The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached in February 2022*
Sermon Audio: Worthy of the Gospel (Phil 1:27-30)
What is a life worthy of the gospel? That may, in some sense, sound rather strange when you hear it. How can your life be “worthy of the gospel”? Isn’t the whole point of the gospel that we are not “worthy”? Aren’t all our righteous deeds like “filthy rags” in God’s eyes (Isa 64:6)? If even the best of our deeds are impure in God’s eyes, then how can we be worthy of the gospel?
But it is something that Paul believes is a category Christians should think in. He uses a similar phrase to the church in Ephesus when he tells them to, “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” (Eph 4:1). In Galatians 2 we are told about an instance where Paul confronts Peter because, “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel,” (Gal 2:14). The idea is that after we believe the gospel there is a path of conduct laid out before us and we can walk down the path and remain “in step with the truth of the gospel” or we can veer off and deny the truth of the gospel. Which is alarming to think about—you can functionally deny the gospel through your actions, even while affirming it in your mind. That’s what Peter did—he wasn’t going around saying, “Jesus didn’t resurrect from the dead…we are saved by our works, not faith…Jesus isn’t God.” No, it was his conduct, his actions that were functionally saying: the gospel isn’t true. So a church, a pastor, a Christian can be razor sharp in their theology and preach the gospel clearly, but then turn around and deny it with how they treat other people.
If you are a non-Christian here today, I wonder if you have ever had an encounter with a Christian that made you think: if that is the kind of person that Christianity turns you into, then I’ll pass. Did you know that it is possible for someone to claim they believe the gospel, but then deny it through their life? If you’re a Christian here today, I wonder if you can think of someone in your life who appears to understand the gospel well, maybe even seemed to be rather knowledgeable of the Bible in general, had an ability to explain theology or would be able to win arguments with people they disagreed with—but, their life is ugly. They are cruel, self-centered, dishonest, and flaky. They are quick to be outraged by other people’s sin, but never mourn or repent of their own.
Should our Christian faith make our lives look different? Doesn’t God accept us as we are? Does Christianity make us better people? And if so, what does that look like? In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he is going to examine two different aspects that should mark a Christian’s life. Let’s look at Phil 1:27-30:
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, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. – Phil 1:27-30
We will divide the section up into three headings: gospel, unity, and courage.
There are two equal and opposite errors we can fall into when it comes to understanding the gospel.
One error is to believe that we need to contribute to our salvation. Jesus has died for our sins, certainly, but when we sin we need to do something to “pay God back” because we finally believe that God will accept us or dismiss us, not because of what Christ has done, but based on how good of a Christian we are. This not only denies the sufficiency of Christ’s work on our behalf, it makes us brittle people; we become proud and condescending when we feel like we are succeeding and then become hopeless and despairing when we fail. Like a child in her dad’s arms who thinks it is really up to her to stay afloat, waffling around from one extreme of looking down on all the other kids who can’t swim or, when some water splashes her face, having a panic attack that she is going to drown, totally blind to the fact that it is her dad who is the one keeping her safe.
We see a subtle rejection of this error in vs. 28 where we are told that our salvation is “from God,” and down in vs. 29, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” We will look at what the second half of that means later, but notice the first half of this verse. It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should…believe in him. The phrase “it has been granted” is all one word in Greek, and it comes from the same root word for “grace” in the Bible (χαρίζομαι). It has been granted means something has freely and graciously been given, like a gift. And what has been granted? That you should believe in him. The very faith required to even believe in Jesus is itself given to you as a gift. The grace of the gospel is so total, so abundant, you are so in the arms of your Father, that even when we come to the decision point where we need to believe and accept Jesus and find doubts and uncertainties and weakness in our own hearts, our good Father says, “Oh child, let me help me you with that.”
While earning our spot in God’s eyes feels so natural to us, the gospel tells us that nothing could be further from the truth. The gospel is fundamentally a statement of your poverty: Jesus lived the life you couldn’t by keeping God’s law, He died the death you deserved by absorbing the penalty of your sin, and He was raised to a life that you would never attain on your own through His resurrection—even the very capacities to trust and believe in Him are graciously given to you. It’s all of Jesus. A life “worthy of the gospel” does not mean a life that has earned the benefits of the gospel.
