Gospel-Driven Sanctification (Mike Riccardi)

Philippians 2:12–13   |   Sunday, October 27, 2013   |   Code: 2013-10-27pm-MR

This message was preached in the evening service at Grace Community Church.




We love the doctrine of justification. Following in the footsteps of Martin Luther and the Reformation, we hail the doctrine of justification as that “great doctrine upon which the church stands or falls.” It is precious to us—we hold it dear to our hearts—because it captures the very essence of the Gospel of God’s grace to us, to sinners who know that we can do nothing to earn our acceptance with a holy God. We know that our only hope is to be reckoned righteous on the ground of the perfect, alien righteousness of Christ imputed to us by faith alone, apart from works. We love that doctrine because our goodness and our efforts and our achievements are debased, and Christ is exalted as all in all.


And we also love the doctrine of glorification. We look forward with great joy, eagerness, and anticipation to that day when our struggle with sin will finally have reached its completion—when we will find the rest and the reward upon which we have steadfastly fixed our hope for all these years here in this life. It brings great encouragement and sweetness to our souls to contemplate the day when we will finally see our dear Lord Jesus face to face—when we’ll finally discover what it will mean to have unhindered fellowship and communion with the Savior whom we love more than anyone or anything. We look forward to that day when, in the language of Psalm 16:11, we will enter in to the fullness of joy and the eternal pleasures that accompany being in His presence.


But sometimes the doctrine of sanctification doesn’t fill us with the same sense of wonder and appreciation that the doctrines of justification and glorification do. And that may be because we’re quickly reminded of how slowly we are progressing in the process of sanctification. To think of the doctrine of sanctification simply reminds us of what we ought to be, but what we are not yet.


It also might be because there is a great deal of confusion about the doctrine of sanctification. Christians have long debated what the role of the believer is in progressive sanctification—whether we’re to be actively engaged in pursuing holiness, or whether we are to be passive, waiting faithfully for God to work holiness in us. You have folks, on the one hand, who say things like, “You just do everything you can and leave the rest to God,” as if you’re pretty alright on your own, you just need God to give you a little boost. These are the people with the bumper stickers that say, “God is my co-pilot.” May I suggest that if God is your co-pilot, you are in the wrong seat, my friend. Or sometimes you’ll hear, “Pray like a Calvinist, but work like an Arminian. Pray as if it all depended on God, but work as if it all depended on you.” I think I get what that means, but it’s never a good idea to pretend that something that’s false is true just to manufacture a certain result. In fact, I’m not sure I can think of a better recipe for disaster in your pursuit of holiness than to adopt errant theology as the basis for your philosophy of the Christian life. So you have those folks on the one hand.


But on the other hand you have the Quietists, who say things like, “Your problem is that you’re trying to live the Christian life. What you really need to do is let Christ live through you. You just need to let go and let God. Stop striving, and just relax.” And so confusion abounds, and in dozens of other ways.


But if there’s one doctrine that we can’t afford to be confused about, it’s the doctrine of sanctification. And that’s because it’s where we all live. All of us who are Christians live in between the time of our past justification and our future glorification, in the present pursuit of the holiness without which no one will see the Lord, Hebrews 12:14.


And so in order to more adequately understand the doctrine of sanctification—to gain a better grasp on the nature of the Christian’s pursuit of holiness—we turn this evening to a text that Martyn Lloyd-Jones calls, “…one of the most perfect summaries of the Christian life to be found anywhere. … one of the most pregnant statements which [Paul] ever made” (Life of Joy, 160). And that is the command to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, on the ground that God is at work within us to will and to work for His good pleasure.


And this key text on the believer’s pursuit of holiness doesn’t appear here by accident. It comes, of course, on the heels of that magnificent hymn of praise which celebrates the Gospel—the humiliation and consequent exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ. And if there was ever a point in Scripture to just stop, sit back, and just bask in the glory of what God has accomplished in the Gospel, it’s in Philippians 2:5 to 11. I read this marvelous text and I feel like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration: “Lord, it is good for us to be here. Can I build tents so we can stay here a while?” (cf. Matt 17:4). Commentator Handley Moule captures this sentiment perfectly. He writes: “We have still in our ears the celestial music, infinitely sweet and full, of the great paragraph of the incarnation—the journey of the Lord of love from glory to glory by the way of the awful cross. May we not now give ourselves awhile wholly to reverie, and feast upon the divine poetry at our leisure? Not so; the immediate sequel is—that we are to be holy. We are to act in the light and wonder of so vast an act of love, in the wealth and resource of ‘so great [a] salvation.’ We are to set spiritually to work” (Philippian Studies, 115).


