Saint Paul writes that he counts all things as loss. We may think of parts of our lives as mistakes. We regret poor decisions. We wish we could take back words that we said. We may look back on a path in our life we took and wonder why we did not take a better one.
For some people, these mistakes and poorly chosen life paths are more serious. Drug habits were begun. Relationships were destroyed. Babies were aborted. So many horrible misdeeds can never be reversed, and may haunt a person for the rest of his life.
This is not what Paul is talking about. He speaks about things that could be counted in his favor. He was a true-born Hebrew of Hebrews. He was a Pharisee, who took very seriously how to live his life in a God-pleasing way. He was full of burning zeal for the truth.
He even says that he was blameless in the law. Of course no one is completely blameless. But Paul talks about how good he appeared to others. He was relatively righteous. People would see him and say, “Hey, there’s a guy that does nothing wrong; at least, I’ve never seen him do anything wrong.”
All these qualifications that Paul could claim would probably make a very great impression on people. Some might say that they must surely impress God.
But Paul says, “No. These things are worthless. They are loss. They are rubbish, scum, trash, dung.” The Greek word here is very strong. Paul counts all these things as skubala – excrement, worse than nothing.
Where does that leave us? We may try to say that Paul’s lack of confidence was only in things done before he was a Christian. But he also says that he wants to be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of his own. So it is not only those works done before faith that count for nothing. He says that his true righteousness is not found in his works at all. There is no room for pride or boasting. On the contrary, he views his works as filth.
Now as Christians, we want to do good works. But we should never view our works as if they represent our righteousness before God. In fact, if our works were our status before Him, then our status would be wretched, failed, and damned forever.
Put no confidence in the works you do. That was the problem with the Pharisees and the Judaizing sect in early Christianity. They gave some lip service to God’s grace and forgiveness. But the real reliance was upon personal, external righteousness. What they did made them good in God’s sight, or so they thought.
How difficult this is! No matter how long we have lived in the Lutheran Church, it still finds ways to creep into our thinking. You may be a Lutheran of Lutherans, born of the tribe of Missouri, Baptized as an infant, under the law - memorizing the catechism, as to zeal – defending the church from every false doctrine imaginable. Yet no matter how many times you heard the words, “Grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone,” there still comes a little feeling of pride at your works.
The flesh goes deep. It is never quite gone, in this life. It masquerades as pious faith, so that it sneaks up on you and starts whispering how good you really are, and how God must surely be pleased.
But treat it all as garbage. Look upon your works, no matter how impressive, and say, “I am an unworthy slave.” When you pray, never say, “I deserve this or that.” All that you deserve in and of yourself is punishment.
So pray for mercy. That is all we sinners can do. Whatever works the Spirit produces in you, put no pride in them. Do not look to yourself to see righteousness.
Instead, look to Christ. That is where your righteousness is. The Man on the Cross should be your only boast. This kind of righteousness is strange to our flesh. Receiving goodness by faith seems wrong, like a cheat. But this is the only real goodness. We receive it by faith. We trust that what Christ gives by His suffering and death is worth more than millions of lifetimes filled with glorious-looking works. The ugliness of Cross and Blood is the beauty of God’s righteousness.
This is the opposite of how our flesh wants to view things. We want to see the Cross as repulsive ugliness, but be impressed by the selfless works of men. But the exact reverse of that is the truth of God. He honors all who humble themselves under the beauty of His Son’s Crucifixion. He counts them great who treat their own works as repulsive, and instead cling to the work of Christ.
Under the Cross, we yearn and strain towards the prize, which is the resurrection of the dead. We do not attain to this by good works, but by holding tightly to Christ’s Passion. We cast aside as worthless all the external works that get us nowhere.
At the same time, we do not stop doing the works. They are surely useful for our neighbor, and God earnestly desires that we perform them. But the works, no matter how flashy and impressive, can never be our confidence.
Christ is our confidence. The Blood that was shed for us is our confidence. Truly, these are worthy of our trust. With the merits of this Blood, we shall defy death and live forever in perfection. With the sufferings of the Man nailed to the Cross, we shall receive a prize that makes the greatest pleasures of this present life look pale and pathetic. We shall receive the new heaven and the new earth. We shall receive resurrection out of all pain and sorrow and death.
In that place, you shall shine out with the glory of Christ, which shall be yours forever and ever.
In His Name, who is our confidence and glory. Amen.
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