Philippians 3:9 and Sola Fide
Updated: Jul 10, 2022
By Luke Lancaster
“…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.”
St. Paul’s phrase about not having a “righteousness” of his “own” makes many Protestant-Christians think that he is excluding the necessity of good works from salvation. For them, Paul is distinctly Protestant in this verse, emphasizing faith alone to receive righteousness from God. Catholics are therefore wrong to think that good works are integral to salvation. For such works only give them a righteousness of their own, rather than the righteousness of Christ. However, this is a misunderstanding of both what Paul is talking about and what Catholics mean by salvation.
First, contextually, Paul is not comparing a bad Catholic model of salvation, with its emphasis on Spirit-filled works, to a good Protestant model of salvation, with its emphasis on faith alone. Rather, Paul the Jewish convert is comparing a Jewish model of salvation (the Mosaic Covenant) to a Christian model of salvation (the New Covenant). This can be gleaned from the key phrase, “righteousness of my own that comes from the law.” The “law” is a reference to living under the Mosaic law, as Paul discussed previously in Rom. 3:28 and Gal. 2:16 & 3:10. See the articles I wrote on them here and here and here.
This is clear not only from his use of the word “law” but also from the context. In Phil. 3:4-6, Paul speaks of having past confidence that he was in a right relationship with God based on his previously Jewish way of life. He says he was born a Hebrew and had entered the Mosaic Covenant through circumcision (the principal “work of the law”). He then maintained this Covenant-relationship with God by following the Jewish law blamelessly (Phil. 3:4-6). All of this made Paul think that he had a righteousness based on the Mosaic law, meaning that he had a positive relationship with God through Judaism. So, Paul is not thinking of Catholicism, but of Judaism.
Paul’s “righteousness of my own” from Judaism is then contrasted with Jesus and His true righteousness. For Paul, only Jesus can grant people a right relationship with God - implying that Judaism did no such thing for him. Because of this, Paul thinks that gains he had in the Mosaic Covenant is like “dung” in comparison to Christ and His Covenant (Phil. 3:7). The previous righteousness or right standing Paul had before God was a false truth. To take this a step further than Paul’s Jewish point, we as humans cannot create a good relationship with God without Jesus. That is one of the reasons why Jesus came to earth. We are all separated from God due to sin (Rom. 3:10, 23) and are only reconciled to God through Jesus. We do not become reconciled to God through Jewish ceremonies like circumcision or through keeping the Jewish way of life. Only through entering the New Covenant can one receive the gift of God’s righteousness. So, Paul’s “righteousness of my own” in Phil. 3:9 is not excluding good works from salvation. Rather, he is talking about the Mosaic Covenant.
Good Works and Catholicism
From the topic of false righteousness offered by the law, Paul transitions to the topic of true righteousness gifted by Christ through faith. However, if Paul only mentions faith in Christ, then wouldn’t that mean that works are unnecessary? That the Catholic model of salvation is just like the Mosaic law? As Protestants say, depending on good works is creating your own self-righteousness. Although Paul critiques the Jewish path to righteousness, Protestants say that the Catholic path would fall under the same exact critique!
However, Catholicism would only fall into this critique if She said that good works brought about initial righteousness or reconciliation with God. But She does not. Catholicism teaches that an unsaved, unbaptized person cannot bring himself out of his negative relationship with God through good works. Only Jesus has the power to do that. The initial grace of salvation coming through faith (in the context of the sacrament of water baptism) is completely unmerited (Council of Trent, Session VI, Chapter V & VIII). Baptized Catholics do not have a righteousness of their own from good works. Baptized Catholics have Christ’s righteousness through faith. When baptized, Catholics become the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). Christ’s righteousness dwells within them (2 Cor. 5:21), filling them with His faith, hope, and charity (Rom. 5:5). This is the New Covenant righteousness of Christ that Paul was thinking of in Phil. 3:9.
Yet Catholicism still claims that baptized Catholics have to maintain this gift of salvation by living as the Body of Christ. Good works are necessary, and if they grievously fail in being the Body of Christ, such as falling into the deadly sins of hatred (1 John 3:15) or apostacy (1 John 5:16), then Catholicism says that they lose Christ’s righteousness. Catholics stop acting like the Body of Christ and spiritually lose our state of grace. This opens up a new objection.
Protestant-Christians will then say that this dependance on good works implies that Catholics are creating their own righteousness. Paul says explicitly in Philippians 3:3 that Christians have no confidence in the flesh. When Catholics speak of sustaining salvation by good works, doesn’t that give them confidence in the flesh? Wouldn’t that mean that Catholics are in contradiction with Paul’s model of salvation? Not exactly.
Catholics preserve Jesus’s righteousness in them through God’s empowering grace to obey. For apart from Jesus, men can do nothing (John 15:5). Catholics are the Body of Christ, so they say with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Paul says that Christ is the one who “works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Jesus is the reason for maintaining the salvation of Catholics. He does the good works. Paul says, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of [the other apostles], though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Although Catholics have free will, they humbly attribute their good deeds to God’s strength. Catholics cannot boast and have confidence in their flesh.
Catholics say that humility is the queen of the virtues, and that pride is the root of vices. So, Catholics strive to eliminate boasting. They strive to take the mentality of Christ, who said, “[W]hen you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). This humble mindset does not lead to boasting. It focuses on the fact that they did not concoct their own righteousness, but dwell in Christ’s.
Okay, so someone may admit that Catholics do have Christ’s righteousness and not their own. However, St. Paul only says that people receive Christ’s righteousness through faith. He does not say anything about good works. If it is through faith, then wouldn’t that mean that salvation is by faith alone?
Catholics would respond by saying that the word for “faith” in Greek (pistis) can be translated as faith or faithfulness. Faith implies obedience – good works. Steve Ray noted that the word used for “believe” (pisteuo) can be translated as ‘to obey’ according to Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. This is because “faith” is a concise way of summing up the entire Catholic Faith. As the Council of Trent, Session 6, Chapter 8, says, “[F]aith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons.” Faith is the foundation of the entire Catholic religion, meaning that it holds up baptism, the Eucharist, good works, prayer, sanctification, etc.
Finally, Paul says in Phil. 2:12 to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. This is only a chapter before Phil. 3. If Paul is teaching salvation by faith alone in Phil. 3:9, then why does he say that the Christians of Philippi need to “work out” their salvation? This is in the subjunctive tense in Greek, so there is no getting around this. Sola Fide is being read into the text by our Protestant brothers and sisters. Works are necessary.
Philippians 3:9 is about two modes of salvation. One is focused on the Mosaic law. The other is focused on Christ. One creates a false righteousness or communion with God. The other creates a true righteousness before God. Catholics do not boastfully create their own righteousness before God by humbly performing good works out of love for Him. They do good works by God’s power only. As St. Therese of Lisieux said, our good works are just throwing flowers to the beloved. Salvation is not based on faith alone in Phil. 3:9.