The Lord’s Day Morning
“He Finishes What He Starts”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Philippians, chapter one. When we started our study of this book together, we noted that this was a book filled with thanksgiving and with joy, and we said that this started with thanksgiving and with joy. In fact, if you allow your eyes to look at verses 3-5, the passage we’re going to read today in verse 6 is a continuation of this one sentence, this one thought, this one prayer of joyful thanksgiving that the Apostle Paul has opened the book with, and I want you to see the components of it.
Last time we were together we said that the Apostle Paul shows in this passage his gratitude, his joy, and his focus on the gospel fellowship that he has with the Philippians. That is, he is thankful for the Philippians. Every time he remembers them his heart is flooded with thankfulness because of them—because of their love and care for him, because of what God is doing in them, because of their partnership with him in the gospel. He says that he is joyful in his prayer for them (“…always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all,” he says in verse 4), and he is focused on their partnership in the gospel.
The first thing that he identifies in this prayer specifically which is an occasion of (a cause of) his thankfulness and joy is their fellowship with him, their communion with him, their participation with him, their partnership with him in the spread of the gospel. It’s not simply that they, too, with him, embrace Jesus Christ as He is offered in the gospel, though they do. It is not just that they, like him, are marked by an overwhelming experience of God’s sovereign grace in their first embrace of the gospel.
Paul was met by the Lord Jesus Himself, on the way to persecute Christians in Damascus, and dramatically changed. Lydia is by the riverside, and the Apostle Paul shows up in Philippi, having seen a vision of a man from Macedonia calling him to “come over and help us.” And what does Luke tell us about her? “The Lord opened her heart to believe.” The Philippian jailer was about to kill himself when the Apostle Paul shared with him the gospel and God enabled him to believe, and his whole household was brought to the Lord’s family. And so it’s not just that they shared an experience of God’s sovereign grace in their own conversions; it is that they shared a common burden for and delight to serve God in the spread of the gospel; and we’ll talk about that in just a few moments.
But the Apostle Paul…this gives him great joy of heart to know that these Philippians, though they were poor – poorer than, perhaps, the Corinthian congregation – yet they were very generous to the point of being lavish in their giving to Paul for the spread of the gospel. Very often as Paul was serving somewhere else and having to serve bi-vocationally (that is, he was having to make tents in order to put some bread on the table and in order to pay the rent, and in order to buy clothes and the other necessities of life), and so he would be tent-making and preaching. And occasionally a gift would arrive from the Philippians, who wanted to give to Paul even though they themselves were poor…even though they had little, comparatively, to some other congregations…because they were so burdened for the same thing that Paul was burdened for—to see men and women and boys and girls coming to saving faith in Christ, to seeing churches planted and built up in the truth of God’s word. And so they would give out of their poverty generously so that Paul could stop being bi-vocational and be mono-vocational for a little while. And you know there’s no one who more wanted to devote himself wholly to the gospel ministry, and so it delighted his heart when he would receive these gifts from the Philippians because he knew the sacrifice that was behind those gifts, and he knew the heart that was behind those gifts – that they had the same burden that he had to see the church built up, to see people saved, to see people growing in Jesus Christ. And so he speaks of this fellowship that he has with them in the gospel, this mutual burden for and participation in the spread of the gospel, and it makes him think of them joyfully.
Well, verse 5 is telling you the first specific reason why Paul was so thankful and joyful in his prayers, and verse 6 is telling you the second reason. The first reason he gives is because of this common participation in, this fellowship in the gospel and in the spread of the gospel. But the second reason is all about God, and it’s the big picture.
You know Paul had already in the course of his ministry seen some ups and downs. He’d been on mission journeys with colleagues boldly declaring the word of truth, and then he’d seen colleagues abandon him. He’d seen people that he had discipled turn against him. He’d seen people who had professed faith in Christ turn their backs on Christ. He’d seen people who had been zealous for the gospel suddenly become points of dissension in the church. He was even going to see people preaching the gospel out of envy towards him, wanting to win more converts than he. No, the Apostle Paul even in his short ministry for Jesus Christ had already seen some pretty hard things.
