Because the gospel is the only means of salvation for a lost and dead world of sinners, it is no surprise that Satan does all he can to corrupt its purity and distract from its devastating necessity. While the gospel is corrupted through legalism (saying the ground of our acceptance with God is based on something in us) and antinomianism (which undercuts the radicalness of regeneration and the powerfully transforming nature of the gospel, and denies obedience as in any way necessary for final salvation), Satan has also effectively distracted people from the gospel by making them focus on their own goodness, religious involvement, political activism, investment in family, and other activities that may be good in themselves—even evidences of salvation in the regenerate—but which prevent people from placing unreserved trust in the blood and righteousness of Christ alone as the only ground of their acceptance by a holy God. Those distracted from the gospel often have a low view of their own depravity as well as God’s holiness. They do not see themselves in the radically corrupted, desperately sinful way the Bible depicts—and so they do not believe the gospel, in either its robust (i.e., biblical) or anemic (i.e., contemporary and American) forms are applicable or necessary. They content themselves with a moralism sourced and governed in their own autonomous reasoning, and wrap themselves in it so tightly they do not feel the flames of hell licking at its frayed edges.
Paul is our example of both legalism and distraction (they frequently go together). By giving us a candid and open-hearted description of who and what he was before his salvation, he demonstrates the depths to which Christ has gone to rescue sinners, the total insufficiency of our own righteousness, and the pristine glory of the gospel as the only means of salvation for needy sinners.
A. A Great Claim (v. 4)
Having blasted the Judaizers’ corruption of the gospel through Jewish legalism, Paul makes an important point: If anyone could be saved by fastidious observance of the Jewish Law, he could. He does this not to boast in his own achievements—he will momentarily say that the entirety of them are dung—but for a twofold pastoral purpose. First, he is refuting attacks on his credibility that claim his grace theology is rooted in a less-than-stellar religious performance. And second, he is demonstrating that no one, regardless of how moral (and recall that in observing the Jewish Law, people were following commands directly given and enjoined upon them by God Himself) is able to stand before God on the basis of their own righteousness. He wins the “Most Religious” award—and if his achievements count for nothing, then the Judaizers’ certainly do as well! Paul tells us, “Put no confidence in your own flesh for your salvation. The Lord alone has done it all!”
B. Great Credentials (vv. 5-6)
Here, Paul gives us his spiritual resume to demonstrate the thoroughness of his external conformity to God’s commands. If you feel weighed down and despairing after you read this list, you have read it rightly. Think of all Paul has done, all he has inherited (the latter being by God’s simple and sovereign pleasure), and it still isn’t a drop in the bucket to God. The first four concern Paul’s religious inheritance as a Jewish man. The last three reveal his pursuits, which he personally initiated. Neither by themselves, nor both together, are in any way sufficient as the ground of acceptance with God.
Circumcised on the 8th day. Paul sets forth the definitive mark of covenant membership, circumcision, and highlights he has been circumcised since the day the Law required it of him—eight days after birth (Gen. 17:12; Lev. 12:3). In other words, unlike some of the Judaizers who have been circumcised as adults, he says he has perfectly fulfilled this requirement of the Law—not to mention, if circumcision is so important, he has been so longer than them! Yet this perfect obedience to the foundational aspect of the Old Covenant wasn’t enough. Only Christ can circumcise the heart—the true circumcision to which the physical merely pointed—by His grace!
Of Israel. Paul says he is a born member of God’s chosen nation, Israel. He is not a Gentile convert but has come into the nation by heritage and birth.
Of Benjamin. Not only is Paul an Israelite, but his specific tribal lineage within the nation is of a high pedigree. Benjamin, of course, was the youngest and last child born to Rachel, Jacob’s favored wife, and the only of Jacob’s children to be born within the Land. The territory allotted to Benjamin within the Land included the city of Jerusalem—and Israel’s first king, Saul, was a Benjaminite. After Israel split into the Northern and Southern kingdoms, only Judah and Benjamin (in the South) remained loyal to God’s truly authorized kingly line, through David. Clearly, Benjamin was a very blessed tribe, on par with the kingly tribe of Judah. It is of note that Saul the Benjaminite persecuted David…and Saul (Paul), the Benjaminite, persecuted the Greater David, the Lord Jesus (Acts 9:4). John MacArthur writes that due to the captivity and years of intermarriage, Jewish people in Paul’s day did not know their tribal lineage. But Paul did—evidently his family was careful to only marry within the tribe and maintain a pure bloodline.
