Posted by: Brad Beaman | October 5, 2007

Legalism: Our great enemy, Philippians 3:1-6

What is your aim as a Christian? The aim of a Christian is to, or should be to, please God. Every Christian should in his heart seek to please God. So as Christians we often as that question. What can we do to please God?  One person asked this question to a respected Christian institution. He phrased it this way.

What must I give up to please God? The response came from this Christian institution. First of all give up all colored clothes. Where only white. My tie I am wearing would definitely be out. Everything that is not white get rid of from your wardrobe, they replied. Another thing to please God they said, stop sleeping on a soft pillow. That will only make you soft and how can you please God if you are sleeping on a soft pillow?  Sell your musical instruments and have no entertainment.

Don’t eat white bread anymore because it might bring you too much enjoyment. The last thing. Take no more warm baths only cold baths. These were the requirements laid out to please God. They came from a second century Christian institution. Popular Christian teachers have brought these examples to our attention as they have written in our day.  We may not face this kind of bizarre legalism today. I have never heard anyone tell us that we must give up our colored clothes or soft pillows.

But still, we face the enemy of legalism in our day. In the second century it was not to sleep on soft pillows and to give up colored clothes. Paul faced legalism in the first century. The Judiasers wanted the Christians to do certain things. They tried to add good works on top of God’s abundant grace. So, legalism is nothing new and it is still with us today. 

Let’s read Philippians Chapter 3:1-6. Paul writes these words to the church at Philippi that he loved. It was a church dear to his heart. He warns them of the enemy of legalism.      

Paul Says: Phil 3:1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.  

Paul has been writing to the Philippian church, warning them about internal controversies that could divide them. Warning them to caution from a self centered perspective that could ruin their Christian life, but now beginning here in chapter 3, Paul turns the attention of the church in Philippi away from the internal controversies and their own self centeredness and tells them to watch out for those on the outside of the church trying to inject legalistic qualifications on the church.  

Now here is a different warning coming from outside. He is warning of legalism that Paul knows could destroy the church. This young church could be deceived into thinking they were still under the obligation to follow the Old Testament law. Paul makes it clear that Christianity is a religion of grace. It is a religion based on undeserved favor. It is not a system of the law. In our day and age we need to hear that again, that Christianity is a religion of grace.

Just recently I read a book that I would recommend to you, The Grace Awakening by Charles Swindoll. He calls the Christian church to a new awakening to that idea of grace. To put aside the legalistic bondage and the idea of salvation through works. We should realize that what we have as Christians is all undeserved favor from God.  Paul attacks this enemy of legalism. His first great weapon to attack legalism is that of joy.

Look at verse one:  Phil 3:1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!  Joy should be a major part of every Christian believer. It is a theme in the book of Philippians. Sixteen times there is reference to rejoicing or joy in the book of Philippians. Joy is a part of the Christian life. Paul himself is rejoicing, even though he is in prison. Even though he does not know the outcome of his imprisonment. He may face death, but Paul rejoices. He writes a book of joy in the midst of all this. Paul is warning the Philippians against legalism and he does so by exhorting them to be joyous.  We overcome legalism with joy.

Here we find a command of joy. Paul is not saying that joy is an option in the Christian life. If you are a Christian then you should live a life of joy. We should rejoice regardless of the circumstances. Even when it is difficult the Christian life is a life of joy.  Jesus taught that we should have joy. Even those who are persecuted should have joy, he said. The Bible tells Christians to be full of joy. Jesus said that the Christian life is to experience a joy that no one can take away.

We have a responsibility to have a joy in our lives that others may see. It is joy that enables us to face the real hardships in life when they come upon us. It is joy that helps us to take the everyday inconveniences in our lives with an attitude that pleases God. It is interesting how Paul begins chapter 3. It begins with the word finally. Right in the middle of the book Paul says, finally. It is kind of like those who preach. Some say lastly and last. Some say finally and finish.

Here is Paul saying finally and lasting. It is practically the middle word of the book. It is not so much that Paul says finally, like it is his last point. But Paul is saying furthermore, let me proceed on. Let me go on from the truth I have been giving you and tell you more truths.  Paul is taking on legalism and he uses joy as a weapon. There are those who might tell us that in the Christian life that we do not need joy. But the Bible tells us that in the Christian life we overcome legalism with joy. The Christian life should be a life of rejoicing. Joy is mentioned in the Bible as one of the fruits of the spirit.

When we are really in tune with God, walking by the Spirit in Christ, we will exhibit joy in our life.  Of all people it is Christians who should be rejoicing. Because we have been saved and we know our future is in heaven with God. We are the ones with a confidence in Christ who should exhibit joy.  Your weapon should be joy against legalism. Legalists will do their best to replace grace, the free gift of God with a works oriented philosophy.

Joy is our offensive weapon that we use to attack anything that seeks to take away our freedom in Christ.  But Paul does more than to talk about joy, our weapon of offence. He gives a defensive strategy by telling us to watch out, beware of those who would teach works. Beware of those who are legalists. Paul puts it this way, “beware of the dogs”.

Paul says that there are those out there that want to instill legalistic rules and regulations in place of the freedom of Christ. Paul says, watch out for those dogs.  When Paul says watch out for the dogs, he is not talking about some friendly puppy that frolics around. He is talking about savage beasts that lived outside the city and scavenged for food. They could be dangerous. This is what he warns us against.  


