and tears. And no, I don't for a minute think that such "effort" is opposed to grace. Because grace is not distinguished from law in terms of what goes on in my heart! That distinction happens far above my pay grade. Or at least, it ought to. Which leads us to...

Command does need to be distinguished from promise

The grace preachers are correct when they say that law and gospel must be distinguished. There is far too much co-mingling, leading to what Mike Horton calls GoLawspel preaching. The good news of Jesus gets mashed up with principles for holy living and the Christian is left without a promise to rest their hope on - only a string of conditionals they must fulfil. Many people who complain about the grace-preachers counter it with calls for balance.  This, to my mind, is a great mistake (for more, read The Monstrous Evil of Balance: Or Why Nuance is Always, Always Wrong). Gospel and law are not to be balanced. Faith and works aren't opposite ends of the spectrum that require a happy medium. We don't need the pendulum to swing back from 'too much grace' so that we add in some holiness to compensate. We are grace alone people and works come - MUST come - on the far side of a radical insistence on the blood of Christ alone.

Passive and active righteousness need to be sharply distinguished

Having distinguished law and gospel, here's the other vital distinction: Before God you can only receive righteousness in the gift of Christ Our Righteousness. Before the world, you are to pour yourself out for the family of God, for your neighbours, for the nations (this is the distinction between passive and active righteousness). We live by faith as regards God, by love as regards the world. Therefore calling the Christian to an active righteousness in their Christian walk is not anti-grace at all. Grace flows downhill into exactly that kind of life.

Therefore I don't need to be forever agonising over the motivation of the saints if I want them to stop sinning in this way or that. Absolutely I should set everything in the context of the gospel and when we rebuke each other it should be because "they are not walking in line with the truth of the gospel" (Gal 2:14). Yet Galatians 2 - itself a stunning proclamation of the gospel - speaks of opposing folks to their face because they are wrong. Paul commands Peter to stop and he's not particularly bothered about unearthing the depths of Peter's emotional commitments in the moment. Similarly, if I discover that my brother in Christ is cheating on his wife I will feel no qualms about taking drastic and forceful steps to try to end it. None of that is a betrayal of the true grace of God because telling folks to behave like Christians is totally what the grace of God produces. Of course you should be faithful to your wife - God has claimed you in Christ, you belong to Jesus, you are acting out of line with your true self, cut it out!

Commands are totally, totally awesome. It's just, they don't make you right with God. And you and I are quite prone to linking our active righteousness (with the world) to our passive righteousness (with God). So preachers should take care to distinguish the two. But having done that, commanding Christians to obey is not only permitted. It's necessitated by the fact that - by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone - we belong to God. Therefore, be generous, give sacrificially, love your spouse, practise hospitality, forgive your enemies. You're free now - free to live this life. So go do it.

But - someone might ask - won't the gospel itself produce these characteristics in us by the Spirit? Yes and no. Yes, in that those behaviours are the fruit of the gospel and our teaching about them must be organically tied to the gospel. But no in that you and I are flesh as well as Spirit. Therefore, let's allow the good law to shape (even to pummel) our fallen flesh, not because our identity with God depends on it (it doesn't), but because our graciously secured identity entails it.

To summarize

Let's love and proclaim the grace of God in Jesus. But let's make sure it's Jesus we're spotlighting, not a substance or motivational spur. Let's distinguish clearly between law and gospel, making sure to offer Jesus as the Gift He most clearly is. But let's not shy away from commands in the Christian life. In Jesus, God graciously gives us a new life, entirely apart from our works or worthiness. This life is secure with God, but wonderfully it is to be lived before the world. Thus commands regarding our active righteousness do not negate the gospel but flow naturally from it.

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two-boys-workingThere is a slavery on the near side of sonship.  (Galatians 4:7)

And there is a slavery on the far side of sonship.  (Galatians 1:10)

On the near side it's death.

On the far side it's life.

On the near side it's flesh.

On the far side it's Spirit.

On the near side it's your righteousness on show.

On the far side it's Christ's righteousness in you.

On the near side you don't know who you are without it, so you step it up.

On the far side you do know who you are without it, and you keep in step.

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There is no way from slavery to sonship.

And there's no way to true slavery except sonship.

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All of which means...

