Misuse of Phil 3:9
Philippians 3:9 is definitely up there among the most commonly misused passages in the New Testament.
It's a great example of how a sentence taken out of context can have an apparently obvious meaning in and of itself which bears little relation to what it was meaning in context. It seems a clear and self-explanatory declaration when removed from context, and it also seems a great proof-text for beliefs some people want to have, so it gets used. I can see why it gets used so often: People hear the verse and think it says what they want to say, so they repeat it.
I can understand the popular-level use of passages out of context. But what annoys me is when people who should know better do the same thing. Westerholm in his book Perspectives Old and New on Paul makes gratuitous incorrect use of it. When he lays out his own view of Paul's theology, whenever he feels his view is threatened by some insurmountable objection he simply repeats Phil 3:9 as if it were a charm to make all the evidence against his views miraculously dissapear. He does this about half a dozen times!
Unlike Romans 3, Philippians 3 is not suffering from a ridiculous lack of clarity. There is nothing much really very difficult about the passage, it's just that most people don't actually bother to pay attention to what Paul is saying in it.
The typical misuse that this passage gets put to is to mean something approximately like "righteousness attained from human effort is worthless, true righteousness is given freely by God in response to a lack of human effort". The idea is that Paul is comparing his old Judaism which was a religion of human effort to be righteous, with his new Christianity that by lack of effort attains God's gift of righteousness.
Now, regardless of whether that theological view is correct or incorrect in general, that's obviously not what Paul's actually talking about in this particular passage. When we look at the description of Judaism he gives we find that half of what he says has nothing whatsoever to do with human effort or striving to attain righteousness, but rather is about his Jewish birth - ie he's saying that by the accident of his birth he was born into God's elect people, not by any effort he made he was born as part of the God's chosen nation. Then when we look at the description of his Christian life that follows on from 3:9, do we find a discussion of how he is now not making effort to be righteous and how he is sitting back and letting God's grace work in him? No, the entire passage is about striving to achieve righteousness and 'win' the race, and exerting all possible effort. So far from a Judaism of "effort" being contrasted with a Christian "lack of effort and reliance on grace" that the misuse of Phil 3:9 would lead us to expect, the context discusses a Judaism that relies as much on grace as it does on effort and a Christianity that relies totally on effort. There are plenty of other problems with this misuse of 3:9 given the context, but this is the blindingly obvious one.
In reading the passage carefully to see what it actually does say the key is to pay attention to which contrasts Paul draws and which he does not. The literal contrast being made in verse 9 if you look at the construction of the sentence is the antithesis between Torah-based righteousness "from law" that is currently what Paul has ("my own") and the faithfulness-based righteousness "from God" that Paul desires to have in the future ("make it my own"). In short, he is not happy with the type of righteousness that he currently has which the law approves and instead strives with all his effort to attain the type of righteousness that God approves... which clearly fits with the rest of the context. There is not even the least hints that "human righteousness" is in any way deficient or that "effort" is bad, there is no antithesis drawn between "effort" and "no effort" nor between "human righteousness" and "God's righteousness" as the misuse of the verse would have us believe, that's just not at all what Paul is talking about.
It baffles me that people such as Westerholm can have read the context and simply not see the total incongruence between their use of the verse and the passage in context. How one can read the effort-based striving of Paul for righteousness, and then announce that in this very passage Paul rejects the value of human effort to attain righteousness before God, truly defies my belief.