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Wednesday, July 16, 2014 | Comments (7)

by John MacArthur

Christians are not meant to be spectators in the sanctifying process. Believers are commanded to strive against their flesh for the sake of holiness and spiritual growth. At the same time, true righteousness is only possible through the power of God. As we’ve seen in recent days, biblical sanctification is a cooperative work between the Lord and His people.

The apostle Paul spells out the paradoxical nature of that cooperative work in Philippians 2:12-13.

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians—and to us—suggests five vital truths that inform and encourage true spiritual growth. We’ve already considered how our sanctification is influenced by understanding Christ’s love for and example to us, the need for obedience, and our responsibility to the Lord. Today we’ll discuss the last of Paul’s vital truths: the gravity of sin.

The Fear of the Lord

Although God is loving, merciful, and forgiving, He nevertheless holds believers accountable for disobedience. Like John, Paul understood well that “if we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9).

Knowing that he serves a holy and just God, the faithful believer will always live with “fear and trembling.”

An important Old Testament truth is “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10; cf. Proverbs 1:7, 9:10). It’s not the fear of being doomed to eternal torment, nor a hopeless dread of judgment that leads to despair. Instead, it’s a reverential fear, a holy concern to give God the honor He deserves and avoid the chastening of His displeasure. It protects against temptation and sin and gives motivation for obedient, righteous living.

Such fear involves self-distrust, a sensitive conscience, and being on guard against temptation. It necessitates opposing pride, and being constantly aware of the deceitfulness of one’s heart, as well as the subtlety and strength of one’s inner corruption. It is a dread that seeks to avoid anything that would offend and dishonor God.

Believers should have a serious dread of sin and a yearning for what is right before God. Aware of their weakness and the power of temptation, they should fear falling into sin and thereby grieving the Lord. Godly fear protects them from wrongfully influencing fellow believers, compromising their ministry and testimony to the unbelieving world, inviting the Lord’s chastening, and from sacrificing joy.

Comprehending Sin’s Consequences

To have such godly fear and trembling involves more than merely acknowledging one’s sinfulness and spiritual weakness. It is the solemn, reverential fear that springs from deep adoration and love. It acknowledges that every sin is an offense against a holy God and produces a sincere desire not to offend and grieve Him, but to obey, honor, please, and glorify Him in all things.

Those who fear the Lord willingly accept the Lord’s correction, knowing that God “disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). This fear and trembling will cause believers to pray earnestly for God’s help in avoiding sin, as the Lord taught them: “Do not lead us into temptation, but deliver [rescue] us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). That prayer again reflects the spiritual tension that exists between believers’ duty and God’s power.

The true believer understands the consequences of his sin—that it sorely grieves the Lord and severely impedes his own growth. That truth, combined with the love and example of Christ, the need for obedience, and the responsibility the Christian has to the Lord, spurs him on to, as the apostle Paul wrote, “work out” his salvation.

And that’s where we’ll pick it up next time.

(Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Philippians.)


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#1  Posted by Kelly Whalen  |  Wednesday, July 16, 2014at 4:15 AM

could you recommend some trustworthy authors who have written on this subject? I, like you, read a lot of the works by the old and trusted saints.

#3  Posted by Cameron Buettel  |  Wednesday, July 16, 2014at 10:10 AM

Kelly, some of the puritans wrote great stuff on this subject. Try The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards and The Mischief of Sin by Thomas Watson (the latest edition has a foreword by John MacArthur). You could also check out Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers by John Owen.

#2  Posted by Jason Larose  |  Wednesday, July 16, 2014at 8:16 AM

I've been struggling to use my unscheduled time for the kingdom. Lately I've been realizing how I selfishly horde the couple hours a day after the kids are in bed, wanting to do meaningless things for entertainment and convincing myself that I've earned it after working through the day and helping take care of the kids most of the afternoon, and then lamenting when the time is over so quickly.

This article speaks to the very burden-lightening realization I've just recently had. Namely, that having a right view of God helps us to understand how trivial any comforts the world might offer really are and how meaningful the works for His kingdom are.

I've spent a lot of time grudgingly forcing myself to do things because I was convinced I "had to". The more I learn to fear and respect God for who He is the more I find I'm doing those same things because it's the only thing that seems fulfilling and not because it's a burden. Every once in a while some relaxation time is nice and rest is Biblical but I feel like I've been putting far too much weight on the value of luxury (even though most Christian friends I have keep encouraging me to pamper myself *more*).

