In the very first part of this passage Paul makes it clear that human advantages, such as birth, or religion, or economic status, or position in society, or whatever, are ultimately things without value. He makes it clear that human accomplishments, however arduously achieved, don’t matter. “These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ (v. 7, CEB).” Notice that the Apostle does not say this because he’s feeling overlooked or cheated out of a rightful share, not because he’s miffed due to a personal lack of distinction, not because of failure in his occupational pursuits or religious endeavors. By human standards Paul was the best of the best, the most religious of the religious, with every right to boast in himself and to believe in his own goodness. And this goodness certainly assisted him as he took advantage of all the gifts God had given him.
Notice also that Paul does not apologize for his background. In fact, verse 4 seems in to indicate that he’s rather boastful of it. “If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more.” It could easily be argued that we ought not apologize for the things we have in our life, the blessings of a good education or good family or good fortune. We should not regret them, but rather use them for God’s work.
I’d like to believe that Saul (Paul before his conversion) thought this way. He fulfilled the law, and often conspicuously so that everyone could notice his so-called righteousness. He lived as any good Jew was expected to live. And yet as “good” as Paul may have been, he was fulfilling the law through fear of punishment, not through love of righteousness.
Immediately upon his conversion he experienced a radical transvaluation of values. He realized that those “good” things he had cherished and desired were not “assets” at all. They were losses that had bankrupted him. They were “evil” things bent on destroying him because they made him self-reliant, and self-satisfied, and content to offer to God his own goodness. They acted as an opiate dulling his awareness of his need for the real righteousness that God requires and that only God could supply. In verse 9 he testifies that “in Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith.”
It’s not our work, but God’s. It’s nothing we have earned, but grace given freely to all who receive.
When we try to work our way to God, we don’t discover more of Him in our lives. We often get sideways and don’t fully understand more of His will. We simply slide into the familiar trap of self-congratulation, of self-righteousness. We begin to count our own merits, rather than looking at the meritorious work of the Savior. To know Him more we must be blind to ourselves.
John Wesley once said that “a Methodist loves God with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and in everything gives thanks. With a heart lifted to God at all times, the Methodist loves every person as their own soul, they are pure in heart, and they recognize that God reigns alone. They keep all the commandments, do everything to the glory of God, and follow the doctrine of God in all things.” A tree is known by its fruit, Wesley argued, and so since we are to love God, we are to keep His commandments, not only some, or even most of them, but all, from the least to the greatest. We should not be content to “keep the whole law and offend in one point,” but have in all points “a conscience void of offense toward God and toward humanity.” Whatever God has forbidden, we should avoid. Whatever God has enjoined, we should do. When we follow after the Lord’s commands, then our hearts are set at peace. And it should be our joy to do these things, it is our daily crown of rejoicing to do the will of God on earth, as it is in heaven.
This was Paul’s passion, too. “It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.”
Whatever our pasts, whatever praise we have received, may we not dwell there. Yes, let us use our blessings to be a blessing to others. But in so doing may we, like Paul, move forward with our eyes fixed forever on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.