There are a lot of popular preachers and books today that teach that the way to make progress in sanctification is just to keep looking at and reflecting upon justification. Well, that’s the important and indispensible first step. But Just as Jesus didn’t let Peter, James, and John protract their time on the Mount of Transfiguration, so does Paul urge us down from the mountaintop of Philippians 2:5–11 to set us upon an urgent project that needs our undivided attention: our pursuit of practical holiness.


James Boice insightfully observes that “the Bible never allows us to think that meditation has achieved its purpose for us unless it results in practical application. Truth leads to action, and there is no value to a mountaintop experience unless it helps us to live in the valleys” (141). The incarnation, humiliation, and exaltation of Christ are not merely abstract theological concepts reserved only for the contemplation of introverts and theoreticians. No. Paul expects the glorious truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to have a life-shaping, sanctifying impact on God’s people. That’s why he writes in chapter 1 verse 27—the thesis verse in the letter to the Philippians—that they are to “conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel.” You see, the Book of Philippians teaches us, dear friends, that the Gospel is not only what provides our justification, and not only what promises and renders certain our glorification—as glorious as those truths are. Here we learn that the Gospel also fundamentally drives our sanctification.


And so in our time together this evening, we will observe in these two brief verses seven key truths about sanctificationseven truths that teach us about the nature of the Christian life and the pursuit of holiness, in order that we might be more thoroughly equipped to conduct lives that are worthy of the Gospel.


I. Linked to a Perfect Example (v. 12a)


That first truth about sanctification that we observe from this passage is, number one, that sanctification is linked to a perfect example. Look with me at the beginning of verse 12: “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed…” and we’ll stop right there for now. Now, those two little words at the very beginning, “So then,”—or your translation might say, “Therefore”—tell us that Paul is linking this new paragraph in his letter to what has come before it.


And what has come before it? That great Gospel hymn of Christ’s exemplary humility and exaltation in verses 5 to 11. And you’ll notice that a key word that showed up in Paul’s description of Christ’s humiliation gets repeated here in verse 12. Can you see what that is? Look at verse 8: “Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” And now Paul comes to verse 12 and says, “So then, just as you have always obeyed, go on working out your salvation with fear and trembling.” You see? He is calling our attention to Christ’s perfect example of obedience to the Father—the glorious Gospel which he just finished celebrating—and he’s saying, “In view of our Lord’s perfect example of obedience and humility in the most extreme circumstances; and in view of the great reward and exaltation that awaits those faithful and obedient servants of God, so you also: follow His example and press on in obedience and humility no matter how great the difficulty.”


And so our sanctification is linked to a perfect example in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. But He is not just our example in our pursuit of humility. He is our example in our pursuit of holiness in its entirety. He is our example for service and self-sacrificial ministry when, as the Great Master, He nevertheless washes the feet of His disciples (John 13:1–5, 13–15). He is our example of generosity and sacrificial giving—the One who was rich, 2 Corinthians 8:9 says, enjoying the lavish praise of the saints and angels in heaven, yet for our sakes He became poor, so that we through His poverty might become rich (2 Cor 8:9). Peter tells us that He left us an example to follow in His steps of patience, and of suffering for righteousness’ sake, as He “committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet 2:21–23).


And we could go on! In every aspect of our pursuit of holiness, Jesus Christ is our model and example. In fact, in Romans 8:29, Paul defines the process of sanctification as becoming conformed to the image of His Son. And John tells us in 1 John 2:6 that “The one who says he abides in [Christ] ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.”