We must refuse to be slaves ascending to higher degrees of slavery.

We must look away from any schemes of progressive slavery.

We must proclaim sonship.

And not because we're not into works.

If we want true works, we must strip away works.

We must be left bare in the presence of God with nothing but Christ for our justification.

We must know who we are without our works - sinners clothed in Christ.

We must know our sonship not in ourselves but in the Son.  This means by grace alone.

Having contributed nothing, we belong entirely.

And now, in Him, we can do no other than gladly take our place in the Father's business.

But it is the Father's business.

The only gateway to true work is sonship.

The only Gate is the Son.

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[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udclCIFCGr4]

Taken from Mike's series on justification here.

From my sermon this morning (Isaiah 9:2-7).

Audio here.

Don't have the spirit of Scrooge.

Don't have the spirit of Winterfest.

Don't have the spirit of Santa.

Look again to the manger.

Text below...

...continue reading "Santa is anti-Christ"

...or at least Pharasaical in your Christianity
(taken from this sermon on The Two Sons: Luke 15):

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1)    You’re in church

Luke 15:25 - the field is the older brother's natural habitat.  Not the far country.  Close to the banquet.  But not in it.

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2)    You’re angry

v28 - older brothers have volcanic anger.  Which is difficult for you if you're an older brother type because you are a good boy or girl.  You're not supposed to be angry, but you are.  Furious actually and it bubbles beneath the surface.

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3)    You’re self-promoting

v29 - “Look!” says the older brother.  Look at my record.  Look how good I am.

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4)    Life with God feels like slavery

v29 - “All these years I have been slaving.”  You feel like God is a slave-driver and you are one of his billions of minions trudging along.

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5)    You can’t admit to sin

v29 - "I have never disobeyed your orders."  You think of sin as simply disobeying direct commands from a heavenly slave-master.  Or you think of it as not being as externally bad as the next guy.  You would never think of sin as a matter of the heart.  You don't think of sin as a relationship problem with Jesus and others.  And so you never admit to sin.  You cannot admit to it because your whole identity is founded on being better than others.

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6)    You don’t allow yourself to celebrate

v29 - a young goat with one or two friends, maybe.  But I don’t think this elder brother even asked for a goat.  He’s not into extravagant celebration, he'd rather slave.  He's not into cutting loose, he'd rather scrimp and save.  He's not into asking for things, he'd rather earn.  Is that you?

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7)    Everything’s unfair

v29 – he got more than me! You’re always looking over your shoulder at what the other person has and crying foul.  Life has the audacity NOT to follow your work ethic.  Good things happen to bad people, bad things happen to good people and you hate that.  Because you're all about 'fairness' and you despise the grace of God.  The thought of really bad people being forgiven and ending up in heaven seriously disturbs you.

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8)    You cannot associate with sinners

v30 – he can’t even bring himself to say “my brother.” It’s “this son of yours”.  If there’s a party with sinners you just wouldn’t go.  What on earth do you have in common with these people?  You can't relate to sinners outside or inside the church.  You'd never think of joining an outreach to the homeless, or drug addicts or prostitutes - they are a different species after all.  And if Christians confess sin to you, you have advice but no real understanding or empathy.

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9)    You’re wracked with superiority

v30 - Jesus defines it as 'wild living' (v13) but the older brother spins his own interpretation, 'squandered your property on prostitutes.'  The older son needs to be better than his brother.  Therefore his brother needs to be worse.  Is that you?  Are you better?  And do you need to be better, and others need to be worse.

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10)   You don’t know the grace of Jesus and the love of the Father

This is the heart of it all.  This underlies all the other signs.  The older brother is outside the banquet as the parable ends.  He is a stranger to his father's love.  And it's his own goodness that keep him out of the feast.  His goodness doesn't get him into the baquet.  His goodness keeps him out.  And remember this feast represents heaven!

Are you an older brother? When people talk about relationship with Jesus and the love of God do those phrases just pass you by?  Do you know what it is to be a sinner celebrated by Jesus?  Do you know what it is to be welcomed by Jesus and eat with Him?  (Luke 15:1-2; Rev 3:20).   Do you know what it is to be adopted by Jesus into the divine Family and call on the Most High God as Father?

That is the only kind of Christian there is.  Heaven is only for sinners reconciled by the blood-bought redeeming love of Jesus.

