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.
To a considerable extent our current society is characterized by mediocrity. That mediocrity is frequently evident in the sphere of education as well as in the workplace. In contrast, there are those involved in the pursuit of excellence—academic excellence, athletic excellence, excellence in job performance.
As Christians, we are involved in the pursuit of excellence. It is the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord. It is the knowledge revealed in the holy Scriptures, the infallibly inspired Word of God. That knowledge we must pursue with all that is in us! We are to strive to “grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Pet. 3:18). The pursuit of this excellence must be a life commitment. In this season, as Bible studies and societies of the church resume and as our children and young people take up their catechism lessons, let us recommit ourselves to this pursuit of excellence. The apostle declares, “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus.”
This chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians begins with a sharp warning against the false teachers, the Judaizers, that were troubling the church of Philippi. These Judaizers were Jews that were bitter enemies of the church and of the truth of the gospel. They denied the efficacy of the cross of Christ and put their confidence in their own righteousness, emphasizing especially the outward rite of circumcision.
Then with a powerful argument, using his own life as an example, Paul exhorts the Philippians to reject the doctrine of righteousness by works, by the law, by outward forms and rites. Paul, as it were, challenges the Judaizers, “If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more; circumcized 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” (vv. 5, 6). He lays it out—“Look at me! If anyone can trust in the flesh, I can!” But to Paul all these separate “gains” became one huge loss for the sake of Christ. As the apostle totaled the column of assets in his ledger, he finds that they are all transferred to the column of liabilities. They are entered as one gigantic loss for Christ’s sake. One thing is above all things precious to the apostle: “the excellency of the knowledge of Christ!”
What is this knowledge that is so precious? It is “the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul refers to the Savior as He stands revealed in all the preciousness and beauty of His person through His threefold name. This is knowledge of “Christ,” the Anointed One, who was ordained by God the Father and anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our chief Prophet, our only High Priest, and our eternal King. This is knowledge of “Jesus,” Jehovah Salvation, who saves His people from their sins. This is the knowledge of the “Lord,” the Exalted One, who owns us because He bought us with the price of His precious blood.
This is the knowledge revealed in the gospel, in the holy Scriptures. Christ is on every page and in every passage of the Bible. The knowledge of the Scriptures you must pursue if you would know the Lord Jesus Christ. Further, this excellent knowledge is set forth in our creeds, the Three Forms of Unity. In a truly marvelous and eloquent way they systematize the truth of Scripture. In other words, this knowledge is knowledge of the Reformed faith, even our distinctive Protestant Reformed faith! This faith proclaims the absolute sovereignty of God’s grace in Christ by which the elect are saved and the calling of the redeemed to live in thankfulness to God, showing forth His praises. The pure preaching of the gospel proclaims this Christ, the Christ of Scripture, as the revelation of the God of our salvation.
Paul, indeed, has an intellectual apprehension of the Savior. He had been instructed at the feet of Gamaliel. Throughout his life he had been taught the Old Testament Scriptures. He had heard about this Christ from the lips of dying saints as he had joined in their persecution years before. On the way to Damascus Paul had learned to know Jesus. Since that time he had learned more and more about Jesus. We may never minimize the importance of the intellectual knowledge of the truth of Christ. The instruction imparted in our covenant homes, in the thorough program of instruction in the church, as well as in our good Christian schools is vitally important. We see an awful ignorance in so much of the nominal church today! The word of the Lord rings true today as never before; “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hos. 4:6). Paul could not know Christ without knowing all about Him. The revelation of Christ had to fill the mind of the apostle.
But notice that he writes, “the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.” Obviously this knowledge that Paul had was far more than an intellectual conception, far more than a mere cold assent to the truth concerning Jesus. My Lord! What value would all this intellectual knowledge have if he could not say, “My Lord”? This means that Paul personally appropriated this knowledge. This is a knowledge of the heart. This knowledge that Paul had compelled him to flee to Christ to find all his righteousness and salvation.
Without this spiritual knowledge Paul would never have really known Christ. No matter how much he knew about Christ, he would not have really known Him. Even if he could lecture hour after hour concerning Christ’s incarnation, even if he could write volumes on Christology, he would not really know Christ. Without this spiritual knowledge his soul would have remained empty and dark. Of this knowledge Jesus prays, “And this is eternal life, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). This knowledge is everything, even eternal life! This knowledge is the knowledge of a true and living faith that unites the believer to Christ.
