Paul’s Former Confidence

“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin … as to the law, a Pharisee … as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (vv. 4b–6).

- Philippians 3:4–6

Judaizers were the greatest threat to the gospel in the Apostolic era because they did not believe that faith in Jesus was sufficient for salvation. While affirming the necessity of belief in Christ for citizenship in God’s kingdom, the Judaizers also taught that Jewish and Gentile Christians alike must perform the works of the Mosaic law for the privileges of living under the Lord’s blessed reign. Such a belief makes salvation contingent on what people do, which is bad news for sinners. If one is going to attempt to gain righteousness and entry to the kingdom of God by the law of Moses, perfection is the standard (Gal. 3:10–12; 5:3). Yet natural-born descendants of Adam cannot hope to keep the Law perfectly (Rom. 3:23; 5:12–21).

The problem with the Judaizers’ teaching was their underestimation of God’s demands and their overestimation of their own abilities. Paul understood their way of thinking, for he operated under the same assumptions before meeting Christ on the Damascus Road. We draw this conclusion from today’s passage, in which he lists his blamelessness “as to righteousness under the law” as one reason he formerly placed his confidence in his own goodness (Phil. 3:4–6).

In calling himself “blameless,” the Apostle is not confessing that he was sinless before coming to Christ. The term blameless is a standard description of old covenant saints who were exemplary in keeping the Mosaic law (Ps. 18:20–24). They were those who kept the festivals and Sabbaths, tried to put the commandments into practice daily, and offered the proper sacrifices to atone for transgression. But although such individuals were worthy of imitation, blameless individuals, such as David and Zechariah, were still sinners (1 Sam. 13:14; 2 Sam. 11; Luke 1:5–23).

Such blamelessness remains a worthy goal for God’s people today. Trouble only arises when sinners start believing that their general conformity to divine standards makes a claim upon God, that we deserve to be declared righteous by our works. As we have seen, those who take that route must attain perfection; our “blamelessness” is not enough to save us. Therefore, those who think blamelessness is sufficient to get them into the kingdom, such as the pre-Christian Paul and the Judaizers, are utterly lost until they rely on God’s grace in Christ alone.

Coram Deo

John Calvin wrote, “Paul speaks here of that righteousness which would satisfy the common opinion of mankind. For he separates the law from Christ.” When the law of God is treated as an end in itself, then we start to believe that we can keep it. But if we see it as pointing beyond itself to Jesus, then we trust Him. Afterward, by the Spirit, we begin to fulfill the Mosaic law’s righteous requirement not in order to be saved but to thank God for His grace in Jesus.

Passages for Further Study

Proverbs 11:20
Daniel 6:22
Romans 2:23
Galatians 6:13

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.