Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh – even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. [Philippians 3:2-4, NRSV]
What makes one a Christian?
Different denominations seem to set up different doctrinal requirements one should adhere to in order to qualify as “Christian” in their respective perspectives. It is pretty safe to say that some forms of articulation that bear a close resemblance to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed are commonly accepted by all branches of the Christian Church.
Where salvation is a primary existential focus, enthusiastic Christians may be seen to insist with relish the famous line from Saint Paul:
- If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. [Romans 10:9]
Needless to say, many have fallen by the wayside for thinking that all that Paul has here is a simple formula superficial adherence to which would automatically bring one “salvation”. What is easily overlooked is the depth spiritual dimension before one can possibly confess in any truthful degree by one’s lips that “Jesus is Lord”. How deep does one need to believe in God raising Jesus from the dead? And what does “salvation” really mean, beyond having one’s soul, in the “life after death” or the “life after life-after-death”, being granted permanent residency in “heaven”? There are indeed many questions, and we constantly stand at risk of resting content at the level of token or inadequate faith-profession.
Clearly, Christians of all shades agree that Christian discipleship must be assessed by both word and action. Word alone does not determine our Christian status. We all accept that discipleship demands doing as well as being, and some healthy degree of walking the talk.
In point of fact, the word “Christian” appears in only three places in the Bible, each indicating that a Christian is simply someone who follows Jesus.
- In Acts 11:26, Luke tells us that “the disciples” of Jesus were first called “Christians” in the Syrian Antioch [now a city at the south-western tip of Turkey]. Clearly, a Christian is a follower of Jesus, who is one who has been taught to obey Jesus (see Matthew 28).
- In Acts, 26:28, King Agrippa’s conversation with Paul suggests that one can be persuaded “to become a Christian,” by listening to someone explaining the message about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
- In 1 Peter 4:16, followers of Jesus are warned that it is possible to suffer for being a Christian and are encouraged to “glorify God because you bear this name.”
Following and imitating the Lord Jesus being the key, Paul’s triple-qualifications for characterizing a Christian in chapter 3:3 of The Epistle to the Philippians is worthy of study. There, Paul not only gives us one of the best definitions of a Christian in the Bible, he also warns of the marks of false teachers.
Beginning the chapter by contrasting the wondrous gifts of grace against the hopeless pit of sin, Paul warns the Philippians against those teachers who have confidence in themselves. In typical Pauline rhetoric, Paul suggested that if anyone should boast, he would be most qualified. Yet, that would be to miss the point entirely, for that would be to fail to recognize that salvation is wholly of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is all we need.
In stark contrast to false teaching, Paul defines what a Christian looks like. We are what he calls “the real circumcision” who:
- Worship in the Spirit of God;
- Glory in Christ; and
- Put no confidence in the flesh.
The first mark: Worship in the Spirit
Christians do not worship in the flesh. “Flesh” here does not mean physical bodies, for there is nothing inherently wrong with our physicality. The material world is created by God who declared his creation as good. But Paul is trying to draw his readers away from trusting either in human effort or human ancestry for our redemption. So he uses the expressions “in the flesh” and “in the Spirit” to describe two contrasting states of existence.
Paul’s consistent line in his letters is represented in Romans 8:8 – “and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. John in his Gospel points to the same insight: “the Spirit gives life” [John 6:63], and “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of the Spirit” [John 3:6]. To be able to worship in the Spirit of God and to walk in Christ presupposes a recognition that the source of our spiritual life is the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Paul is most adamant in this regard: “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” So to live by the Spirit, we must walk by the Spirit [Galatians 5:25].
- St Paul cannot be clearer: our conversion and our sanctification can only be attributed to the work of Christ, applied by the Spirit.
And so we do well to capture what St Paul says in condemnation of superficiality:
- Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart – it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God. [Romans 2:25-29]
The second mark: Glory in Christ
Christians glory in Christ. Our hope is in nothing and no one other than Christ Jesus alone.
Christian inspirations derive from Christ: our affection and desires must be driven by Christ. Paul evinces an absolute understanding that even though we have the Spirit, and are thus regenerate, Christian living is a constant struggle because of all the distractions in the world. Jesus is worthy of imitation not because he was never tempted. On the contrary, the Letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus is worthy of imitation precisely because he weathered the temptations, survived and conquered sin. “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” [Hebrews 2:18].
And so, a saint is not someone who thinks him or herself free of darkness in their heart, but one who knows to whom to turn for salvation from such darkness of heart. In the heart of a true Christian is a constant vigilance of one’s pride and a constant return to the righteousness of God.
The third mark: Put no confidence in the flesh
St Paul is most adamant here: Without God, Christ and the Holy Spirit, we are simply spiritually bankrupt.
The Lord himself, in teaching the most important parable about who God is in the Parable of the Prodigal Son [Luke 15], portrays God as the Father who does not first require us to meet prerequisites before He loves us, who never turns away from us sinners, and who therefore does not demand of us to shape up, to work and prove our worth before he turns His face towards us again. False teaching glories in something that we can do, a worthy life-story we can bring before God to earn his favour, forgetting that He loves us any way, regardless. The only thing He wants of us is to glorify His Son, trust in His ways, and live, as Paul continues to explain:
- Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard 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 one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. [Philippians 3:7-11]
True Christians flee to Christ as their only hope. For Christ, his life story tells us, the only thing worthy of our focus is the Kingdom of God. His call to us who seek to follow Him, is to walk, in His Spirit, in works of Kingdom-advancement, promoting Kingdom-values on earth as it is in heaven.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh,October 2016. All rights reserved.
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