Today, July 10, 2014, is the 505th birthday of John Calvin. He was born in Noyon, Picardy, France on 10 July, 1509. In July of 2009, I had the privilege of being a part of the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Calvin’s birth. John Calvin was an important theologian and leader of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. The event was held, appropriately, in Geneva, Switzerland and in St. Pierre Church (and in the Auditoire de Calvin), and papers were read and sermons were preached, all related to the life and ministry and influence of the French Reformer. The following was my sermon on that occasion.
In June of 1917, on the eve of the American entrance into the Great War (World War I), when General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, head of the American Expeditionary Force, arrived at Gilbert du Motier, the tomb of the legendary Marquis de Lafayette (French commander and ally of the Patriot Cause in the American War of Independence), he is said to have uttered: “Lafayette, we are here.”1 These words evoked a man-remembered and a debt-owed, and a readiness to repay that debt. The memory and debt-owed was the crucial contribution of Lafayette to American freedom. The words mean that Pershing, on behalf of a grateful United States, had not forgotten Lafayette’s (and France’s) critical aid in a time of need, and reckoned it as a national obligation. And more, that America was ready for her own sons to shed blood to aid in the cause of French freedom.
Well, we are gathered here, in St. Pierre Church, in Geneva, Switzerland, in July of 2009, five hundred years after the birth of another Frenchman, one who is generally reckoned the greatest Protestant reformer of the sixteenth-century and one of three greatest Christian theologians in history. One to whom the whole Reformed and Protestant world is indebted. And thus we are here to remember, to acknowledge a debt-owed, and to indicate a desire to repay it. So, on behalf of grateful, Bible-believing, Christ-exalting, Gospel-loving Christians from the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe, I say: “Jean Calvin, nous sommes ici.”
Now it is almost certain that John Calvin would be horrified by our celebration of the anniversary of his birth, just as he would have been mortified at the sight of his looming statue on the Reformation wall. After all, this was a man who insisted on being buried in an unmarked grave (and we’ve never quite figured out exactly where), because the whole thrust of his life and ministry was to give all praise and glory to God. “We are not our own, we are God’s,” he would say. “Let us therefore live for him and die for him and take none of the honor or credit for ourselves but give all to him.” Hence, there is no better way we could adorn his memory than to live lives consumed with a passion for God’s glory and animated by gratitude for his sovereign, saving love.
Calvin on the Christian Life
And that makes the subject of this message one of particular importance. In the passage we will soon read, Paul’s concern is to articulate a key truth about the living of the Christian life, about growth in grace. Modern theologians often refer to this subject as “sanctification.” Calvin sometimes called it “regeneration” meaning not (as we often do) simply the Spirit’s initial renovation of us in our conversion, but the Spirit’s transformation of us over the whole course of life, so that we grow in grace, and become conformed to the image of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ.
This transformation was a particular concern of Calvin’s. He valiantly contended for the truth of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But he also emphasized the importance of the progressive, moral, life renovation that always and invariably accompanies our free justification. I think I can very safely say, that the only tribute to his memory that he would have desired would have been that of the congregations of Christians in his home city, and those who embrace his exposition of the Scripture around the world, living lives, individually and corporately that bear witness to the transforming work of the Spirit, or, to use Paul’s language in Philippians, walking “in a manner worthy of the Gospel.” He would have desired no flowing banners strung from the massive classical columns of the St. Pierre façade, no billboards advertising exhibits of a day in his life, no museums, no conferences, no plaques, no monuments of stone. Just Christians living out of the Gospel, personally and congregationally. Glorifying God in life and doctrine.
Timely and Problematic
Calvin’s emphasis on “progressive sanctification” or the whole-life, life-long, regeneration of the Christian is timely because it is so problematic in our own day. Three reasons come immediately to mind. As urgent as is the need for the church to live consistently with its profession and experience of the Gospel, (1) some view sanctification as legalism, (2) some misunderstand and misconstrue the nature of sanctification, and (3) some have given up on sanctification.
Is sanctification legalism?
First, many well-meaning Christians in our time equate an emphasis on sanctification, consecration, holiness, and piety with legalism. Very often those who have come from backgrounds that are moralistic and legalistic, and have for the first time come to appreciate the freedom of grace, and justification by an alien righteousness, become suspicious of any emphasis on the imperatives of the Christian life. “Free from the law, O happy condition, I can do as I please, now that I have remission” becomes their attitude. And woe to the preacher who calls them to self-denial, to strive for holiness, to be not conformed to this world, but be transformed.
