God Is Working Our Common Sanctification

Philippians 2:12-13 – Philippians: Life Together
First Sunday in Lent  – February 18, 2018 (am)

Have you ever suffered loss due to the lack of effort of one of your coworkers? Or team mates? Or have you been the guilty party? Perhaps you doomed a group effort because you didn’t do your part? Surely this experience is common enough to all of us in the workplace or on a sports team or in school, but could it happen in the church as well? Could I miss out on a new depth of relationship with Christ because someone else in the church wasn’t pursuing Christ with the same resolve as me? Could I miss out on grace because my brother in Christ has stalled in his own pursuit of Godward obedience? Or to flip it around, could I stunt or slow your spiritual growth by not working hard at my own? What role does my sanctification play in our life together?

I think this passage in Philippians is very helpful when it comes to answering these questions, and to tip my hand, I believe the answer is yes to these questions. But the application of this passage does not begin with figuring out who among us needs to get their act together or figuring out which one of us is slacking. The application begins (and ends) with getting our own act together.

1. We work out (v. 12)

Our passage this morning is the logical continuation of the argument begun in 1:27 – that is why it begins with “Therefore.” It is a continuation of and parallel to the theme verses of the book (1:27-28). It also picks up on the motif of obedience from the preceding paragraph (2:5-11). Namely, the obedience of Christ who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:8). So if we’re to have the mind of Christ – we too must be obedient as he was.

Our passage is also an affectionate plea from a pastor to his church, seen in Paul’s calling them “My beloved.” Here we see the warmth and affection Paul felt for this church, a warmth and affection that shows up later on when he calls them “my brothers, you whom I love and long for” (4:1). And this is an affection all pastors ought to strive to develop between themselves and their members.

Furthermore, our passage is a sweet commendation of a faithful church. Paul commends them for “having always obeyed” which adds to the commendation found in 1:5 where he said they had been “partners in the gospel from the first day until now.” May the same be said of us! May we be said to have always obeyed and been partners in the gospel from the first day until now.

At it’s core though, this passage is a command. The command to “work out your own salvation.” This command ought to grab our attention in a few ways. First, it ought to grab our attention because it should sound different from other things we’ve heard about salvation. We’ve heard that salvation is a gift graciously given to us – by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. While true, it is like many gifts we’ve received on Christmas day. They are the ones that rattle when you shake them because they are full of pieces and parts in little bags and when opened say “some assembly required.”

Furthermore, it important for us to understand that this passage is not talking about the moment of salvation. It is not talking about the moment you were immediately transferred from death to life, when you were declared righteous and holy before God on the basis of Christ’s substitutionary death. That is what we call justification.

No, this passage is talking about what comes after justification – a process called sanctification, which is the working out of the “now what” that follows conversion, the “be holy even as I am holy” statements God makes throughout Scripture, and also described as the process of becoming conformed to the image of Christ, growing in obedience to God’s will for our lives, the fight of faith, the putting to death of the flesh, the putting off the old man and putting on the new man.

Now, the reason Paul says “work out your salvation” here and not “work out your sanctification” is simply that sanctification is an irremovable piece of your salvation. Jesus says in Matthew 7:19 “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” To work out our salvation is just another way of saying produce the fruit that ought to accompany a life transformed by the gospel and as we see in Matthew, if there is no fruit it means you’re a bad tree and fit for the fire. So sanctification is essential to salvation – if you don’t have the one, you don’t have the other

A second reason this command to “work out your salvation” ought to grab our attention is because it clearly indicates that this process of sanctification takes work! I recently came across a news article titled: Couple sells all possessions for sailboat, sinks 2 days into trip.[1] It is the story of a couple who “quit their jobs” and “sold all their furniture and their SUV and purchased a 49-year-old boat in Alabama to live on and . . . sail the world in.” The couple, who were new to sailing, crashed their sailboat into a sandbar on the second day of their venture and it sank to the bottom of the sea, leaving them with only $90, some important documents, and their dog. The couple was in their mid 20’s, and the reason they gave for selling all they had for a boat they didn’t know how to operate was simple – they were tired of working.  Unfortunately, their misfortune hasn’t seemed to have taught them anything as they have begun a “GoFundMe” website where people, presumably people who work and have jobs, can donate money to them so that they can go on not working and, as they say, “not give up their dreams.”