What a blessing it is that in this life-long pursuit of holiness we’re not left in the dark to try to figure out the Christian life on our own. God has given us a perfect picture of what we’re aiming at in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is Himself the very embodiment of holiness. If we would live a life worthy of the Gospel, if we would make progress in our sanctification, we need only to fix our eyes on the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, the very consummation of faithfulness, holiness, and purity, and follow in His footsteps. What a gracious gift from our Father that sanctification is linked to a perfect example.


II. Grounded in a Present Relationship (v. 12b)


The second truth about sanctification that we learn in this text is that it is grounded in a present relationship. Look again at verse 12. Paul writes, “So then, my beloved….” “My beloved. You whom I love.”


This phrase taps into the deep affection and unique bond that Paul shared with the Philippians. You see this throughout this epistle. In chapter 1 verse 7, Paul writes, “For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me. For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.” And flip over to chapter 4 verse 1. There he calls them, “my beloved brethren whom I long to see, my joy and crown,” and then at the end of the verse, even though he’s already said it at the beginning of the verse, he calls them “my beloved” again. The warmth of affection and deep union between Paul and these precious friends is just unmistakable.


And the key thought for us is: Paul taps into that context of relationship as he begins to exhort them to obedience. Do you see the beauty, and the tenderness, and the wisdom in that? He’s about to give them a serious command. But before he does that, he reassures them of his love for them. This is not the indifferent directive of a cold and distant leader, lording his power over his followers. This is the heartfelt plea of a spiritual father to his spiritual children to make his joy complete by putting their hand to the plow of Christian holiness.


And the glorious truth for you and me is: Paul is only following in the footsteps of his Heavenly Father, who is our Heavenly Father as well. The Philippians are not only “beloved” by Paul; as believers, united to Christ by faith, they are also beloved by God. And you and I, as believers in the same Gospel, united to the same Christ by faith, are also loved by God. And as a result the commands that are enjoined upon us as we follow Christ are also grounded in a present relationship. That’s why, in Colossians chapter 3 verse 12, Paul writes to the believers, “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” “Because you’re already chosen, because you’re already loved — work out your salvation.”


You see how that works? Our sanctification—our pursuit of holiness—must be grounded in a present relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. If you set about your pursuit of holiness in order to get into a relationship with God, or in order to earn God’s love, you’re going to spin the wheels of self-effort, and you’re already on the fast-track to moralism. No, we don’t try to gain God’s favor by our spiritual performance. That doesn’t work for justification, and it doesn’t work for sanctification either. No. We fight sin and we pursue holiness because we have already been forgiven, because we have already been united to Christ by faith, because we already are beloved. The old hymn is absolutely right: “He breaks the power of canceled sin / He sets the prisoner free.” The only kind of sin whose power is broken in the lives of people is canceled sin—sin that has already been punished in Christ and forgiven through faith. And we need to battle against sin in the strength and in the freedom of that Gospel-driven foundation: that I can be victorious over sin, because Christ has already conquered sin in me by virtue of His work on the cross.


III. Marked by an upright Consistency (v. 12c)


Well, we’ve seen that sanctification is linked to a perfect example, and is grounded in a present relationship. The third truth about sanctification in our text is that it is marked by an upright consistency. Look again at verse 12: “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” “Not only when I’m with you, but even more now that I’m not with you.” What’s Paul after, here?


Well, in light of what we just talked about—in light of the deep affection and unique bond that the Philippians shared with the Apostle Paul—while there is so much that’s so good about that kind of a relationship—Paul knew that there was a potential danger as well. As much as they loved him, as much as they admired him, as much as they cared for him, there was always the temptation to rely too much on him for their spiritual growth—to think that his presence with them was essential for their progress in grace. And so when he says, “not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence,” he’s saying, “Your Gospel-driven pursuit of holiness cannot depend on my being with you. A life worthy of the Gospel is not lived in the fear of Paul. It’s lived in the fear of God! And what I want from you, my dear Philippians, is for you to work out your own salvation—conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel—whether I come and see it for myself or whether I can only hear of it by report. Your Gospel-driven lives must be marked by an upright consistency.”


You see, he doesn’t want them to be dependent on his presence for their spiritual welfare. He wants their obedience to be dependent on the presence of God, who never leaves them, who never forsakes them, and who is not only with them, but who is in fact continually working in them both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil 2:13).


