Guarding the Gospel (Sermon)
Before we dive into our passage this morning, I want to take a few minutes to recap what we’ve done this year in our study through the Bible. Our goal in this series we’ve entitled The Emmaus Road has been to see that the message of the Bible is about Jesus Christ. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible has one overarching message: Jesus Christ.
In the Old Testament, we heard prophecies, examined symbols and witnessed great works that all pointed forward to the coming of Jesus Christ to save His people from sin. From the moment of mankind’s first sin, the prophets, poets and sages all proclaimed one message—the message of a Son who would reverse the curse of sin and restore fallen mankind to God.
As we moved from the Old Testament to the New Testament, we watched as the prophecies came to life. The message of Jesus Christ was coming to pass as He lived a perfect life, died a substitutionary death and rose in triumphant victory. After His resurrection, Jesus gave His disciples this one message—the message of salvation in Him—and commanded them to take it to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and then to the ends of the earth. We watched as this began in the book of Acts.
In Romans, we saw how the message of Jesus Christ became the foundation of the church. They built their life together on this one message—Jesus Christ crucified, risen and coming again. As they dealt with division and disunity, they returned to the message of Jesus Christ as the means to harmony in the church.
Last week, we saw how the message of Jesus Christ is God’s chosen means to produce faith in the hearts of men. No other message has the power to transform lives. The message of Jesus Christ prophesied in the Old Testament and presented in the Gospels is the only message that can bring salvation.
From Genesis to John, we find this message of Jesus Christ woven through stories, poems, prophecies and biographies. From Acts to Revelation, we discover what we are to do with that message. So far we’ve seen that as we share the message, God uses it to produce disciples, to produce unity, and to produce faith.
So, it’s safe to say the Bible is the message about Jesus Christ—who He is and what He has done. As His disciples, this message is at the very center of everything we do. The Gospel—the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ alone—is the lifeblood of the church. We must understand what we are to do with this message that has been handed down through the ages and through which we find life.
The last few weeks, we’ve looked at how we are to spread the message…we are to faithfully share the message of Jesus Christ. This morning, I want us to consider another command we’ve been given concerning the Gospel—the message of salvation through Jesus Christ alone.
On a number of occasions, the apostle Paul instructed Timothy, his son in the faith, to guard the gospel. We are to share it and spread it, but we are also to guard it.
(1 Timothy 6:20 ESV) O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you.
We find in the apostle Paul’s own example a commitment to guard this central truth of Scripture. He relentlessly attacked any teaching that hinted at salvation apart from Jesus Christ. He famously asked the church located in Galatia:
(Galatians 3:2–3 ESV) Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
Our text in Philippians, chapter 3 may be his most poignant articulation of salvation through faith alone in Jesus Christ as Paul shares his own story of coming to faith in Christ. His main point is to teach again this central doctrine that the righteousness of God comes through faith in Jesus Christ, not through the good works of men.
But this passage is valuable to us not simply for its explanation of salvation in Christ alone, but also for its example of how Paul guarded this central message of Scripture—how Paul guarded the Gospel. If the heart of Christianity is the message of salvation in Christ, then it’s our job to guard the heart. As Christians, we can learn from Paul’s own example and testimony how to guard the central message of Scripture—how he guarded the Gospel.
(Philippians 3:1–11 ESV) Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for 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; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But 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 and count 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 that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
How do we faithfully guard the Gospel—the message of Jesus Christ crucified?
1. Don’t Teach Works Righteousness (vv. 2-3)
I know this sounds obvious, and it is. But this passage begins with a warning about teachers who have perverted the Gospel. Three times in verse 2, we discover the same command “Look out!” or “Beware”. (v.2) Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, and beware of flesh mutilators.
These are not separate groups of people. All three are descriptions of the same group. Now we shouldn’t think of Spot or Fido when we read the word “dogs” here. He’s not talking about the family pet. He’s evoking an image of a roaming band of wild dogs. Imagine walking down a dusty street, turning a corner and being surrounded by a pack of crazed dogs.
