“Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
– Philippians 1:27 –
This little phrase is the very heart of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul’s preeminent concern in his letter to the church of Philippi is that they would bring the practice of their lives into conformity with the position they enjoy as sharers in the Gospel of Christ. In reflecting on this command, two implications become immediately apparent.
Sanctification is the Necessary Fruit of Justification
The first implication of this text is that sanctification is the necessary fruit of justification. The one who has been justified by grace through faith in Christ alone—the one who has been declared righteous in his position before God—will grow and progress with respect to practical righteousness in his life.
This is the consistent testimony of the New Testament, and especially throughout Paul’s letters.
- After celebrating for three chapters the wonderful privileges of the Christian’s exalted position in Christ, in Ephesians 4:1 Paul turns to say, “Therefore”—that is, since all of these glorious benefits are yours as believers in Christ Jesus—“Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.”
- In 1 Thessalonians 2:12, Paul explains that he patiently exhorted and instructed the Thessalonians “so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.”
- He tells the Colossians that he always prays that they would “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col 1:9–10).
It’s everywhere. There is simply no category for a believer in Christ who is not also a disciple of Christ—no category for one who has received Christ as Savior but does not obey Him as Lord.
Think of it this way. Jesus did not suffer the unleashed fury of holy wrath—He did not endure the alienation from His own dear Father that He never deserved to know—in order to free His people from the penalty of sin, only for us to live enslaved to various sins for the rest of our lives on earth. No, God has graciously united us to His Son by faith so that we would be set free from that kind of bondage to sin.
Indeed, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:2). We can’t! Paul’s answer is that dead people don’t sin: “…we have been buried with [Christ] through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). See, our union with Christ by faith means that when He died, we also died to sin with Him. And therefore, when He was raised, we also were raised to life with Him. Why? So that we could continue to walk according to the pattern of the world (Rom 12:2)? No! “So that we might walk in newness of life.” So that we might live, in our practice, in a way that manifests the reality of our position.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we are free from the presence of sin. Newness of life doesn’t mean perfection. That won’t happen this side of heaven (Phil 3:12-14). But there’s a world of middle ground between sinless perfection and enslavement to our fleshly lusts and passions. Paul goes on to say in Romans 6 that we’ve been freed from slavery to sin and have become slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:18). And so because of what Christ has accomplished on our behalf in His work of the Gospel, because we have been declared righteous in the sight of the thrice holy God Himself, because the shackles of sin and death have been shattered by the God’s grace in the work of Christ, we are to walk in freedom. It was for freedom that Christ set us free (Gal 5:1). Let us not then live as slaves.
The pursuit of holiness in a believer’s life is not optional. Hebrews 12:14 tells us that there is a practical, lived-out holiness, without which no onewill see the Lord.
Sanctification is Fueled by Gospel Grace
So how do we go about engaging in that fight? Well that brings us to a second implication: namely, sanctification is fueled by Gospel grace.
Notice, Paul could have chosen anything to begin this section of exhortations and commands to the Philippians. He could have begun announcing lists of new do’s and don’ts for them to follow. He could have prescribed a list of habits to break and habits to form, and told them to “Just do it!” He could have given them a 12-step program or set up a system for accountability partners. He could have guilted them into trying to pay God back for their salvation by saying something like, “Well, since Christ has done so much for you, the least you can do is live for Him.” But he doesn’t say any of that. He grounds all of his exhortations to holiness in the grace of the Gospel itself.
He calls them to consider who they already are, positionally, in Christ, by virtue of their union with Him and what He has accomplished on their behalf. He calls us to consider that God has already changed our very identity and given us a new nature. God has already, objectively, freed us from the penalty and power of sin. And it is in the freedom of that grace that we are called to then be who we are—to walk in the newness of the resurrection life that we have been graciously raised with Christ to walk in—to bring our practice in line with what God has already declared us to be for the sake of His Son.
We must realize, then, that the Christian’s faith-filled fight for holiness is not fought only by white-knuckled self-denial, as you begrudgingly grind out your duty, all the while cursing God in your heart because you hate all the fun you’re missing out on. No, at the most fundamental level, the strength for the fight for faithful obedience comes from the Gospel itself. It is in considering ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom 6:11)—in considering ourselves to be as we actually are, and then living out the truth of what has already been accomplished on our behalf. When we understand this, we cease to regard the commandments of God as a burden, and we find them to be the natural response of one whose affections have been renewed.
The Scottish Puritan Henry Scougal, in his book, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, articulated this reality very well. He wrote,
“The love which a pious man bears to God and goodness is not so much by virtue of a command enjoining him so to do, as by a new nature instructing and prompting him to do it; nor doth he pay his devotions as an unavoidable tribute, only to appease the Divine justice, or quiet his clamorous conscience; but those religious exercises are the proper emanations of the Divine life, the natural employments of the new-born soul.” (38–39)
You see, if the Divine life has been sown within you by the Spirit’s regeneration of your heart, the fight for obedience is simply acting in line with your new nature. So when Paul commands us to live our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel, he is showing us that our efforts in sanctification are fueled by Gospel grace.
There is a wonderful little rhyme that masterfully captures the beauty of divine grace in sanctification. We’re unsure of the author but it’s often attributed to John Bunyan:
‘Run, John, run!’ the Law demands,
But gives me neither feet nor hands.
Far better news the Gospel brings,
For it bids me fly, and gives me wings!”
* * * * *
Don’t fall into the trap of emphasizing one or the other of these twin pillars at the expense of the other. Don’t treat the pursuit of holiness as if it’s an optional package in the Christian life. Sanctification is a necessary fruit of justification. And in your earnest pursuit of greater Christlikeness, live in the freedom of the knowledge that sanctification is fueled by Gospel grace.