The phrase “I count everything as loss” in Philippians 3:8 would be literally translated as “I count all things as dung.” Paul has good reason for strong language in the context of Philippians 3. Paul had just listed several things that might have given him confidence in the flesh: he was a duly circumcised, law-keeping, zealous Pharisee of the stock of Benjamin. “But,” he says, “whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3:7). And he continues: “Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Philippians 3:8, KJV).
Paul begins Philippians 3 by urging his readers to avoid those who would require a Christian to undergo circumcision. Circumcision was meant to be a sign of the Abrahamic Covenant for the people of Israel. Jewish males had to be circumcised eight days after their birth (Genesis 17:10–12; Leviticus 12:2–3). The Old Testament requirement of circumcision led to a debate among the Christians in the early church (Acts 15:1–2), resulting in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:6). At the council, the church leaders ruled that circumcision was not required for salvation in Christ. God was blessing those who believed in Jesus with the Holy Spirit, regardless of whether they were circumcised (Acts 15:7–20). Gentile believers had been baptized into the body of Christ by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13), and they did not need the external rite of circumcision.
It is in this context that Paul counts “all things as dung.” Paul sees the Judiazers (those who required circumcision) as “mutilators of the flesh” who were forcing an unnecessary rule on Gentile Christians (Philippians 3:3). We are not saved by fleshly acts, and we should “put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:4). If anyone had reason to boast in the flesh, it was Paul. He had achieved much before Christ found him, but he considered all that as dung. He gladly gave up his earthly accolades so that he “may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in a Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:8–9). Paul was a religious leader—a good one, at that. However, that did not save him. Only the righteousness of Christ can save a person (Philippians 3:10; Ephesians 2:8–9). That righteousness is achieved through faith, not by one’s pedigree or an impressive resume of works.
Paul continues in Philippians 3:14 and puts works in its proper place: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” The works that provided self-righteousness Paul counts as dung, but the works that are a result of Christ’s righteousness he counts as worth striving after. The Philippians were righteous through faith in Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:1). Paul exhorts the them to live in a righteous manner, according to their position in Christ (Philippians 3:15–16).
Like the Philippians, we cannot work our way to heaven. It doesn’t matter how often we go to church, how many material possessions we give away, or how righteous we believe ourselves to be. Without faith in Jesus Christ, those things are like so much dung. However, the believer in Christ has been “created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10). Those things that are in accordance with the will of God and found in the Scriptures are worthy of striving after. (Ephesians 2:8–9).