It's interesting how we talk about sanctification being a responsibility and work, but at the same time the more in-line with God we become the less it really seems that way.

It reminds me of the discussion on "cheap grace" I was reading elsewhere. The article was condemning people for saying that life change is an expected result of salvation, claiming that sanctification was God's job and that it was awful to say anything that might make someone question their salvation when the obviously have proclaimed that they believe in Jesus. It's a persuasive argument that's won many over within the church.

Grace is cheap in light of a godly perspective (who wouldn't give up their sin controlled life to become a new creation in Christ on this side of spiritual understanding?) but we've got another gospel going in large parts of the church where you can keep your life and just slap a fish sticker on the back of your car, repeat a prayer after someone, and assume you're fine. It's perfectly fine to encourage people to take a look at *what* Jesus they're putting their faith in, because there's only one that saves.

God loves a cheerful giver!

#5  Posted by George Canady  |  Thursday, July 17, 2014at 7:29 AM

Strange Fire taught me not to be a "fan boy" for any pastor. However, in the sanctification debate, this series of posts seems so helpful to me to affirm and correct from the Spirit within. I plan to print and share.

#6  Posted by Paula Whitfill  |  Thursday, July 17, 2014at 9:30 PM

This is exactly what I've been struggling with today. Just as you, Jason, I have justified turning to entertainment, TV, during a long struggle with an illness and the Lord convicted me today, even before I read this blog, to glorify and honor Him with what strength I have and also, to ask the Lord for that strength. We must war with our flesh, even if it seems impossible because I want the Lord to be glorified in me. Thank you, Pastor John, for spurring us on and showing us we should be careful of being too comfortable with our sin.

#8  Posted by Dale Plueger  |  Sunday, July 20, 2014at 8:20 PM

2 Peter 1: 5-7 reads, "For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness,and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love." ESV

I have been reading the Word daily and praying the Lord would use His Holy Spirit in me to appropriate these qualities to the faith God has given me. I have been putting special emphasis on those areas I know I need more work but just when I feel the Lord is preforming a good work in me (Philippians 2:12-13.) I fail at one or more of these qualities and out of frustration I start over. What am I doing wrong? I want so to be effective for the Lord.

#9  Posted by Cameron Buettel  |  Monday, July 21, 2014at 10:33 AM

Dale, based on what you have said it seems that you have not yet arrived at glorification. Welcome to the club. I am greatly encouraged by the fact that you are pursuing conformity to Christ in your devotional life rather than “felt needs.” A deep longing and desire for Christlikeness can only come from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Since I do not know the specifics of your situation I cannot give a specific answer. If you are struggling with besetting sins, you do need to repent of them, be accountable to your inner circle of Christian brothers, and cultivate more of the fear of God in your life. It also helps to cultivate godly habits and responses so that when the temptation comes, your response comes more naturally. For example, if (hypothetically) you struggled with following the admonition to “be quick to hear and slow to speak,” you could practice asking questions when interacting with people, and when appropriate say things like, “What I hear you saying is… is that right?” Developing those kinds of habits in normal day-to-day interaction can help produce a godly response in the heat of the moment, so to speak. That’s just one example, but the same principle could be applied to virtually any struggle with sin.

Furthermore, what I would say is that you should meditate on Christ’s finished work and the promises based on that in order that your frustration in your own efforts would be replaced with a joy derived from Christ’s finished work substituted in your place. When preaching a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:4–9, John MacArthur had this to say:

“The benefits of being a saint cover all of the periods of a life: the past, the present and the future. In the past there's grace, for the present there are gifts and the future there are guarantees. What it boils down to is your past is forgiven, your present is taken care of and your future is guaranteed. You can't beat that. That's the greatest kind of policy there is. Takes care of all the past sins, gives you all you need to live in the present, and secures absolutely your future. That's what Christianity offers.”

Ask yourself what your frustration at your own efforts says about the faith you have in Christ’s finished work. Cultivate a mindset of daily repentance for sin, and dependence on Him for victory. In so doing you will prevent pride when victory comes, and frustration when it doesn’t.