“This Is My Story: The Apostle Paul” (Philippians 3:3-9 sermon)

For the last 50 years of the 20th century, Anthony Flew, professor of philosophy at Reading University in England, had been one of the world’s most influential atheists. But in December of 2004, Flew made news by announcing that “it is simply out of the question” to believe that life came from dead matter, and that complex organisms just “evolved” from it. He said he now believed that on the basis of scientific evidence — especially the intricate and complex DNA codes in our cells — that a “super intelligence” was the best explanation for life and the universe; in other words, the existence of a God. Flew’s conversion from atheism to theism sent shock waves around the world.

Two thousand years ago, a similar “shocking” story took place, when Saul of Tarsus, the most vehement opponent of Christianity in all of Judaism, who had been persecuting and arresting Christians, suddenly began preaching the Jesus that just a few days earlier he had given his life to opposing. This Saul of Tarsus of course became the man we know as “The Apostle Paul”, and today we are going to look at his “story.” Paul shares his “story” in Acts 22, but then in Philippians 3:3-9 Paul interprets his “story” for us, sharing four things in his life that could not save him, and ONE that did. These same things are true for us as well:


I. Your righteousness cannot save you.

The first thing Paul shares with us in Philippians 3:4-6 is how by worldly standards, he had been a very “righteous”, religious person. But what is important for us to understand is that NONE of those things saved him. It took faith in Jesus to save him. What we each need to understand is that OUR righteousness will not save US either — not in any form. Let’s look the examples Paul gives us of that in Philippians 3:

A. Your religious rituals will not save you
:5 “circumcised the eighth day …”

Circumcision was THE religious ritual for Jewish males, that was the signifying mark that they were in covenant with God. According to the Jewish Law (Leviticus 12:3) a male child was to be circumcised on the 8th day. And Paul says he was – he had observed the religious ritual. But later he calls this part of what he laid aside to find Christ. His religious ritual did not save him.

We have a number of religious rituals that people take part in today: baptism, communion, confirmation — things like that. Some of these are good and legitimate things. But you need to realize that just like the Apostle Paul, whatever religious rituals you may have observed will not save YOU either. Just taking part in those religious acts will not make you right with God.

I remember reading a journalist’s interview with a convicted murderer, a man who had killed people on at least two separate occasions, and who had shown absolutely NO remorse for it. In the course of the interview, the reporter asked this man what role religion had in his life. I thought his response was interesting: He said “not much; I was baptized; I had my confirmation, but it was no big deal to me.” And he went on to be a notorious killer. You see, just because he had observed some religious rituals – baptism, confirmation – did not change his life or make him right with God.

And they will not for you, either. But unfortunately, many people are trusting in the fact that they have taken part in these religious rituals to save them. I don’t know that the percentage of people would be who would answer the question, “Why should God let you into heaven?” with, “I have been baptized”, but I think that number would be great. A LOT of people are staking their claim to heaven in the fact that they were baptized, but baptism as a religious ritual will not save you! There must be a whole section in hell reserved for people who were baptized but who never knew Jesus as their Savior! Don’t make that mistake. Don’t think that just because you have undergone a religious ritual — baptism or anything else — that it means that you are right with God. Your religious rituals won’t save you.

B. Your religious heritage will not save you
:5 “… of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews …”

Paul had a genealogical pedigree that was very impressive. And this was important among the Jews, that they could trace their genealogy to their tribe in Israel. It was a big deal to them. But again, Paul says, I had to come to see that this would not save me – only Christ. His background and heritage would not save him.

And it will not save you, either. Just because you have a lot of Christian people in your family does not make you a Christian. We had a man in our church in Louisiana (Mr. Will Moody) who shared his testimony with us one time, and he said: “I thought I was riding to heaven on the coattails of my father’s prayers” … but he found out that was not true. His dad’s prayers, his father’s religion, could not save HIM! He was accountable to God for himself!

Could it be that you are like Will Moody, “coasting on the coattails” of your family’s spiritual heritage? Maybe your father and mother are good Christians, maybe you have ministers or deacons in your family? But you need to understand, God doesn’t save “groups”; He saves individuals. You can get a “family membership” down at the gym, but there is no “family membership” in the Kingdom of Heaven! You have to join on your own! You can get a “family phone plan” for your cell phone, but you can’t get a “family salvation plan.” YOU have to receive that plan for yourself. You must personally follow Jesus as your Lord & Savior. It is very possible for every other member of your family to enter heaven, and for you to be lost! Your family, your heritage, your background will not save you.