So where’s his confidence? Where’s his joy come from, if he’s already seen these kinds of ups and downs in the course of ministry? Well, he tells you in verse 6. He tells you that his joy and his confidence come from the fact that God is at work in His people’s salvation from beginning to end, and nothing else can ever shake that reality. And therefore, Paul, no matter what the ups and downs of the moment are in ministry, can rest assured because God is involved in the work of salvation from beginning to end. And that’s what we’re going to study today in Philippians 1:6.
Let’s look to God in prayer before we read His word.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your word of truth, the gospel of Your salvation. As we study this word today, we pray that You would deeply impress upon our hearts the sovereignty of Your salvation, Your initiative in our salvation, Your continuing in grace to uphold our salvation and to complete it. We desperately need to know and to understand and to believe and to embrace, and to live out this truth. So by Your Holy Spirit, grant that it would be so. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
This is the word of God:
“For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, inerrant and authoritative word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Paul, in this passage, is joyful and thankful and confident because salvation is God’s work. He tells you that point blank, explicitly. It’s because God is at work in our conversion, in our justification, in our sanctification, in our glorification.
Let me say that again to you in English, instead of using those Latin words transliterated into the English language: God is at work in the very first nanosecond of your belief in Jesus Christ; God is at work in changing your heart to believe on Jesus Christ, just as He was at work for your salvation from before the foundation of the world. God is at work in declaring you to be right with Him in accepting you in the righteousness of His Son, in pardoning and forgiving you of your sins. He’s at work in that. His initiative is involved. God is at work in your growing up to maturity in grace. Salvation is not something that starts with you and then continues with the work of God, nor does it start with God and then He says ‘OK, the rest is up to you.’ Salvation from beginning to end, from start to finish, is the work of the sovereign grace of God, and so He is at work building you up in Christ, and He is at work one day to present you faultless before His throne with exceeding joy and great glory, in Jesus Christ, with all the saints, perfected. Conversion, justification, sanctification, glorification…that’s what those words are. They’re just code words so you don’t have to take as long as I just took to say all that you want to say.
And the Apostle Paul is celebrating that fact in this passage. Paul is saying, ‘One of the reasons, Philippians, that I’m so thankful, one of the reasons that I’m so joyful in my prayers for you is that I know Who is at work in you. This is not just about you. This is not just about how you have responded. It’s not just about what you are doing now. It’s about what God is up to in you, what He’s done in your conversion, what He’s done in your justification, what He’s done and what He is doing in your maturing and sanctification and growing up, and what He will do on the Last Day. God is at work.’
And, my friends, that is the foundation of a believer’s confidence: that God is at work in the totality of our salvation; that His work is the work of saving, of changing His people; of the building up of His church—and the gates of hell will not prevail against it or Him. And it is precisely that for which Paul is giving thanks in this passage. In verse 5, he gives thanks because the Philippians are partners with him, they’re in fellowship with him, they are participating with him, they are supporting his work of the spread of the gospel. But here Paul is rejoicing and thankful because he knows that God is at work in their salvation, and yours.
I. God is at work in your salvation from beginning to end. Salvation is God’s work from start to finish.
And so I want you to see six things that we learn here. Now, don’t get nervous! Really, this is a one-point sermon, and the one point is this: God is at work in your salvation from beginning to end. Salvation is God’s work from start to finish. And all we’re going to do in these six points of observation that we draw from verse 6 is look at that truth from different directions and see different implications of that one truth as we see it from six different directions.
And the first point is simply
this: Salvation is God’s work.
Paul emphasizes that. Notice what he says:
“I am confident of this very thing, that He who
began a good work in you….”
What did the Apostle Paul say? Who was it that began that good work in you? “He.” Who’s the “He”? God! Who began the good work in you? God! Paul is emphasizing the initiative of God in salvation. Salvation is God’s work. He is the initiator of it. This is something that Paul emphasizes over and over. Think of Ephesians 2:1 – “For you were…” what? “…dead in your trespasses and sins.”
