Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father,
and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s been years and years since I’ve seen it, but
every time I think of it, I still chuckle. I don’t remember exactly how long
ago it was, but I know that I was just old enough and just wise enough to
appreciate the truth of the underlying cynicism. I’m talking about a bumper
sticker, one of those gems of clever brevity that can speak volumes if you
understand their meaning.
This particular bumper sticker had a lot of words on
it, so the letters were rather small and you could only read it if you were
very close—like sitting in the car right behind it at a traffic light, or
walking past in a parking lot.
I’m probably not going to quote it perfectly, but I
think you’ll get the gist of it from what I do remember. It said: “Young
People: Hurry! Leave Home Now. Make Your Fortune. Fix the World… While You
Still Know Everything.”
Now, I’m not saying that all young people are so
naïve, so self-absorbed, or so disdainful of the abilities and shortcomings of
those who came before them. After all, not many of them are as foolish or as
cocky as I was as a young man. Even so, until you’ve been stressed and
tempered and even beat down some by certain experiences in life, it’s easy for
you to think that you’ve got it all figured out. It’s easy to overlook all the
potential pitfalls. It’s easy to think it’s all very… well, easy.
Not all self-confidence is bad, of course. Without a
healthy degree of it, you’d accomplish very little. You’d never dare to pull yourself
up with that coffee table and take your first teetering steps. You’d never
jump off the side of that swimming pool, or take the training wheels off your
Without self-confidence, you’d never try to ace that
serve, thread a pass through the defense, or throw a curve ball on a full
count. Through such experiences, you gradually develop a good understanding of
your capabilities, your limitations, and your needs for additional knowledge
and skills. They prepare you to assess risks and determine the potential for
success in bigger, more important things. Later in life, having a realistic
view of yourself gives you a healthy and proportional self-confidence that can lead
you to ask for that date, apply to that college or for that new job, insist on
that raise or promotion, or start your own business.
Self-confidence can do a lot toward making you
successful in this life. Most of the people you see in leading positions in
business, entertainment, sports, government, medicine, education, or any other
field succeeded in part because they had the confidence to take a chance, to
try something new, to perform under pressure when others didn’t.
People who succeed like that and rise to the top of
their chosen realm believe at some level that they are somehow different and
special. On account of such self-confident people has civilization depended
for almost every advancement. The world is full of people who are
More importantly—and far more tragically—so is hell.
Now, it’s necessary to distinguish, of course, between
worldly self-confidence and spiritual self-confidence. Provided one’s actions
aren’t sinful and his or her self-confidence doesn’t cross a certain boundary
to offend reasonable people, there’s nothing particularly wrong or condemning about
an attitude of self-confidence in worldly matters.
Yet even in worldly things, you ought to always
recognize and always be thankful that all your knowledge, all your abilities,
all your opportunities, and all your successes flow from the great and gracious
goodness of Almighty God.
You do well to remember—as you have learned—that it is
your heavenly Father who has given you your body and soul, eyes, ears, and all
of your members, your reason and all of your senses, and all the other gifts
you acknowledge each time you confess your faith. These things are yours to
enjoy not on account of your deserving them, or because you have earned them
through your own work. They weren’t the inevitable outcome of your brilliance,
your goodness, or the confidence you had in your background, ideas, or
actions. They are only given to you because, in His infinite mercy, your
heavenly Father did not abandon or crush you on account of your sins.
Though worldly self-confidence has its risks of
crossing the line toward self-dependence and a failure to give proper glory to
God, it’s a spiritual self-confidence that leads to condemnation and hell.
That’s an important lesson of which the apostle Paul
writes in today’s epistle lesson. At the beginning of this text, it almost
sounds as if Paul is bragging; playing the game of “Can You Top This?”
What he’s actually doing, though, is setting up an
argument against those who would depend upon themselves in any way for their
spiritual well-being and salvation. You see, in those early days of the
Church, a great many of the Christians had been Jews. In their former lives,
they had followed certain rituals and taken certain actions in accordance with
the Law. Yet even after having heard the Gospel about Jesus Christ and being
led to faith, a part of them was still grasping onto their former lives under
the Law. They were still depending in part upon their own actions and
conformity to the Law for their right standing with God.
What’s more, they were trying to insist that other
Christians, including those who were brought to faith in Jesus from outside of
Judaism, still had to follow the ceremonial rules and regulations which Jesus
had fulfilled, and from which He had freed His people. But Paul sets the
Philippians straight: “No,” he essentially says, “it isn’t on account of one’s
heritage or actions that he’s made right with God. If that worked, then I’d be
sitting pretty—confident that who and what I am have righteousness all sewed
Paul had all the credentials and background and experience
to be righteous under the Law—if, in fact, such righteousness existed. That’s
why Paul says that if anyone ought to have confidence in the flesh, it should
be him. He’d be right at the head of the line, top of his class, winner by a
But Paul doesn’t think that way. Not only doesn’t he
consider all these seemingly wonderful advantages and works to be helpful, Paul
says that they are actually detrimental to his spiritual well-being.
