O Paul That Will Not Let Me Go
Paul’s letter to the Philippians has been haunting me lately. In a well-known section of the epistle, I was surprised afresh by some important links that the apostle compactly makes between worship, the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and the gospel. He says in 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.
This is remarkable. I’d like to comment on the context and the grammar. The context is Paul’s larger conversation about dealing with a group of people who seem to be infecting some of Paul’s early church plants. They’re poisoning the well of the gospel’s pure water by demanding that true faith is “Jesus plus” something else. This something else is circumcision. With strong rhetoric, Paul calls these folks “evildoers…who mutilate the flesh” (3:2). Paul contrasts the purity of the gospel with what he calls “confidence in the flesh,” which he illustrates with his own life (3:4-11). This “confidence” is boasting in what one does for God, what one brings to the table to make God pleased. Paul illustrates this confidence by rattling off a list of good deeds and favorable pedigree.
We might say that this whole section is an explication of the not-I-but-Christ-ness displayed in Galatians 2:20 (ESV):
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Paul is basically saying that there are two ways to live, either in Christ or in the flesh.
Paul’s Connections: Spirit, Jesus, Flesh
With that in mind, we look back at the grammar of Philippians 3:3. He makes a statement (“we are the circumcision”) and then strings together three qualifiers (the ones who worship, the ones who glory, and the ones who do not place confidence). These three ideas are strung together by a simple series of “and’s,” but that shouldn’t lead us to conclude that Paul is being stream of consciousness here, simply tacking on one idea to the next. We should see a relationship between these three: what identifies us as the people of God (the true circumcision) is that we worship by the Spirit, glory in Christ, and put no confidence in the flesh. These three things mark us as Christians.
Paul’s word for “worship” (latreuō) is a term most often associated with what scholars call “cultic service,” or service within the liturgy. When the term is used, in other words, it tends to refer not to general “all of life” worship but to the kind of worship, the kind of “service,” we typically offer when we gather with others in corporate worship. Paul is not necessarily pointing to gathered, corporate worship here (latreuō is certainly used in more broad contexts of meaning), but that image is certainly echoing as he uses the word.
What I find remarkable is how Paul connects three ideas we don’t always necessarily think are connected: worship in the Spirit, Christ-centeredness, and the theology of “flesh.” It’s as if Paul is saying “we worship by the Spirit, which is to glory in Christ, which is to put no confidence in the flesh.” If this is true, it corroborates what I’ve said in another post about what true Spirit-filled worship looks like: to make much of Christ. And making much of Christ stands in direct opposition to making much of ourselves. I’m thinking here of worship language in our prayers and songs which tends to place too much emphasis on what we responsively do for God–live for Him, serve Him, give it away for Him, surrender to Him, etc. (Check out how I address this in my various posts on triumphalism.) Too much of this creates a lot of room for “confidence in the flesh,” which in turn minimizes “glory in Christ,” moving away from what it means to “worship by the Spirit.”
Content, Structure, Grammar: New Depths of “Christ-Centered Worship”
Why do I bring all this up? Because if we are to pursue Christ-centered worship, we need to plumb new depths of meaning. Usually, the conversation on Christ-centered worship begins around content: Do our lyrics and prayers talk about Christ and his saving work of life and death? Great question. Great start. But we need to go deeper.
And when the conversation does go deeper, we thankfully get into talk of structure. Not only must we have Christ-centered content, but we must think about how the very narratival shape of the worship service must be Christocentric–approaching God through Christ. I’m thinking here of historic, trans-denominational, trans-temporal “deep structures” of Christian liturgies which include elements like Confession of Sin, Assurance/Absolution, and the like.
But even here there is still more ground to break in talks of Christocentrality. We may refer to it as “grammar.” I’m using the term metaphorically. What I mean is to ask the question of how our language toward Jesus in our songs and structures actually get constructed. The reality is that we can have cross-centered songs and prayers, and we can even have a Christ-mediated superstructure to the worship service, all the while undermining the Message in those features with poorly constructed language…language which allows “confidence in the flesh” to leak in.
So again, I’ll beat this drum. Too much language about my commitment, my response, my works–they begin to shape our “spiritual grammar.” I’ve pointed out in the past that reformers like Thomas Cranmer were keenly aware of worship’s grammar and the necessity that justification by faith alone and not by works affect the very “sentence-construction” of our worship.
Therefore, I want to sound the call again, this time not merely engaging with important theological connections, but actual biblical statments which lend aid to what we’re saying here. We’ve connected these ideas many times theologically, and I think Paul provides us ample warrant here in Philippians 3.