Spiritual Formation, part 1 (Philippians 2:12)

This morning we’re going to talk about spiritual formation, or sanctification.  I know that the term “spiritual formation” is falling out of favor these days because it is linked to eastern mystical practices.

What I mean by spiritual formation is the process of becoming transformed into the likeness of Christ, that is initiated and sustained through a variety of experiences and relationships so that one might better glorify God and serve others.

Now, we could spend a whole morning unpacking that definition.  What we’re talking about is spiritual growth, growing in godliness, living in the Spirit.

The theological term for it is sanctification.

Now, when we think of sanctification, there are three phases of sanctification: definitive or positional sanctification, progressive sanctification, and final sanctification.

Definitive sanctification happens the moment I accept Christ as my Savior.  The Holy Spirit places me into Christ and God now sees me as having Christ’s complete righteousness instead of my unrighteousness.  This is why Paul called even the Corinthians saints.  They weren’t acting saintly but in God’s eyes, because they were united to Christ, they were holy and perfectly righteous.

Progressive sanctification is the moment-by-moment, step-by-step attempts we make to become more like Christ in our desires, our attitudes, our motives, our thoughts, our speech and our behavior.

Whereas nothing can happen to change our definitive sanctification—we will always be saints in God’s eyes, our progressive sanctification will face times of failure.  When we sin, we have to repent and confess our sins and get back on the right track.

Then there is our ultimate sanctification.  The moment we die or when Christ returns, we shall see Him and be changed into His purity.

Also, there are a variety of theories about progressive sanctification—how it occurs.  There are two unbiblical extremes—quietism and pietism.

Quietists believe that the will of the Christian is quiet, or passive in sanctification.  Concerning Quietism, John MacArthur writes, “Quietism tends to be mystical and subjective, focusing on personal feelings and experiences. A person who is utterly submitted to and dependent on God, they say, will be divinely protected from sin and led into faithful living. Trying to strive against sin or to discipline oneself to produce good works is considered to be not only futile but unspiritual and counterproductive” (John MacArthur, Philippians, p. 152).

A second extreme is Pietism.  Advocates of this approach to spiritual growth are “aggressive in their pursuit of correct doctrine and moral purity. Historically, this movement originated in seventeenth-century Germany as a reaction to the dead orthodoxy of many Protestant churches.  To their credit, most pietists place strong emphasis on Bible study, holy living, self-discipline, and practical Christianity….Yet they often stress self-effort to the virtual exclusion of dependence on divine power” (John MacArthur, Philippians, pp. 152-153).

Both Quietism and Pietism fail for the same reason: They place importance upon only one side of the process of sanctification.

  • Quietism places more emphasis upon resting in God by faith.
  • Pietism places more emphasis upon the diligent, unrelenting pursuit of holiness.

But growing in Christ requires both personal responsibility and dependence upon God in faith.  Jerry Bridges, who passed away just a couple of years ago, helps us understand the importance of keeping these two equally-true priorities in tension with one another.

In his first book, The Pursuit of Holiness (1978), he emphasized every Christian’s personal responsibility to be diligent in godliness.  God expects us to wage war against the remaining sin in our lives and run the Christian race with great effort.  We are not to flirt with sin, but fight against it.

In a later book, Transformed by Grace (1991), he wrote of the energizing power of God’s grace to transform us into Christlikeness.  In that book, he warned believers to beware of the “Performance Treadmill,” the never-ending tendency to base our relationship with God upon our personal, spiritual performance.

Then, in 1993, he wrote The Discipline of Grace, which combined personal responsibility and divine empowerment into one. The book’s subtitle says it all: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness. It’s these two truths which the apostle Paul lays, side by side, before us:

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Now remember, this passage is part of the section that begin in Philippians 1:27, which said:

27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,

Then Paul began to explain what a life “worthy of the gospel” was like by showing the example of Jesus Christ denying Himself and living for others.  Paul will go on to show through his own example (2:16-18), Timothy’s example (2:19-22) and Epaphroditus’ example (2:23-25) that our aim should be to live for the sake of others.  That is true love.

Thus, in order to become more and more like Jesus Christ, we have to put more and more of ourselves to death and live for His glory and the service of others.

So let’s take apart these two verses to see what they have to say about spiritual formation.

  1. We are to “work out our salvation” both corporately and personally.

Notice that Paul begins verse 12 with the word “therefore,” and we should always ask, “What’s is there for?”  It is pointing us back to the previous section about the self-giving example of Jesus Christ.

We are to model our spiritual path after Christ Jesus.  He is our model, not some other Christian, no matter how spiritual or popular.

You are not to become like me (thank God!) but like Jesus Christ.

And our goal is not to accomplish some spiritual milestone (like fast for 40 days or memorize the entire New Testament), but rather being fully satisfied with Christ and committed to becoming more like Him in our attitudes, motives, feelings, affections, thoughts, words and behaviors.

We are to follow His leadership and His example.

Others can help us.  Paul says “Imitate me” (1 Corinthians 11:1) but the ultimate goal is to become like Christ.  Even Paul says “follow me as I follow Christ.”

Not only does the “therefore” refer us back to Christ’s example, but it also refers us back to the reason why Paul used Christ’s example in the first place—because it is the best example of self-denying humility and love, which in turn is the best antidote to conflict in the church.