C. Your religious deeds will not save you.
:5 “As to the Law, a Pharisee …”

As many of you know, the Pharisees were the most “religious”, zealous adherents of Judaism. The word “Pharisee” meant to be “set apart” – and the Pharisees were indeed “set apart.” They were VERY religious. Many of them had memorized the entire Law, Genesis through Deuteronomy. Their works were summarized by the Pharisee who went up to the Temple to pray in Luke, when he said: “I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all I get.” And yet, Jesus said this man did NOT go to his house justified (that means saved!) He was NOT saved, despite all these good works.
And Saul before his conversion was not justified before God either. When he was a Pharisee, Saul was was very religious, very devout … and very LOST!

And it can be the same with you. You can be very religious, very devout – and very lost! Several years ago in Kansas City, a firefighting team came as first responders to a scene where an elderly man had evidently had a heart attack. As paramedics worked on the man, a firefighter talked with the man’s wife. She asked if her husband was going to be ok. The firefighter later said that he had never talked to anyone like this, and he knew he could have gotten in trouble for saying it, but for some reason he felt led to say to her: “If he knows Jesus, he’ll be ok.” The wife said: “Well, he’s a Nazarene minister.” The firefighter said: “If he knows Jesus, he’ll be ok.” She said, “Well, he taught for years at a Christian college.” He said, “If he knows Jesus, he’ll be ok.” She said: “He was a very important church leader.” The fireman said he then looked deeply into that woman’s eyes and said: “If he knows Jesus, he’ll be ok.” That firefighter was right. Being a minister would not save that man. Teaching at a Christian college would not save him. Being an “important church leader” (whatever that means!) would not save him. Religious works will not save anyone. Your answer as to “why should God let you into heaven had better not include: “I sang in the choir; I was a deacon; I taught Sunday School classes; I helped at Fall Festival” — or any such thing. Your religious works will not save you.

D. Your religious sincerity will not save you.
(:6) “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.”

The man Saul had been VERY zealous, and very sincere in what he believed. He had good intentions. He wasn’t trying to be “bad” by persecuting the church, and trying to eradicate the name of Jesus. He really thought that Jesus was a bad guy, and that the Christians were deceived. He was very sincere! But Paul himself says later in Romans 10:2 of some religious people: “I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.” He had said of them just before that, in :1, “My heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation.” In other words, these people were very zealous, very sincere – but very LOST!

This reminds us that you can be as sincere as you can be about wanting to be right with God and going to heaven – but if you are not trusting Jesus as your Savior, you are sincerely wrong!

When my step-father was alive, he had a big business in Oklahoma making bumpers for pickups; it was a flourishing business, and he had taken out insurance on everything – or so he thought. One night he was called at home and told that his plant was on fire – and when he went up there, he saw that the building was burning to the ground. He thought: “Well, at least we were insured.” But when they went through the papers, they discovered that the insurance that the agent had written him up for was for the contents only – his whole building and plant were not covered. Les thought he had taken care of it; he was sincere about it; but his sincerity did not save his business. He had the wrong plan, and no amount of sincerity could get it back.

Listen: it can be the same with you. You may be very sincere about wanting to be right with God and going to heaven, but sincerity alone is not going to get you there. You can be sincere and be sincerely wrong. Just like my step-father, you have to have the right plan. And the Bible says there is only one plan that will get you into heaven: Jesus Christ. Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by Me.” (John 14:6) If you are on any other plan: trusting your religious heritage, or religious rituals, or good works, or how sincere you are, you are on the wrong plan, and you are lost. No plan that is based on your own righteousness can save you.

Isaiah 64:6 says “All our righteousness is filthy rags” – all our rituals, our heritage, our works, are filthy and inadequate, and they will not get us into heaven. And notice: it doesn’t say that our “sin” is filthy rags; it says our RIGHTEOUSNESS is filthy rags! On our BEST DAY you & I are not good enough to earn a spot in heaven.

Not long ago, I remember looking back on a certain day that I had and thinking, “That was a pretty good day!”, spiritually speaking. I spent time with God first thing in the morning in His word and prayer; I got some important things done at church; I was able to make a visit and help somebody; I got to study ahead on some sermons; I had prayed specifically for a certain situation and God immediately answered that day. It was a good day — about as a good a day as I can have.

But let me tell you something: on my best day, I still fell short. On my best day, I still didn’t do everything I should have done; there were things left unfinished. On my best day, my motives were mixed even on some of the “good” things I had accomplished. On my best day I had literally dozens of thoughts and attitudes that were wrong in the sight of God. On my best day I still fell short in hundreds of ways. On my best day, my righteousness was filthy rags. On my best day, I cannot earn or deserve heaven.

And neither can you. On your best day, the Bible says your best righteousness is filthy rags and it will not make you right with God and get you into heaven! That’s what The Apostle Paul is saying, “This Is My Story”: my heritage, my rituals, my works, and my zeal did not make me right with God — and they won’t make you right with Him either.