The opposite error, however, is the error what we have been exploring above, and that is the error that agrees that we contribute nothing to our salvation, but believes that our salvation does not result in a changed life. The teaching of the Bible could not more strongly disagree with this. The pages of Scripture are littered with command after command after command, and teaching after teaching after teaching that our lives look different after we believe. Not perfect lives, but repentant lives, lives worthy of the gospel. Don Carson explains, “Conduct worthy of the gospel is above all conduct that promotes the gospel.”
So, if today as you were leaving church you got a phone call from the British government notifying you that the queen of England wanted to stop by your house today for lunch, what would you do? Is there anything you could do to make your house as regal and worthy as the Buckingham Palace? No, of course not. But even still, you would rush home and suddenly start cleaning like a maniac and get out the nicest serving dishes you had and hope to make your modest home as presentable and worthy as it can be. Our lives, in some sense, will never be worthy of the gospel, worthy of God, if we understand “worthy” to mean deserved. We don’t deserve God or His grace. But while the gospel is opposed to earning, it is not opposed to effort.
The word Paul uses for “let your manner of life” could more literally be translated, “live as a citizen” (πολιτεύομαι). The CSB translates it as, “As citizens of heaven, live your life worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Later, Paul is going to tell the Philippians, “But our citizenship is in heaven,” (Phil 3:20). Every member of the city of Philippi had been granted full Roman citizenship and were fairly proud of it. Here, Paul is reminding the Philippians that they now possess a citizenship that is infinitely more important and significant. The kingdom of Rome may have lasted for more than a thousand years (which makes America seem pretty modest), but it eventually faded away. The kingdom of God lasts forever and that’s where our citizenship lies and it is that citizenship that shapes and guides everything else we do in the world.
Unity: we are united in the gospel
“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,” (Phil 1:27).
Paul uses two combative pictures to describe the unity he is talking about here: standing firm, and striving together. A picture of defense and offense.
“Standing firm” assumes opposition. If someone tells you to “stand your ground!” that implies that something is coming against you. Paul encourages the Corinthians, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong,” (1 Cor 16:13). And tells the Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” (Gal 5:1). There is a place in the Christian life for being stubborn.
“Striving side by side” comes from the root word that we get our English word “athlete” from. It literally means “to contend, fight, or compete.” Paul uses a form of this word when comparing the Christian life to the life an Olympic athlete: “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. 5 An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. 6 It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops,” (2 Tim 2:3-6).
Or the author of Hebrews: “But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hardstruggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated,” (Hebrews 10:32-33).
But here in Philippians Paul modifies the word so that it is now not focused on individual striving, but on a group of people striving together. He uses this same modified word later in Philippians to describe two women who helped him in his ministry, “Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together,” (Phil 4:3).
The gospel is opposed to earning but not effort, and here we get two palpable pictures of what that kind of effort looks like. But notice that this isn’t the effort of an individual but the effort of a community. Look again at vs. 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.” You can’t see it in English, but all of the “you’s” here are plural. Paul is speaking of the congregation as a whole having “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, striving side by side.”
A great illustration of what Paul is talking about here would be the Roman military formation known as the phalanx. A platoon of soldiers would form into a rectangular shape with each person on the front creating a wall of interlocking shields with slots for spears to jut forward like teeth. It provided a formidable formation of both offense and defense. Often in the psalms God is described as our shield, and in Ephesians 6 Paul exhorts us to take up the shield of faith, but here we see that we need the shields of our brothers and sisters, lest we be exposed and vulnerable.
In John Jesus teaches us that it is our love for one another that provides a great argument for Christianity (John 13:34), but here we see that it is our love for one another that provides a great defense. The solitary Christian is in a dangerous place. We all have blind spots and if we don’t have the eyes of each other to point them out we will be vulnerable.
We must labor to preserve our unity for the sake of the gospel. It is of vital importance.
What threatens unity?
– Gossip, slander; Partiality/favoritism, the “inner ring”; divisiveness; neglect, absence.
– Requiring too much (we can only be united if we agree on everything) or too little for unity (we don’t need to agree on important things).
How can we preserve our unity?
– Put unity killing sins to death
– Study our statement of faith thoroughly—this is what unifies the members of this church
– Practice unity—treat the other members of this church with the kind of unity God expects of you.
