“Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh[.]” (Philippians 3:2-3 ESV)
One of the most common refrains today in the modern ecumenical movement is “Christ unites, but doctrine divides.” Our sensibilities are shaped to prefer polite, superficial unity at all costs while rejecting as divisive those who insist upon certain doctrinal commitments.
Yet Scripture presents a value system that is completely counter to our contemporary default setting. In Philippians 3, Paul does not so much as take a breath after exhorting his readers to “rejoice in the Lord” (v. 1) before warning them to avoid “the dogs . . . the evildoers . . . those who mutilate the flesh” (v. 2). Apparently careful discernment is not only consistent with a joyful Christian outlook but is essential to it.
Who are these nefarious characters against whom the inspired writer warns? The Judaizers, who insisted upon circumcision as a necessary mark of salvation. This “circumcision party” (Acts 11:2, Titus 1:10) may have consisted of sincere yet gravely misguided Christians, as was the case in Galatia, or bad actors from outside the church altogether. Either way, their legalistic demand that Christians living under the new covenant receive the mark of the old covenant (see Genesis 17:9-14) amounted to a denial of the gospel itself, casting Christian converts into a futile system of works for salvation. Much ink in the New Testament is spilled on dismantling this heresy, including Paul’s firm words to the Galatians:
“Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:2-4 ESV)
Even in his affectionate letter of encouragement to the believers in Philippi, Paul denounces these Judaizers in biting terms—literally. They are “dogs” (3:2) not only because they seek to devour the church but, ironically, because these Pharisaic legalists, insistent on ritualistic purity, have become as spiritually unclean as the sort of mangy, scavenging canines they and others in the first century disdained. They are “evildoers” because, replacing grace with law, they overthrow the gospel and do violence to men’s souls.
Moreover, they are “mutilators” (NIV), or “the concision” (KJV; contrast with the “circumcision,” v. 3), because they empty the Old Testament rite of its spiritual significance. Whereas circumcision was always a covenant sign pointing to regeneration, depicted as a cutting away of the sinful inclinations of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4), these Jews had perverted it into a fleshly status symbol. As a result, the act they performed didn’t deserve the honor of sharing a name with the true spiritual act.
Elaborating upon this deeper spiritual significance (“For,” v. 3), Paul then makes a striking assertion: “we are the circumcision”—using, this time, the proper word. This is because “a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:29). Consider this astonishing fact: a Gentile follower of Christ who enjoys the liberties of life outside the ceremonial regulations of the old covenant is more “Jewish” than one who keeps the outward ordinances of the law of Moses but inwardly is full of lawlessness, since the first individual partakes of the promises made to Israel (Ephesians 2:12, 20) while the latter is cut off. Hence, Paul can refer to the church, composed of Jews and Gentiles, as the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16).
Paul further defines what makes the Christians members of this true circumcision: they (1) “worship by the Spirit of God,” (2) “glory in Christ Jesus,” and (3) “put no confidence in the flesh.” To “worship by the Spirit of God” does not refer to a euphoric emotional state but to what Jesus describes elsewhere as worshiping “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23)—worship rendered to God with Spirit-instilled sincerity of heart on the basis of who he has revealed himself to be. To “glory in Christ Jesus” stands in contrast with placing “confidence in the flesh”—that is, the sincere Christian does not delight in mere external conformity to law (like circumcision) but supremely treasures the Lord who loved him and gave himself for him (Galatians 2:20).
If we are indeed to rejoice in the Lord, render him true spiritual worship, and boast in him rather than in our own works, then we must do so in conscious avoidance of those whose mission it is to deter us in our course. Today, innumerable counterfeit gospels threaten our faith and joy just as the Judaizers threatened the early church.
- The secular religion of gender ideology is advanced by its own “mutilators,” advocating the destruction of the body’s most sacred organs—even among children—in the name of self-expression. Yet it cannot keep the promises it makes, leaving its victims physically and spiritually broken in its wake.
- In the American church, promises of ease, comfort, prosperity, and self-fulfillment replace the call to carry the cross. Religious teaching centered on self-improvement fills evangelical churches, robbing Christ of glory by replacing grace with human achievements.
- New heretical sects spring up, incubated in pockets of the internet tucked safely away from the scrutiny of responsible pastors.
- And on the mission field, temptations abound to syncretize law with gospel and present Christ as yet another moral teacher rather than as the Lord of grace.
The division wrought by true doctrine is necessary to knowing Christ truly. As we strive to advance the faith in our hearts and among the nations, let us be diligent to watch out for those who would unsettle that faith.
You have saved me by your free grace. Yet I know that there are wolves who seek to devour and enslave me to a system of works. How easy it is to boast in the flesh and begin to put my confidence in things other than the work of Christ. Give me strength to stand against falsehood and to discern truth and error, so that I can advance the faith to those around me.
In Jesus’ name and for his sake,
- Pray that your church and its leaders would exercise discernment and rightly distinguish law and grace, guarding the flock against error.
- Pray that the lost individuals you know would be spiritually circumcised—that is, born again and granted a heart of faith (see Ezekiel 36:26).
- Pray for missionaries working among Jews today. Ask the Lord to reveal himself to Jews who do not yet know Christ as the one who perfectly kept the law on behalf of sinners.
- Pray for the pastors and missionaries you know to worship in the Spirit and glory in Christ Jesus. Ask the Father to fill them with joy in their service.