A Time for Confidence
Paul was likely one of the most intelligent people to have ever lived. He certainly is one of the best writers. He was extremely ambitious. He knew adversity, yet he persevered. If anyone “thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh,” Paul tells us, “I have more” (Phil. 3:4).
Yet, Paul realizes that “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (v. 7). He counts all his accomplishments, all his strivings after righteousness, as “rubbish,” a polite word for “dung.” All of Paul’s abilities and accomplishments simply serve to underscore his utter inability to achieve righteousness.
Instead of putting his confidence in the flesh, Paul learned to put his confidence in Christ and in the gospel. Paul wanted to be found in Christ. He writes, “That I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (v. 9). The theologian Francis Turretin expresses it this way:
God grant that, dismissing a vain confidence in our own merit, we may rest in the most perfect merit of Christ alone and so keep faithful in him and fight the good fight even unto the end that we might receive the crown of righteousness; due not to our merit, but most graciously promised to us from the heavenly rewarder.
Johnny Cash wrote a novel on the life of the Apostle Paul. Yes, one of country music’s icons and one of American music’s legends wrote a biography of Paul. Cash called it The Man in White, and it is a piece of genius. The “man in white” is actually not Paul. It’s Christ. Therein lies Cash’s genius. (Similarly, Augustine is not the main character in his autobiographical Confessions. God is.) Paul is not the main character in Cash’s biography. He’s the prominent and predominant character as the pages unfold. But all along, we get the sense that there is far more to the story than what we are seeing on the page. Behind the scenes of Paul’s life, there is One at work, orchestrating all the details to one desired end and one certain outcome.
Paul knew he had to put his confidence in the gospel, because nothing else can turn the human heart and nothing else solves the human dilemma. People think the human dilemma is many things. Some say it’s poverty or the unjust distribution of resources and wealth. Some say it’s war and our penchant for war. Some simply think the human dilemma is internal and psychological. As R.C. Sproul has often said, “The human dilemma is this: God is holy, and we are not. God is righteous, and we are not.” Our problem is not lack or abundance of wealth or resources. Our problem is not that we are a few degrees short of finding utopia. Our problem is the wrath of a holy God. No amount of righteousness that we might produce can solve that dilemma. Paul testifies to only one solution: the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ.
When we think of Luther’s main doctrine, we think of justification by faith alone. That doctrine hinges upon one word. In fact, the entire Reformation and the protest the Reformers launched against the Roman Catholic Church could very well be summed up in this one word: imputation. The doctrine of imputation teaches that our sin, which cuts us off and alienates us from a holy God, gets imputed to Christ. Christ paid the penalty for our sin, and so our sins are forgiven. The doctrine of imputation also teaches that Christ’s righteousness gets imputed to us. If Christ’s work only accomplished the forgiveness of sins, we would be right back to where we were in the garden before Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Christ’s work overcame the curse and restored “Paradise lost.” Christ’s work also leads to “Paradise regained.” We now stand in the very presence of God clothed in Christ’s righteousness. The “Man in white” took our filthy rags and gave us His white, pure, and righteous robe. Paul says it plainly in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He who knew no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God.”
Theologians refer to Christ’s work in terms of His active obedience and His passive obedience. In His passive obedience, He paid the penalty for sin; He atoned for sin. In His active righteousness, He earned righteousness on our behalf. No other message and no other means can save us or deliver us. Paul spent decades and piled effort upon effort in attempts to white-knuckle his way to God. All to no avail. Then, on the road to Damascus, Saul came to an end as Christ, “the Man in white,” brought Paul to Himself.
Paul knew firsthand the power of the gospel. Not a day went by that he did not rejoice in what God had done for him in Christ.
The brothers John and Charles Wesley tried white-knuckling their way into heaven. They even went to a faraway land as missionaries in a futile attempt to achieve salvation. Then, independently but within a few days of each other, John and Charles were brought to Christ. John was convicted as he stood outside the Aldersgate Meetinghouse in London and heard Martin Luther’s preface to his commentary on Romans being read. Charles was convicted as he was reading Martin Luther’s preface to his commentary on Galatians. They decided they would no longer celebrate or mark their earthly birthdays. Instead, they would celebrate the occasion of their conversions.