Courage: we suffer for the gospel
“…and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God,” Phil 1:28. If Paul has been talking about an opposition that must be resisted, here we finally see what the opposition is. The “opponents” here appear to be people who oppose the spread of Christianity, who find Christianity offensive, untrue, or dangerous and want it to be stopped. This happens over and over again to all of the apostles—all but one them are eventually executed by state sponsored violence. Paul explains to them in verse 30 that the Philippians are “engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.” What conflict did they see Paul have? Well, what we have recorded in Acts 16:19-40 when Paul arrives in Philippi. He is attacked by a mob, beaten with rods, and thrown in jail. This is the same conflict they continue in.
Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:12, that we “do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but…against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” In other words, it is not people that are our enemies, but spiritual forces behind them. And yet, those spiritual forces of evil often work through the agency and choices of people.
Paul’s charge to the Philippians, one of the ways that we can walk in a manner worthy of the gospel as citizens of heaven, is to display courage—to “not be frightened in anything by your opponents.” And our fearless suffering then becomes a small picture of the final judgment. Paul tells us, “This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God,” (1:28). At the final day there will be a bright line drawn between Christian and non-Christian, and the experience today of Christians standing fearlessly in the face of persecution serves as a foretaste of that separation. There are two ways to live your life, two identities, two citizenships you can have: one of the world, or one of heaven. And because we are so confident that our citizenship ultimately resides in heaven, then we are not intimidated by the weapons of the world—even if it leads to our death. The failure of persecution to extinguish the faith of a Christian demonstrates that his hope of salvation is not found in his earthly comforts, reputation, or even his own life; and this conviction serves as a sign to the opponent themselves of their own doom.
Polycarp, the second century church father, was 86 years old when he was martyred for refusing to offer worship to Caesar. As he was bound to the stake, he was given one last opportunity to recant Christ. He responded, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.”
Jesus Himself taught, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell,” Matt 10:28.
Hang on, you might be thinking, this sounds a little dramatic, maybe even dangerous. Why do we need to think about people we disagree with as “opponents”? Does this kind of teaching lead Christians to become pugnacious jerks looking for a fight, or drama queens who exaggerate even the mildest of inconveniences as “persecution”?
Does this make us into jerks? No—Christians are a strange breed. When Polycarp was arrested, he stopped to fix a meal for the guards who were arresting him and then prayed for them. Because we believe that there is an enemy behind our enemy, we do not turn bitter and violent. In Acts 23 Paul is apprehended by the Jewish authorities and begins sharing his testimony with them. The high priest, in the middle of Paul’s testimony, orders a guard to strike Paul in the face, and Paul explodes in anger and pronounces a curse against the high priest. But then apologizes because he knows that it is against God’s law to speak evil of a ruler (Acts 23:1-5). Our great model is Jesus Christ, forgiving his enemies even as they kill him. We are not motivated by hatred.
Are we being dramatic? We could be. Sometimes Christians can make mountains out of molehills, or turn their own personal preferences into religious stands, when really it has nothing to do with Christianity. But Paul tells us that God has ordained it that we would suffer: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,” (Phil 1:29).
Suffering is just as much a gift given to us as our faith us. And that may sound like an unpleasant gift–who wants suffering?–but it is a gift nonetheless. This means that while some Christians may dramatically exaggerate their own inconveniences into “persecution,” we should expect and anticipate that we will experience opposition in our faith. It is just part and parcel of the Christian faith.
How is it a gift? When we experience suffering–particularly the opposition that comes from persecution–then we are given an opportunity to experience Christ in a way that we will never be able to experience from the vantage point of comfort and ease. Further, suffering provides us with a microphone to speak to the world of the greatness of Christ that we will not have when everything is going our way. When we are given a choice to choose the comforts of this world or Christ, and we choose Christ, it tells everyone else that Christ must really be great, grand, glorious. We can “let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also, the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.”
It is His kingdom that lasts forever, so we can sacrifice all for Him. What does it look like for us to suffer today?
– You’re a freshman at college, lonely, missing home, and eager to find some friends. A group of friends begins to include you, but you realize that to “fit in” with them, you will need to seriously downplay your Christian convictions.
– You’re in a job where the culture is hostile and tense towards Christians. The rest of the staff notices that you don’t sign your emails with your preferred pronouns, you don’t decorate your cubicle for pride month.
– You’ve been friends with a non-Christian for a long time but have been too timid to bring up Christ, and it has been so long now that you feel uncomfortable and fear that you may lose the relationship.
– A friend of yours who has claimed to be a Christian, but has consistently been walking in disobedience and you are scared of what may happen when you confront them.