The Work of God’s Grace
As a mother of four children I’ve heard quite a bit of grumbling and questioning. But as I listen to my children, I’m often convicted at how many times I grumble about a particular circumstance or question why God has allowed something in my life. Scripture reveals that these are serious sins. Oftentimes they lead to anger, bitterness, callousness, and discontentment. But by God’s grace we don’t have to grumble and question. Instead, we can be grateful and trust His plans for us. Such gratitude and trust flow from God’s power at work in us. We see this truth in Philippians 2:12-18, which teaches us about the work of God’s grace in the life of the believer.
In light of Christ’s obedience, in which He “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8), Paul exhorts the believers in Philippi to remain fervently obedient to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (v. 12). This salvation that they are to “work out” is the salvation that God, by His grace, has already worked into them. And they are to work it out with “fear and trembling,” motivated by Christ’s obedience.
The amazing truth about grace is that God doesn’t leave us to ourselves to work out our own salvation. He doesn’t save us and then tell us to accomplish the Christian life on our own. Neither does He cooperate with us, as if He does seventy-five percent of the work and we do the other twenty-five percent. No, His grace is just as active in our sanctification as it is in our justification. Justification is an act of God’s free grace while sanctification is a work of God’s free grace. Justification is “our declared righteousness before God, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection for us,” while sanctification is “our gradual, growing righteousness, made possible by the Spirit’s work in us” (The New City Catechism, A32). Furthermore, Paul says “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Amazingly, God doesn’t just give us the passion to work for His kingdom, but also the power to work. And this is all for His good pleasure, which brings us the deepest pleasure as well.
One of the areas in which the Philippians needed to be sanctified was “to do all things without grumbling or questioning” (Phil. 2:14). Paul’s language recalls Israel’s grumbling when they believed it would have been better to be back in Egypt than in the wilderness with God’s presence, protection, and provision (see, for example, Ex. 15:22-16:8). Sin makes us senseless, keeping us from seeing truth and seeking God. Unlike Israel, Paul calls God’s people in Philippi to be blameless and innocent as God’s children (Phil. 2:15; see also Deut. 32:5). As believers they “shine as lights in the world,” a fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy (Dan. 12:3), as well as Jesus’s words (Matt. 5:14, 16). One of the ways believers shine in the world is by “holding fast to the word of life” (Phil. 2:16; see also Deut. 32:47). This means we acknowledge Scripture is true, apply it to our lives, and announce it to others.
Paul wants the believers to grow in Christlikeness “that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (Phil. 2:16; see also Isa. 65:17-25). On resurrection day Paul will be able to look around him and see fruit from his ministry—the fruit of righteousness that came through Jesus Christ (see Phil. 1:11, 25). This is so encouraging! As you and I work for God’s glory, we can be certain that His grace working through us will not return void. We do not labor for the gospel in vain. God is using us in others’ lives for their progress and joy in the faith.
Drawing imagery from the Old Testament sacrificial system, Paul compares the Philippians’ faith with “the sacrificial offering” and compares himself to the “drink offering” poured upon it (Phil. 2:17). In other words, the Philippians’ faith is the main sacrifice, which Paul complements by pouring out his life in suffering and ministry. He is “glad” in all that the Lord is doing through them and rejoices in it (v. 17). Likewise, he wants them to be “glad and rejoice” in what God is doing with him in his present imprisonment (v. 18). Such gladness and rejoicing replaces grumbling and questioning.
Have you grumbled against God lately or questioned why He’s doing something in your life? Dear believer, by God’s grace, let us replace grumbling with gratitude and questioning with a quiet trust in our heavenly Father, who is working in us, “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Then we will “shine as lights in the world (v. 15), “so that they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Sarah Ivill (ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a Reformed author, wife, homeschooling mom, Bible study teacher, and conference speaker who lives in Matthews, North Carolina, and is a member of Christ Covenant Church (PCA). To learn more, please visit www.sarahivill.com.