What is Sanctification?

A sermon by Lee Irons on Philippians 2:1-13.

Over the last two weeks we looked at verses 12 and 13. Now, this morning I want to step back and take a look at this entire section, Phil. 2:1-13, and draw out some principles from it concerning the doctrine of sanctification. In my experience Christians often quote Phil. 2:12-13 out of context. The danger is that it is divorced from the preceding context where the obedience that is required of us is spelled out.

In the context, Paul isn't concerned so much with what we might call "biblical morality." By biblical morality I mean the basic do's and dont's of the Christian life. We must have a high regard for the sanctity of life. This means not getting angry at others. We must have a high regard for the sanctity of marriage. This means maintaining high standards of sexual purity. We must also have a high regard for the sanctity of the truth. We must not lie. And so on and so forth.

The problem is that when verses 12-13 are taken out of context, we tend to think that this is what Paul is referring to when he says, "as you have always obeyed … continue to work out your own salvation." If we ignore the context, we naturally assume that the obedience called for here is adherence to biblical morality.

What I'm going to do, then, is to read this whole paragraph, vv. 1-13. As I read, reflect upon vv. 12-13 in light of the context.

1If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.  3Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 

8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death -- even death on a cross!  9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed -- not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence -- continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good pleasure.

The obedience that we are called to in verses 12-13, and which God is working in us, is now seen to be somewhat different than the things that fall under the category of biblical morality. When Paul exhorts us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, he is calling us to be more and more conformed to the image of Christ, to have Christ-like humility and love for others, and to be conformed to Christ's humiliation and exaltation. In other words, when we read verses 12-13 in context, sanctification is defined in relation to the character of Christ himself. I cannot emphasize this enough. Sanctification includes biblical morality, to be sure, but you will be aiming in the wrong direction if you start with that. The best way of defining sanctification is with three simple words: conformity to Christ.

The principle of sanctification is love (vv. 1-4)

Verse 1 actually continues the exhortation at the end of chapter one. Even though the Philippians are being persecuted by the hostile pagan culture of the Roman empire, they must not indulge in self-pity but realize that they are involved in a great spiritual struggle for the gospel. God, for Christ's sake, has graciously granted them, not only the gift of faith, but also the privilege of suffering for Christ.

And so they ought to be encouraged by this: "...if there is any encouragement in Christ." There is encouragement in knowing that they are in Christ. "If there is any consolation of love." There is consolation in knowing that they are loved by God who has graciously called them to suffer for Christ. In addition, Paul mentions "the fellowship or communion of the Spirit" -- focusing on the fact that the saints are fellow partakers of the same Spirit, and therefore united in a spiritual bond of union with Christ.

Therefore, if the Philippians can see these great spiritual realities that are theirs in Christ, then Paul appeals to them to have affection and compassion for one another and for Paul in his bonds, and to make his joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, and intent on one gospel purpose.

The word "love" occurs once in verse 1 and again in verse 2. Now in verse 1 it seems to be the love of Christ for us that is in view. "If there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love." The parallelism of the two phrases suggests that it is the love of Christ for us that is the basis of our encouragement and consolation in the midst of suffering. Love in verse 1 is clearly a vertical relationship -- Christ's love for us.

But in verse 2 the word appears again, but this time with a different nuance. In verse 1, we have the "if" clause, whereas in verse 2 we have the "then" clause. If there is any encouragement from Christ's great love for us, if we share that love together as God's people, then we must maintain unity and love within the body of Christ. We enjoy the same love in our vertical relationship with Christ. Therefore, we ought to maintain that same love in our horizontal relationships as well.

In verses 3-4, Paul then spells out in more detail exactly what is entailed by love on the horizontal plane. Love is the opposite of selfishness and conceit. Love means with humility of mind regarding others as more important than ourselves. Love means looking out not merely for our own interests but also for the interests of others.