In fact, very often ministers who call upon the flock to embrace any of the hundreds of New Testament directives and commands relating to the Christian life are accused of “not understanding grace” or of “not understanding the Gospel.” Meanwhile, some prominent Protestant preachers teach that now being justified “if we are not free to sin, then we are not really free.” Calvin would have called this view “libertinism” (“I can do whatever I want now that I’m justified”).
It should be needless to say that this kind of teaching is unbiblical and unhelpful. Calvin’s exposition of the Christian offers a needful corrective.
Is sanctification self-help and is perfection possible?
Second, the biblical doctrine of the Christian life is often misunderstood and misconstrued, in different directions. On the one hand, there are those who view sanctification as fundamentally our work. God forgives us, but now we are on our own. Justification is God’s work, but sanctification is ours, and we need to just pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and get on with it. In other words, they relate the Gospel to justification, but fail to relate it to sanctification. This error fails to understand that both justification and sanctification are of God’s grace. Justification is a one-time act of God’s grace and sanctification is an ongoing work of God’s grace. Yes, we are called to obey, to do, “to stretch every nerve and press with vigor on” but all in humble reliance upon God’s grace.
On the other hand, there are those who teach the Christians can, and should, attain complete victory over sin in this life. They use different terms to express this thought: we ought to attain to “the higher life,” “perfect love,” “entire sanctification.” The idea is that we get to a point in this life that the fight with sin within is over and victory is won. This is a theological error called perfectionism (the great Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield wrote a massive two-volume historical, exegetical and theological critique of it!).
When I was a new professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, a godly young couple, headed for the mission field, came to my office one day. I had said something in class that had encouraged them about the Christian life and their vocation, but they were deeply troubled by what they’d been taught in Bible College, so they wanted to hear more from me on the subject and wanted to ask questions about teaching they’d received to the contrary. It seems that the President of their institution had said in chapel their last semester that “he had not sinned in several years” and that they too should strive to experience this victorious life. This had confused and discouraged them, even made them question their calling to and suitability for missions work. For though they were truly godly and devoted (indeed, I saw evidences of Christian maturity and self-sacrifice in them beyond my own) they knew that they were still sinners. They knew that they were not perfect, not even close. They felt the dread power of sin in their lives and questioned their qualification for ministry. They had fallen prey to a false teaching about the Christian life, and it was my joy to show them what the Bible actually says.
The fight with sin within, the warfare that we experience against the flesh, is not a sign of death, but a sign of life! It is an evidence that the Spirit is at work in us waging battle against besetting sin. That fight ought to encourage us. It’s the absence of a fight with sin within that ought to scare us.
Here again, over against both mistaken directions, self-help (“God has forgiven my sins, the rest is up to me”) and perfectionism (“sinlessness is achievable in this life”), Calvin’s biblical exposition offers a better way.
Is sanctification futile?
Third, many dear folk, overwhelmed by besetting sin, and the ongoing fight with the world, flesh and devil, begin to question the reality of their experience of grace or to doubt the very possibility of change, growth and progress in the Christian life.
Maybe that’s where some of you are. You have been a Christian for a long time. You have served the Lord in the home and in the church and in your vocation. Those who know you best see every evidence of God’s grace at work in you. But there are areas in your life that still haunt you. There are abiding sins that harass you. You’ve warred against them, you’ve plead against them, you’ve wanted to kill them (or to die yourself), but still they remain as an ever-present, deeply painful thorn in the flesh.
You are tired of them. So tired you don’t know how to go on in the fight. And you are beginning to wonder if change is really possible, or if it’s hopeless. Some are counseling you to come to terms with this tension by “giving up on trying to be good” while others are telling you that you’ve never really believed in the first place, if you are having this kind of a struggle. What are you to think? What are you to do?
Well, once again, Calvin is waiting for you. To point you to the Scriptures. To give you encouragement and hope by the robust exposition of the word of God. Let us go with him to Philippians and scan the middle section of that great letter (from 1:27-2:18).
Philippians and the Christian Life
Paul’s letter to the Philippians has as its central concern a joyful exposition of the Christian life. Indeed, the first major exhortation in the letter “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). Paul is urging us to live a life that fits the Gospel. This is, in fact, the theme of the entire middle section of Philippians (1:27-2:18). It is a call to holy conduct, to the pursuit of godliness.