You see, most of us believe that the ultimate end of spiritual formation is our own growth, and our own feelings of security and satisfaction in that growth.  But in reality, spiritual formation does not end with us and our feelings, but rather we become spiritually mature SO THAT we might serve others.  Otherwise, our efforts are spiritual formation become self-serving and self-promoting, leading to pride.

Notice that Paul addresses the Philippians as “my beloved.”  He is drawing upon the deep love relationship that they shared.  He is appealing to them as a friend, not as a military drill sergeant.

This should also remind them that they are God’s “beloved,” that He loves them deeply (as illustrated by Christ’s willingness to humble himself and die for them) and it is that love that motivates them to obedience.

Nothing motivates us to obedience like knowing that we are deeply and passionately loved by the one asking us for our obedience.

The first part of verse 12 reminds us that “working out our salvation” is largely an issue of obeying what God has asked of us.

Remember that Jesus is now and will one day be universally proclaimed as “Lord,” therefore He has the right to ask for our submission to Him.  No one makes Jesus, Lord.  He is Lord.  The response of saving faith is to recognize this reality and submit to His rightful rule over our lives.

And notice that future obedience becomes easier because of past obedience.  Paul reminds them that they had initially responded positively to God’s commands (cf. Acts 16:14, 32-33).  So he uses the “as then, so now” formula to say, “As you obeyed before, so continue to obey now.”

“Past action becomes a model and a motivating force for present and future conduct.” (Gerald Hawthorne, “Philippians” in Word Biblical Commentary, p. 98).  In other words, the capacity to obey God builds up over time.  Initially, it may seem difficult to obey God, but like most other activities, the more we do it the easier it gets.  So, don’t give up trying to obey God.

Spiritual formation happens best in community, when someone takes the responsibility to mentor us, encouraging us and challenging us to obedience, just like Paul had with the Philippians when he had spent time with them.

We will also see this corporate emphasis in the works “work out your salvation,” for the pronoun “your” there is plural.  Here in the South we would say, “work out ya’lls salvation.”

But, spiritual formation is also a personal issue (not so much private as personal), meaning that we ultimately have to take responsibility for our own spiritual growth.  We cannot delegate that to someone else.  And we don’t really have to depend on their continual encouragement or accountability.

Ultimately we have to take responsibility for ourselves.

Paul is telling them, “You need to learn to do this on your own.  You don’t need me to be there—just keep growing, keep maturing.”  It was even more important that they purpose to obey in Paul’s absence, since his “presence” among them provided a measure of external motivation for them.

Lutheran commentator R. C. H. Lenski notes:

“There is always a tendency to relax obedience when the spiritual leader is absent.”

It is possible to lose our momentum when we don’t have others checking on us.  It is also possible to blame others for not being there to encourage us and support us.

Yes, community is important to spiritual growth and it is vital that we have people in our lives to pray for us, encourage us, challenge us and hold us accountable.  But, we have to take responsibility for our own spiritual lives.

We should look for mentors, we should look for teachers.  But ultimately we have to learn to feed ourselves and hold ourselves accountable.

  1. We are to “work out our salvation” with seriousness

The rest of verse 12 indicates our responsibility in sanctification: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…”

Let’s note several things about this statement…

First, it calls for determined action on our part.  The word for “work out” is katergazomai, a word that means “to put energy into an activity until you get it done.”  It focuses not merely upon the process, but the accomplishment of the intended goal.  “Work out this math problem” means to work at it until you solve it.

In Paul’s day, it was also used for “working a mine,” that is, getting out of the mine all the valuable ore possible; or “working a field” to get the greatest harvest possible.

Sophocles used katergazomai in the sense of overcoming all opposition, to accomplish something despite obstacles and difficulty.  It is a command for sustained effort, diligence and hard work, until the goal is achieved.

Other passages indicate this sense of using all our energies to accomplish our goal of becoming like Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul told them…

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize?  So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.  They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

And also in 1 Timothy 4:7 Paul says “train yourself for godliness…”

In both of these passages the emphasis is placed upon our personal responsibility to do everything we can for godliness.  It doesn’t happen without effort.  It requires discipline.  Discipline is very much a part of becoming more like Jesus Christ.

There is no such thing as drifting into godliness.  You can drift into sin.  Without effort we will just flow with the current of our culture.  We will be inclined to worldliness.  It will be easy for us to sin.

We need discipline.  We need to train ourselves.  We need to exercise ourselves toward personal holiness.  This is personal responsibility.

We tend to be lazy when it comes to our spiritual lives.  We don’t see the stress fractures right away.  That’s why Paul tells us not to be deceived, in Galatians 6, we will eventually reap what we sow.  But since we don’t reap immediately, we get discouraged that our discipline is not paying off.

But just like physical exercise doesn’t immediately make us healthier and stronger, so spiritual exercise takes awhile to show visible results.

In the context, the Philippians as a body are to work out their problems and come to unity.   They are to produce the fruit of their salvation, that is, peace, love, and harmony in the Spirit.

Another thing to notice about this command is that it is a continuous action.  We have to keep at it and never let up until our “salvation” is achieved.

Paul will express it this way in Philippians 3:12-14

12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Too often we misunderstand that to live by grace means that we put no effort into the Christian life.  But grace doesn’t oppose effort, it opposes earning.  Grace means that we cannot possibly earn God’s favor, it has been freely given.

Rather, grace is the best motivation for passionate effort.  When we’ve seen God gracious God has been to us, we want to respond to Him and become like Him.

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:10

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.

Paul keeps that balance—he worked harder, but it was the grace of God with him that motivated him and enabled him to work hard.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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