The consolation and encouragement that we enjoy as the recipients of Christ's love for us, the love by which he died for us and shed his blood to redeem us, that very love must trickle down into our horizontal relationships so that we love others by demonstrating concern for them and their needs.

The principle of sanctification is love. Brothers and sisters, you must love one another, even as Christ loved you. Have empathy for others. Put ourselves in the other person's shoes. It is natural for us to be self-centered, thinking only about our own personal needs and interests. But we must put to death our sinful inclinations and self-centeredness. All of that belongs to the flesh. Instead, consider your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to be more important than you.

The pattern of sanctification is Christ (vv. 5-11)

The principle of sanctification, then, is self-emptying love. Where do we see this kind of love most perfectly modeled for us? We see it in Christ. The pattern of sanctification is Christ because the principle of love is patterned for us in Christ.

The most important thing you need to take away from this is that love begins with having a Christ-like mind-set. "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus." It is possible for a person to go out and do loving deeds, but without having the mind of Christ. The key to following Christ's example of love is having his mind-set.

And what was his mindset? As God's eternal Son, Christ had all the riches of glory at his disposal. He had all the rights and prerogatives of deity. He could have been filled with his own interests and his own rights. Had he done so, he would have been perfectly right to do so, because he was perfectly equal with God in every way. And yet, the amazing thing is that he refused to grasp after his rights and interests -- rights that lawfully belonged to him! If ever there was someone who would have been absolutely within his rights to avoid coming to this earth and serve lost and fallen humanity, it was Christ!

But although he existed in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped and used for his own advantage, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant. And as a bond-servant he humbled himself even further by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a shameful execution stake.

Notice how Christ's love is seen at each step of his humiliation. It is like a gradual descent from heaven to earth to the cross. As he descends each step, getting lower and lower, at each step of the way, the mindset of Christ is on display. He could have turned back at any point. He could have turned back at the very beginning way back in eternity when he first agreed to become man according to the terms of the eternal covenant of redemption. Once he became man, he could have turned back when he was tempted in the wilderness. He could have turned back when he was in the garden of Gethsemane, sweating great drops of blood.

Of course, we know that there is a sense in which he could not have turned back, since he had already agreed to go to the cross when he agreed to the eternal covenant of redemption before the foundation of the world. But the author of Hebrews says that though he was a Son, yet he learned obedience from the things that he suffered, that he was tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. And so there is a sense in which we can say that his temptation to turn back was real.

At each point, Christ was genuinely tempted to consider his own interests, his own rights, and his own desire to avoid suffering. And yet at each point, he set aside his own interests, he emptied himself, and placed our salvation before him as his one, single priority. He cared more about our need for salvation than about his own desire to avoid suffering.

So the pattern of sanctification is Christ. We must imitate Christ's mind-set, his refusal to be self-centered, his willingness to be humbled yet further, going down, down until he arrived at the lowest level of all -- the shameful death of the cross.

The power of sanctification is the Spirit (v. 13a)

The principle of sanctification is love. The pattern of sanctification is Christ. What, then, is the power of sanctification? How in the world can we do this? In ourselves, there is no way we can do it. That is why the power of sanctification is nothing less than the Spirit of the living God at work in us.

Yes, we are to work our own salvation, but we aren't doing it in our own strength as if it were all up to us, for -- wonder of wonders! -- it is God who is at work in us, both to will and work for his good pleasure.

My translation:  "For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you not only to want to do God's will, but enabling you also to carry it out."

The basic distinction here is between the desires of the will and the actual performance of the will.  Paul makes this distinction in Romans 7:18:  "For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out" (ESV).

How often we have had that experience of wanting to do what is right, but not having the ability to carry it out. In light of Romans 7:18, what a wonderful passage Philippians 2:13 is! What an encouragement it is to know that God is at work in us, by his Spirit, causing us not only to want to do what is right, but even giving us the empowerment to actually do it!

