More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! – that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. (Philippians 3:8-9, NET)
Last year, Al Mohler had a radio program entitled Bad Language in the Pulpit? In it, he discussed linguistics, and whether there are bad sounds (letters) vs. bad words. Lots of helpful discussion here. He affirmed something many Christians might have a problem with: that it is OK to use strong language where the Bible uses strong language. The example he cited was when Paul says that all of his good works are "dung," it is acceptable for us to do the same.
Dr. Mohler's exact wording is: "I will say that if the Apostle Paul is our model here, then we can talk about our efforts at self-righteousness in some of the strongest, most scatalogical terms." He goes on to say that the Apostle Paul doesn't use that kind of language "casually, carelessly, or strategically just to shock, or about, for instance, other human beings."
The Greek word referenced, σκύβαλον, is defined by BDAG, the standard reference work for Koine Greek, as "useless or undesirable material that is subject to disposal, refuse, garbage (in var. senses,'excrement, manure, garbage, kitchen scraps')" (emphasis in the original). Toward the bottom of the entry is a note that says "to convey the crudity of the Greek...: 'It's all crap'," presumably referring to the Scripture passage I referenced above.
The NET Bible, which I quoted, translates the word "dung," and the footnote reads: The word here translated "dung" was often used in Greek as a vulgar term for fecal matter. As such it would most likely have had a certain shock value for the readers. This may well be Paul’s meaning here, especially since the context is about what the flesh produces. (An extended argument from Dan Wallace about why "dung" or its like is a better translation of σκύβαλον that "rubbish" or "garbage" is available here.)
I agree with both Mohler and Wallace, though not out of any desire to exercise a perverse potty-mouth; quite the opposite. I agree with them because when I look at my own life that's what I see.
The good works that I bring to Christ aren't just garbage. They aren't only a "loss," or a writeoff. To God, they are offensive. They are like that smell I remember when it was my turn to pick up dog stuff in the back yard on a 100+ degree summer day in Phoenix - a wretched stench so overpowering that it induces the gag reflex almost immediately. That's what my good works were before I became a follower of Jesus.
The bad part about all this is that, years down the road, many of my works still seem like this. I lead family worship because it's the right thing to do, and not because of my overwhelming love for God and desire to see my family become fully devoted followers of Him; I find my Bible where I left it the previous Sunday because I haven't looked at it the entire week; all too often I find myself arrogant when I'm in the right, and defensive when I'm in the wrong. It feels like so much of what I do even as a believer is still just dirty rags and smelly garbage.
God doesn't describe our works after Christ in that way. Instead He gives us a picture of gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or stubble. Some of it endures, and some of it burns up. But manure burns, too...and it stinks.
So I find myself looking once again at "the great exchange" - where Christ is made sin for me, and his true, pure righteousness is credited to me, and I'm humbled once again to rely on him to do anything that is worthy of his name.
Which I guess is OK, since Paul himself doesn't stop at simply acknowledging that all his works were dung. Instead, he goes on and affirms that this was "in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith."
Praise God for that.
Scripture quoted by permission. Scripture quotation was taken from the NET Bible®, and footnote was taken from the NET Bible® footnotes, both copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved. The NET Bible® is freely available at www.bible.org/ .