If you take even a casual glance at church history, you’ll see the name Tertullian crop up quite a bit. Living in the second century, Tertullian gave us much our Christian vocabulary (words like Trinity, for example). But Tertullian also wrote that there are two “thieves” of the gospel. Just as Jesus was crucified between two thieves, so too can we find the gospel wedged between two equal and opposite extremes. We might call the first thief the “religious thief,” because it replaces the gospel with an idol of self-righteousness. We might call the second thief the “non-religious thief,” because it replaces the gospel with an idol of self-absorption.
We’ll unpack these further as we go, but for now you almost certainly notice what both hold in common: they both focus on self, albeit in different ways. Do you remember how Augustine defined sin? The human heart, he said, is a pyramid. Joy will never be found unless God is at its apex. Sin is loving anything more than God—and few things are more caustic than self-interest.
So when we examine Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we see him turn his attention to the two “thieves,” the two things that distract us from the gospel. Today, we turn our attention to the first of these: the religious thief.
Paul had already given his readers a glimpse of his impressive resume (3:1-6). No one could claim to be more religious than Paul. But what does Paul think of all this?
7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith– 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)
Compared to Christ, what else is there? I actually hate English Bibles here, because they sugar-coat the force of what Paul is saying. Verse 8 says “rubbish,” or if you have an older translation, they might go as far as to say “dung.” But if you read it in Paul’s original Greek, the word is skubala. Skubala? According to Daniel Wallace—arguably the world’s leading expert on Greek grammar—the word is (in his words) “roughly equivalent to the English ‘crap, s**t.’”
This is one of those that’s in the Bible?!?!? kinds of moments. And yes; it is.
Why so harsh? Why so coarse and vulgar? It’s simple, really. Paul is saying that focusing on religious performance is little more than (ahem) “holy crap.” It’s worthless. No one ever made it to heaven on “Christian values.” Again, we have to distinguish between things that are wise, from things that are necessary. Christian values aren’t bad—in fact, because they reflect God’s character, they can shape our lives in radical ways. But Christian values never saved anyone.
When Matt Chandler—a pastor in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex—was diagnosed with cancer, it gave him a new perspective on the Law. The Law, he said, is like the MRI machine. An MRI machine can help diagnose you, can help expose your innermost flaws. But the MRI machine will never cure you. And that’s what the Law does, Chandler explains. When we read the Law—God’s standards revealed to His people—we recognize that we are deeply flawed people. But the Law can never cure us, and the more we try to cure through obedience, the deeper we sink into our own flaws. It’s hopeless—unless someone could fulfill the Law for us.
In the sixteenth century, a young monk lay awake tormented by a singular thought: What if I’m not good enough for God? What if I die without having confessed all my sins? Maybe you’ve been haunted by a similar question. The young monk was awakened by the book of Romans—another of Paul’s letters. In those pages this young monk found the answer he’d been looking for. Grace wasn’t a reward for religious service, he discovered. Grace was a free gift of God based solely on God’s love poured out through Jesus.
The young monk’s name was Martin Luther, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Luther would later make a distinction between what he called “active” and “passive” righteousness. Active righteousness is what comes through the religious thief. Active righteousness is trying to earn it on my own. Active righteousness means convincing myself that the (ahem) skubala of my self-righteousness is a fine perfume (hint: it’s not). Active righteousness will always produce profound psychological, social, and spiritual damage.
I love sushi. So one night on Netflix I watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which focuses on the career of a world-renowned sushi chef—a man so famous people wait for months for a reservation at his restaurant. Jiro was deeply dedicated to his craft, so much so that film critic Roger Ebert looked at him with a sense of pity:
“… I found myself drawn into the mystery of this man. Are there any unrealized wishes in his life? Secret diversions? Regrets? If you find an occupation you love and spend your entire life working at it, is that enough?…Half an hour of [preparation] was good enough to win three Michelin stars. You realize the tragedy of Jiro Ono’s life is that there are not, and will never be, four stars.”
Active righteousness produces this same level of perfectionism—and this same level of regret. Am I good enough? Am I at least better than that person? And the list goes on.
That’s why we need to focus on Christ’s passive righteousness. Luther also called this an “alien” righteousness. Why? Because Christ’s righteousness is not unique to me; it comes from outside myself. Let’s read what Paul said about this again:
“…not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith– 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:9b-11)
The gospel isn’t about self-righteousness. It’s not about “self” at all. If anything, it’s about the transformed self—a new identity in Christ, and the hope of resurrection from the dead.
“Religion says ‘do this,’ and it is never done,” writes Luther. “The gospel says ‘believe in this’ and it is already done.”
“Lay your deadly doing down,
Down at Jesus’ feet.
Stand in him and him alone,
It is finished; it is finished.
What more can I ever do?”
(James Proctor, “It is Finished,” 19th Century)