The same Spirit that hovered over the waters and called order out of chaos. The same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead and exalted him to God's right hand. That life-giving, quickening, creating Spirit is the Spirit that is at work in us, both to will and to do for God's good pleasure. The Spirit is not explicitly mentioned in verse 13, but it is clear that it is the third person of the Godhead that is in view under the title of "God." It is God who is at work in you. The verb "at work in you," is the basis for the English word "energy."  God's Spirit is the one who energizes and empowers us to have the same mind-set that Christ had, to be able to love others and to place their needs ahead of our own. So the power of sanctification is the Spirit.

The ultimate purpose of sanctification is the glory of God (v. 13b)

This brings us to the purpose of sanctification. I derive this from the very last phrase at the end of verse 13:  God is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work "for his good pleasure." The word "good pleasure" in Greek is the same word used at the baptism and transfiguration of Christ, when the Father said, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased." If God is well-pleased with his Son Jesus Christ, then he will be pleased when his people are conformed to the image of his Son.

God was well-pleased with the obedience and humility of his beloved Son. As a result he highly exalted him. At the end of verse 11, we are reminded that the universal acclamation and confession of Christ as Lord is "to the glory of God the Father." So, then, if the humiliation of Christ was pleasing to God, then your being conformed to Christ in his pattern of self-emptying love will also be pleasing to God. The goal of your sanctification is to be conformed to Christ, and such conformity in turn brings glory to God. The ultimate purpose of sanctification, then, is the glory and good pleasure of God.


What is sanctification? It is far more than doing the things required and avoiding the things forbidden by biblical morality or the moral law. Certainly I do not want to deny that it is anything less than this. But it is far more. And what is the "far more" according to our text? It is the development within us of the very mind of Christ. We are not truly becoming transformed into the image of Christ if we are simply sinning less. Conformity to the image of Christ means that we begin to think the way Christ did, that we clothe ourselves with humility as Christ did, that we lay aside our own rights as legitimate as they may be, and that we thus stop being self-centered and instead look out for the interests of others in Christ-like service and love.

Since the development of a Christ-like character is so important, I would like to give you some practical guidelines to help you in this area.

First, as we sang in the song, "Take time to be holy," we must spend much time with the Lord in prayer. When you pray, you will of course address your heavenly Father as our Lord taught us to do. But you should also address the second person of the Godhead. Paul did so when he prayed to his Lord to remove the thorn in his flesh. As you address Christ as your Lord, tell him that you want to become like him. Ask him to show you more of his character and to work that character in your heart. You cannot expect to become more like Christ unless you have a personal relationship with Christ.

In addition to making your prayers Christ-centered, you should also make your Bible reading Christ-centered. Meditate upon the person of Christ as revealed in Scripture, especially in the four gospels. Do not merely read the Bible for information and theological knowledge. Feed upon the word in the inward man. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.

A third application is to be on the lookout for Christians in whom you see the character of Christ. When you find such Christians, imitate those aspects of their conduct which most clearly radiate Christ.

Finally, learn from your trials and tribulations. This is perhaps the most important factor in becoming more like Christ. When God brings trials and tribulations into our lives, God is giving us an opportunity to grow in Christ-likeness. Our first reaction to trials is usually self-pity. And if we allow self-pity to fester, it can eventually turn into anger against God. But if we respond in this fleshly way, we will be squandering blessed opportunities to become more Christ-like. Every trial is an opportunity to let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus. Every trial is an opportunity to submit your will to God's will, to turn away from your self-centered way of thinking, and to be an obedient bond-servant like Christ.

If we do these things, then biblical morality will naturally follow. A Christ-like person is not likely to be the kind of person who is committing murder and adultery in his heart, or who has a low regard for the sanctity of truth and the good name of others.

What, then, is sanctification? Our Catechism answer is right on target:  "Sanctification is the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of Christ, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness."

The principle is love, the pattern is Christ, the power is the Spirit, and the ultimate purpose is the glory of God.

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