The Lord’s Day Morning
February 17, 2008
Fighting for Joy, Growing in Humility,
Knowing Christ and the Peace that Passes Understanding: A Study of Philippians
“Sanctification 101 (and Missions!)”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I invite you to turn with me to Philippians 2:12-13. We were in these verses last week. I got about half way through the message last week, so we’re going to try and finish it today.
As we look at this passage, let me just tell
you ahead of time, despite the number of points that I’ll mention in the message
today, just like last week, this week there’s only one main point.
Last week as we looked at Philippians 2:12-13, we said that this was the main point that the Apostle Paul wanted us to appreciate about sanctification:
that because God accepts us freely, change is possible.
Now let me unpack that for you a little bit. Because God accepts us freely, change is possible.
A lot of people looking at what the Bible teaches about salvation will say because God accepts us and pardons us and forgives us apart from what we do, that means that what we do doesn’t matter in the Christian life. And that is never ever what the Apostle Paul or any other New Testament writer teaches. None of them teach us that because God accepts us apart from what we do, what we do after we’ve been accepted does not matter. On the contrary, the logic of the New Testament is because God accepts us apart from what we do, what we do (having been accepted) really matters. And even more encouragingly, it emphasizes to us that because God accepts us apart from what we do, God is also at work in us to change us—so that we will live a very different life than we lived before.
So we’re not accepted by God because we try hard to live a new life; we’re accepted by God because of what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for us. But having been accepted by God through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, He not only forgives us, He changes our lives. And so the point that we tried to drive home last week was that because God accepts us freely, change is now possible.
This week the point is going to be related, but slightly different. Because the other thing that the Apostle Paul stresses so clearly in this passage – and you see it in the end of verse 12 – is that God is the one at work in us, working to change us. God is the one at work in us, working to change us.
Now many Christians, well-meaning Christians, draw this deduction: ‘Since God is at work in me, working to change me, I don’t need to do anything.’ And again, that is not the deduction that the Apostle Paul draws, and nowhere in the New Testament do you find that equation. In fact, it’s the opposite: ‘Since God is working in me, I work with hope. Since God is at work in me, it’s not that I don’t need to work; it’s that I work with hope.’
Now I’ve just told you last week’s main point and this week’s main point. And be assured I’ll come back to them in a few minutes, but just for the sake of clarity I want to put those out on the table to begin with.
Now let’s walk through the passage again and remember what we’ve already found. As we were looking at this passage last week, we were reminding ourselves that the whole context of this passage is the context of the Apostle Paul not telling the Philippians how they are accepted with God…not telling the Philippians how they are converted…not telling the Philippians how they are forgiven or pardoned, or justified in Jesus Christ. No, from Philippians 1:27 all the way to Philippians 2:18, the Apostle Paul is talking about one grand theme: Having been accepted by God, having been forgiven, having been converted, how do you go about living the Christian life? And he gave an exhortation in Philippians 1:27 to do what? “Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel.” And then in Philippians 2:5, he said, “Have this attitude in yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus.”
So the whole passage is about sanctification. It’s not about justification, it’s about sanctification. We said last week that those are technical terms to describe something very simple, but profound. When we talk about justification, we’re talking about God accepting us. When we’re talking about sanctification, we’re talking about God changing us. In this passage, Paul is not talking about how we’re accepted with God. He’s telling us how we’re changed by God. In our acceptance, we contribute absolutely nothing. Not even our faith is a reason why God accepts us. Our faith is the way we receive His free acceptance, but in our change it’s a little bit different, isn’t it? Yes, God is at work in us by His grace to change us; but, in a way very different from our being accepted by God, we also work towards change in us, cooperating with what God the Holy Spirit is doing in us. And that’s very different from our acceptance.
Now why is this important? Because of what Paul says in Philippians 2:12. Look at those words, because they arrest you, if you’re paying attention. He says to us, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Now if you understand that the whole passage in which that verse is found is about – what? – sanctification…. And in fact, it’s one of the most important passages in all of the Bible about how we grow in grace, how we become more like Jesus Christ.\
If you understand that the context of that passage is a context in which Paul is talking about how we are changed, how we grow, how we become more mature as believers, you’ll understand that Paul is not saying ‘work to save yourself,’ in the sense of ‘work so that you’ll be justified, work so that you’ll be accepted, work so that you’ll be forgiven.’ Paul does not mean that you must somehow save yourself from God’s judgment by doing good works or by your efforts, or your goodness. No.