Many in the church remain stagnant in their spiritual life because they have the same mentality this couple had towards their spiritual life. They just don’t want to work at it. They don’t want to fight sin, don’t want to get up early to read God’s Word, don’t want to miss a favorite TV show for a small group Bible Study, and don’t want to pursue accountability or come to a prayer meeting.  Yet these same people set up Spiritual “Go Fund Me” pages in their hearts. They want and expect people to check in on them. They grow critical of the preaching because it doesn’t meet them where they are at. The speak poorly of church leadership for not stopping by or asking how they are doing as often as they think they should. They take no interest in working out their own salvation and they grumble and complain when others don’t carry work hard enough to push them out of their laziness.

In opposition to this mentality – Paul says, “Work out your salvation.” The verb translated “work out” means to produce, bring about, or effect. Which is simply to say, if you aren’t doing anything to produce, bring about, or effect greater holiness in your life, nothing is going to happen! One commentator says that in this verse Paul is commending “continuous, sustained, strenuous effort.” (O’Brien) He is exhorting the Philippian readers to bring about their salvation, produce it, effect it through continuous, sustained, and strenuous effort.” (Piper) JC Ryle wrote an entire book on Holiness. As he describes what is required for sanctification, he calls for perpetual, sustained, and habitual labors. Sanctification is not a one and done affair. It requires habitual labor, from the moment you believe until the moment you die. JC Ryle also describes it as a fight until our death saying, “There is no holiness without a warfare. Saved souls will always be found to have fought a fight.” (Ryle, 67) He goes on to say, “It is a fight of perpetual necessity. It admits of no breathing time, no armistice, no truce. . . . ‘Even on the brink of Jordan,’ said a dying saint, ‘I find Satan nibbling at my heels.’ We must fight till we die.” (Ryle, 68)

This is what Paul is urging the Philippians towards. He is urging them to bring about their salvation, to produce it, to effect it, through the continuous, sustain, and strenuous fight for sanctification, through the development of perpetual, sustained, habitual practices that are maintained and upheld until their dying breath. That is what we are being told to do when Paul says, “work out your salvation.” 

So now we must ask ourselves, “Does this sound like me? Like what I’m doing? Does this describe my walk with the Lord?” Or do you need to reminded this morning that the fight of faith is just that – a fight? Are you fighting for your faith? Are you working out your salvation this morning? JC Ryle writes: “Sanctification, again, is a thing for which every believer is responsible. . . . Whose fault is it if they are not holy, but their own? On whom can they throw the blame if they are not sanctified, but themselves? God, who has given them grace, and a new heart, and a new nature, has deprived them of all excuse if they do not live for His praise. . . . If the Saviour of sinners gives us renewing grace, and calls us by His Spirit, we may be sure that He expects us to use our grace, and not go to sleep.” (Ryle, 24)

Are you sleeping on the job of working out your salvation? Have you grown comfortable with your sin? Has not being as bad as the next guy or girl become an excuse to coast? To put your walk with the Lord on autopilot? I was recently sent an article on fighting indwelling sin – which is certainly central to working out our faith. In it the author writes that we must not get comfortable with our sin saying:  “Now that it is in the house, don’t buy it a collar and a leash and give it a sweet name. Don’t “admit” sin as a harmless (but un-housebroken) pet. Instead, confess it as an evil offense and put it out! Even if you love it! You can’t domesticate sin by welcoming it into your home.”She goes on to say, “If you bring the baby tiger into your house and name it Fluffy, don’t be surprised if you wake up one day and Fluffy is eating you alive. That is how sin works, and Fluffy knows her job.” (Butterfield Article)

How are you doing in your fight against sin? John Owen is often quoted for saying, “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.” In justification God took the guilt of your sin away, now sanctification is the fight to be freed from the dominion your sin has over you [2] For those who have fought this fight good and long you know that it is an unending fight for behind every sin conquered is another sin to be exposed and even conquered sin, if not continually kept at bay, will come storming back into your life to regain the control it once had if you don’t keep fighting, if you don’t keep working out your salvation

So we must hear and heed Paul’s instruction this morning – we must work out our salvation – because if we don’t, we will prove ourselves never to have been saved in the first place.

Now, if this emphasis on personal effort sounds off to us, if it sounds unbalanced, like something is missing, that is good, because it is. Certainly, if this were all Scripture said about working out our salvation it would lead to hopelessness. If our sanctification depended upon our own effort, we might as well pack our bags and go home now – we can’t win this fight on our own power. For who can truly win the fight against pride, grumbling, lust, or self pity on their own power?

But the next verse clearly communicates that this is not our situation: for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (2.13).