II. Only God’s righteousness can save you.
:9 “… and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith …”.

Paul tells us here that what happened in his conversion is that he gave up trying to be righteous on his own, by his heritage and rituals and works and zeal, and instead put his trust in the righteousness that God GAVE him in Jesus Christ: “the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.”

This is how we must all be saved. In the first chapters of Romans, Paul spends some time demonstrating just what we have been talking about: how we cannot justify ourselves with God by our own righteousness. He concludes that argument in 3:20 by saying, “By the works of the Law, no flesh will be justified in His sight.” And then in :21-22, he writes: “But now, apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been manifested … even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.” Basically what God is saying here is that to be saved, you have to give up trying to “dress yourself up” in your own righteousness – it’s just filthy rags — instead you must believe that God will GIVE you the righteousness that it takes to get to heaven, through what Jesus did for you.

This giving of God’s righteousness to us is what was made possible when Jesus died on the cross. Paul wrote later in II Corinthians 5: “We beg you, be reconciled to God.” But how does this happen? He wrote in :21 “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Jesus took all our sins, all our filthy righteousness on Himself on the cross, and in a great exchange, GIVES His perfect righteousness to everyone who puts their trust in Him as their Lord & Savior! He GIVES us the righteousness it takes to get to heaven; He GIVES us the righteous “garments” that it takes to get us into heaven.

There is a great picture of that in first century Jewish wedding customs. When they had a wedding ceremony, the father of the groom was in charge of the event and bore all the expense associated with the wedding and reception. This often included the father providing a specially made garment to be worn over a guest’s regular clothing. This wedding garment was presented to the guest when he arrived, and he put it on immediately. It was considered a great insult to the father of the groom if somebody refused to wear that garment — and it could get a guest ejected from the festivities. In case of large gatherings it also served as identification to discourage uninvited guests from crashing the party. In fact, Jesus told one of His parables – the Parable of the Wedding Guests, in Matthew 22:1-14 about this very custom. The parable tells how when a king gave a wedding feast for his son, he called for all the guests, but one man came into the feast without the wedding clothes. He says to him: “How did you come in here without wedding clothes?” And they cast him out.

Before He told that story, Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is like that. Just as the King in the story had provided beautiful, clean wedding clothes for all who were invited, to cover their ordinary clothes and get them into the feast, so God has provided us the righteousness we need to get into heaven, through the death of Jesus on the cross for us – His righteousness covers our sins, and lets us into heaven. But just like that man in the story, if you do not have the “wedding clothes” – the righteousness of Jesus — you will be cast out of heaven. As we have seen, your righteousness is filthy rags – it will not get you in. You must be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus to get into heaven.

And you don’t get that righteousness by walking down an aisle, or filling out a card, or by being baptized. You get it by faith in your heart – by trusting what Jesus did on the cross for you. IF YOU DON’T HEAR ANYTHING ELSE I SAY TODAY, HEAR THIS: SALVATION IS NOT BASED ON THE THINGS THAT YOU CAN DO FOR GOD, BUT BY PUTTING YOUR FAITH IN WHAT JESUS DID FOR YOU ON THE CROSS! That Romans 3 passage says that “the righteousness of God” is given “through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.” God the Father GIVES you the perfect garment of righteousness that will get you into heaven, when you put your trust in Jesus as your Savior.

The most important question of your life is, Have you ever done that? The Apostle Paul had to come to a crisis time in his life, when he came face to face with Jesus, and he saw that all his righteousness was just filthy rags, and would not save him, and he finally put his trust in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Some of you here today need to do that same thing. That philosopher I mentioned a while ago, Anthony Flew, came to a crisis time in his life where he realized that what he had believed and taught for 50 years was wrong, and he admitted that there was a God. Some of you need to come to a similar decision today. Maybe today for you, it is not that all of the sudden you believe that there is a God, but that now you see that the things you thought were making you right with God aren’t, and they will never save you — they are just filthy rags that will get you cast out of heaven. And today you need to trust Jesus to clothe you with HIS perfect righteousness to get you into the “wedding feast” in heaven, because of what HE did for you on the cross. If you have never done that, do it today! Paul said in II Corinthians 5:20, “We beg you, be reconciled to God” through faith in Jesus Christ. I echo his words today. I beg you, be reconciled to God today. Like the Apostle Paul, stop trusting in anything you can do to save yourself, and put your faith in Jesus Christ alone. Then you can say together with him: “This is MY story!”

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, provides brief devotions from own personal daily Bible reading, as well as some of my sermons, book reviews, and family life experiences.
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