And in the same way, friends, our lives must be marked by an upright consistency. The question the Holy Spirit is asking us through His Word is: “Would you act the way that you do if John MacArthur were there with you? Would you speak the way you speak, and spend time the way you spend time, if another of your elders were along with you? Does your battle against sin and your pursuit of holiness slacken when you’re not in the presence or under the influence of someone other than Christ Himself? If so, your life is marked by inconsistency. And Paul’s point is: God Himself is with you. He does see, and He does hear. We all live our entire lives before the open face of God. And more than just being the greatest accountability partner we could ever have, He is not just with us, but is continually working in us so that we might make consistent progress in holiness.


IV. Pursued by a Diligent Effort (v. 12D)


A fourth truth about sanctification that we see in this passage comes at the end of verse 12. Number four: Sanctification is pursued by a diligent effort. And here we come to the very heart of the passage. Look again with me at verse 12: “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”


One writer, commenting on this phrase, says, “It is impossible to tone down the force with which Paul here points to our conscious activity in sanctification” (Silva, 122). Paul was not a Quietist. He didn’t advocate a passive approach to sanctification, where we seek to simply “yield” and “surrender”—to “let go and let God.” That approach is often ascribed to the Keswick Movement of the late 19th century, so-called because of the conventions on spirituality that took place in Keswick, England. Andrew Murray has been described as the foremost devotional author of the Keswick movement, and in his classic book, Abide in Christ—which is a good book in a lot of ways, but errs in this respect—he gives us a good representation of the Quietistic model of sanctification. Murray writes, “What [the believer] can do of himself is altogether sinful. He must therefore cease entirely from his own doing, and wait for the working of God in him. … just as in proportion as he yields himself as a truly passive instrument in the hand of God, will he be wielded of God as the active instrument of His almighty power” (128).


Now you see that sounds so plausible! It sounds good! It sounds attractive! Who wouldn’t want to just sit back and have holiness just happen to you by divine fiat! What Murray and the others of the Quietist movement were latching onto was the truth that comes in the very next verse in our text: that God is the one who is working within us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. But it’s often been said that truth is like a razor’s edge, and error is a wide and vast plateau. In seeking to emphasize the sovereignty of God and the believer’s utter dependence upon Him—which is a good thing!—the Quietists have fallen off the razor’s edge, because they have failed to represent the equal emphasis that Paul makes in this very text, and throughout Scripture: that sanctification is to be pursued by a diligent effort—that we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.


Listen to the way that Scripture speaks about our sanctification: It is a pursuit. Hebrews 12:14 is sort of a ground zero text for this: “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.” There is a sanctification, a practical holiness, without which no one will see God. And we are commanded to pursue it. Sanctification is a fight. In 1 Timothy chapter 6 verse 12, Paul exhorts Timothy to “fight the good fight of faith,” and to “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.” Sanctification is a pressing on. Just a bit later in Philippians, chapter 3 verse 12, Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.” And again in verse 14: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” This “pressing on” translates the Greek word dioko, which means “to move rapidly and decisively toward an objective” (BDAG). It was used of hunters in active pursuit of their prey. The Christian’s progressive sanctification is also compared to the Olympic Games. In 1 Corinthians 9:24, Paul writes, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” And very similarly, in Hebrews 12:1, sanctification is described as a race. The author stirs us up, saying, “Let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”


And so we can make no mistake. We are not to be passive in sanctification. The Christian life is to be marked by a “continuous, sustained, strenuous effort” (Hendriksen, 120). We are to make diligent use of every God-ordained means of grace that Scripture reveals to us. What are those means? We are to seek the renewing of our minds as we expose our minds to the Word of God, constantly reading and meditating on the Scripture. Jesus said it plainly in His prayer to the Father in John 17:17: “Sanctify them [by] the truth; Your word is truth.” We are to seek God’s face in prayer, relishing communion with Him and asking Him to accomplish the work of sanctification in us. We are to expose ourselves to the preaching of the Word and participate in the corporate worship of the Lord in His gathered assembly, in the fellowship of His church; “not forsaking our own assembling together,” Hebrews 10:25, “as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another,” “stimulat[ing] one another to love and good deeds.” How do you love and do good deeds? Well partly, you’re stimulated to that by brothers and sisters in the church. And in all these means and more, we appropriate all of them always by gazing with the eyes of our heart upon the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ that is revealed in the Scripture, in prayer, and in fellowship with the saints, because, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:18, it is as we behold with unveiled face the glory of the Lord, that we are being transformed into that same image from glory to glory.