Once again, in Philippians 2:5, Paul presses: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” This is a call to, with the help of God’s Spirit and by God’s grace, emulate Jesus’ humility, obedience and servanthood. Paul is fostering humility and service in the congregation. He is asking us to manifest, congregationally, humble service of one another, in obedience to and emulation of the example of Christ. He wants to see humble, willing, tangible, self-displacing, serving, Gospel love to others. Grace-wrought service in which the interests of the other takes priority over our own interests; and in which our service is rendered with humility.
A Crucial Text on the Christian Life
Now the passage we are going to concentrate on is Philippians 2:12-13 (esp. 12b-13). It is one of the most important passages in all of the Bible about “sanctification” – which means growing in Christian maturity, becoming more like Christ, growing in godliness. There, Paul says:
12 Therefore, my beloved,
work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,
13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (ESV)
Paul is telling us here that it is only a Spirit-wrought realization of our utter need for God’s grace in living the Christian life, and of God’s infinite supply of grace for the living of the Christian life, that can cultivate humility (by crushing pride) in us, challenge spiritual laziness within us, comfort the discouraged among us and move us to Gospel-enabled Christian growth and life. As Calvin says, it is only in realizing the truth that it is “God who works in us” that “is the true artillery for destroying all haughtiness; this is the sword for killing all pride, when we hear that we are utterly nothing, and can do nothing, except through the grace of God alone. I mean supernatural grace, which comes forth from the Spirit of regeneration.”2
The reason that this is so crucial is because growth in grace is always accompanied by a temptation to pride. When we experience growth in grace, and victory over particular sins, we are sometimes tempted to think that such victory is, fundamentally, the result of our efforts. And we are tempted to impatience towards those still struggling with sins that we have already mastered. Well, this truth that it is God who is at work in us that reminds us that there is no aspect of our sanctification for which we in the final analysis can take the credit, and therefore there is every reason to be patient with and charitable to others struggling with sin – because whatever growth we’ve experienced is all due to the Lord’s gracious work in us.
And so, I want to look at this passage with you briefly to see how it (1) cultivates humility (by crushing pride); (2) challenges indolence in the pursuit of holiness; and (3) comforts the discouraged, struggling with besetting sin.
Something to bear in mind
But before we look at these three things, because so many come to this text, and read the language “work out your own salvation,”and thus think that Paul is teaching that we must save ourselves by our own efforts, it is important for us to be disabused of that notion. Paul, emphatically, does not mean that we must somehow save ourselves by our own works, or own efforts, or own doings or own goodness? NO! Not at all. Look at the context of the verses. What is it about? It is about our following Jesus’ example, not so that we will be forgiven, accepted, converted or justified, but so that we will be more like Jesus! In other words, Paul is not saying “work so that you will be saved,” but “work out the salvation you have received.” He is not saying “save yourself by your own works,” but “work out, live out, the gracious salvation you have received.”
It is the same message he has given so clearly in Philippians 1:27 and 2:5. Life a life consistent with the Gospel; live, walk and work in a manner worthy of the Gospel; in your conduct and behavior follow the example of Jesus. Paul (and Peter, and the author of Hebrews) repeatedly make this same point with different language elsewhere in the New Testament.
Ephesians 2:8-10, “8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Notice that Paul makes it clear here that we are not saved by our work, but for good works. We did not become Christians by our works, but in order to do good works. In other words, our works do not save us, but our salvation does enable us to do good works, which God has planned for us to do from before the world was made
Romans 6:17, “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed.” Since Paul thanks God that the Romans became obedient from the heart, it is obvious that God is the one who worked to bring about this obedience in their hearts! God was at work in them both to will and to work for his good pleasure (see Philippians 2:13).
2 Thessalonians 1:11-12, “We pray for you always, that our God will . . . fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified in you.” Paul prays here that Jesus will get all the glory, every time we desire to do good things, or to do works that spring from faith, since, after all, it is God who gives us the power to do them in the first place. Thus, Christ gets the glory when it is manifest that God has enabled us to fulfill our good resolves and desires through him.
Hebrews 13:20-21, “Now the God of peace . . . equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” It is God who equips us to do his will (not our doing his will that causes him to save us). Again, notice, since God enables us to do what is pleasing in his sight “through Jesus,” it is Jesus who gets the glory and credit, not us.