To mark his first new birth birthday, Charles wrote a hymn, “And Can It Be,” a hymn to the mystery and wonder of salvation. In one of the stanzas, he declares:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Jessica Buchanan was an aid worker in the lawless lands of Somalia. She worked with a Danish charity, teaching children how to avoid landmines. In October 2011, she was kidnapped by a band of Somali pirates armed with AK-47s. She was held for ninety-three days in the wide open, through the rainy season. Over that time, she became malnourished and began to suffer greatly from a kidney infection. Her captors kept her alive, but barely. Negotiations were stalled. She had lost all hope. In the middle of the night on January 25, 2012, she woke to a sudden and violent eruption of gunfire. She thought a rival gang had engaged her captors in a battle. She buried her head in her hands, thinking she would surely die. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder and heard someone call her name—”Jessica.”
And she heard it in an American accent.
Under the cover of night, a detachment from U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six parachuted in and attacked the camp. All of the pirates were killed. Jessica was unharmed. The sailors picked her up and carried her out of the camp and to the designated pickup zone. The SEALs then made a circle around her and waited until the helicopter arrived. They loaded her onto the helicopter and she was carried off to safety. As the helicopter lifted off, one of the SEALs handed her an American flag.
Jessica Buchanan contributed nothing to her release from her captors. The SEALs did it all. And when they rescued her, literally from the pit of death, they gave her back her identity. They gave her back her freedom.
Her story is a picture of this stanza from Charles Wesley’s hymn. It is a hymn commemorating a prison break. The prisoner could no nothing. This prison break was possible only through the work of Christ. So Charles Wesley’s hymn declares:
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
alive in Him, my living Head,
and clothed in righteousness divine.
The quickening ray is able to penetrate the darkest of dungeons. It penetrated the Praetorian Guard and even the household of Nero.
In the middle of July 64, Rome burned. Nero likely caused the fire. He had ambitious plans to rebuild Rome, but there were current buildings in his way. The belief of historians is that Nero’s underlings set the fire to help speed along his revitalization plans. The fire, however, spread out of control. It burned for a week and may have consumed as much as 70 percent of the city.
Fingers started pointing at Nero. The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that to shift the blame off of himself, Nero fixed the blame on Christians. An intense season of persecution ensued. Tacitus further informs us that Nero used Christians as living torches to illumine his gardens at night so he could be entertained by chariot races. Nero’s cruelty knew no bounds.
The persecution he unleashed lasted until the end of his reign in AD 68. Sometime between 64 and 68, Nero handed down the order for Paul to be rearrested and for Peter to be arrested. Both were executed before Nero’s death. This is the cultural backdrop for the growth of the church and for the New Testament writings.
Rome had two designations for the religions it encountered across its spreading empire. One of those designations was religio licita, which means “legal religion.” The other was superstitio illicita, which means “illegal superstition.” The word superstition reveals how contemptuous Rome found these practices to be. For the most part, those people groups that Rome overtook were polytheists. This presented no problems to Rome. This simply meant more gods to add to the Roman pantheon. Most of the religions that came into the empire were dubbed religio licita. They had the stamp of approval of Rome and could be practiced freely. Judaism was granted religio licita status primarily because Jews didn’t tend to proselytize a great deal. But from its beginnings, Christianity was designated a superstitio illicita.
As a consequence, Christians were literally enemies of the state—marginalized, ostracized, and persecuted. They could be killed with impunity. To be a Christian was to identify with a group of people who were worthy of nothing but shame and scorn. To the best Romans, Christians were seen as worthy of sympathy for their primitive ways. To the worst Romans, the death of Christians could provide entertainment. Ridding Christians from the empire would be the best possible outcome.
Tacitus refers to Christianity with the designation superstitio illicita and testifies to the hatred the Roman populace had for Christians. This despite the fact that Christians in these early centuries lived exemplary lives. Early apologists such as Athenagoras and Justin Martyr testify to the lives Christians lived. They promoted virtue. They honored the emperor. They had a work ethic that set them apart. Paul admonished servants to work “as for the Lord” (Col. 3:23). Christians had loving families that showed genuine concern for each other. Yet, they were seen to be a criminal element and enemies of the state. They were hated—not because of their behavior, for their behavior was laudatory. If only all Romans lived like the Christians. They were hated for their beliefs. They were hated for their belief in Christ and in the gospel. Ultimately, Christians were hated because their beliefs were different, and their beliefs challenged the status quo.
Christus, their leader, was hated also, and He was killed on a cross under Pontius Pilate. His followers were all guilty—simply for being Christians. In the midst of all of this, we have Paul’s testimony in Philippians to the power of the gospel.
There is power in the gospel. And there is every reason for us to put our confidence in the gospel. In fact, we’re obligated to. We’re obligated to proclaim this Word.