And all of those years of care and that rich pedigree were like filthy rags to a holy God.
Hebrew. “A Hebrew of Hebrews” is a euphemism meaning Paul was the purest of the pure. Obviously, Jews considered themselves a cut above other people, and doubtless unsaved Paul did too. But he adds that he is a rigorous Hebrew. He is not merely Jewish by birth—he has embraced the whole culture, language, mindset, and mentality. Though his parents raised him in Tarsus, he was a Jew in his heart and soul—and tongue.
Pharisee. The most zealous Jews became Pharisees. They were an elite group of about 6,000 men who were utterly devoted to Jewish Law and tradition, and prided themselves on meticulous observance of that Law. Coming from a Hebrew word that means “to separate,” the Pharisees viewed themselves as the preservers of a tradition and a culture that had been handed to them by God (wrapped up, of course, in so many centuries of rabbinic speculation and tradition that the whole thing was clung to as if it was the Word of God Himself—thus making that inerrant Word powerless for them [Matt. 15:1-9]). This is Paul’s pursuit of position. This pride of place in Israel was the envy and fear of the common Jewish person. And Paul’s position got him not one iota closer to a devastatingly holy God!
Persecutor. Paul’s zeal for the Law and his traditions was such that he sought the death of anyone that disagreed with him—in other words, anyone who claimed to be following God while seemingly undercutting the Law by yammering about a dead carpenter and blasphemer being Messiah! Here, Paul says, “You’re so zealous you proselytize people? I persecuted people!” Paul’s zeal has the rest of them beat. And it only entrenched him further into hell. (It is a testimony to the grace of God that the murderer and the believers he murdered now rejoice in love together before the throne of their Savior.)
Found blameless. Here Paul closes his argument by saying if there is a command of the Law, he has conformed to it outwardly. He has not committed adultery. He probably even had a fence around his roof to prevent people from falling off it (Deut. 22:8) and had never boiled a goat in its’ mother’s milk (Ex. 23:19). He has fastidiously observed all 600 plus laws of the OT for as long as he can remember. No one can lay a credible charge against him as far as external behavior is concerned. And because God is after the heart (while not ignoring the external man), Paul was utterly condemned. Fastidious lifelong obedience out of a God-hating, proud heart is just as bad as the most licentious life one could live.
Paul has removed every area of hope he could possibly have in both what he has done and what has been given to him (!). None of it is enough. None of it can change his heart. None of it can make up for his clear acts of rebellion against the Lord. Only the blood and righteousness of the Lord Jesus can do that.
C. A Great Conclusion (v. 7)
Space does not permit me an examination of this verse worthy of its riches! But I will try to summarize. Here Paul uses common accounting terms to make a brilliant spiritual point. “Gain” comes from a word used for the profit column in an accounting ledger (it’s also the word used for “credit” or “reckon”), while “loss” was used for detriment or forfeit. Paul is saying that everything he once counted as spiritual profit, as spiritual “income” into his account, that he viewed as a good thing in the pursuit of his salvation, once he met the all-sufficient Savior, Christ, he now views as utter detriment and loss.
Indeed, given that the only other use of the word for “loss” is in Acts 27—where grain that would have at one point been vitally necessary to make a profit was now willingly thrown overboard because it weighed down a sinking ship—we can surmise that not merely did Paul view these things as simple detriment, but as loss in the ultimate sense: They were things that would lead him away from heaven and to utter damnation in hell. It isn’t that these things were bad in themselves—many of them are blessings he extols elsewhere. But, it trusted in, if depended on for salvation, if viewed as the ground of your acceptance with God, then these wonderful things become snares and traps that send people to the depths of hell.
God glorifies Himself most brilliantly by saving sinners. He has decreed there is only one way to experience this salvation: To look away from self and sin and throw yourself in utter dependence upon the blood and righteousness of Christ, surrendering in faith to Him as Lord. Any other way makes a mockery of the gospel and the precious blood of Christ. Are you trusting in Him alone? Look in faith and surrender to Him alone this day!