Missions and the Meaninglessness of Merit

We can neither enjoy nor proclaim Christ if our achievements vie for the primary place in our hearts.

“[T]hough I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. 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, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” (Philippians 3:4-7 ESV)

In a 2016 article in Scientific American, professor and author Deborah Tannen describes an example of a common interaction between preschoolers. In the scene, four boys discuss how high they can hit a ball. One boy announces, “Mine’s up to there,” raising his arm over his head, while another replies, “Mine’s up to the sky.” The next boy retorts, “Mine’s up to heaven.” Finally, the fourth and final lad declares, “Mine’s all the way up to God.”

This youthful competition reflects our deep, God-given desire to achieve. This longing for significance drives us to explore, conquer, and build civilizations. Misdirected towards religious formalism, however, this impulse can shipwreck the soul.

The Apostle Paul urged the believers in Philippi to joyfully advance the faith (Philippians 1:27), even while facing opposition from legalists (3:2). Paul ironically concedes confidence in the flesh (v. 4a) to demolish the Judaizers’ arguments.

He then enumerates his sevenfold religious résumé, underscoring his devout Jewish background and the prestige of his ancestry and religious observance (vv. 5-6):

  1. “circumcised on the eighth day” (v. 5). Paul’s circumcision as an infant had been carried out in accord with the Old Testament law (Leviticus 12:3). This is another way of highlighting the fact that Paul was a natural-born Jew and not a convert.
  2. “of the people of Israel” (v. 5). Paul belonged to the covenant people of God, named for the patriarch Israel (a name meaning “prince with God”). Of the Israelites, Paul says elsewhere that “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises . . . the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:4-5). In the pre-Christian world, dominated by false gods and pagan nations, geopolitical Israel was the epicenter of God’s dealings with redeemed humanity. To be counted among her ranks was an esteemed privilege indeed.
  3. “of the tribe of Benjamin” (v. 5). Paul (a.k.a. Saul) was likely named after Israel’s first monarch, who also hailed from the tribe of Benjamin (1 Samuel 9:1-2). Also significant was the fact that Benjamin, loyal to the house of David, had allied itself with the Southern Kingdom of Judah after the kingdom split in two and, thus, was not lost to history as were the northern tribes following the Assyrian invasion of 722 B.C. Paul was of no obscure stock.
  4. “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (v. 5). Though born in Tarsus and acquainted with Greek thought and culture, Paul was not a Hellenist (that is, a Jew fully assimilated into Greek culture). Rather, he was thoroughly Hebrew, “born of Hebrews” (CSB, NRSV), raised in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3), and inculcated in the ways of his ancestors.
  5. “as to the law, a Pharisee” (v. 5). Though “Pharisee” today has become synonymous with cold legalism, in the first century it did not carry the same negative connotations. Jesus, while condemning their hypocrisy, nevertheless said that “the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you” (Matthew 23:2-3). Paul belonged to the most conservative sect of Jewish practice, instructed by Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), grandson of the venerable Rabbi Hillel. Paul was no nominal Jew but a strict observer of the Mosaic law.
  6. “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church” (v. 6). Though this would appear to be a blot on Paul’s otherwise impeccable record, here too the apostle intends to bolster his credentials. In classical Greek, the term translated “persecutor” (diōkō) denoted a legal prosecutor. Ironically, prior to his conversion, Paul’s means of persecution involved prosecution of Christians. Though wretchedly misguided, Paul cites this as proof of what he felt at the time to be righteous indignation about a heretical splinter movement. John Gill summarizes: “[H]e held the clothes of those that stoned Stephen, Acts 7:58; he consented unto his death, Acts 8:1; he made havoc of the church at Jerusalem, haling men and women to prison, Acts 8:3; he continued breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of Christ, Acts 9:1; gave his voice against them when put to death, punished them frequently in the synagogues by scourging them, Acts 26:10, and compelled them to blaspheme the name of Christ; was exceeding mad against them, pursued them to strange cities, Acts 26:11, and persecuted the church of God exceedingly, more than anyone single person besides[.]”
  7. “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (v. 6). Paul concludes his curriculum vitae with this bold claim. Though with regard to the spirit of the law Paul fell infinitely short, in respecting the letter of the law he was virtually spotless. 

Surely if anyone was a candidate for salvation by works, it would have been this circumspect Jewish man. Yet having amassed an impressive set of credentials, Paul declares: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (v. 7). Echoing the refrain of Ecclesiastes (“vanity of vanities,” 1:1), Paul paints a stark image of the futility of earthly pursuits. Interestingly, the word “gain” is plural in Greek, whereas “loss” is singular—emphasizing that no matter how many worldly achievements Paul amassed, together they went up in the scales compared with the surpassing worth of Christ. Not only did Paul’s works of law fail to qualify as assets; they were in fact liabilities.

Paul does not say that the law itself was “loss.” John Chrysostom, commenting on this text, points out the way in which Paul seems to be at pains to protect the law itself from accusation. The law of God itself is a good gift (see Psalm 119). Nevertheless, to the extent that conformity to its outward ceremonies might be construed as a means of justification before God, such conformity amounted to a net negative in Paul’s ledger.

The point is this: no gospel diluted with religious performance would suffice for the Philippians’ joy, and even less for such joy to overflow in mission. Only a pure gospel of free grace—double barrel, 100 proof—would do. This is the type of gospel we should savor down to the dregs and pour out freely to the world.

How often do we, like boys on the playground, let fleshly one-upmanship creep into our hearts. Yet this text is a timeless reminder that our feats in piety and ministry add nothing to our legal standing with God. As Martin Luther comments, “To be convinced in our hearts that we have forgiveness of sins and peace with God by grace alone is the hardest thing.” This hardest thing is the most needful thing if we are to know Christ and make him known.


Gracious God,

I worship you for your self-sufficiency and confess my tendency to value worldly achievements. Thank you for the free grace in Jesus Christ. Help me to see my own attainments as loss compared to the worth of Christ.

In Jesus’ name,


Prayer Requests:

  1. Pray for those pursuing religious substitutes, that they see the emptiness of rituals apart from Christ.
  2. Pray for pastors, missionaries, and other servants, that they esteem Christ more highly than their status.
  3. Pray for those in various world religions, that they would thirst for the gain only found in Jesus.