“Counting Your Gain as Loss” (Philippians 3:4b-14)

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 2, 2011

“Counting Your Gain as Loss” (Philippians 3:4b-14)

I was trying to think the other day of something where, if you gained, it was actually a loss. What would it be? You have a gain, but really it should be counted as a loss. The first thing that comes to mind is if you’re trying to lose weight. You step on the scale, you see that you’ve gained three pounds–well, you would probably think of that as a loss. You had lost ground in reaching your goal. That’s an example of counting your gain as loss.

But there’s another area in which things you might otherwise consider as gain really ought to considered a loss, if they get you off track from reaching your goal. And that is in the matter of righteousness and attaining eternal life. The things that people ordinarily would consider to be gain can actually cause you to miss out on reaching true righteousness and eternal life. And in that regard, if you look at it that way, you ought to be “Counting Your Gain as Loss.”

That’s the way St. Paul looks at it in our Epistle for today, from Philippians 3. Paul looks back at his life, at his pedigree and his own resume, which were very impressive–people might normally think of them as big “plusses” before God–and Paul looks at all of that, and he says, “It don’t amount to a hill of beans.” Or, as he actually says in our text, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”

What was the supposed gain that Paul had that now he counts as loss? He lists those items for us, and it is an impressive list. He writes, “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.” Here we have Paul’s pedigree and his resume: his pedigree, that is, his family heritage; and his resume, that is, his personal accomplishments. And an impressive rundown it is!

First there is his pedigree, his heritage, the family he comes from. And the first item he lists is “circumcised on the eighth day.” In other words, Paul was a lifelong Jew, from a family that did things religiously right. He was no Johnny-come-lately to the religious life, but he got off to a good start right from the get-go. A baby Jewish boy was supposed to be circumcised on the eighth day, and Paul’s parents made sure that he was. That’s the first gold star on Paul’s report card.

And the second is like unto it: “of the people of Israel.” Paul was not some Gentile convert. He was a true-blue Jew, a proud member of the people of Israel, God’s covenant people.

And not just an Israelite, but an Israelite from one of the more prominent tribes: “of the tribe of Benjamin.” Of the twelve tribes of Israel, Benjamin could lay claim to being one of the leading tribes. The first king of Israel, King Saul, came from the tribe of Benjamin. In fact, Paul himself was named after that king. Paul’s real name was Saul–“Shaul” in the Hebrew–only later did he go by Paul. Jews from the tribe of Benjamin were proud of their history.

“A Hebrew of Hebrews,” Paul adds. Paul was from no mixed bloodline. He was a pureblood, with both sides of his family being of Hebrew descent, going all the way back.

So Paul’s pedigree, his family background, was something to be proud of. “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more,” he says. And he’s right. You couldn’t do much better than Paul, as far as the religious history of your family. It would be like if some of you would say: “Well, I was baptized as an infant and brought up in the church. I’m a German Missouri Synod Lutheran out of a long line of German Lutherans. Hey, I was born in Perry County! My great-grandfather came over on the boat with C. F. W. Walther! I learned the Catechism in German. I met my wife at the Walther League. You can’t get any more true-blue Lutheran than me!”

Well, “if anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more,” says Henrickson. While you Saxons boast about coming over in 1839, we Swedes, and my family in particular, can lay claim to coming over on the boat 200 years before Walther! My 13th-generation grandfather on my mother’s side was literally one of the very first Lutherans to settle in North America, landing in Delaware in 1640. So there!

And you know what? All of that amounts to a hill of beans. As far as getting you any closer to God, it means nothing. A Perry County pedigree, a New Sweden ancestry, or even a Benjamite bloodline–none of that will get you one step closer to heaven.

So much for salvation by family pedigree. But what about your personal resume, your own accomplishments? Shouldn’t that count for something? And Paul can tick off those things very nicely: “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Again, quite impressive. Let’s look at those things.

“As to the law, a Pharisee.” The Pharisees were the most strict, devout group in Judaism. They had separated themselves out–that’s what the word Pharisee means, “separated one”–they had separated themselves out to lead the most holy life that a Jew could live. They even added their own commandments on top of God commandments, to act as a hedge, so they couldn’t even come close to breaking God’s law. And among the Pharisees, Paul was at the head of the class. He would have been a straight-A student in Pharisee school.

Next: “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” That’s how zealous Paul was in his devotion to the Jewish religion. When those upstart Christians came along, worshiping that man Jesus as though he were God, Paul was determined to stamp out those blasphemers. He participated in the stoning of Stephen. He set out to arrest the Christians in Damascus. Paul was very zealous for his religion. He thought he was doing a service to God by persecuting the church.

“As to righteousness under the law, blameless.” You couldn’t do it any better than Paul. He was as assiduous and attentive as could be in his efforts to follow God’s law. If anyone could attain righteousness by his keeping of the law, Paul would be it. Yes, Paul would outshine us all as far as religious devotion, zeal, and personal righteousness are concerned.

Religious accomplishments, your resume in the church–do you have things that you could point to? “Well, I’ve been an acolyte, an usher, an elder, president of the Men’s Club, president of the congregation–you name it, I’ve done it. And think of all the money I put in the offering plate! God must owe me big-time for all the service I’ve given to the church.” “Oh, what a good worker she is! Teaches Sunday School, organized the yard sale, bakes cookies. Altar Guild, Ladies’ Guild. . . .” But no matter how well you gild your resume, it will not be good enough. You don’t gain heaven by your service in the church.

If you’re looking to your family history or your own religious accomplishments as the basis of, or even a contributing factor toward, your righteousness before God and your eternal salvation, then you’re looking in the wrong place. Those supposed “plusses” then actually become a big minus. Our Lutheran Confessions make this very point when, in commenting on our passage from Philippians, the Formula of Concord states: “If anyone wants to drag good works into the article of justification, rest his righteousness or trust for salvation on them, and merit God’s grace and be saved by them, St. Paul himself answers, not us. He says and repeats it three times–such a person’s works are not only useless and a hindrance, but are also harmful. This is not the fault of the good works themselves, but of the false confidence placed in the works, contrary to God’s clear Word.”

That’s how Paul looked at it, that if we’re trusting in our good works, our supposed gain is really a detriment to salvation. Where Paul did look for his righteousness was outside of himself. Listen to what he says in our text: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 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. . . .”

Here is your righteousness, my friend. Here is your eternal salvation. It is in Christ. Christ Jesus your Lord, who himself suffered loss when he went to the cross, to suffer and die as your Savior. In so doing, Christ Jesus gained perfect righteousness for you before God, his holiness in exchange for your sinfulness. The Son of God’s holy blood covers all your sins.

All those things that you might consider gain before God–how good of a person you are, all the good things that you do–instead, do like Paul did and count them as rubbish. The Greek word Paul uses here could literally be translated as “dung,” the stuff you flush down the toilet. That’s what your religious pedigree and resume amount to.

No, the one big gain you have is Christ, knowing him and being found in him. Christ Jesus has made you his own, cleansing you from your sins and taking you to himself in Holy Baptism. His righteousness is your righteousness. His resurrection paves the way for your resurrection. Now you can do all those good religious things, not in order to merit anything before God, but rather doing those good works out of love for God and for the good of your neighbor. For now you know where your true righteousness lies, and that is, in Christ.

“Counting Your Gain as Loss.” That’s what Paul did, as he says: “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. . . . [I] count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” Yes, counting your gain as loss works when what you gain in their place is Christ.

Published in: on October 1, 2011 at 8:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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