1 Peter 4:11, “Whoever . . . serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” The giver of strength to the one who serves gets the glory, not the one who serves by the strength of the giver. Because God is the one who enables us to “serve” him, he gets the credit for the service. His is at work in us to do his good pleasure!
Galatians 5:22-23, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Christian attitudes, behaviors and deeds are the fruit of the Spirit, not ultimately the fruit of our own efforts. Our efforts are essential, but not finally decisive. As Augustine said, “whatever good I do is due to you, O Lord, the rest is my fault.”
So what does “work out your own salvation” mean? It means that we are to pursue godliness because God is at work in us for godliness. Philippians 2:12-13 is giving you an encouragement from God that you can and you will make progress in driving sin from your life. Paul’s teaching is not “God accepts you, therefore no change is necessary in your life,” but rather “God accepts you, therefore change is now possible in your life.”
Paul’s flow of logic in Philippians 2:12-13 is simple and clear: 1. Continue to obey; 2. Live out your salvation; 3. Do this in reverent humility; 4. Because God is at work in you. And five truths can be deduced about “progressive sanctification” or growth in the Christian life from this short passage: 1. Obedience is a vital and essential part of the Christian life. 2. We are to be active in living the Christian life. 3. We are to be humble/God-fearing in our living of the Christian life. 4. We are to be encouraged that God is at work in us. 5. God’s work in us is not to lead us to laziness/inactivity/passivity but to exertion.
The sovereignty of God in our salvation and sanctification is not permission for passivity, but a reason to hope. The sovereignty of God makes us hopeful that change is possible, not passive as if no change were necessary.
Something else to bear in mind
Relating sanctification to two other great benefits of Christ’s work on our behalf may help us better understand this passage and what it teaches. When God saves us he does three things. He accepts us, he adopts us and he changes us. Theologians call these three things: justification, adoption and sanctification. This is all part of the salvation that God is accomplishing on our behalf.
So, when Paul says “work out your own salvation ” in 2:12b, he is talking about sanctification (not justification, nor adoption). Now, as I said, when God saves us, He does at least three things for us (he does more, but He doesn’t do less!). Let’s think about those three things for a moment, and how they relate to one another and how they relate to this passage.
God accepts us
When I say that He accepts us, I mean that He pardons us and forgives us, and He accepts us as righteous – not because we are righteous, but because Jesus is righteous, and His righteousness is imputed to us. And so we are acquitted and declared not guilty, and justified and accepted and pardoned. Our God accepts us.
This is what theologians call justification. It’s a very precious truth that God accepts us not because of something in us, not because we deserve to be accepted, not because we’ve done good things, not because we’ve done enough good things to outweigh our bad things; but He accepts us not for anything in us, but for Christ alone. “In Christ alone, our hope is found….” The reason is because God accepts us in Christ alone. And so whenever a person is saved, when God’s work of salvation comes to bear on his or her life, he or she is accepted by God.
God adopts us
But that’s not all. We are also adopted by God. Our gracious heavenly Father does not only accept us and forgive us and pardon us, He welcomes us into His own family. He makes us to be His children, and He makes us inheritors of His estate and brothers and sisters of His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. And so He welcomes us into His very family. He no longer calls us servant, but friend, and child.
This is what theologians call adoption. God gives to us all the privileges of His own children. He accepts us and He adopts us. These things God does without our contributing anything to them. The Apostle Paul in the whole New Testament is emphatic that we contribute nothing to our being accepted by God. We contribute nothing to our being adopted by God. They are acts of God’s free grace. He does them all by himself.
God changes us
But that’s not all God does. He not only accepts us and adopts us, He changes us, because the Lord God is desirous that we would not only be pardoned for our sin and welcomed into His family, but that we would begin to look in our character like His children, because the heavenly Father would have us to fellowship with Him forever, and He cannot fellowship with sin. And so He is in the business of eradicating sin.
This process will never be finished in this life. We will always wrestle with sin until we breathe our final breath, but our God is actively and powerfully and sovereignly at work changing us so that we die to sin and become more and more like Christ, so that we are matured in the faith, so that we grow up…so that we’re not just always drinking the milk that babies would drink, but that we’re growing up to eat strong meat, like adults.
