Losing Religion to Find Salvation

by Pastor Kevin Sadler

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“Dr. H. A. Ironside, longtime pastor of Chicago’s Moody Church, was told by a woman that she expected to get to heaven by faith plus her good works. ‘It’s like rowing a boat,’ she explained. ‘It takes two oars to row a boat; otherwise you go around in a circle.’

“Dr. Ironside replied, ‘That’s a good illustration except for one thing: I’m not going to heaven in a rowboat!1

We’re going to heaven in Christ, because of Him and what He has done for us at the Cross. By faith in Christ alone, we’re going to heaven. Most believe salvation is a work of man for God. God’s Word, however, declares that salvation comes by grace, a work of God for man.

Religion, with its rules, obligations, rituals, and observances, doesn’t save anyone. Only Christ saves. There’s nothing we can do to save ourselves and no one can earn their way to heaven by their good works. We need to lose religion to find salvation, because the only way anyone is saved from all their sins and has eternal life is by trusting the perfect provision made for our sins at the Cross, trusting that Christ died for our sins and rose again.


“For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the Spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh. Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more” (Phil. 3:3-4).

Paul wrote, “For we,” that is, we in the Church, the Body of Christ, spiritually speaking, “are the circumcision.” In time past, under God’s prophetic program, the “circumcision” was a physical one and referred to the Jews. Today, under grace, the circumcision is spiritual and refers to all who have trusted Christ as their Savior.

We are the circumcision, not because we happen to be born of Jewish parents. Rather, we are the circumcision because of what Colossians 2:10-11 teaches the Body of Christ:

“Ye are complete in Him… In Whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.”

The believer is complete in Christ apart from religion and ritualism, entirely by virtue of the Cross of Christ and His resurrection. “The circumcision made without hands” refers to a spiritual circumcision, a spiritual cutting off. “The body of the sins of the flesh” in Colossians 2:11 refers to our sinful, fallen, Adamic nature. “The circumcision of Christ” refers to Christ’s death at the Cross.

This verse teaches that the moment we believed and were placed into Christ, we underwent a spiritual circumcision in which, positionally and judicially before God, “the body of the sins of the flesh,” or our old, sin nature, was cut off by Christ’s death for sin. By the Cross of Christ, “we are the circumcision,” because the flesh, our sin nature, was crucified with Christ and cut off before God. And thus, in Christ, we are sinless and righteous.

Philippians 3:3 gives three characteristics of the circumcision: 1) we “worship God in the Spirit”; 2) we “rejoice in Christ Jesus”; and 3) we “have no confidence in the flesh.”

First, we “worship God in the Spirit.” We worship God, not by the deadness of ritualistic ceremonies of religion. True worship of God is not based on externals, but on the attitude of the heart. In John 4:24, the Lord taught, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” We “worship God in the Spirit” by faith and obedience to the truth of His Word. And worship in its truest sense involves the whole of our lives. A believer worships God by being an authentic, consistent testimony which brings honor and glory to our Savior.

Second, we rejoice, not in religious observances or in ourselves or what we’ve done; instead we “rejoice in Christ Jesus” and what He’s done for us by His grace, compassion, and kindness. Our boast is Christ and we glory in His Cross. All that we are, and all that we have spiritually and eternally, is because of Christ Jesus. As 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 reminds us, “But of Him [God] are ye in Christ Jesus, Who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption… He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.”

Third, we “have no confidence in the flesh.” We do not rely on our own religious attainments, accomplishments, or external works for acceptance with God. We are God’s because we have not placed our confidence in these things of self and instead have placed our confidence solely in Christ and what He has done on our behalf to save us.

While those who are religious often display great confidence because of their achievements and good works, it’s a deceitful and dangerous confidence. Sinful men, in their flesh, have no grounds for confidence before God. Each person must come to the point of having no confidence in the flesh and humbly trusting in Christ alone.

Writing about having “no confidence in the flesh” triggered memories and emotions in Paul as he recalled when he himself placed confidence in the flesh for his salvation. This led Paul, by the Spirit, to give us his personal testimony, and to give a self-portrait of a religious unbeliever.

In Philippians 3:4-6, Paul showed the Philippians that his attainments and heritage surpassed everyone. If anyone could boast about strict observance of religion, it was he. If anyone had a reason to trust in himself and believe that his religious credentials could earn righteousness and be deserving of eternal life before God, it was Paul. And he laid his merits on the table; in effect, he pulled back the curtain revealing his large trophy case for all to see and showed the Church how he had more ground for boasting than anyone else. He opened the book of his life like an auditor to show us his wealth according to the law, but then he revealed the truth of how he was in every way spiritually bankrupt.

Paul wrote this part of his letter like a challenge and a showdown. And even before he got specific, he concluded ahead of time that he had exceeded any advantage or credential of any competitor: “If any other man thinketh he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more”!