Someone who perverts the gospel of Jesus Christ, who replaces faith alone in Jesus Christ with good works, is like a wild dog. He or she preys on those who cannot defend themselves. He is a scavenger, picking off those who are weak in faith.
Though they preach good works, they are working evil (v.2). A message of good works presented as the Gospel of Jesus Christ is an evil message. Though the one presenting it may be sincere, they are dangerous, and their message is deadly.
The particular group of false teachers Paul is addressing were insisting that Gentile believers must become Jewish in order to be saved. They were insisting on circumcision. In the Old Testament, circumcision had an important role in the nation of Israel. God commanded all Israelite males to be circumcised. Obedience was a testimony of faith. It was disobedient and disgraceful for an Israelite man to remain uncircumcised.
With the coming of Christ, circumcision was no longer necessary. Insisting on circumcision nullified the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Adding circumcision was a denial of the message of faith alone in Jesus Christ for salvation. I wonder if you’ve ever subtracted from the message by adding works. Do you believe God’s opinion of you is based on your effort for Him? Do you believe the outcome of your day is dependent on whether or not you had morning devotions? Are you subtracting from the message of salvation by adding your own works?
Three times, Paul commanded the church to beware of those who taught righteousness by works. Brothers and sisters, if you add works to the Gospel, then Paul’s warning would go out about you. He would point at you and tell our church, “Beware of that dog! Beware of that evil worker! Beware of that mutilator!”
I doubt any of us would include circumcision as part of the Gospel. None of us will stand up on a Sunday morning and say, “Men, if you don’t get circumcised, then you’re not a real Christian.” None of us will insist in our community group discussions this week that circumcision is required for salvation. None of us will teach the necessity of circumcision during family worship tomorrow night. But we can add other good works. We can imply that God’s favor is dependent on what we do. If we’re faithful to give, attend, read and pray, then we earn merit from God. We can make the Christian life about what we do instead of what Jesus Christ did for us and who we are in Him.
Notice how Paul counters this message of good works. He doesn’t deny good works. He takes the focus off works entirely and places it on identity.
(Philippians 3:3 ESV) For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—
“We are the real people of God,” Paul says, “not because of what we accomplish, but because of who we worship.” We have the Spirit. We boast in Jesus Christ. We don’t trust our own works. Our fundamental identity is not a good person, but a worshipper of Jesus Christ. Our fundamental identity is found in Christ, not in our effort.
Listen, if you live as a worshipper of Jesus Christ, if you wake up in the morning boasting in Him, then you will do good works. You will live out the Gospel. You will preach the central message of the Scriptures—the message of Jesus Christ—with your life.
Parents, you may be tempted to micromanage your child’s spirituality. You program their lives like they’re in a biblical bootcamp. Be careful that you’re not subtly teaching works righteousness. Do you think your rules can guarantee their response to the Gospel? Does God promise righteous kids to the parents who try hardest?
Often the reason Christians move away from the central message of righteousness through Jesus Christ alone and begin to add elements of works righteousness is because we want to see people do what’s right. A commendable motive can lead to disastrous results. Good works don’t earn righteousness; good works follow righteousness. If works righteousness creeps in, it does so at the expense of the message of Jesus Christ. If we live by the Law, then we obscure the Righteous One who kept the Law in our place.
2. Don’t Trust Your Resume (vv. 4-7)
(Philippians 3:4-6 ESV) Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for 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; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
In these verses, Paul launches into fake boasting. I love his sarcastic sense of humor. Paul uses his own background as an argument against works righteousness. He details his impressive resume, challenging any of these false teachers to best him.
His resume is remarkable. He starts with his lineage. Summing it up by saying, “I am the Hebrew of Hebrews.” You couldn’t be more Israelite than Paul. Next he moves on to his religious training. He was a Pharisee, the prominent religious group of the time. He was so zealous for God that he persecuted the church. As a Pharisee, he had never been charged with violating the Law.