That directs us to the purpose of this knowledge. The apostle says, “that I may win Christ.” Now, “that I may win Christ” must not be understood in a selfish, self-glorifying sense. Paul is not sacrificing one thing just so that he can make a great personal gain in the end. It is true that he is seeking to promote his own spiritual welfare. But the purpose of this knowledge is never separated from concern for the glory of God. “Winning Christ” cannot refer to a personal glory or profit like that associated with the simple pleasure of winning a game. He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord!
In addition, “that I may win Christ” must not be understood in an Arminian, free-willist sense. Arminians love to speak about “winning Christ.” They maintain that “winning Christ” is something anyone can do of himself through the exercise of his free will. They insist that for a man to “win” Christ he must, by an act of his own will, accept Christ as offered to all in the gospel. Such a false teaching makes God dependent on the whims of man. It destroys the sovereignty of God. It leaves God helplessly standing by, His hands tied, waiting patiently for carnal man to “win Christ.”
Literally, the term “win” here means “to gain” or “to acquire.” The idea is that to know Christ, to have “the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord,” means that we strive to gain or acquire an ever greater knowledge of the Savior. That’s the pursuit of excellence! It means that our souls hunger and thirst after Christ, desiring to know Him more and more. In the opening chapter Paul had prayed for the Philippians that their love “may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment” (1:9). It is true, of course, that as soon as the child of God appropriates Christ by faith he has in principle “won” or gained Christ. One does not gain Christ a little bit at a time, receiving first one, and then another, of the riches of Christ, until he has completely “won” Christ. It is not a piecemeal process. But, principally, “winning’ Christ is accomplished the moment one has appropriated Christ and all of His benefits by faith.
Yet, although in principle the believer may have “won” Christ, he continually wins or gains Christ in the way of spiritual growth and development. We see that we have only a taste of Him and His blessings, and we long for a clearer, fuller apprehension of the riches of Christ. When we first believe in Christ, we do not half realize what a wonderful Savior we have! So the purpose is that we become ever more mindful of how wretched we are in ourselves and how great Christ is. Christ becomes ever richer and greater as the object and basis for our faith and hope. To win Christ is everything, for we know that perfect knowledge of Christ awaits us in glory when we shall no longer see through a glass darkly but face to face.
Thus, this knowledge is priceless! Paul speaks of the “excellency” of the knowledge of Christ. This knowledge stands far, far above everything else. It is an all-surpassing knowledge. It is characterized by super- eminence. He is saying that, in comparison with this knowledge, all other things lose their value. The knowledge of Christ is so overwhelmingly excellent that, compared with it, there is nothing that is important. Paul emphasizes that nothing else can constitute his righteousness before God; nothing else can possibly be the basis for his confidence. We too must confess that the knowledge of Christ is priceless. Nothing may replace or be substituted for that. Nothing may in any way interfere with that incomparable knowledge. That all-surpassing knowledge must be the fundamental goal of our lives.
Notice that there is a progression in Paul’s personal appropriation of this knowledge. First he says, “Yea, doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.” When he says, “I count all things but loss,” he includes much more than he mentioned in the context concerning his descent and his own works. Now Paul includes all of his earthly possessions, his money, his friends, anything and everything that could possibly hinder his knowing Christ.
Then Paul says, “for whom I have suffered the loss of all things.” He emphasizes that he had lost whatever was at one time very dear to him for the sake of his Savior. All of those things had been a hindrance to him by being the objects of his trust and confidence. The incomparable preciousness of the knowledge of Christ was still the only thing that mattered. In fact, Paul underscores that truth when he says, not only that he has suffered the loss of all things, but that he counts them but “dung,’ that is, worthless, filthy. Not only are all the things in which Paul formerly placed his confidence a loss to him, but they are as manure, as refuse or rubbish that must be cast out. And remember, Paul is writing this letter looking back over the years of his life. Paul was at this very moment imprisoned in Rome nearing the end of his life. His life clearly demonstrates that he renounced all trust and confidence in himself. He would let nothing hinder him from the excellency of the knowledge of Christ!
We too must count all things but loss and dung for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ. We must not glory in the flesh, but if necessary we must lose all things for the sake of the knowledge of Christ. Indeed, “for what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matt. 16:26a). Do you long to gain Christ, to know Him more and more? Is the all-surpassing thing in your life the knowledge of Christ? Knowing Him, we feel we have only begun, even if we are already growing old. For we long to know Him in all His fullness, to see Him face to face, to know as we are known. Rejoice in the unspeakable excellency of the knowledge of Christ!