Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For He has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for Him as well– since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. – Philippians 1:27-30, NRSV
I’m currently preparing to preach over this passage at my church as we continue our series in the book of Philippians, and the key thing that I see in this passage is Paul’s desire for corporate sanctification in the midst of suffering and persecution. That’s really a major theme in the entire book.
Notice first, Paul says that he wants us to live a life in a manner worthy of the Gospel. That sounds like the “Christian thing” to do, right? But what does that really look like? The first answer that comes to my mind (and it may come to your mind as well) is sanctification. But what is sanctification? The biblical definition of sanctification is ‘setting apart.’ But I feel like we, in the Church, have a distorted view of sanctification. We’ve got it all boiled down to an individual moralism where we have to make sure we do all the things we’re supposed to as Christians and then we get to stand back, look at our giant pile of good works that we’ve done for the day, and make sure that those good things outnumber the bad things that we do. But the problem is that our giant pile of good works is just that – A GIANT PILE (of what, I’m sure you can figure out).
In his sermon on Galatians 1:1-10, Daniel Emery Price talks about how we often look at the free gift of Gospel and we might think that it’s too good to be true, so what we do is think to ourselves, “there’s got to be more to the Gospel than this, there’s got to be some rules and regulations.” So, we know that Jewish dietary restrictions and other certain laws are done away with in Christ, but we end up creating our own rules and regulations. We’re perfectly allowed to eat bacon, but God forbid we light up a good ol’ Marlboro Menthol cigarette or even better, a nice Oliva V cigar.
So then, we turn sanctification into something that we offer to God through obedience to laws that we’ve made for ourselves and in the process we deceive ourselves and others by believing and proclaiming that we’re following the law of God.
What then does the Bible actually say about sanctification? The Apostle Peter gives us this insight:
Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. – 1 Peter 1:14-19, NRSV
The word, “holy” means “other, set apart.” What Peter is telling us is that just as God is “other” or distinct from His creation so we should be “other” or distinct from those who do not embrace the Gospel of Christ. There is then a responsibility to conduct ourselves different from the rest of the world. And we often refer to this new conduct as holiness. One might be inclined to ask the question, “how does that not result in moralism?”
Imagine if you’re a father or mother and you’re teaching a child to walk. You’re not looking for any skills in the child that would contribute to him learning to walk, you’re simply trying to guide the child until it can walk on it’s own so it is with God who sanctifies us. He’s drawing us close to Him, and guiding us with His Spirit so we can walk with Him. Will that result in behavior modification? Maybe, but behavior modification isn’t the point, the Gospel of God coming to us and letting Him work in our lives is the point. When we understand this, we can then see that sanctification is process that we join and participate in with God rather than something that we contribute to our salvation.
(For more information on this, I highly recommend Dallas Willard’s lecture on Spiritual Formation as Natural Part of Salvation.)
Now, when we get back to our passage in Philippians 1, we see that Paul wants that to happen in community. Notice verse 27, Paul fully expects them to be “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.” When we consider this, we see that our sanctification isn’t a static, individual act, but it is an active community project that we assist one another in as God works in us to do so.