Philippians 2:12–18: Sanctification
Since Philippians 1:27, Paul has been encouraging the Philippian believers to live worthily of their gospel citizenship. He began by exhorting Christians to stand together in unity (Phil. 1:27), but then he defined that unity (Phil. 2:2) not as utter sameness, but as “humility” (Phil. 2:3). Finally, to describe the permanent example of humility, Paul pointed us to Christ, who “humbled himself by becoming obedient” (Phil. 2:8). From unity to humility to obedience, Paul has unfolded a detailed description of what it looks like to live out our gospel citizenship.
Now, in Philippians 2:12–18, he picks us that idea of obedience (“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed…”; Phil. 2:12) to address a lingering question: why should the Philippians believe that they will succeed? At the beginning of this letter in Philippians 1:6, Paul had expressed his utter confidence “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” but how could he be so confident? The Philippians are in the midst of deep suffering (Phil. 1:29–30), and Paul is not able to be present to encourage them (Phil. 2:12). Without even Paul’s direct assistance, what hope could they possibly have of not only growing, but of persevering all the way to the end? And even if they had Paul’s direct assistance, is it reasonable to expect anyone to live up to Paul’s example of rejoicing in the midst of suffering even if the gospel is advancing (Phil. 1:12–18)?
It is here that Paul enters into one of his richest meditations on human responsibility, divine grace, and new covenant promises of perseverance for believers in the midst of suffering. If the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:6–11 is the chief theological example in this letter, then Philippians 2:12–18 provides this letter’s chief theological exhortation.
1. Is our growth in grace (that is, our sanctification) a passive activity on our part? What do Paul’s words that we should “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) tell us about the effort and exertion that we need to put toward our sanctification? In terms of work and effort, how then does our sanctification compare to our justification? How might we be tempted to avoid working out our salvation in fear and trembling?
2. Do we bring about our sanctification from our own strength? Do we fuel our sanctification from our own willpower and desires? How does the theology of Philippians 2:13 balance out the exhortation of Philippians 2:12? To what degree can we claim the glory and praise for our sanctification? What does it look like to strike this balance of working out our salvation with fear and trembling, while also recognizing that God is the one who wills and works in us toward his own good pleasure?
3. Why do you think Paul draws such an explicit contrast between the failed sanctification of the old covenant Israelites and new covenant believers? How do we see discontinuity and continuity between the old and new covenants? As we see God working to some degree in old covenant Israel, and to a greater degree in the new covenant church, what might we learn about God’s eternal purposes to sanctify a people for his own possession through Christ?
4. What will it cost us to pursue the sanctification of ourselves and of others? In light of what we stand to lose, why does Paul insist that he will be “glad and rejoice,” and that we should “be glad and rejoice with” him (Phil. 2:17–18)? What is the source of Paul’s joy? How might we follow Paul’s example by growing in that same joy?