This is what theologians call sanctification. It’s all part of the salvation that God is accomplishing on our behalf. God accepts us, He adopts us, and He changes us. He is sanctifying us. He is transforming us. Calvin sometimes called this “regeneration.” God is changing us, transforming us, maturing us, growing us, making us holier.
Now if we bear all this in mind, it is apparent that Paul is talking in Philippians 2:12-13 about God changing us, not God justifying or adopting us. The topic of the verses and their whole context is not how we are forgiven and accepted by God, or how we are welcomed into his family and numbered among his children, but rather about how we growth to be more like him (having already been justified and adopted).
Hence, “work out your own salvation” does not mean that you must somehow save yourself from God’s judgment by your works, efforts, doings, and goodness? But rather that having been saved from God’s judgment (not by our own works, but by God’s grace, through the work of Christ) we are now to follow Jesus’ example (in our sanctification), not so that we will be saved, but so that we will be more like Jesus! So that we will manifest the great and gracious salvation we’ve received.
Now, all that having been said, how in this passage does Paul cultivate humility in us, challenge our indolence and comfort our discouragements in our sanctification? Let’s see.
I. By ascribing the whole of our progress in holiness to the sovereign, gracious work of God, humility is cultivated in us and our pride is crushed.
With these great words “for it is God who works in you” (Philippians 2:13a), Paul ascribes the whole of our progress in the Christian life to the sovereign, gracious, divine activity of sanctification is us, and thus our humility is cultivated and our pride is crushed.
Calvin is emphatic in the way he explains this. Our obedience, our actions, are ascribed by Paul “wholly to God,” Calvin says.3 “Paul wants to ascribe everything to God and to take everything from us.”4 This is vital, because there can be no growth in godliness, no maturing as a Christian, no pursuit of holiness, no consecration to kingdom service that does not also and especially involve the killing of pride. Humility, and its cultivation are not incidental but essential to Christian growth. And the true weapon we have against pride is the sovereignty of God’s grace. Thus it is only a right apprehension of God’s grace at work in us for our sanctification that provides an adequate foundation for growth in the Christian life. In other words, only when we realize and acknowledge that we are utterly dependent upon God and his grace, not only for our salvation, but also for our maturation, are we in a position to really grow in the Christian life, because only then is our pride vanquished – left, as we are, with no basis for boasting of any our spiritual attainments – since all are the result of God’s work in us.
To say it again, yet another way, the acknowledgment of God’s monergistic grace at work in our lives for sanctification, crushes pride and cultivates humility. Only undiluted grace, perceived by the believer to be at work in his heart and life, kills pride. And pride-killing and humility-cultivating are essential aspects to Christian life and growth.
Why is the crushing of pride and the cultivation of humility essential to Christian growth? Well, for many reasons, but especially because:
1. Pride is a root sin, and a part of every sin. Whenever we sin, we are preferring ourselves, our desires, our plans to God’s. And that is always an arrogant and prideful thing to do. Thus every sin entails pride. So, if we are going to mortify sin, and quicken graces, and mature in the faith, and grow as believers, and become more like Christ – then pride is going to have to be addressed, checked and killed.
And only recognizing God’s sovereign, gracious work in us for sanctification can prevent us from becoming prideful about our sanctification. And this is a reality we struggle with. (1) If we are naturally inclined to self-discipline when may be impatient with and censorious towards those who struggle with a lack of it. But such a spirit indicates that we are taking credit for what God has naturally gifted us with. He deserves the credit, not us. (2) Or if we have come to be self-disciplined through a long process of effort and supplication, we can look down on those who have failed to achieve our attainment. And when we do this we betray a prideful attitude that takes credit for what ought to be attributed to God as the product of supernaturally-endowed growth in grace. Either way, pridefulness about our own level of spiritual maturity and personal character is sin! As such, it impedes real growth in holiness and must be killed. But the only way is attributing all good in us to God. “It is God who works in us,” Paul says.
2. But there is a second reason why the crushing of pride and the cultivation of humility essential to Christian growth, and that is simply that humility is of the essence of Christlikeness. If we want to be like Christ, and that is the goal of sanctification, then we must be humble. But if we have not cultivated humility, or are prideful about other qualities that we have cultivated, then we have failed to attain to the crowning jewel of the Christian life, which is true Gospel humility.
And the only way to do this is to acknowledge that every shred of good in us, every scrap of humility in us, is due to God, to his Spirit, to his grace at work in us. So when Paul says: “it is God who works in you” he is cultivating humility and crushing pride.