2. As God works in (v. 13)

This is the blessed assurance every believer needs when faced with the lifelong task of fighting sin and pursuing holiness. It is the promise that as we work out our salvation, we don’t do so in our own power. Rather, when we fight sin and pursue holiness, we do so with the power of God at work in us. So as we work out our salvation, God is working in us, at the same time, giving us the power to accomplish the very thing we’re working to accomplish.

Which is why Paul modifies the command “work out your salvation” with the phrase “with fear and trembling.” For it is an awesome thing to realize that the God of the universe has placed His Spirit in you to bring about His will. It’s an awesome thing to recognize when you say no to sin and yes to Christ that, in fact, it wasn’t your own resolve that did this but God Almighty at work in you. It’s as if someone put a rocket engine on the back of your ’94 Chevy Corsica. When you get in the car you expect to do things you’ve never done before, but when you turn the key, you’d be a fool to do so without fear and trembling. So also fear and trembling is the proper response to the knowledge that God is at work in you, influencing and empowering your desires so that you choose not what your flesh would normally choose, but what God would choose and you do not do what you would do if left to your own wisdom, but instead you choose what God would want you to choose. When this happens, we ought to be in awe – for it is evidence that there really is a rocket engine strapped to our trunk!

This recently came into play at a youth retreat I was leading. I discussed with young men the struggle to stay pure and they lamented their struggles and failures in this area. While there were failures and pitfalls mentioned, I longed for them to see what was so encouraging to me – that they were struggling! Because teenage boy who don’t have God at work in them don’t struggle with lust – they just give into it! When a teenage boy struggles with lust and wins, it’s a miracle. It is evidence of genuine faith, that God is working in us to work out our salvation, that God is working in us to bear good fruit, so that we might be the good tree that is not thrown into the fire, that God is transforming you from what you were and conforming you into the image of Christ.

How does this work though? Scripture says we work out while God works in and this is a paradox – but it is a prevalent paradox, attested to throughout Scripture. We see it in 1 Cor. 15:10 “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” We see it again in John 6:44 Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” but then in Acts 16:31 Paul to the Philippian Jailer “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”

This is the paradox of how our work and God’s work contributes to our salvation. It is the paradox of how we can be told to do something while at the same time told that God is the one who does it. The paradox that we must work as if our personal holiness depends on us while knowing it depends entirely on God at work in us. It is best explained by saying that our working out of our sanctification is the way God has chosen to bring about our sanctification – just as the God who is said to sustain all things chooses to sustain us by our continuing to breath. We wouldn’t test God’s power to sustain us by placing a bag over our head – nor should we test God’s working in us to sanctify us by becoming passive, or by letting go and letting God. Instead, believe God is at work in us ought to make us hopeful and energetic and courageous (Piper, Energy for today’s to-dos). It ought to help us fight sin with a new and greater resolve, to set our alarm earlier, to spend longer in the Word, to pray more earnestly, and to resist temptation more doggedly. For when we do, we’re promised that God will be at work in those moments, so that we can conquer laziness and see him more clearly in his word and have our hearts united to his in prayer and overcome temptation.

And the reason God is willing to do this for us is simply that it brings him pleasure – as our passage says it is “For His good pleasure.” God’s pleasure is in our good, in our holiness, in our victory over sin. If this is the case, we can be confident that there is no sin, no struggle that he won’t meet us in and empower us to overcome to the praise of his glory.

But how does this tie into our theme of life together? We’ve talked a lot this morning about how God is at work with and in the individual, what about the church? The community? Is this passage meant to be applied only to me or does it have implications for us?

3. To Achieve our common sanctification

Context shows us that when we work out our salvation as God works in us the purpose is to achieve our common sanctification. What do I mean by that? On the one hand, our sanctification is an individual pursuit. Obedience, belief, waking up early to read God’s word, taking every thought captive and making it submissive to Christ, running to the cross in the midst of temptation. No one can do these for you!

But on the other hand, no one is sanctified in a vacuum. We don’t learn obedience by becoming a hermit and taking a Bible into a cave and living alone there for all our days. In fact, we can’t even be obedient to God’s commands alone in a cave. Paul’s overarching command in this section is to for the Philippians to be a unified gospel community and what unifies them is their humble treatment of one another. What does humility look like in community? According to Paul, humility counts others more significant than yourselves (2:3) and humility looks not only to one’s own interests, but also to the interests of others (2:4). So you can’t be humble unless you have people to be humble around.

