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Joy in Liberty over Legalism

Legalistic religion kills the spirit, but knowing Christ sets us free.

The story behind the sermon (Jared Alcantara)

This sermon was the fourth of five messages in the series "The Joy Genome." The image of a genome was used to convey the idea that Christian joy is somehow grafted into our human DNA. As Philippians is a book about joy, each message pertained to finding joy in X, Y, or Z, such as joy over circumstances (week one) or joy in humble service (week three).

The theme for this sermon was "Joy in Liberty over Legalism," and the text was Philippians 3:1-11. The big idea was "Our Confidence Comes through Christ." This text was particularly challenging for me since Paul covers a lot of ground. (If you want to do justice to all the ground that Paul covers, it might make more sense to preach verses 1-6 and 7-11 as separate units.) I discussed legalism first, so as to begin with the bad news. My introduction centered on the problem of legalism, and my first point was "Being religious is just as dangerous as being irreligious." My second and third points were also pithy to enhance retention. They both pertained to liberty. I waited until part way through the third point to state the big idea. However, I tried to allude to it at earlier points in the message. Once I presented it, I tried to restate it a few times, including once more in my conclusion.

I tried to use images like fountain, shepherd, rubbish, and so forth. But the one visual aid that helped the most was a balance scale. I got the idea for this image from a Charles Spurgeon sermon on this passage in which he talks about the weightiness of Christ. I purchased a cheap scale and used it as a simple prop. In the part of the sermon where I talked about "playing the game" of confidence in the flesh, I put little coins on one side of the scale for the weights of ethnic status, achievement, and legalism. Then, when I got to verse 7, I put the rest of the coins on the other side of the scale to show how everything else was weightless compared to Christ—"Jesus tips the scales." This simple prop helped to visualize the contrast between legalistic righteousness and liberty in Christ.

Overall, I was pleased with the sermon, even though I would tweak a couple of things if I preached it again. For example, I would restate the big idea more in the conclusion. If you decide to follow a similar outline, remember that words like religion, legalism, and righteousness may be foreign to some of your hearers and understood differently by others. They may need definitions depending on your context and audience.


I'd like you to open your Bibles to Philippians 3. Have any of you seen the bumper sticker that says "Lord, save me from your followers"? I understand this is supposed to be funny and sarcastic. Of course, the church is often misjudged prematurely and treated unfairly. We are often misunderstood. But I feel sad whenever I see this bumper sticker, because these kinds of comments are often based on negative experiences people have had with legalistic Christians.

Let me give you an example. Mahatma Gandhi was the leader of India's independence movement. He was a pacifist. Before the movement, he trained to become a lawyer. He went to South Africa to get his education. He was there during the time of apartheid, and he came across a bunch of legalistic, racist, bigoted Christians. Upon returning to India, Gandhi said, "I like their Christ, but I do not like their Christians."

Let me give you another example. A famous German philosopher and atheist named Friedrich Nietzsche coined the phrase "God is dead." He was so repulsed by his encounters with legalistic Christians that he said, "I'm going to need to see a lot more of them redeemed before I believe in their Redeemer."

Legalism destroys Christian life and it destroys the church's mission in the world. Legalism kills joy.

Our text today is Philippians 3:1-11. Paul is writing from Rome, where he was under house arrest, to the church in Philippi. In this passage, Paul confronts legalism. This morning's subject is "Joy in Liberty over Legalism." Paul begins, "Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord." Joy and rejoicing are common themes in this letter. He says, "It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you." That word, safeguard, is important because of what he says in verses 2 and following:

Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. 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—though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put 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; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, 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 is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

The danger of religion

Up to his conversion, Paul had mastered the art of being religious, at least by Pharisaical standards. He was legalistic and self-righteous. But now he has had a change of heart, a change of life, a conversion. In verse 2, he warns the Philippian church not to waste their lives on things that don't matter in the final analysis. So what does Paul have to say to the church at Philippi?

First, being religious, in a legalistic sense, is just as dangerous—sometimes more dangerous—as being irreligious. Have you noticed that some of Jesus' harshest sayings were directed at religious people? To the Pharisees, the ruling council of the day, he said, "Woe to you, Pharisees." Do you know why he said that? Jesus said they loaded people with heavy burdens that were impossible to bear, yet they themselves did not lift a finger. He also said this to the Pharisees: "Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others, because you give God your tithe" (Luke 11:42). Sure, they gave God their possessions and the money, but they neglected justice. They neglected other people. They neglected the true love of God. They were being religious, but they didn't have a relationship with God. They loved the praise of men, but they didn't live in the power of the Holy Spirit. Some of Jesus' harshest statements were made to religious people.