II. By calling on us to labor and strive, with due reverence and godly fear, for growth in holiness and obedience and service, our indolence is rebuked and our laziness corrected.
The second great thing that Paul is doing is challenging our spiritual indolence or laziness. When he says: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” he is calling on us to labor and strive, in the reverent, humble fear of the Lord, for growth in holiness and obedience and service. These words are a rebuke to passivity in sanctification.
Calvin stresses here that because God is at work in us motivates us to work. Since he is at work in us, we work. Calvin expressly says that the logic: “God work in us, therefore we don’t have to” is an unbiblical view of how God’s sovereignty and our responsibility work together in sanctification.5
This is hugely important because some Christian teachers will assert that any call for believers to obey is to undermine grace. In fact, some people will tell you that if you want to talk about obedience, then you just don’t understand grace. “Obedience? That’s for legalists!”
But that kind of thinking (“we’re saved by grace, not by doing, so our doing doesn’t matter anymore”) never entered into the mind of the Apostle Paul. He’s challenging these Philippian Christians, and you and me. He’s saying that obedience is a vital, essential part of the Christian life. Even and especially obedience and service that we have to work hard to do, that we have to strive to offer.
That’s so important for us to understand 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 “commands” 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” (2:12a) and his second is “work out your own salvation” (2:12b). And the principle we learn from that is that obedience is a natural, vital, and essential part of the Christian life.
Isn’t it interesting? God is doing what here? Equipping you. To do what? “To will and to work for his good pleasure.” “What is well-pleasing in His sight” (see Hebrews 13:21). Did you notice that? God is at work in you, equipping you to do what? His good pleasure, or 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. I love the way that Calvin puts it: “God acts in us in such a manner, that He does not allow us to be inactive.”6
A Huge Encouragement
Now there is a huge encouragement here friends, and I don’t want you to miss it. Philippians 2:12-13 is an encouragement, not just an exhortation. It is not only Paul saying to you that you need to live life in light of the humble, obedient service of Christ displayed in His humiliation and exaltation; it’s not only the Apostle Paul exhorting you to work out your sanctification with fear and trembling: it is the Apostle Paul giving you an encouragement that you can and you will make progress in driving sin from your life.
Here’s the encouragement: Paul is teaching is not “God accepts you, and therefore no change is necessary in your life.” Rather, Paul is teaching: “God accepts you, and therefore change is now possible in your life.” He is not saying (as many do today) that “God accepts you, and therefore it doesn’t matter how you live.” He is saying, instead: “God accepts you, and therefore real Gospel change, Gospel freedom, Gospel holiness are now possible.”
I want to tell you that this is the most encouraging possible news, because every real Christian wrestles with this reality: “Lord, I know that You have accepted me not because of who I am, not because of what I’ve done, not because of what You saw that I would do. I know that You’ve accepted me not because of me, but because of Jesus. I know that You’ve forgiven me. I know You’ve justified me. I know You’ve adopted me. But, Lord, there are sins in me that have a hold on me that make me wonder whether I really love You and trust in You.”
And you know, there are a lot of well-meaning teachers that come along and they’re trying to encourage you – I’m not impugning their motives at all – they’re trying to encourage you, and they say, “You know, Christian, you don’t need to worry about that, because God accepts you and so there’s no change necessary in your life.” My friends, there are two problems with that! The two problems are:
1. It’s not biblical! Paul, over and over and over again, says two things: (1) God freely, mercifully, graciously accepts you, and (2) change is an essential part of what He is doing in you in His great work of salvation. So change is not optional in God’s plan. So one reason that the well-meaning, but misguided counsel that “God has shown you grace and therefore it doesn’t matter whether you change or not” doesn’t work is because it is not biblical. Think back to the passages that we’ve already read in Ephesians 2, Romans 6, 2 Thessalonians 1, and Galatians 5. Repeatedly, the Apostle Paul stresses that change does matter, obedience does matter, godliness does matter, growth does matter. God is in the business of transforming how we live, and so what we do does matter. It does not contribute to our justification, it does not contribute to our acceptance with God, it does not contribute to our adoption. But it is a part of what God the Holy Spirit is doing in us to make us be more like Christ. It is a part, in short, of our sanctification.