And so the sanctification that we’re being commanded to work out, the pursuit of holiness that God is working in us, is what I’m calling a “common” sanctification. It is a sanctification that we are all pursuing, alongside one another, in the midst of one another. It is an individual pursuit with a common goal. It is like a wheel with spokes protruding from the center – we are each on a spoke, working our way towards the center, towards our goal of godliness, and as we do so, we can’t help but grow closer to one another in the process just as spokes in a wheel get closer together the nearer you get to the center. Which dispels the misguided notion that taking time to draw near to God will draw you away from others, no, so long as others are seeking the same goal you will only grow closer to one another.

We will find that as we strain and press on and fight for and struggle for the working out our salvation alongside one another, we won’t just grow closer to one another, we will find ourselves being thrust into one another’s lives. For how can I work out my struggle with greed unless God gives me someone to be generous to? How can I work out my struggle with pride unless God gives me a community to treat as more important than myself? How can I work out my struggle with being unmerciful unless God gives me friends to whom I can show mercy? How can I having been forgiven of all my sins by Jesus Christ, neglect to show forgiveness to those around me? How can I pursue the mind of Christ, who sacrificed himself for me, and not willingly sacrifice my time and talents and resources for others? How can I maintain a distant and judgmental attitude from those in the church if I’m genuinely working out a humility that counts others as more significant than myself?

And as God enables me to show generosity and humility and mercy and forgiveness and self sacrifice to those in this community, how could you remain unchanged? How could you, as you genuinely pursue Christ and seeing Christ at work in me remain at an arm’s length from me? And how could my affections for you and your affections for me remain unstirred when we exhibit Christ-like love and humility towards one another? It’s impossible!

And if we need any more proof that a life devoted to Godward obedience will drive us into one another’s lives, we need to only look at our great example, Jesus Christ who, as Paul has just described in the paragraph before ours was driven by humility and obedience out of heaven and into earth, into our midst. His working out of our salvation drove him into our earthly community where he engaged us in 24/7 life together. He could be seen eating with us, sleeping with us, conversing at all hours of the day, teaching individuals and great crowds, discipling us, healing our diseases, delivering us from bondage, and redeeming us from our slavery to sin. So just as his working for our salvation drove him into our community, so also, when we work out our own salvation, we will be driven into new and deeper and sweeter depths of community with one another. Does this sound good to you? Do we long for this?

If so, we must commit ourselves to two things. First, we must be working out our salvation. We must fight for our faith. We must pursue the mind of Christ. We must long for humility and resist sin. We must be people who pray and study scripture and resist temptation and bear fruit. Our eternal salvation depends on it.

And second, we must be working out our salvation! Each one of us. Young and old. Long timers and new comers. We must do so with humility. Each of us counting others as more significant than ourselves. We cannot resist being driven deeper into one another’s lives as we do so. We must overcome the difficulty of work schedules and nap schedules and business trips and the fear of vulnerability and get into each other’s lives.

We must recognize that when we don’t do this, when we resist the impulse to dive into one another’s lives we hinder not only my brother or sister in Christ’s sanctification, we hinder our own. For the working out of our salvation can only be done in community. God’s power to work out our salvation is a power that can do much when we pursue him alone but it really takes off when we pursue him in community. And so, beloved members and attenders of Grace Church of DuPage WE MUST work out our salvation. So as you have been working out your salvation in the past, let us do so with even more vigor in the days to come, knowing it is God who is at work in you, in us! Both to will and to work for his good pleasure.


End Notes

[1] Fox News. Feb. 11th, 2018. (http://www.foxnews.com/travel/2018/02/11/couple-sells-all-possessions-for-sailboat-sinks-2-days-into-trip.html)

[2] “The Lord Jesus has undertaken everything that His people’s souls require; not only to deliver them from the guilt of their sins by His atoning death, but from the dominion of their sins, by placing in their hearts the Holy Spirit; not only to justify them, but also to sanctify them.” (Ryle, 20) 


Work Cited


Butterfield, Rosaria Champagne. “The Dead End of Sexual Sin.” April 6, 2015.

Fee, Gordon D. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (NICNT). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

O’Brien, Peter T. The Epistle to the Philippians (NIGTC). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.

Piper, John. “I Act The Miracle.” Bethlehem College & Seminary Chapel. February 24th, 2011. DesiringGod.org https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/i-act-the-miracle

Powlison, David. How Does Sanctification Work? Crossway: Wheaton, 2017.

Ryle, J.C. Holiness.