My hobby it is bicycle riding. I figure in the last ten years I have rode my bicycle the equivalent of New York City to Los Angeles ten times across. You can believe me when I tell you I have encountered dogs. Even when I was riding in our area I encountered a pack of dogs wanting to come at me. They seemed to be serious about the whole thing. Usually I take my water bottle to spray them away, but this time I used my bicycle pump for full defense from these dogs snapping at my heels. But I got by them.  

When I got by them I looked up and realized the paved rode ended. I had to make a decision. Would I go on by gravel rode or turn around and face the dogs. Paul saying that to encounter legalists is to encounter these kinds of dogs. They will snap at you and tear at you if they get the chance. They are dangerous. Paul likened those who spread legalism with a pack of vicious dogs.  He says beware of these dogs. Paul is referring here to the Judiasers. These were Jewish Christians who would say that becoming a Christian was not enough. First you must become a Jew and obey all the rules and regulations of the Jewish religion, which means circumcision among other things. Then and only then could you become a Christian. Paul said no. That is not the way it is.

We approach God on the basis of undeserved favor. We never do any works for God that justifies us in his sight.  Even our good works are as filthy rags before God. We only approach God because God is gracious. Because God is all-merciful. Only when we put our faith in Jesus Christ do we dare consider ourselves righteous before God. Paul says these Judiasers are dogs. They are evil workers. Paul went so far as to call them, mutilators of the flesh.  In light of the grace of Christ there is no value for circumcision spiritually.

Paul says those requiring circumcision were mutilators of the flesh. It brings to mind the picture of Elijah on Mt Carmel with the priests of Baal, who mutilated their own flesh to try to get the attention of their gods.  Paul is saying that is all the value that your works have. If you are trying to please God through good works Paul says, no. It is only be grace. Paul says a true circumcision of the Christian is that which happens inward in the life of the believer of the heart, by the Spirit of God. As Christians we worship by the Spirit of God.

We put no confidence in the flesh. It is not so much a matter of what you don’t do. Those who don’t where colored clothes, those who don’t watch television or those who don’t dance or don’t do this or that. If it were a matter of what we did not do then the most spiritual ones would be in the cemetery. The dead don’t do any of those things. It is more than what we don’t do. It is what we do.

Paul says it in verse 3 it is what we do, “We worship by the Spirit of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul is going to share with us here something about his own personal life. He is going to give his testimony. What he was like before he knew Christ and how he came to know Christ and what his life was like after he knew Christ. Paul was not one to boast. He did not go from church to church to tell how bad he was and how good he became. But he knew at this time it was needed to tell people where he had been. Because it was going to make a difference in how he ministered to the people in Philippi. He wanted them to know that he was not preaching grace just because he had never tried trusting in the flesh. He wanted them to know that if anyone trusted in the flesh he had.

But it was all meaningless to Paul when he came to know Jesus Christ there on that Damascus road.  For Paul all he had done in the past meant nothing compared t the riches of knowing Jesus Christ as his savior. So Paul tells us of his past. He tells us how he had put confidence in the flesh.

To those who were preaching circumcision he said let me say this, I was “circumcised on the eighth day.” It was something probably many of the Judiasers themselves could not claim. Paul said as for Jewish heritage, you find no finer Jewish heritage, he was a descendent of Abraham, of Isaac a descendent of Jacob and he was even of the tribe of Benjamin. Paul was from the tribe that King David was from.

Not many of the Judiasers could claim the heritage of Paul.  As far as religion and the observation of the Mosaic Law Paul rose above all of them. He was under one of the great religious teachers of the day, Gamaliel mentioned in Acts 22:3. Paul knew the greatest of teachings and practices. He was so zealous that he persecuted the Christians.

He was heartily in favor when Christians were stoned to death and as a Jew that was showing the zeal he had for his religion. He was more righteous than all those who criticized him yet with all this, it meant nothing. The only thing that counted for Paul was his relationship with Jesus Christ.  Paul attacked all those who wanted to add works to Christianity.

He made the same cry as those made later at the reformation. It is by grace alone that we are justified through faith. Christianity is so simple, so beautiful and it is a shame that people cannot accept God’s plan of salvation. It is a shame that they must try to add to what God has provided.  Some people say that to become a Christian you must stop doing all the things that you like to do and start doing all those things that you thought were miserable. Paul says that is not Christianity. The life in Christ is joy. It is undeserved favor in Jesus Christ. Legalism is our enemy.

We overcome it with joy. We experience freedom in Christ. When I took a trip to the holy Land we saw one holy site after another and each site had a cathedral. We went by something that was not on our scheduled tour at all. It was a little Baptist church in Nazareth. We told our tour guide to stop. We were growing tired of seeing “holy sites” that were empty spiritually. We stopped at that little church and the pastor invited us all in the church. He was going to tell us how he came to know Christ as his savior.

He said he had such a hunger to know God that it was burning inside him. So he went to a church and asked them to help him find God.  He said they took out a statue of Jesus and they said, “Start praying to this statue to begin your process of salvation.” He was miserable as he applied this bad advice. Miraculously God broke through. Somehow he realized that he did not earn his righteousness.

It was not be his effort but that he only had to accept what God had already done by allowing his son Jesus to die on the cross. That is what the cross means.  The Jesus death on the cross has paid the penalty for your sins. All we have to do is accept that. All we have to do is put our faith in Jesus Christ. No longer trusting in our own works and deeds, but turning our lives over completely to Jesus Christ.       



  1. This is really edifying, God richly bless you

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