So we need to make use of those means. We need to pursue our sanctification with a diligent effort.


V. Energized by Divine Power (v. 13a)


There’s a fifth truth about sanctification that this text teaches us, and we’ve mentioned it a couple of times already. We just learned that sanctification is pursued by diligent effort. But we must be careful to note that that diligent effort is, number five: energized by divine power. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” Literally: “The one who is continually working in you is God.”


This notion of “continual work” translates the verb energéo, from which get the word energy. The power that energizes all our labors in the pursuit of holiness is God’s divine power. Calvin calls God’s powerful, energizing grace “the true engine” (65) for battling sin. And the word “God,” though it would naturally occur at the last part of the sentence in the Greek, is thrown all the way up to the very front for a startling amount of emphasis. Paul has no desire to be misunderstood here: “It is incumbent upon you to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. But don’t forget for a moment, dear Philippians, that in all your efforts of working out, it is God who is working in you, energizing all your efforts.” (a) He began that good work of salvation in you, Philippians chapter 1 verse 6. (b) And Paul is absolutely confident that He will bring that good work to completion. And here we learn (c) that God is at work in you—not only at the beginning, and not only at the end—but at every step of the way in between.


And Scripture speaks just as emphatically about this truth of God’s sovereign activity in sanctification as it does about the believer’s effort. As Paul brings his first letter to the Thessalonians to a close, he prays on their behalf in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely….” He ascribes the entire work of sanctification to God. In that magnificent prayer at the end of Ephesians chapter 3, Paul prays that the Lord would grant the Ephesians, “according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man” (Eph 3:16). That is God working in you. And in the benediction of the letter to the Hebrews, the author writes, “Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ” (Heb 13:20–21).


In all your efforts to put off sin and put on righteousness, the Almighty God of the universe—the Creator of heaven and earth—is working in you with the same energizing power by which He raised the Lord Jesus from the dead! No wonder Paul commands us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling!


I want you to think about the sins that you committed yesterday—the sins that you committed already earlier today—and grasp the fact that in those moments, the ineffably holy God of the universe was so intimately involved with you that the very moment you began to turn from those sins in repentance, it can properly be said that that holy God was in you, both willing and working repentance for His good pleasure. Which of you won’t tremble at that thought?! That the Holy God of the universe is in me!


This “Christianity” business—this “following Christ” business—this isn’t some weekend hobby! This isn’t some minor shift in your social calendar! It’s not about learning when to parrot out a few catch-phrases and being sorry when you do bad things. Following Jesus is dead serious! God is in you! “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? May it never be!” (1Cor 6:15). Do you not know, believer, that it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure? Shall we then be care-free and flippant in our attitude towards sin, and in our pursuit of holiness? May it never be! God is at work in you, dear friends! And so far from making you kick back and relax, that reality should make you blood-earnest about putting to death the deeds of the body and pursuing righteousness with everything that you can muster!


Now, some of you are saying, “Now wait a minute. First God you told me that I need to work out my own salvation. Now you’re telling me that is the one who is working in me. Which is it? Do I work or does He work?” And the answer is: both. God’s working in us in no way cancels or mitigates our need to work out our salvation. In fact, His working is the ground of our working. That’s what that little word “for” is doing in verse 13; it’s showing you the ground of that command. We labor, we strive, we work out precisely because He is working in us. And without His working, our working would be impossible.


We see this so clearly in 2 Peter chapter 1. Turn there with me. In 2 Peter 1 verse 3, Peter tells the believers that God’s “divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness.” Everything we need has been provided to us graciously by the working of God’s own power. And then in verse 4 he tells us that we have “escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.” And so you might think, “Perfect! God gives me everything I need for godliness, for sanctification. I’ve escaped the world’s corruption. I’m just gonna sit back and relax and ‘yield’ and ‘surrender’ and wait for the magic zap!” But then you run into the two-by-four that is verse 5. Peter says, “Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence,” and knowledge, self-control, and so on. Grasp the way the Scripture reasons, there! Because we don’t reason like that naturally! You’ve been given everything you need. You have escaped the corruption from the world. And for this very reason, make every effort in your sanctification! Almighty God is working within you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. And for this very reason, work out your salvation with fear and trembling!