Verse 5: “But God made you alive in Jesus Christ.” Who took the initiative in that salvation? You? No! You were dead. Dead people are notoriously bad initiators! But God took the initiative and did what? Made you alive in Christ!
Is that the only time he says that? No! Go take a look at Colossians 2:13 – “You were dead in transgressions…made alive together with Christ Jesus.” Paul emphasizes this repeatedly in his writings.
And not just Paul, the Apostle John emphasizes this. Take a look at John 1:12. John is explaining to you where belief in Christ comes from, and he describes it beautifully in the first part of that verse:
“As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become the children of God.”
What John is saying in that verse is that those who receive [trust in Jesus Christ…those who place their faith for salvation in Jesus Christ] are accounted by God, appointed by God, adopted by God, as His own children. And John is just marveling at this glorious thing, and he’s speaking about faith in Christ with the beautiful image of “receiving Him.” Why is he doing that? Because he’s just said what? “Jesus came to His own,” and they did what? “…Received Him not.” Then he says, “But as many as received Him….” It’s a picture, isn’t it, of Middle Eastern hospitality? When someone shows up at the door in the middle of the night in need of shelter – ‘Can I come in? – No, no, go away, we gave at the office!’ He came to His own; His own received Him not. But as many as received Him and welcomed Him into their homes…and John is using that as a beautiful picture of faith in Christ: receiving Him into our homes and into our lives and into our hearts. It’s a picture of faith.
But after showing you that picture of faith and saying that all those who believe are the children of God – they’re not just pardoned of their sins and forgiven of their transgressions, but they’re welcomed into God’s family – you welcomed Jesus into your home, and God welcomes you into His.
Then he tells you (second half of the verse) – how did this happen? Look at what he says:
“To those who believe in His name…who were born not of blood….”
It was not by genealogy that you believed in Jesus Christ. John knew many people who had the blood of Abraham flowing in their veins who had not received the Messiah who had been promised to Abraham, and he knew many people who didn’t have the blood of Abraham flowing in their veins who had received the Messiah who had been promised to Abraham. Remember what he says in John 10? “Other sheep have I who are not of this fold.” It’s not genealogy. It’s not bloodline that awakens a person to faith in Jesus Christ.
And then he says, “…nor of the will of the flesh.” It’s not our own human nature in our innate ability and will power that leads us to be able to exercise saving faith. “Not of the will of flesh, nor of the will of man….” Maybe John means by that the will of a husband. A child is brought into this world who is the will of the mother and the father as they join together, and God in His mercy grants to them through that union children. And John is saying that’s not the way that Christians are born.
How are they born? What does he say? “…Of God.” Who takes the initiative? God does. Why? Because we’re dead. We can’t. God takes initiative in salvation, and Paul is celebrating this truth that salvation is God’s work.
Luke talks about this in Acts 11. You’ve heard this over and over if you’ve been listening to Derek preach through the book of Acts. Luke doesn’t miss a chance to tell you that God takes initiative in salvation. Take a peek at Luke 11:18. Peter has just come back to the church in Jerusalem, and he’s scratching his head. And he’s saying, ‘Guys, you’re not going to believe this. But you remember how Jesus poured the Holy Spirit out on us at Pentecost? Well…ahem…I’ve just got back from Antioch…and I was with some Gentiles…and, ah…one of those Gentiles was a Roman soldier, and…guess what I saw? I saw the Holy Spirit poured out on these Gentiles…a Roman soldier and his family. I think the Holy Spirit has been given to the Gentiles, too.’
What is the response of the church in Jerusalem? Look at Acts 11:18:
“Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
But notice how this is put. It’s not that the Gentiles have taken the initiative in this. God has granted it to the Gentiles…the same language that Paul himself will use in Philippians 1:29 –
“To you it has been granted for Christ’s sake not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer.”