He’s talking about those who have already been converted, they’ve already been accepted, they’ve already been forgiven, they’ve already been pardoned, they’ve already been justified.
And he’s telling them what? How to live like Jesus. How to grow in their Christian life. And so when Paul says work out your salvation, he is in effect talking about your sanctification. He’s saying work out your salvation in your sanctification. Show the fruits of God’s saving work for you in the way you pursue godliness.
And that means that he’s stressing here that if we’re going to pursue godliness, it’s because God is at work in us for godliness.
In fact, Philippians 2:12-13 is, in the final analysis, an encouragement. If you look at the passage, as we’re going to do in just a moment, Paul is not telling the Philippians, ‘Hey, you guys need to start obeying.’ He’s actually commending them for already obeying. So the whip is not out, and he’s not lashing their backs, telling them to do something that they’re not doing. What is he doing? He is commending them, encouraging them for doing something that they are doing that they ought to be doing, and it is important. And so Paul is actually giving us an encouragement here: that because you have been accepted by God freely, you can and will make progress in change. And that is so encouraging for some of us who are far along in the Christian life, and yet every once in a while we wake up and we look in the mirror, and we think, “I’m not very far along in the Christian life.” What an incredible encouragement to remember that God is at work in me – and you – to change us, to make us more like Christ. So this passage is, in the final analysis, an encouragement.
Now with that introduction, let’s look to God in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word. And we know that we need to do more than just understand it; we need to live it. And it’s easier to understand than it is to put into practice. So we ask Your Holy Spirit to help us not only to understand and believe this truth, but also to live it out. And we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of God from Philippians 2:12-13.
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon your hearts.
Now, as we said last week, in this passage Paul is teaching us here not that God accepts you, and therefore no change is necessary in your life, but that God accepts you and therefore change is now possible in your life. And I want you to follow along and look at the four parts of this exhortation, and learn five principles about growing in grace out of those four parts.
Now remember, there is just one point to this message! And the point is this: Because God is at work in you, you work in hope. That’s the one point. But we’re doing these things so that you can follow the flow of Paul’s argument and get the full encouragement of what he’s saying here. Four parts to this exhortation…look at them. Look at verses 12 and 13. They’re very simple. “Continue to obey,” he says; “Work out your salvation…in fear and trembling…because God is at work in you.” Now let’s look at those four things.
I. Continue to obey.
The first thing that Paul says in this passage is “continue to obey.” Paul is not like a coach saying to a team that is not getting his point, “You knuckleheads! Stop doing it wrong! Do it the way I told you to do it!” No, Paul is actually saying, “You got it! You’re doing exactly what you ought to be doing! Keep on doing what you’re doing.” It’s like he stops practice, he’s blown the whistle, and he’s said, “Yes! Just like that! Keep it up!” This is an encouragement. He’s not bashing his team, he’s encouraging them. He says, ‘You know what? You not only obey when I’m there with you, you obey when I’m not there with you. Keep it up. That’s exactly right.’
Boy, is that important for us to hear! Because what the Apostle Paul is telling you is, as he commends them for obedience, he’s telling you…and here’s the first principle that we learn from the passage…the reason why there are four parts to the exhortation and five principles is I’m going to get two principles out of the last exhortation, so let me just…full disclosure ahead of time, OK? But here’s the first principle. The first principle is simply this: Obedience is a natural, vital, and necessary part of the Christian life.
You know there are some people who will tell you that if you want to talk about obedience, then you just don’t understand grace. ‘Obedience? That’s for legalists!’ And that thought never entered into the mind of the Apostle Paul. He’s commending these Christians. He’s saying, ‘You are doing it exactly right. You’re obeying, even when I’m not there. Keep it up.’ And that lets you know what? That obedience is a vital, essential part of the Christian life. That’s so important because there are some people who break out in hives and get the heebie-jeebies when you start talking about “duty” and “must” and “ought” and “command” in the Christian life. They just don’t know what to do with that. Because what’s their logic? Their logic is ‘I’ve been accepted by God apart from my doing; therefore, my doing doesn’t matter.’ And the Apostle Paul says, ‘No, no, no. You don’t understand. You have been accepted by God apart from your doing, and now, therefore, your doing matters. It’s a very different logic the Apostle Paul is operating with, and so his first exhortation is “Continue to obey.” And the principle we learn from that is that obedience is a natural, vital, and essential part of the Christian life.