We often think of the flesh only as that part of people that drives him to commit sin and live for self. However, here we learn that “the flesh” is also pridefully religious. And when the flesh tries to do good and be good or be better than others, that is when it is the most dangerous. The religious proudly think that God must accept them and that they need no Savior.


“Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the  church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5-6).

In these verses, Paul listed his seven personal reasons to boast in the flesh. The first four he had by birth apart from choice; the last three he voluntarily chose. The first four are in relation to Israel; the last three in relation to the law.

1. Circumcised the Eighth Day

Paul testified that he was “circumcised the eighth day.” Paul was a Jew and child of the covenant. He was not a proselyte to the Jewish religion who was circumcised later in life. And he was not an Ishmaelite who was circumcised in the thirteenth year. At the proper time, he had gone through the physical ceremony that initiated him into God’s covenant people (Gen 17:9-14). Paul bore in his body the mark that he was one of the chosen people, marked out by God as His own, and set apart from other nations. He possessed this important pedigree and his parents started his life in strict adherence to the law.

2. Of the Stock of Israel

By birth, Paul was “of the stock of Israel.” Paul was a member of the nation who were in a covenant relationship with God. No other nation or people had this special relationship. Paul inherited all the blessings of being a member of the covenant nation. In Romans 3:1-2, Paul wrote, “What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way..…” Paul had these advantages, being of the stock of Israel. Paul was a physical descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was not descended from Ishmael (Abraham’s son by Hagar) or Esau (Isaac’s other son). The blood of Jacob flowed in his veins.

3. Of the Tribe of Benjamin

From Jacob, Paul was “of the tribe of Benjamin.” Benjamin was one of the two sons born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. This tribe had a rich history, including the honor of Israel’s first king, Saul, being a Benjamite (1 Sam. 9:21). When the kingdom split after
Solomon’s death, the tribe of Benjamin, with Judah, remained loyal to the Davidic dynasty and stood true to the temple as God’s rightful place of worship. Mordecai was used by God, with Esther, to save the Jews from genocide, and he was of the tribe of Benjamin (Esth. 2:5). This was a prominent and prestigious tribe! Being “of the tribe of Benjamin” was worn with pride as a badge of honor for Paul.

4. An Hebrew of the Hebrews

Paul was “an Hebrew of the Hebrews.” Paul was a Hebrew son of a Hebrew father and Hebrew mother. He was a pureblooded Jew, having a pure Hebrew lineage with no  unclean Gentile blood in his family line. Being a Hebrew of the Hebrews, he was thoroughly acquainted with the Hebrew language, customs, and Scriptures. In the flesh, Paul could and did trust in his rich heritage of being one of God’s chosen earthly people.

5. As Touching the Law, a Pharisee

“As touching the law, a Pharisee” meant that Paul was a devout Jew, belonging to the sect who were known to be the most strict, meticulous observers and defenders of the Mosaic Law. Unlike the more liberal theologians of the Sadducees, Paul was orthodox to the core. His father before him had been a Pharisee. Before the Sanhedrin in Acts 23:6, Paul testified, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee.” Before Agrippa, Paul testified, “that after the most straitest [strictest] sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee” (26:5). Paul trained and studied under Gamaliel (22:3), a celebrated and revered Pharisee” (5:34). Paul had lived to know, interpret, guard, and obey the Law.

6. Concerning Zeal, Persecuting the Church

“Concerning zeal, persecuting the church,” teaches us that Paul was an activist, and not a passive religionist. Paul ardently, militantly put his belief into action. He was a zealot of Judaism. He punished those who believed in Jesus Christ and His resurrection. He was the ringleader of the persecution of the Kingdom church, from the death of Stephen (7:58) until his own conversion (8:3). Paul was relentless and willing to go to any length to please God.

7. Touching the Righteousness Which Is in the Law, Blameless

“Touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.” By all outward appearances, Paul conformed perfectly to the law. When judged by men according to the righteousness that the law demanded, he was blameless. Paul didn’t say he was sinless, but where and when he failed, he brought the prescribed sacrifice. To those who knew him, and in his own eyes, he was a model Jew who lived faultlessly and meticulously by Jewish law and tradition. You could say that he scored a hundred in Judaism! As a result of his own self-effort and self-righteousness, Paul believed himself to be righteous before God.


“But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for Whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Phil. 3:7-9).

Paul once put the aforementioned seven credentials in his spiritual profit and gain column, but now he placed them in the loss column. All his religious achievements and privileges were now worthless to him when compared to Christ.

Paul had much to lose by placing his faith in Christ, and he did lose everything in the way of power and prestige among his peers and in his religion. However, after Paul met the risen Christ on the Damascus Road, all his cherished religious achievements and gains became deficits and losses. This proud man was humbled and his robe of lawrighteousness became a filthy rag (Isa. 64:6), and he abandoned his works-righteousness for Christ’s righteousness. Paul may have lost some things, but his gain was infinite: gaining Christ, life eternal, and God’s righteousness.