The picture is your belief and your suffering are received by you passively, given to you by a grant from God. None of us walks around saying, “You know, today I think I’d like to suffer. Can I order some suffering, God?” But very often God grants us to suffer for our good—always restraining the evil one so that he does not destroy us through that suffering, but rather God by His Holy Spirit refines us like gold and purifies us so that we are like His Son through that suffering. But we do not order that suffering. We do not take initiative in that (Lord, I’d like to suffer today). And the apostle says, ‘Belief? Suffering? God grants it.’
Or, think of II Thessalonians 2:13-14, where Paul says:
“…We should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation…and it was for this He called you through our gospel….”
So Paul says, ‘Your salvation started, friends, before the beginning, when God chose you. And even when we were preaching, understand that when we were preaching it was God who was calling you through our preaching of the gospel. It was God who was taking the initiative to draw you to Himself.’ It is not that I sought the Lord, and then He sought me. It is not that I had faith in the Lord, and then the Lord responded to me in love. It is not that I loved the Lord, and then the Lord loved me. No, John says it this way: We love because He loved first. Or, as we sing it in that beautiful old Southern hymn,
“I sought the Lord, but afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me.
It was not I who found, O Savior true;
No, I was found of Thee.”
He was the seeker. He was the mover. He was the initiator.
Do you understand that the Apostle Paul is emphasizing that in this passage? He was the one who did what? “…Began a good work in you.”
Now I want you to understand that Paul is not just saying that God began that work and then left the rest up to you; he is saying that this salvation is all of grace; that from beginning to end it is the work of God.
He’s not saying that there is nothing that you have to do. He’s not saying that faith is not important. He’s not saying that your living is not important. He’s not saying that your actions are not important.
But he is emphasizing the initiative of God’s grace in your salvation from beginning to end, and he does it all the time.
For instance, take a look at Philippians 2:13 – “It is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” The Apostle Paul is emphasizing that God is at work in you now. It’s not just that He started the work in you and then said, ‘OK, Bubba, you’re on your own. You take it from here.’ No, He is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure, and this gives Paul enormous confidence. My friend, it is the basis of our confidence and assurance, as well. God’s involvement, His initiative, His preservation of us, is the very ground of our experience of confidence in the Christian life.
My friend, if you’ve been a Christian very long, you’ve found occasion when you have had to look into the mirror of your heart and see things there that you would hope nobody else saw. And if your innate goodness and improvement is the ground of your confidence, let me break some really bad news to you. You’re never going to have confidence. But if God’s work in you is the ground of your confidence, if the fact that He will persevere to the end, or as John Newton put it:
“Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come.
Grace has brought me safe thus far,
[And now I’ll take it from here? No, no, no, no, no!]
“And grace will lead me home.”
This is what Paul is celebrating. He’s saying, ‘Philippians, I can look at you and be joyful even though I know you’re going to be persecuted, even though I know that you still sin, even though I know that the evil one is prowling about like a roaring lion wanting to devour you; I can be joyful and thankful and confident because it is God who is at work in you! His work is the foundation of your security.’ Paul is not being rosy-eyed. He is not in denial. He is wide-eyed at the realities the Philippians face, but he is even wider-eyed at the reality of God’s sovereign initiative in salvation which goes from beginning to end.
And, my friends, there are some of you who are praying for children who really need to hear that word right now, because you’ve been praying a long time and you haven’t seen the answer to your prayers. You just remember what Paul says: “He who began a good work in you, will complete it.” Salvation is God’s work. He is its initiator in us, and we really need to understand that.
Now that’s Point One!
Secondly, salvation is a good work, because it makes us fit for the enjoyment of God.
The work of God’s grace in us is a good work. It is a blessed work. It is a noble work. It is an excellent work, because God’s grace works in us to make us who were bad to be good; and to make us—yes, we who once did not want to commune with God, God’s grace works in us so that we do want to commune with God. It makes those of us who did not want to enjoy God to want to enjoy God. It makes us who did not want to glorify God to want to glorify God, and so it fits us to glorify and enjoy Him, to fellowship with and commune with Him forever!
