The Lord’s Day
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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.
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.
receive God’s blessing.
grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.
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