In putting these seven credentials in the loss column, Paul saw how salvation no longer came by ritual or ceremony like Jewish circumcision. Thus, we know that salvation does not come through the ceremonies of Catholic mass, water baptism, the Eucharist, confirmation, giving up this or that, or any other rite or ceremony.

Paul learned that standing with God is not gained by birth, family status, race, or nationality. What your race or nationality is, where you were born, and who your father, mother, or grandparents are bear no weight on your personal salvation. You are not a Christian because your parents were Christians. What matters is whether you have trusted Christ or not.

Paul learned that righteousness is not achieved by being a scholar or a devout, religious person, nor is it earned by keeping the law. Paul learned that religious zeal guarantees nothing and means nothing when it is misguided. Likewise, the religious, who by all outward appearances appear pious and good, who keep the Ten Commandments and are willing to make any effort and pay any price to please God, who zealously pray, fast, serve others, go to church, feed the poor, and give to charity, all without trusting Christ alone to save them, are dead in their sins and headed for the judgment of everlasting fire in hell.

Religion and zeal for religious works count for nothing toward salvation or righteousness. Paul learned that he had to lose his religion to find salvation. What Paul gained by losing his religion and religious achievements was Christ. And a personal relationship with our Savior is infinitely superior to all other things in every respect.  Following his conversion, Paul’s misguided passion for religion then became a well-guided passion for His Savior. And it was following his conversion that Paul really started living.

In Philippians 3:8, Paul considered as “loss” not only the seven things listed in verses 5-6, but he expanded it to include “all things.” He counted anything and everything that might conceivably be a rival to Christ—all works, privileges, achievements of the flesh—as a loss, a liability, and a disadvantage.

Paul did not want to deprive himself of “the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul counted all religious things as loss, that he might gain the surpassing greatness of knowing personally Christ Jesus his Lord, and to grow in knowing Him more and more. The personal, experiential knowledge of Christ that came from his relationship with Him was superior to all things in Paul’s life. And as that faith-based relationship with Christ is preeminent over all things in our lives, we’ll find the same joy, purpose, and blessing that Paul did.

Paul wrote, “for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (v. 8). Paul had thrown aside everything he had previously counted on and worked for in trying to gain favor with God. Everything on which his heart had been placed, all his hopes and dreams of honor and distinction, and all his religious credentials and accomplishments, Paul saw much differently after trusting Christ.

Now he counted it all as just “dung,” or waste, rubbish, refuse, and garbage that is thrown out or to the dogs. Using the strongest language, Paul expressed his disdain for all the religious works by which he had sought to impress men and God. In view of and in comparison to the surpassing value of gaining and knowing Christ, it was all worthless and detestable.

All that mattered to Paul was to “be found in Him” (v. 9). And that is a precious place to be found: “in Him,” trusting in Him, our life hidden in Him, a member of His Body, and losing ourselves and our identity in Him.

Righteousness had been the great goal of Paul’s life as a Pharisee, and he thought he would obtain it on his own by religiously keeping the law. But being in Christ, he was no longer clinging to his self-righteousness in keeping the law. He had true, complete,  undisputed righteousness now, the gift of God’s righteousness. This is given and received “through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” (v. 9), or by the faithfulness of Christ and our faith in Christ. Salvation requires the righteousness that has its source, not in ourselves, but “of God.” And we are given God’s righteousness “by faith” and faith alone.


“In the city of Basel, Switzerland, each year there is a carnival that takes place at the beginning of Lent. It is much like the Mardi Gras… it is always a wild affair with all of the debauchery that one associates with a carnival season. And everyone knows what goes on, even though they may not know exactly who does it because the people wear masks. Each year the Salvation Army uses the carnival season to advertise the Gospel. And it does so in a striking way. All around the city the Salvation Army places billboards and posters containing the German words, ‘Gott sieht hinter deine maske!’ This means, ‘God sees behind your mask.’”2

God sees behind the everyday masks we wear. God is looking on your heart and mine. What does He see behind your mask? Does He see religious deeds that are not backed up by divine life within? Does He see the belief that you can earn His favor? Does He see your rejection of Jesus Christ as your Savior?

We need to come to the same realization that Paul did, that salvation and eternal life are not found by trying and not by being religious or working for them, but by receiving the free gift of salvation by trusting Christ alone as our personal Savior.

1. Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Bible Study Series–Faith Brings Us On (v. 9),” Bible Gateway, accessed April 2, 2021, https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/wiersbe-be-bible-study/faith-brings-us-v-9.

2. James Montgomery Boice, Philippians, An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971), pp. 204-205.

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