When Paul issues this warning in verse 2, he says, "Watch out for those dogs." Now why would he use the word dogs? In the twenty-first-century United States, we think of dogs as cute, cuddly, sweet creatures. However, in Paul's day, and in many places in the world today, dogs were considered to be wild and filthy animals. Packs of dogs are dangerous. It would be dangerous for a vulnerable person or animal to encounter a pack of dogs.

So Paul is addressing the issue of circumcision. The Judaizers were going around from church to church, explaining that worshiping Jesus was not enough in order to have a relationship with God. They said you also needed to be circumcised. That was the hot topic of debate during Paul's day. Paul was telling the Ephesian church to watch out for those religious "dogs" who moved in packs and preyed on vulnerable people.

By giving this warning, Paul was saying that if you see Christianity as a religion without conceiving of it as a relationship, then you're in big trouble. If you're religious without knowing God and following God, you're in danger. If Christianity is a religion and not a relationship, it will kill the joy in your life. Watch out for those dogs, Paul says, those evildoers, "those mutilators the flesh." This warning was an allusion to the circumcision debate that was going on. Paul says beware of the Jesus plus something else mentality.

One of my undergraduate professors—Scott Hafemann—used to say this every semester: "Class, beware of Jesus plus." In Paul's day, it was Jesus plus circumcision. But in our day, it is Jesus plus heath and wealth, or Jesus plus prosperity, or Jesus plus doing the right sort of activities that will gain God's approval. Beware of Jesus plus. Being religious is just as dangerous and sometimes more dangerous than being irreligious.

Pastor Tim Keller says this in his book The Reason for God: "If you center your life and identity on religion and morality, you will, if you are living up to your moral standards, be proud, self-righteous, and cruel. If you don't live up to your own moral standards, your guilt will be utterly devastating." Keller points out that even religion can become an idol.

Paul warns us. He tells us to watch out for idolatrous, dead-end religion. Christianity is not about an outside-in religion. We often misunderstand the nature of Christian faith. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for thinking religion was outside-in. He said, "You clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence" (Matt. 23:25). Sometimes we think that if we get all the externals right, then we'll be right before God. But Christianity is not an outside-in religion where we take care of the externals so that the inside will be different. Rather, Christianity is an inside-out transformation. God moves in us and changes us and reshapes us on the inside so that the inward reality affects the outward reality. The transformation that takes place in our hearts and in our souls shapes our outward behavior. Christianity is not an outside-in religion; it's an inside-out transformation.

The source of real freedom

So Paul says that being religious is just as dangerous as being irreligious. But then he says this in verses 4 and following: true freedom is not found in your status; it's found in your Savior.

In verse 4, Paul explains that he had good reasons to have confidence in the flesh. Paul said he had more reason to trust in the flesh than anyone else. What is Paul doing in this verse? He's essentially saying: Judaizers, you want to talk about status? Let's talk about my ethnic status. I am of the tribe of Benjamin. I'm a Hebrew of Hebrews. I was born into the right family. I grew up on the right side of the tracks. I was circumcised on the eighth day. Let's talk about achievement. I'm a Pharisee. But I'm not just any old Pharisee. I'm a Pharisee of Pharisees. I was a student of one of the greatest rabbis who ever lived—Gamaliel. As for legalistic righteousness, I'm faultless. You want to talk about religiosity? You want to talk about piety? In regard to the law, I'm faultless.

But verses 4-6 are presented as a foil to talk about what really matters in verses 7-8: "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."

Do you understand what Paul is saying? He's saying that everything he thought was important—ethnic and social status, religious right-standing with God, achievements, and so forth—are nothing compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus. In the final analysis, the only thing that matters is knowing Christ and his surpassing greatness.

Do you know what the Hebrew word glory means? It means weightiness. Everything else is weightless compared to Jesus.

Therefore, true freedom cannot be found in your status or in legalistic activities. We won't find God by appealing to our own self-worth. We may find goodness, but we won't find God. We may find praise from others, but we won't find the power of the Holy Spirit. We may acquire status, but we won't find our Savior. All of it is loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ.

Paul even says this at the end of verse 8: I consider it all as rubbish. That word rubbish in Greek can also be translated as dung or excrement. This word doesn't connote garbage in a trash heap; it's about animal manure. Paul says that his status and achievements all amounted to rubbish compared to knowing Christ.

