One noticeable thing about Paul is that he spoke his mind clearly and forcibly. There were some religionists in Philippi whose view of salvation was having a negative affect on the church (3:2-3). Paul labels them as “dogs” (a Jewish reference to Gentiles who lived apart from religious ceremony and there fore were unclean), “evildoers”(a general term for those outside the faith), and “mutilators of the flesh” (an obvious reference to those who placed strong emphasis on the outward ceremony of removing the foreskin). Up in Jerusalem there were some who professed faith in Christ but kept a tight hold on the ancient Jewish custom of circumcision. Apparently some of these Judaizers had moved out through the land and were insisting that apart from circumcision, the “faith” of Gentile believers was insufficient. Such a denial of the sufficiency of faith alone was not only incorrect, but destructive to the growing church of Christ as well. Paul is saying that they are the ones, not the Philippian believers, who are the “dogs” that ravage the garbage dumps for ceremonially unclean food; they are “evil doers” whose life-style opposed all that God requires, and, to put it bluntly, they are “mutilators of the flesh” who take pride in slashing the body unaware of what the ancient practice intended.
These people might identify themselves as the “circumcision party” but true circumcision was something quite distinct. Authentic circumcision is to worship God in spirit, take great pride in the work of Christ Jesus and put no confidence in unregenerate human nature (v. 3). So clear is the difference between salvation as an act of God received by faith alone and the end product of human diligence, that to confuse the two is sheer heresy.
I think that if you were to stand on a street counter in your hometown and ask the first one hundred people how to go to heaven you would find that the large percentage would say something like, “Live a good life,” or, “Do the best you can.” To what extent you would get the same answer in local churches (including evangelical) I am not sure but I suspect that it wouldn’t be much different. It is so hard for us to acknowledge that we have absolutely nothing to do with our salvation except to accept it. That sort of confession removes anything we could brag about. It’s because we’re part of a fallen human race that we insist on having something to be proud of. And that is why the “circumcision party” that Paul writes about kept clinging to what was their last hope for pride.
As Augustus Toplady expressed it in the hymn, Rock of Ages, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.” Salvation is a gift, not an achievement. That’s why you can do nothing about it except to believe it. Anything else comes from pride. Undoubtedly, that is why Paul had to present the point in such unmistakably clear language.