The work of grace in us makes us to be godly, so that we might enjoy fellowship with God. Paul emphasizes this. “He began [what?] a good work in you.” This is a work that Satan never does. Satan doesn’t want you to love God more, treasure God more, delight in God more, enjoy God more, want more of God; and so, when you see that being built in you, you know that it is not the work of Satan. Oh, you may see grievous interruptions in that work, but when you see that work being worked in you, you know who is working that work in you: it’s God. Satan never copies that work. He doesn’t make you love God more, treasure God more, exalt Christ more, love the gospel more. It’s a good work, and it’s a work that only God does.
Thirdly, and very important to understand: This salvation, this good work, is unfinished work here, and it’s vital for us to remember that.
This salvation that God is working, this work that God is doing in us is an unfinished work here.
“He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
The Apostle Paul is telling us that the work of grace is but begun in this life, but it is never ever finished here. The Christian life is not one uninterrupted climb heavenward, nor is it some catapulting to perfection and then a continuous experience of perfection in this life. It is a life filled with peaks and valleys, and sometimes the valleys are so deep that we never ever think that we’re going to climb out of them. And so I want to tell you, my friends, that this word is one of the most encouraging words to me in all of Scripture. You’ve seen the buttons, “Please be patient with me. God isn’t finished with me yet.” How true is that? This is one of the most encouraging…without this word, I could easily despair. And here’s the Apostle Paul saying this work is never finished here. You know, if I thought that it would finish here, that would be the end of me, because I know what I’m like. And here’s Paul saying understand that this work of grace is never ever finished here. As long as we are in this imperfect world, there will always be something more—much more—to do.
And you know, wise saints have always understood that. You don’t have your hymnals, but there is a hymn in our hymnal by a great hymn writer, Thomas Kelly. We sing a lot of his hymns. But Thomas Kelly in his hymn, Praise the Savior, Ye Who Know Him, writes these words:
“Trust in Him, ye saints, forever.
He is faithful, changing never.
Neither force nor guile can sever
Those He loves from Him.
“Keep us, Lord, O keep us cleaving
To Thyself and still believing,
Till the hour of our receiving
Promised joys with Thee.”
[It could almost be a paraphrase of Philippians 1:6. Then, listen to his last stanza.]
“Then [the Day of Christ Jesus] we shall be where we would be,
Then we shall be what we should be;
Things that are not now, nor could be,
Soon shall be our own.”
Don’t you love that? “Then we shall be where we would be…” (We’ll be where we want to be, with Him); “Then we shall be what we should be…” (We’ll be what we ought to have been, the way God made us before the fall of Adam, the very image of His own self); “Things that are not now, nor could be…” (It can’t be like this now in this fallen world, where we’re imperfect); “…Soon shall be our own.” (But it will be then, on that great Day.)
You see, there’s this recognition that salvation is an unfinished work here. John Newton, in less poetic language but just only less, put it this way when he said:
“I am not what I ought to be – ah, how imperfect and deficient I am! I am not what I wish to be. I abhor the evil in me, and I would cleave to that which is good. I am not what I hope to be; soon, soon, I will put off with mortality both sin and imperfection; but though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say I am not what I once was: a slave to sin and Satan. And so, therefore, I can heartily join with the Apostle Paul and say, ‘By the grace of God, I am what I am.’”
My friends, that’s where Christians live, right there. And that’s what the Apostle Paul is saying. He’s saying, ‘Dear Philippian Christians, don’t think that this work of perfection comes to a terminus in this life. It does not. It is always unfinished in this life, and it is vital for us to remember it; else we will drive ourselves crazy.’