Jesus tips the scales. Paul learns that God is not concerned about confidence in the flesh or about acquiring status. God uses entirely different weights all together. As the scales tip away from status and achievement, we understand why Paul says "rejoice in the Lord" in 3:1 and in 4:4. We put no confidence in the flesh. All of our confidence comes through Christ.

The joy of following Christ

But there is one final point that Paul wants to make. In verse 9, he explains that joy cannot be found in following rules; joy is found in following our Redeemer. To be clear, rules matter in some cases. Parents know that household rules are good. But compared to knowing Christ, rules are weightless. It's the Redeemer who matters. True joy can only be found in following Christ.

Steven Furtick defines joy like this: "True joy is not determined by what happens to me, but by what Christ is doing in me and through me." We can apply this to the legalism-liberty issue in Philippians 3:1. We could revise this quote to say true joy is not found in what I do for God, but in what God has done already for me. Look at verse 9: "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."

What does righteousness mean? Righteousness means a right standing before God. Do you hear what Paul is saying? Paul is saying that his right standing before God was not determined by who he was or what he could do. Rather, his right standing came through his confidence in Christ. True righteousness, right standing before God, is not a wage that we earn. It's a gift that we receive. We do not have a righteousness of our own that comes from what we do. Our righteousness comes through Christ by faith. It's a righteousness that Christ imparts to me through what he has done.

There is freedom and joy in realizing this. Since Christ is perfect, we don't have to be perfect. Because Christ is righteous, our righteousness doesn't need to measure up to God. The gospel isn't about our finding a way to God; it's about God coming to us. Our righteousness is a gift from God. It comes through Christ by faith.

In verse 10, Paul says: "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead." The phrase "I want to know Christ" is important. Paul has been a missionary for about ten years at this point. He has traveled all over the Mediterranean world, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. It all started in Acts 9 when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. He has seen Christ in a vision. Sometimes he was driven out of town by the locals. One time he was stoned. He had been shipwrecked on the island of Malta. He faced all kinds of beatings and persecutions. Yet in the midst of it all, he was able say, "I want to know Christ … I want to become like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead."

So do you understand what this means? Paul, who has known Christ and fully devoted himself to Christ, realized that there is always more of Christ to know. There's always more of Christ to experience and to discover. When we discover more of Christ, we experience more transformation. So, whether you've been a Christian for five months, 10 years, or 50 years, there is always more of Christ to know. Coming to Christ and knowing Christ and being found in him is like drinking from an ever-flowing fountain. You drink and you drink and you drink and you are satisfied. There is a never-ending flow. Our confidence comes through Christ, our ever-flowing fountain.


There is a story often told by African-American preachers about a young pastor who was working hard on a sermon. It was Saturday night. It was late. He was tired. He was preparing a sermon on Psalm 23, the famous psalm that has been spoken at weddings and funerals. Psalm 23:1 begins like this: "The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want." But the young pastor was not the only person present at the church that night. There was also an elderly janitor. He had been at the church for decades at that point. He was washing the floors and cleaning up and getting ready for the service the next day. While he was cleaning, the janitor saw that the pastor was struggling to prepare his sermon. So he approached the pastor and he said to him, "Pastor, is there anything I can do to help you prepare?" And the young pastor politely declined. After all, what could an elderly janitor have to teach him that he didn't already know? About an hour passed. The janitor returned, but this time a bit more insistent. And he said, "Pastor, if it's all right with you, I'd really like to help you prepare your sermon on Psalm 23." It was getting late, and the pastor was tired. The pastor asked, "Why is it that you want to help me? Is there something I don't know?" The janitor said, "Actually, yes. You see, pastor, you know the psalm, but I know the Shepherd."

We have a Shepherd. He is good and gracious and loving. We have a Shepherd, and he guides us and walks with us and leads us through death's dark valley.

Paul discovered that he knew the Scriptures, but his heart was far from God, and all of that stuff would lead him down a dead end road. So Paul traded up. Paul exchanged self-righteousness for the righteousness that comes through Christ. Paul discovered what so many of us can discover. He had a Shepherd who is good and gracious.

Jared E. Alcántara is an Associate Professor of Preaching and holds the Paul W. Powell Endowed Chair in Preaching at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. His latest book is "The Practices of Christian Preaching: Essentials for Effective Proclamation." Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @jaredealcantara.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The danger of religion

II. The source of true freedom

III. The joy of following Christ