He’s proving a point. If anyone could have been made righteous by keeping the law, it would have been Paul. But notice his conclusion:
(Philippians 3:7 ESV) “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”
It wasn’t enough. Nothing we do is enough. His impressive resume was meaningless. Though he could have more confidence in his accomplishments than most men could, any confidence at all in his works was misplaced confidence.
What would be the modern day equivalent of Paul’s resume? I imagine it would include being born in America, probably somewhere in the Bible Belt. You would have to have grown up in church, maybe even in a pastor’s home. We could mix in regular church attendance, monthly giving and a couple of leadership positions. In other words, the resumes of a lot of us in this room. How easy it would be for us to put confidence in our flesh! How easy to think that if anyone has earned God’s approval, then it has to be me. If anyone deserves God’s favor, than I do. How easy to look at our resume, see how much we’ve done for God, and feel, in some way, like we’ve earned a little extra favor.
I remember listening to a sermon about Samson and David. The preacher was asking why God used them again after they failed. Instead of highlighting God’s grace and forgiveness, he rehearsed all that they had accomplished for God before their great sin. His conclusion was that they had banked enough good works to offset their sin. God could still use them because their service for Him outweighed their failures. Does it come as any surprise to you that this same preacher was accused of adultery a few years after this sermon?
Faithful, Gospel-centered, Bible-believing Christians are extremely susceptible to putting confidence in the flesh. You do a lot of good works. You spend a lot of time serving God and serving others. Which means you need to be especially vigilant to keep the Gospel—the message of Jesus Christ—at the center of your own life. If you are to keep the central truth in the center, it must begin in your heart. You need to reject any confidence in your flesh. You may need to send your spiritual resume through the shredder.
It’s impossible to share the message of Jesus Christ and a message about your own greatness at the same time. You can’t boast in your accomplishments and the cross. If you begin to believe what Satan writes on your spiritual resume you put the message of Christ crucified in grave peril.
3. Don’t Trade Jesus Christ (vv. 7-11)
The way Paul turned from works to faith was by taking everything he had accomplished and trading it for Jesus Christ.
(Philippians 3:7–8 ESV) But 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 and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
Friend, there is nothing more important than gaining Christ. If you’re here this morning and you do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, I plead with you to come to Him. Leave all your goodness and your badness behind, trade it for Jesus Christ. To know Him is to know life, to know freedom, to know joy, to know peace. He alone is the way, the truth and the life. The only way to God is through knowing His Son Jesus.
Listen, everything revolves around Jesus. We give up everything in order to gain Him. Look at how often Paul writes about Jesus Christ.
Verse 7—for the sake of Christ
Verse 8—for the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ
Verse 8—for his sake
Verse 8—that I may gain Christ
Verse 9—and be found in him
Verse 10—that I may know him
Verse 10—may share in his sufferings
Verse 10—becoming like him in his death
That’s what the Gospel is. It’s the great transaction. We give up all things (both good and bad) in order to gain Jesus Christ. Jesus illustrated it with the story of a man who found a treasure buried in a field. What did he do?
(Matthew 13:44b ESV) “Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
He traded everything for the treasure. Paul traded everything for Jesus Christ. If his life were a balance sheet, Paul realized that everything listed as an asset was worthless compared to Jesus Christ. He took his income and expenses and traded them all for Jesus.
Of course, he only made that trade because he realized that Jesus was worth far more. When he understood who Jesus was, Paul evaluated all that he was basing his life on. He looked at all of his good works, and he realized that they were actually liabilities. His whole life was in the red. In spite of his good works, he was spiritually bankrupt. Have you ever reached that point? Have you ever seen the negative balance in your account? Do you realize that we will all—every single one of us—be called before God one day to give an account? Here’s our only hope:
(2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV) For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
Trading everything for Jesus Christ doesn’t make you poor, it makes you rich. Compared to the glory of Jesus Christ, everything in this world is meaningless. Paul calls all of his religious accomplishments dung. Dung is utter worthlessness. When your body has stripped every worthwhile nutrient from your food, what’s left is dung. All your good works are nothing more than dung. They are worthless, and yet you can trade them all for Jesus Christ.