II. Work out your salvation.
The second thing he says in this passage is in that strange, shocking, arresting phrase, “Work out your salvation.” But as we’ve said, it is clear from the context that he’s not saying work for your justification, work to be accepted by God, work so that you’ll be forgiven by God. No, in fact he is saying work out your sanctification, be active in pursuing holiness and godliness in the Christian life. And that leads us to the second principle that we learn here: we are to be active in living the Christian life. We are not passive in growing in grace.
You remember how when we first started studying Philippians 2, we emphasized Paul’s call to Christian unity? And we said that unity does not just happen. Yes, God has united us to Christ, and He’s united us to one another, but if we’re going to express and experience that unity, what are we going to have to do? We’re going to have to contribute to it. Why? Because we are going to sin against one another. We are going to hurt one another’s feelings. We are going to let one another down. And if we think that unity is just going to happen, we are living in a pipe dream! If our unity is going to be expressed and experienced, what are we going to have to do? We’re glint to have to be intentional in promoting that unity, especially when we have been offended in the context of the body. And so the Apostle Paul is just saying here you’ve got to be active in living the Christian life. It’s not sitting back on the hammock and swinging back and forth on the porch; it’s active commitment to growing in grace, if you are going to experience and express all that God has for you.
III. Do this before God in reverent awe and humility.
Third, look at what he says: we are to do this in fear and trembling. Now what does he mean? He means that we’re to do this in reverent awe and humility of God. He tells you why in the next section—because God’s at work in you. It’s an awesome thing. When you see yourself wanting to do what the Bible tells you to do, when you see yourself not only wanting to do what the Bible tells you to do, but doing what the Bible tells you to do, I want to tell you something very awesome. You are seeing tangible that the living God who made heaven and earth is at work in your life. And that’s a little close to home! And it ought to cause you to tremble just a little bit, because the Almighty God is at work in you. Everywhere you see yourself wanting to follow the Bible, and following the Bible in your life, that is an evidence that God is at work in you.
What does Paul say in the passage? “Both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” Every time you want to do what God tells you to do…every time you do what God tells you to do…that is an evidence that God the Holy Spirit is at work in you, and that ought to cause you to tremble.... ‘Lord, You’re working on my heart. You’re changing me, and that’s an awesome thing.’ And so Paul says you ought to do it with fear and trembling. The third principle: We are to be humble and God-fearing in our living of the Christian life.
IV. Live this way because God is at work in you.
Fourth, he says that we are to do this because God is at work in you. (And this is why I have five principles, because I’m going to draw two principles from that fourth aspect of Paul’s exhortation.)
The fourth principle, Paul tells you that God is at work in you to encourage you. Christians sometimes struggle with growing in grace because they don’t understand how it works. Either they think that God does something like this…He says, ‘OK, I’ve saved you by Jesus Christ, I’ve forgiven you, and now you’re on your own. Get crackin’! Get to it.’ And other times, they think, ‘Well, God saved me, and He’s at work in me changing me, so I don’t have to do anything.’ And the Apostle Paul with this exhortation is encouraging us and correcting us at the same time, and that’s why I’ve got four parts of the exhortation and five particular principles. So here’s the first principle: We are to be encouraged that God is at work in us. Thank God that He did not say, ‘OK, you’re forgiven. Now you’re on your own.’ Because I can testify that it’s hard enough to pursue holiness with His help. I can’t imagine pursuing it without Him. So he’s encouraging you: ‘God Himself is at work in you, so be encouraged by that.’
But the fifth principle that we learn from the passage is that God’s work doesn’t lead us to say ‘I don’t need to do anything. I don’t need to work.’ But rather, it leads us to work in hope. You see, the logic of sanctification goes like this. God is at work in you, and therefore everything that you do matters, to grow in grace. It’s so important to understand that that operates everywhere in the Christian life. God is at work in you; therefore everything that you do matters as you seek to grow in grace.
You see, this truth is all over the New Testament. It’s the truth that God is at work in us for our growth in godliness; and precisely because He is at work in us, we ourselves are to be pursuing holiness.