Moses didn’t quite get this in Exodus 14. Turn there briefly. As the Jews were being pursued by Pharaoh’s army in the wilderness, they approached the Red Sea. And believing that they were trapped, the people blamed Moses and said, “Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exod 14:11). And in verse 13 Moses says to the people, “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the LORD which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever. The LORD will fight for you while you keep silent.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? Trusting in the sovereignty of God. Only problem is, God’s response in verse 15 was, “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the sons of Israel to go forward. As for you, lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, and the sons of Israel shall go through the midst of the sea on dry land.”


What is God saying? Is He saying, “Hey, stop bugging Me! I’ve done all I can do. You’re on your own from here!”? Is He saying, “Come on Moses, work it up. Do your best to make the Egyptians disappear!”? No! The Red Sea could only be divided by God’s power! What He’s saying is, “I’m going to do it, but I’m going to do it by means. I’m going to do it through you.” I’m going to do it, but I’m not going to do it so that you do nothing. You see, Moses didn’t work the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. As one popular preacher has put it, God worked the miracle, and Moses acted the miracle. And in the miracle of sanctification, God works in us, so that by His divine power we obey. We act the miracle of becoming increasingly holy, which is God’s work. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “We are not merely passive in [sanctification], nor yet does God do some and we do the rest, but God does all and we do all. God produces all and we act all. For that is what He produces: our own acts. God is the only proper author and fountain; we only are the proper actors. We are in different respects wholly passive and wholly active” (Works, 2:557). That’s walking the razor’s edge of truth.


And that reality is everywhere in Scripture. Listen to the way the New Testament speaks about this. Galatians 2:20: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” I live, but not I, Christ lives in me. 1 Corinthians 15:10: “I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” Colossians 1:29: “For this purpose also I labor, striving—how?—according to His power, which mightily works within me.” Romans 8:13: “…if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” So I put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit.” And 1 Peter 4:11: “…whoever serves, as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies….” I serve by the strength God supplies.


In all these passages, I am living, I am laboring, I am striving, I am serving. But in every case, my willing and working is energized by God’s willing and working. So don’t pit these two twin truths against one another, and fall off the razor’s edge of truth onto the vast plateaus of error. We must recognize that though sanctification is pursued by our diligent effort, our very effort is energized by divine power.


VI. Measured in the Affections and the Actions (v. 13b)


Well, that takes us, quickly, to truth number six: sanctification is measured in the affections and the actions. Verse 13 again: “God is continually working in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” This is teaching us that God’s powerful work in our sanctification involves His working on us both internally and externally. One commentator captures the thought nicely when he says, God “produces in believers both the desire to live righteously and the effective energy to do so” (Kent, 128).


And the main lesson that I want us to glean from this point is that holiness is not merely a matter of performing external duties; God’s work of sanctifying us begins internally; the text says He is working in us. The great Princeton theologian Charles Hodge writes, “…sanctification…does not consist exclusively in a series of a new kind of acts. It is making the tree good, in order that the fruit may be good” (Systematic Theology, 3:226). This means that the holy person doesn’t merely “do what God commands,” though he certainly does that. It means that the holy person “loves what God loves” and then acts in keeping with that renewed heart. As God works in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure, He inclines our hearts to treasure the glory of Christ. And as we behold Him with the eyes of our heart, our minds and our affections are renewed, so that we love Him more and love sin less. We are transformed from the inside out (cf. Rom 12:2).


Why is that important? Why do I take time in a sermon with 7 points to point that out? Because it properly informs our pursuit of holiness. We have to know what holiness is, most fundamentally, before we can properly begin pursuing it. Before we can begin making every effort, as Peter says, to add to our faith virtue, knowledge, and self-control, we need to recognize that we’re not talking about behavior modification. Even hypocrites can train themselves to perform external duties. No, we’re talking about heart transformation. The change we’re seeking is both internal and external. We want to have sanctified affections as well as sanctified actions—because God commands us not only to behave righteously. He also commands us to be holy. He is working in us even at the level of internal affections and motivations—both to will and to work.


