Paul’s Definition of a Christian
“No Confidence in the Flesh” a Biblical Reflection by John Hendryx
In chapter 3 of The Epistle to the Philippians Paul gives us one of the best definitions of a Christian available in the Bible. He also contrasts this with the marks of false teachers.
Paul begins the chapter by contrasting the wondrous gift of grace against the hopeless pit of sin. He warns the Philippians against false teachers; those, he says, who have confidence in themselves. That is, anyone who adds conditions for salvation, in addition to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul likens to Gentile dogs, those who fail to recognize that salvation is wholly of Jesus.
But then in stark contrast to false teaching, Paul defines what a Christian looks like:
“For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh”
He calls true Christians “the real circumcision”, i.e. the true covenant people of God. Then he gives three characteristics of Christians in verse 3. He says true Christians are those who:
1) Worship in the Spirit of God
2) Glory in Christ
3) And put no confidence in the flesh
(1) The first mark of a Christian is that they are those who worship in the Spirit. They are the true circumcision, Paul says. They do not worship in the flesh. The “flesh” here is not referring to our physical bodies, for there is nothing inherently wrong with physicality. God created all matter and our bodies and declared them “good”. What Paul is contrasting is human effort or trust in ancestry, that is, trusting in it for our redemption. In Scripture, “In the flesh” is always set in contrast to “in the Spirit”. They define two states of being or nature – those with the Spirit (regenerate) and those without the Spirit (unregenerate). “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:8) and “… the flesh counts for nothing.”… But “the Spirit gives life.” (John 6:63). And “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of … the Spirit (John 3:6; Ezek 36:25-27). Worship in the Spirit of God also means that the source of our daily spiritual life and walk in Christ is the Holy Spirit who unites us to Jesus Christ. Gal 5:25 likewise says, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” Thus both our conversion and our sanctification can be attributed to the work of Christ, applied by the Spirit.
(2) Christians are also defined as those who “glory in Christ” — those who have no hope save in Christ Jesus alone. The mark of a Christian here, Paul says, is that they glory in Christ. Our full weight rests on Him and not anything else. To glory in someone means one will have affection and desires which are driven by that someone. Christ is the one the Christian will cherish above all. No doubt, with all of the distractions around us, this is a constant struggle, even for a regenerate Christian. In fact the more mature we become the more we recognize the darkness of our own hearts. There is a constant heavy pull in the world and our flesh to glory in ourselves or in something else, but the Spirit who lives in us preserves by working in us to will according to His good purpose. This constant tug by the flesh to return to the covenant of works (relying on self-effort to justify ourselves) is something we constantly struggle against. We think we can find or justify ourselves in something that is less worthy than the real thing, and so we disbelieve God’s promises. But the Holy Spirit uses such instances to discipline us as children to draw us nearer to Himself. In Romans, Paul describes some of his old unbelieving Jewish friends in this way:
“I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
This passage is really a warning against thinking that all is well as long as we have good motives. As the Lord tells us so plainly, “I desire obedience, not sacrifice.” So what was their disobedience? These Jews are being rebuked for trusting in something else in the place of Christ alone. Lest we think we Christians are beyond the possibility of falling into this false gospel of self-effort, take heed lest you forget that it was the gospel that saved you and even now preserves you. I believe this is actually one of the greatest dangers of modern evangelicalism. The gospel easily gets lost and tends to become good advice rather than good news. Often more about what we do for Christ than grounding all of our doings in what He has done for us. Christ alone is our Savior, not someone who helps us save ourselves. Don’t make a savior out of your duties.
(3) Lastly a true Christian is one who has “no confidence in the flesh”. This means they have utterly despaired of themselves … are spiritual bankrupt. When the Holy Spirit does a work of grace in someone, He convicts them of their sin. Not just sins, but convicts of the fact that they are sinners by nature and can do nothing to save themselves. There is no pride in physical decent or in natural abilities. This means one who is brought to faith, repents of both their good works and their evil works. Both are equally worthless to God. False teaching glories in something other than in Christ alone, always pointing to something that we can do; a resumé we can bring before God to curry His favor, not realizing that He has already adopted us as sons. Not unlike the older brother in the Prodigal son who glories that he has worked for his father all his life, not realizing that God does not first ask us to meet conditions to obtain his love. Those who have confidence in the flesh also tend to believe in Christ PLUS this or that. That Christ saved them, but they must maintain their own justification before God. Glorying in Christ is the antithesis of glorying in the flesh. Pharisees boast before God of what they have done for him. The Christian is one who has empty hands every day and can only thank God for His mercy. He thus relies solely on the righteousness of Christ.
It is the new Covenant in Christ’s blood which “reminds God” not to treat us as our sins justly deserve. True Christians flee to Christ as their only hope. A mark of maturity is that we no longer are constantly worrying about our own spirituality but rather our focus is on Christ and His accomplishments. Those who are glorying the flesh will exhaust themselves because they are contstantly looking to their own resources. The cross alone is where we find sanctification. Christians flee to Christ as their only hope casting aside all self-confidence and autonomy. Remember, Paul calls everything other than Christ “rubbish”. Are we trusting in rubbish or in Christ? A.W. Pink, I believe captures the point in a sentence:
“Just as the sinner’s despair of any hope from himself is the first prerequisite of a sound conversion, so the loss of all confidence in himself is the first essential in the believer’s growth in grace.”