Paul talks about confidence in the flesh in Philippians 3:3-4. He speaks of disciples as those who put “no confidence in the flesh” (v. 3). Then in the next verse he uses the phrase two more times as he argues he has a greater basis for “confidence on the flesh” than anyone else.
What exactly is he talking about? What does it mean to “put no confidence in the flesh?”
For a long time, I understood these passages (and others like them) as having reference to some form of legalistic approach to faith—having faith in their obedience as opposed to having the obedience that comes from faith (Romans 1:5,16:26). Under this rubric, the Mosaic covenant is often misrepresented as requiring perfection/being legalistic and N.T. references to Judaizers are explained as those people who wanted to move Christians away from the covenant of grace (new covenant) back into the legalistic, Mosaic covenant.
This simply isn’t true on several levels. One is that the Mosaic covenant did not represent a legalistic approach to God. After all, there was a sacrificial system built into it! How could a covenant offering forgiveness and having a Day of Atonement be understood as legalistic? If we think having to do something (i.e., offer a sacrifice) makes it legalistic, we don’t understand grace (or legalism for that matter). Again, it’s the difference between having faith in our obedience and the obedience that comes from faith. One is legalism and the other is grace. Returning to the nature of the Mosaic covenant, read Deuteronomy 30:11ff and see if that sounds like it is demanding perfection.
If the Mosaic covenant wasn’t legalistic, could it be perverted into such a system? Of course, it could! Anything can be. Do we have evidence that this was done by the Pharisees or others? Not in the sense that they believed they were perfect human beings who had flawlessly kept the law or taught such. (Let’s give them some credit!). They were more elitists who thought that their connections to Abraham through the flesh (Matthew 3:9-10), to Moses through the law (John 5:45, 9:28), and to their ancestors through their traditions (Matthew 15:2ff), made them righteous and better than everyone else.
With this in mind, the Judaizers we read about in so much of the N.T. weren’t seeking to introduce a system calling for perfection, they were trying to sell disciples of Jesus the idea that they needed connect to Abraham, Moses, and all their traditions. They wanted them to practice circumcision, observe dietary laws, and observe the Jewish calendar. In other words, being a Christian wasn’t enough. That’s the heresy Paul is fighting in his letters.
When we apply this understanding to the text, it makes much more sense. Paul is not saying that he had more reason to have confidence in the flesh in a legalistic sense. He means in an elitist, nationalistic sense he was more steeped in the Jewish faith and traditions than any of his opponents. But now, as part of the community of Christ, he put no confidence in fleshly connections to Abraham or a covenant that catered to the flesh (Hebrews 9:13 ESV).