2. It’s unsatisfying. But there’s a second reason why this teaching doesn’t work, and it is that if a Christian really thinks about it, the message “stop worrying about your ongoing sin, change isn’t necessary” is not going to satisfy the deep, deep questions of the heart which continue with even the Apostle Paul in Romans 7: “Lord, how can it be that You have saved me with such a great salvation and that I continue to do what I don’t want to do, and I continue to not do what I so want to do? Lord, help me.” Paul’s message to you here in Philippians 2 is so much more helpful and encouraging than the message “God has shown you grace and therefore it doesn’t matter how you live.” It is so much more helpful, it is so much more encouraging, it is so much more practical than “you are accepted by God, you are about as good as you are ever going to be, therefore don’t worry about it.” And that leads us to our third and final point.
III. By pointing us to indefatigable work of God’s Holy Spirit in us, both to give us the desire and ability to do that which is well-pleasing in God’s sight, our discouragement is diminished and our despair comforted with a sure and certain hope.
When Paul says: “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” he is pointing you to the relentless, inexhaustible, indefatigable work of the Holy Spirit in us, to give us the desire and the strength to do what God has called us to do and to be what God has made us to be. And this gives us an inextinguishable hope when we are tempted to despair in the fight of faith, and in the struggles of sanctification.
This is what encourages me so much. Two things. 1. You might have expected Paul to say “Continue to obey, to work out your salvation in reverent humility, lest you face God’s judgment as an hypocrite.” But that’s not what he says. He says: “You work, because God himself is at work in you already, so that you will want to do the work he created you to do, and so that you will do it for His good pleasure in you.” That’s incredible.
But do you know what else is encouraging to me about this? 2. He says this in the present tense, not the past tense. He doesn’t say “I want you to work out your sanctification in reverent humility, because God has already changed you.” Now, of course, that’s true. God has changed you. When we become believers, what the Holy Spirit does is He causes us to be born anew. He regenerates us; He gives us a new heart and a new spirit. He causes us to love Christ in a way that we’ve never loved Him before, and to hate sin in ways that we’ve never hated it before. But that is not Paul’s point here. He doesn’t say “keep on obeying, keep on pursuing Christian maturity in humble service to others because you’ve already been changed.” Instead, he says “God is at work in you now to change you.” And let me tell you, my friends, that truth keeps me from despair, because one of the great realities that I live with every waking moment is that I know that I am not what I ought to be. And the Apostle Paul is simply saying to you here, ‘Child of God, He’s not finished with you yet. He is at work with you, in you, for you, for His pleasure and glory.’ And I cannot imagine a more comforting and encouraging thing to know in the pursuit of godliness in the Christian life than that my God is not done yet. It keeps me from going over the edge. It keeps me from the brink of despair.
The fact of the matter is that the thing that tires the believer most, that saps his strength the most, as life wears on – is his own sin. It is not so much the trials of life, but the trials that the believe brings upon himself by sin. It’s hurting those he loves the most by his own sin. It’s grieving his Lord by his sin. This is the greatest burden.
And here is Paul saying, The Lord isn’t finished with you yet. “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phi 1:6 ESV) And even your struggles with your thorn in the flesh are going to prove that my grace is sufficient, and that your sanctification is all of grace, and thus redound to my glory, and lead you to praise Me, and in the final analysis aid your own comfort.
If I may paraphrase Newton, ‘we may not be want to be, or what we should be, or what we ought to be, or what we want to be, nor what we one day will be, but, by the grace of God, we are what we are, and we are not what we once were.’ God is at work. He’s still working. He won’t quit working until the work is done.
And let’s not forget that the power that is at work in us is the same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead. Paul says that the power at work to grow us in grace, is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at the right hand of the Father in heaven (see Ephesians 1:19-22).
So there you have it. In this great passage, Paul cultivates humility (and crushes pride) in us, challenges our indolence and comforts our discouragements in our sanctification. How does his happen, Calvin says, it happens by the Spirit teaching us that : “It is God who calls us and offers us salvation; it is our part to embrace by faith what He gives, and by obedience to respond to His calling. But we have neither from ourselves. Hence we act only when He has prepared us for acting.” Therefore, brethren, let us humble ourselves, and shake off our indolence and take courage, and grow in hope. There is good news for us, even for our sanctification.
1 In fact, the words belong to Pershing’s aide, Colonel Charles E. Stanton, but they were widely attributed to Pershing and have been reckoned so ever since.
2 Calvin’s Commentary on Philippians (2:13), pp. 253-254.