Jesus says in Matthew 18:3: "Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

Lay down you pride.  Be reconciled to Jesus who died to welcome you.  Come on in and join the joy.

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More from this sermon.

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4

14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18 But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder. 20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

As a teenager I approached a minister, full of doubts and struggles and a thousand misunderstandings.  My question was, Why doesn't God seem to accept me?  I've prayed the prayer a thousand times, why does heaven seem to be silent?

He told me that I shouldn't worry about whether I was accepted, I just needed to get on and really live the Christian life.

So I went off and tried that (or at least what I imagined the Christian life to be).  And I failed even by my own standards.  And, despondently, I slinked off from Christian things for a good few years.

What kind of faith did I have at that time?  I'd have probably articulated the gospel as something like:  God's big.  You're small.  Behave.

I didn't have gospel faith.  I had demon faith (v19).  I believed God was one.  I believed Jesus was God's Son.  But little more.

Now what would James counsel at this point?  Is James chapter 2 the encouragement to add good works to such rudimentary faith?  Is he exhorting those with demon faith to top up their merit levels until they hit salvific proportions?

No.  James is discussing the kind of faith that saves .  In v14 the word "such" (or "that" in ESV) is important.  James is not making a calculation: Demon faith plus good deeds equals salvation!  Instead this is about discerning what kind of faith is true saving faith.

And the answer is - true saving faith is the kind of faith that's always being fulfilled in active service.  In other words, saving faith (Genesis 15 style) always leads to obedience (Genesis 22 style).

So what should that minister have said to me?  I wish he'd said this:

"Glen, I don't think you really know the gospel.  I don't think you could have the slightest understanding of Christ for you while harbouring these doubts.  I don't think the kind of faith you have is really the active, life-giving, always-leading-to-loving-service kind of faith.  So let me tell you the gospel again, and drive it home to you until assured, authentic, vital faith is birthed in you.  Let me preach the gospel of faith alone to you once more, knowing that the faith that saves will never be alone.  Let me overwhelm you with the promise (Genesis 15) and then you'll bear fruit in obedience (Genesis 22)."

I think that's the approach to a dead faith: preach faith alone.  And I think it's completely mandated by James chapter 2.

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14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18 But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder. 20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

As a teenager I approached a minister, full of doubts and struggles and a thousand misunderstandings.  My question was, Why doesn't God seem to accept me?  I've prayed the prayer a thousand times, why does heaven seem to be silent?

He told me that I shouldn't worry about whether I was accepted, I just needed to get on and really live the Christian life.

So I went off and tried that (or at least what I imagined the Christian life to be).  And I failed even by my own standards.  And, despondently, I slinked off from Christian things for a good few years.

What kind of faith did I have at that time?  I'd have probably articulated the gospel as something like:  God's big.  You're small.  Behave.

I didn't have gospel faith.  I had demon faith (v19).  I believed God was one.  I believed Jesus was God's Son.  But little more.

Now what would James counsel at this point?  Is James chapter 2 the encouragement to add good works to such rudimentary faith?  Is he exhorting those with demon faith to top up their merit levels until they hit salvific proportions?

No.  James is discussing the kind of faith that saves .  In v14 the word "such" (or "that" in ESV) is important.  James is not making a calculation: Demon faith plus good deeds equals salvation!  Instead this is about discerning what kind of faith is true saving faith.

And the answer is - true saving faith is the kind of faith that's always being fulfilled in active service.  In other words, saving faith (Genesis 15 style) always leads to obedience (Genesis 22 style).

So what should that minister have said to me?  I wish he'd said this:

"Glen, I don't think you really know the gospel.  I don't think you could have the slightest understanding of Christ for you while harbouring these doubts.  I don't think the kind of faith you have is really the active, life-giving, always-leading-to-loving-service kind of faith.  So let me tell you the gospel again, and drive it home to you until assured, authentic, vital faith is birthed in you.  Let me preach the gospel of faith alone to you once more, knowing that the faith that saves will never be alone.  Let me overwhelm you with the promise (Genesis 15) and then you'll bear fruit in obedience (Genesis 22)."

I think that's the approach to a dead faith: preach faith alone.  And I think it's completely mandated by James chapter 2.

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4

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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12

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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