Let me point you to a few passages that stress this. In Ephesians 2:8-10, we read:
“For by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Now Paul couldn’t have been more clear that your works do not contribute one iota to your acceptance with God. They do not contribute one iota to your being justified. They do not contribute one iota to your being forgiven and pardoned. And then listen to what he says in the next verse – verse 10:
“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works….”
Now wait a minute. Did Paul have a mental hiccup and forget what he had just said in verses 8 and 9? He started out by saying your works contribute absolutely nothing to your acceptance by God, and then he turns around and says God created you – He renewed you in Christ, He regenerated you, He converted you, He saved you – for good works. Now did Paul forget what he had just said? No. He’s not contradicting himself. Notice where the works are. On which side of our acceptance are they? They are not on the side prior to our acceptance. They’re afterwards. God didn’t save us by our works, He saved us to our works; He didn’t save us through our works, He saved us for our works. In other words, God didn’t change us because our lives changed; our lives changed because God changed us.
It’s so important that we get this down. And it’s repeated over and over in the New Testament: Romans 6:17; II Thessalonians 1:11-12; Hebrews 13:20-21; I Peter 4:11; Galatians 5:22-23. Let me just take you to the Hebrews passage for one example. In Hebrews, you get this benediction pronounced on you:
“Now the God of peace…equip you in every good this to do His will, working in us that which is well-pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever.”
Isn’t it interesting? God is doing what there? Equipping you. To do what? What is well-pleasing in His sight. Did you notice that? God is at work in you, equipping you to do what? What is well-pleasing in His sight. And if He’s equipping you to do that, what do you have to do? What is well-pleasing in His sight. But it’s God at work in you, enabling you to do it! And over and over in the New Testament we see this principle that God is at work in us for our godliness; and therefore, precisely because He’s at work in us, we are to work to grow in grace. That truth is all over the New Testament; and, therefore, the sovereignty of God in our salvation and sanctification is not permission to be lazy, but it is a reason to hope.
The sovereignty of God makes us hopeful that change is possible; it doesn’t make us passive, as if no change were necessary. Growth in godliness is the work of God in us by His grace, by His Spirit. But precisely because it’s the work of God in us by His grace, it requires our effort. And our effort will never be wasted, because He has given a promise to us and a reason to hope.
Now you ask me, “What does that have to do with missions?” Everything! But two things come immediately to mind.
One thing is simply this: As you grow in godliness, you will grow in appreciation for the grace that saved you. And nobody grows in appreciation for the grace that saved them without wanting what? Everybody to experience the joy of saving grace in Jesus Christ. And that means that everybody who’s growing in grace grows in a love for, a commitment to – what? The Great Commission. Every growing Christian wants men and women and boys and girls from every tribe and tongue and people and nation to experience what we have experienced by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and therefore the Great Commission is a part of who we are, and it becomes more and more a part of who we are. We become more committed to evangelism, we become more committed to missions, we become more committed to the discipleship of the church as we grow in grace. So that’s the first thing that this passage has to do with it. If we’re growing – and that’s what Paul’s talking about – then we’re going to be growing in the commitment to missions.
But there’s another thing as well. In this passage, the Apostle Paul gives us this equation: because God is at work in us, what we do matters. And it’s the same thing in missions. You know we might be tempted to think, well, you know, God is the great missionary. He’s calling men and women and boys and girls from every tribe and tongue and people and nation to himself. He doesn’t need my help. That’s never the logic of the Bible. The logic of the Bible is always this: Because God is calling people to Himself, what I do matters.
Your response to the Missions Conference this week will matter because God will use every drop of your commitment, your desire, your effort, for His glory, your everlasting good, and to bring a people to himself. The only question is will you be in on the fullness of that blessing, or will you bypass it because of laziness? And in this passage the Apostle Paul is making it amply clear that because God is at work in us, what we do matters. And that includes missions. And that’s the connection between Sanctification 101 and world missions.
May the Lord bless His word. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, thank You for the truth of Your word. Bring it home, we pray, in our hearts. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Let’s stand and sing from No. 565 – All for Jesus.
Let me remind you that after the service our new members and communicants will be up front, and Brad and Cindy Mercer will be in the greeting courtyard. I trust that you’ll have the opportunity to express your love and welcome, as well as your farewell, to all of them.
Now receive God’s blessing.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.