“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 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—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:8-11 ESV)
The year A.D. 155 was perilous for Christians, when the refusal to honor Caesar as divine was punishable by death. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was executed for this crime.
Polycarp’s martyrdom serves as an example of Christian faithfulness. When offered life in exchange for denying Christ, he replied, “For eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. And how can I now blaspheme my King and my Savior?”
J.I. Packer commented in Knowing God: “There’s a difference between knowing God and knowing about God.” Polycarp’s last words are the words of a saint who knew his Lord.
We see the same tenderness in Paul’s words in Philippians 3. Guarding against the false teaching of the Judaizers, Paul not only proves the futility of personal merit in salvation but draws back the curtain to reveal his own relationship with the Lord. In this passage, Paul guides readers through each dimension of the Christian experience—from justification, to sanctification, and finally to glorification—highlighting the treasure of knowing Christ.
Paul’s language is radical. He counts all things apart from Christ as “loss” and “rubbish” (v. 8; Greek skubalon)—a graphic word signifying worthless excrement.
To understand the harshness of Paul’s words, we must consider his object of comparison: “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (v. 8). Anything we would rely on in place of Christ for our justification before God is indeed worldly trash. Knowing Jesus is the pearl of great price, worthy to be purchased as the cost of one’s entire life’s fortune (Matthew 13:46).
In the following verse, Paul categorically negates any righteousness of his own through keeping the law. None of Paul’s good deeds—whether ceremonial or moral—would avail him before God. Rather, he sought to be “found in [Christ]” with the upright standing before God “which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (v. 9). Note the strong contrast. Paul was not interested in amassing his own record of do-gooding if ever Christ failed him. Rather, he relied wholly on the righteousness of Christ imputed to his account. Calvin comments: “while the law brings works, faith presents man before God as naked, that he may be clothed with the righteousness of Christ.” Indeed, dependence upon good works is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).
Many of the hardest battles of the Protestant Reformation were fought over this doctrine. Yet they remain no less relevant today. Righteousness before God only comes through faith (Genesis 15:6, Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11)—which is not a meritorious act but the means by which one takes hold of Christ and his benefits (Romans 4:22-25). As theologian J. Gresham Machen said on his deathbed concerning the righteousness of Christ freely bestowed on the believer: “No hope without it.”
However, lest Paul imply that effort has no role in the Christian life at all, he moves from justification to sanctification: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (v. 10). To know Christ is not only to be saved but to be conformed to his way—including his sufferings. Following Jesus is a protracted death to sin and self (2 Corinthians 4:10). “I die daily,” Paul says elsewhere (1 Corinthians 15:31).
That suffering is not an end but a means to an end. The believer’s ultimate destiny is glorification, the sinless perfection of eternal life. Paul wants to know Christ so that he may attain the resurrection from the dead (v. 11). Though we must carry the cross, that cross precedes a crown (Revelation 2:10).
Notice how Paul deals a fatal blow to his Pharisaic opponents. Whereas the Judaizers cut themselves and took pride in their flesh (Philippians 3:2-3), Paul’s faith rendered him dead with Christ and qualified him for bodily resurrection, the great hope of the Jewish faith. The Judaizers relied on themselves; Paul, through knowing Christ, achieved a far better prize.
Modern evangelicals think of salvation in transactional terms. We are concerned with getting the right formula for forgiveness of sins. This is crucial. Yet we are not justified so that we can simply carry on about our ordinary lives trouble-free. We do not simply know Christ to be saved; we are also saved to know Christ. Paul’s words remind us that to know Christ in this way is to be both justified and transformed, both now in terms of lifestyle and ultimately when we are raised like him.
Do you know Christ, like Polycarp or Paul? Let us remember the difference between knowing God and knowing about God.
I know that none of my good deeds impress you. I cast them aside and count them as garbage compared to the merit of Christ. Thank you for the righteousness of Christ imputed to me through faith. Help me to know Christ more and more, even in his suffering, so that I can deeply and abidingly enjoy life with him forever.
In Jesus’ name,
- Pray that your pastors, elders, deacons, and the missionaries you know will rely on Christ, not on their ministry works, for their righteousness.
- Pray for those in difficult places to willingly embrace suffering for the gospel.
- Pray that ABWE missionaries would know Christ more deeply and find satisfaction in him.