Here’s the danger, brothers and sisters: each one of us came to faith in Jesus Christ by trading everything for him. We traded our sins and successes, our mistakes and medals, our troubles and trophies—all of them—for Jesus Christ. We saw the beauty of Jesus Christ, the righteousness that He gives, the fellowship He promises, and we traded everything for Him.
What happens to our message…what happens to the Gospel if we start to pull those things back? We traded any confidence in our flesh, but we slowly start to put confidence in our own ability or charisma. We traded worldly definitions of success, but we slowly start to embrace the perks that come from personal achievement. We traded the lure of money and possessions, but we slowly start to accumulate more and more nice things.
There is a real danger of “trading” Jesus back. I’m not suggesting that we can lose our salvation or that we will outright reject the faith. I am suggesting that prosperity can entice us to love the gifts more than the giver. Prosperity can motivate us to want Jesus and success, Jesus and fame, Jesus and glory, Jesus and self-righteousness.
How can we diagnose whether we’ve started to “trade” Jesus back? I think this question from John Piper can help: “If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?”[i]
What would be enough for you to be okay with Jesus being taken away? No disease? No debt? No depression? No death? What would be enough for you to love the benefits of Jesus Christ without Him?
In verse 19, we find a warning about those who deny the Gospel of Jesus Christ—those who turn from Christ to their own works. Their minds are set on “earthly things.” Living for the things of this life is a practical denial of the message of Jesus Christ that runs through the pages of this book!
Paul’s desire for Jesus is so strong that he will suffer willingly in order to fellowship with Jesus Christ (v.10). If we’re not careful, we can drift toward wanting Jesus and comfort. What does that longing do to our theology? It can push us to embrace a message that if you do what is right, then Jesus will make you comfortable. If you do good works, then Jesus will make you prosper. When you lose a longing for Jesus alone, your confession will drift from the central truth of salvation in Him alone. If you trade Jesus, the Gospel goes with Him.
Don’t trade Jesus! Make sure that each day you recognize the surpassing value of Jesus Christ. I love one preacher's gospel math—“Jesus + Nothing = Everything.” Isn’t that the message we’ve been rejoicing in all year long? It’s all about Jesus. We don’t need to add anything else. To add anything to the message of Jesus is to lose Jesus. We don’t add our work, our effort, our wisdom, our ability, our intellect or our willpower.
Make sure that each day you remember your standing before God was secured by Jesus’ work, not yours. Make sure to remind yourself that your own works are but dung. Make sure to remember the old, old story of a Savior who came from glory…for you.
In high school, my youth group had an activity called “Bigger and Better”. We were divided into teams and given a penny and a time limit. During the allotted time, we were to go around town, stopping by people’s homes, trying to trade our penny for something bigger and better. Each house you’d try to trade up. When time was up, whoever had the biggest and best item won. You should have seen it, teams were pulling up with old couches and refrigerators, lots of junk no one wanted anymore.
For us, one trade is enough. We traded the greatest debt this world has ever known for the greatest treasure this world has ever seen. Don’t look for something bigger and better when we’ve already been given the biggest and best.
The Bible tells one long story about Jesus Christ. 66 books but one message. It’s all telling the message of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Savior of men. As His disciples, we have been given a charge to spread this message to the very corners of the globe. We are to be witnesses to the ends of the earth.
No man, woman or child is saved apart from the message of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we must be diligent to guard the message. We must be vigilant to prevent it from being deformed or distorted.
Let me illustrate it this way, and we’re done. We have the cure for a deadly virus called sin. We are to take this cure from door to door, from town to town, from nation to nation. But in our haste to make the sick whole, we must protect the cure from being diluted or watered down. Brothers and sisters, let’s ask God to give us greater zeal to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and let’s ask God for greater alertness to guard the Gospel.
This sermon was originally preached at Redeemer Community Church in 2012.
[i] John Piper, God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God's Love as the Gift of Himself