They are to be counted as loss. They are toxic assets; they make his
balance sheet weaker, not stronger.
And that word, loss, is a recurring theme throughout
this lesson. First Paul says that his worldly, fleshly gains are counted as
loss for the sake of Christ. Then, Paul says that—compared to the overwhelming
worth of knowing Jesus as His Lord and Savior—he counts everything as
loss. And finally, though suffering the loss of all his worldly advantages for
the sake of Christ, Paul says that these things are worthless—rubbish, trash,
garbage. Paul’s gain is a righteousness that doesn’t originate with himself on
account of his own identity or his own doing.
Rather, it’s the righteousness God grants through
faith. It’s a righteousness that places Christ in Paul’s place and Paul in
Christ. It’s the same righteousness that God gives you—not only apart
from your worldly identity and all your accomplishments and your misplaced self-confidence,
but actually in spite of those things.
That faith also means that you know and trust that—in
spite of your sins, in spite of your sufferings and failures, even in spite of
the death that you know awaits you at the end of this earthly sojourn—Christ’s
resurrection ensures your resurrection. That was Paul’s confidence. He
realized that he hadn’t obtained it on his own merits, and he realized that he
wasn’t going to be perfect in this life.
Paul further knew that persevering in the faith he had
been given would keep him secure in God’s grace. He would be safe in that
reconciled fellowship to which he had been admitted when Jesus claimed him as
his own. Knowing that Christ had done it all, Paul gives all the credit for
achieving this to God.
Behind him, in the rubbish heap of his own personal
history, Paul left his worldly identity. There he discarded his own deeds and
his own righteousness. He cast aside his self-confidence in achieving
salvation, and placed his hope in Christ. There began his new journey in faith,
one that leads ultimately to the promised goal that awaits all who cling to
Christ: the upward call of God to the eternal joys of heaven whenever He
determines the end will come.
Your journey in faith began in exactly the same way as
Paul’s. Does that surprise you? Many people think that Paul’s conversion—or
Saul’s, as he was known at that time—took place on the road to Damascus. It was there that the self-confident and self-appointed persecutor of the Church
was driven to the ground and blinded by the Lord’s appearance.
But that’s not when Paul was brought to faith. Faith
comes through the Gospel, and what happened to Paul on that road was the
crushing of the Law. The Word made flesh confronted him, and made the truthful
accusation that Paul was an enemy of Christ. That experience didn’t save Paul
at all. It left him in utter despair, to the point that he wouldn’t even eat
or drink. That wasn’t the fasting of a righteous man, but the misery of a
It was actually a few days later, when his spiritual
self-confidence had been shredded, crushed, and torched, that Paul was given
faith—the new and externally-bestowed confidence in Christ Jesus—in the same
way you were. Through the proclamation of the Gospel, and the washing of water
and the Spirit, Paul became a disciple and apostle of Jesus. Through the
proclamation of the same Gospel, and by the same washing and the same Spirit, Christ
Jesus made you His own as well.
We set aside our own confidence, then—for any gain of
this world is but a loss in securing our eternal freedom and glory. As Christ
clings to us and will never let go, so we are given the strength to cling to
Him and to His cross. We are to run so far from our own self-confidence in
spiritual things that we willingly declare that we are—in reality and by
nature—poor, miserable sinners. Not just once in a while; not just most of the
time—but through and through.
But we also declare, in a confidence not born of
ourselves but given us freely by God’s grace, that His faithfulness and mercy
will not abandon us to what we deserve. He will cleanse us. He will forgive
us. He has taken the dirt and poison from our souls, and removed the toxic
assets from our spiritual ledgers. These were made Jesus’ own, and they died
with Him on the cross and were buried with Him in the tomb. He is the one who
truly suffered the loss of all things, in order that you might gain a
righteousness not your own, and a rescue and a resurrection not deserved.
As we approach Christ’s passion, death, and
resurrection as this Lenten season winds down—you do have a reason for
confidence in the flesh. Not your own flesh, mind you, for that remains sinful
flesh in which we can draw no confidence.
Instead, put your hope and your trust and confidence in
Christ’s flesh—the frail flesh that He took on for you. The flesh that was
stricken, smitten, and afflicted—flesh torn and bloodied; pierced and wounded
on the tree.
Make that flesh and blood your own as you kneel before
His altar, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good, and rejoicing that He has
made you His own—now and forever. Amen.