When I first came to this seminary, a godly, consecrated young couple who were headed for the mission field—more zeal for Christ than I could have touched with a ten-foot pole—and yet they were in my office deeply discouraged, because in the Bible college that they had just come from their president had stood up and he had said, “I have not sinned in three years. I exhort you to experience the higher life, perfect love, and a triumph over this sin in this life.” And they were deeply discouraged because they knew that that was not what they were experiencing. And the problem, you see, was that he was teaching false doctrine. He was teaching them that believers can be perfected in this life, and the Apostle Paul is saying to you point blank, he’s looking you eyeball to eyeball, ‘That will not happen until the day of Christ Jesus!’ And it’s so, so encouraging to know that!
Fourthly, salvation is a certain work, because God always finishes what He starts. Yes, the Apostle Paul says, “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus,” and therefore by implication it’s not going to be perfected, it’s not going to be completed, it’s not going to be finished until then; but it is a certain work. It is absolutely certain that He will complete it, and that’s why in the song that we’re going to sing in just a few moments, Augustus Toplady asks you to sing that in heaven you will be “more happy, but not more secure.” Because God finishes what He starts. God doesn’t leave off in the middle of His work. He finishes what He starts.
Fifth, salvation is a perfect work of God, because God only does things perfectly. “He who began a good work in you will perfect it in the day of Christ Jesus.” The Apostle Paul is saying you can bet your bottom dollar that God will complete His work, because God does not fail to complete what He starts; God does not do imperfect work; God always, to the fullest degree of perfection, completes the work that He begins; and so, you will be made perfect. And you can be confident or well-persuaded that God will not only not forsake you, but that one day He will perfect you, because God doesn’t do second-rate work.
And sixth and finally, Paul teaches us that salvation is a work that will only be perfect in the day and the appearing and the judgment of Christ:
“I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
The Apostle Paul is saying this will be the day when you are fully and finally perfected: in the day of the appearing of Christ Jesus. He’s saying that your perfection will not occur until then, and it will not occur until the perfection of all other saints.
The author of Hebrews talks about this. Turn with me to the book of Hebrews, chapter 11. In verse 39 (he’s been talking about these great saints of the Old Testament and New), and he says,
“All these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised….”
He’s saying that the things that God had promised them they did not receive in this life. Why? He tells you in verse 40, and look what he says:
“Because God had provided something better for [listen to this!] us.”
Now is that the word you’re looking for? You’re waiting for them, aren’t you? Because God has provided something better for – them? No! Suddenly it’s because God has provided something better for us. That’s a strange argumentation. God didn’t give to them what He had promised, because He has something better for – us. What in the world does he mean? Look at the next phrase: “…So that apart from us they should not be made…..perfect.” You see what the author of Hebrews is saying (and I have a sneaking suspicion he learned this from Paul): that it will be the day of the coming, the appearing, the judgment, the reign, the rule of Jesus Christ, when all the saints at the same time—from Adam to the very last person who is converted before the coming of Christ—at the exact same moment, we will be perfected. Nobody ahead of anybody else in Christ. All at the same time. All to His praise and all to His glory.
And the Apostle Paul says, ‘Philippians, I can only imagine what you’re going to go through in this life. (Now, Paul had a pretty good guess: of what he himself had experienced for the gospel.) But though he could only imagine what they were going to go through in this life, he was certain of this: that God was going to perfect in the Last Day what He had started in them, and therefore the Apostle Paul could be confident.
My friends, if your ultimate assurance and confidence in this life is because of something that you have done, because of something you have achieved, because of something you have attained…well, as we say in the South, “Bless your heart…,” because you’re in for a long, discouraging life. That rug can be pulled out from under you any time and a hundred times. But if your preservation is based on God’s work, then nothing can shake you. And that’s the kind of confidence we need in this kind of a world.
Heavenly Father, make us to believe down to our joints and bones and marrow that You who began a good work in us will complete it in the Day of Christ Jesus, come hell or high water. And grant that we would bask in the assurance of that even as we work out our sanctification with fear and trembling, because we know that it’s God who is at work in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure, because we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
[Congregational Hymn: A Debtor to Mercy Alone]