VII. Governed by God’s Perfect Will (v. 13c)


Well, that brings us to the final truth about sanctification. Number seven: It is governed by God’s perfect will. And here we come to the end of verse 13, where we learn that all of God’s working in us, both to will and to work, is “for His good pleasure.” This is His great end. God takes such great pains in striving with His creatures through this process of progressive sanctification because it pleases Him to do so—because He delights in holiness.


His goal has always been, Titus 2:14, “to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.” His stated purpose from before the foundation of the world, Romans 8:29, was to predestine those whom He foreknew “to become conformed to the image of His Son.” God has always been in the business of forming and shaping His people into looking exactly like His Son. Why? Because in His beloved Son He is well-pleased (Matt 3:17). He is worthy to receive a people—a  people who would be called by His own name—who are conformed to the perfect image of His own holiness, which is perfectly reflected in the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Heb 1:3). The pleasure of God in His own holiness is what drives Him to sanctify His people.


It makes sense, then, doesn’t it, that Paul could write in 1 Thessalonians 4:3, “For this is the will of God: your sanctification.” So many professing Christians drive themselves crazy trying to discover, “What’s God’s will for my life? What’s God’s will for my life?” Here’s God’s will for your life: Your sanctification, your ever-increasing holiness. And I think we can find a great source of strength and motivation in our battle against sin if we consistently remind ourselves that that battle is governed by God’s perfect will—that at any given moment in which I am fully engaged in the mortification of sin, fully engaged in working out my own salvation with fear and trembling according to the power of God working mightily within me, I am right in the center of God’s will—right where He wants me to be: pursuing Him.




And that leaves just one question: Are you in the center of His will, which is your sanctification? Is the Almighty God of the universe at work within you, directing both your desires and your actions in conformity with His good pleasure? Do you have any sense of the divine strength that energizes you to gladly and joyfully and reverently work out your own salvation? Are you making progress in holiness?


If you are outside of Christ here this evening, your answer to those questions must be, “No.” And rather than pleasing God, all of your efforts to do good works and perform righteous deeds are an offense to Him. Isaiah 64:6 says that apart from Christ, “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.” Sure, our good deeds might look good when compared to other people’s good deeds, on a horizontal, human level. But God’s standard of righteousness is His own perfect character. He is perfectly holy. And so any hope of attaining righteousness by your own works is like trying to purchase a brand new car with a dirty rag. And so if you are outside of Christ this evening, God’s word to you is not, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” My friend, you’ve got no salvation to work out! No, God’s word to you is, “Repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, that you might be saved!” Put your trust in someone else’s works—someone else’s righteousness: the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ—who, as we heard, obeyed God perfectly in all aspects of His life, and who humbled Himself in obedience to death on a cross to bear the curse of His Father’s wrath that was due to you in order that the penalty for your sin should be paid, and who rose again on the third day to triumph over death. Dear friend, He did that precisely because you couldn’t be holy enough. Receive the gift of righteousness through Christ this evening.


And for my brothers and sisters, as you faithfully battle against sin and pursue holiness in your lives, be reminded of these seven truths about sanctification.


(1) Always keep an eye to the perfect example that you have in the Lord Jesus Christ.


(2) Remember that you fight not as one seeking to earn God’s favor, but as one who is already beloved for the sake of Christ.


(3) Remember to pursue holiness consistently, no matter who’s watching, because the Lord is always watching, and He is our one and true audience.


(4) Be sure to arouse all your faculties and apply all diligence in the fight of faith, shunning the snare of Quietism.


(5) And yet make certain that all your striving is in conscious dependence upon His power, the One who mightily works within you, and energizes all your efforts in the pursuit of holiness.


(6) Don’t forget that holiness aims first at the heart, which then leads to the hands, and that God is working both in you.


(7) And rejoice in the God who takes pleasure in purifying His people in holiness, which is our greatest benefit and joy.