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Monday, July 28, 2014 | Comments (10)

by John MacArthur

In Philippians 2:12-13, the apostle Paul highlights the paradoxical nature of sanctification—that it sits at the crossroads between man’s responsibility and God’s empowering.

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 point is that true spiritual growth is not one-sided. No amount of man-made effort can produce righteousness, nor does the Lord sanctify His people by osmosis. Only when the two work in concert is sanctification possible.

We’ve already looked at man’s responsibility, and some of God’s characteristics that inform His role in our spiritual growth. Today we’ll consider the final two: His purpose and His pleasure.

God’s Purpose

The phrase “both to will and to work” is best interpreted as referring not to God’s will and work but rather to that of believers. The will to do what is right before God must precede any effective work that is done toward that end. A genuine desire to do God’s will, as well as the power to obey it, originates with Him.

“To will” is from thelō, which refers to thoughtful, purposeful choice, not to mere whim or emotional desire. It is what the psalmist had in mind when he prayed, “Incline my heart to Your testimonies” (Psalm 119:36; cf. 110:3). Proverbs declares that “the king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Proverbs 21:1).

God uses two means to move believers’ wills. First is what might be called holy discontent. It is the humble recognition that one’s life always falls short of God’s standard of holiness. When Isaiah beheld “the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple,” he could only exclaim in reverential fear, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:1, 5). Like all righteous people, he was dissatisfied with his spiritual state—a dissatisfaction immeasurably intensified by that awesome experience. Paul’s holy discontent led him to lament in his letter to the church at Rome, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24).

The second means God uses to move believers’ wills is holy aspiration, the positive side of holy discontent. After He instills a genuine hatred of sin, He cultivates a genuine desire for righteousness. After He makes believers discontent with what they are, He gives them the aspiration to greater holiness. Above all, it is the desire to be like Christ, “to become conformed to the image of [God’s] Son” (Romans 8:29).

In Philippians Paul brings together his own holy discontent and holy aspiration when he confesses:

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12–14)

Holy resolve leads to holy living. A godly will produces godly work.

It cannot be overemphasized that only God can produce in believers the will or the work that He commands of them. Just as believers are not saved by good works but wholly by God’s grace working through their faith (Ephesians 2:8–9), so also they are sanctified by His grace working through their obedience. They are God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that [they] would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Just as believers are sovereignly predestined to salvation, so also are they predestined to sanctification.

God’s Pleasure

The final essential reality about God’s part in believers’ sanctification is the overwhelming truth that God works in their sanctification “for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). His will for believers is that they think and do what pleases Him. Although that is accomplished primarily by His own power, when His children seek His will and do His work, it brings Him great pleasure.

Good pleasure” translates eudokias, which expresses great enjoyment and satisfaction. Because God is infinitely self-sufficient, one cannot but wonder how anything or anyone, especially a sinful human being, could add to His satisfaction. Yet that clearly is what Paul is saying. Even when they were weak, vacillating, and fearful, Jesus assured the disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). Giving a place in His kingdom to His children brings God great pleasure.

Because believers’ sanctification brings Him satisfaction, God grants them the resources to pursue it. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ . . . [and has] made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him. (Ephesians 1:3, 9)

Believers’ supreme purpose is to obey, worship, and glorify God, and by fulfilling that purpose they bring pleasure to Him. Faithful, godly character and behavior pleases Him. That magnificent truth is one of the many unique realities of Christianity. The sovereign God of the universe takes personal pleasure in what He Himself inspires and empowers His redeemed children to be and to do.

Every Christian should understand that sanctification takes the most strenuous effort, but is nonetheless totally dependent on God’s power. Like many other truths of Scripture, those seemingly irreconcilable realities are hard to understand. Having done all they can, believers are to give God all the credit. Just as the Lord instructed, after they have done “all the things which are commanded,” they are to confess, “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done” (Luke 17:10).

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


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#1  Posted by Natan T  |  Monday, July 28, 2014 at 1:39 PM

This is the most accurate insight that I've ever read on sanctification. Great work Pastor JM. Yet as you said, it's God working in you, even though you have done all the hard work. Glory to God!

#2  Posted by Chad Nelson  |  Monday, July 28, 2014 at 7:27 PM

I read with interest Dr. MacArthur's comment, "Holy resolve leads to holy living. A godly will produces godly work." My curiosity is this: In Romans chapter 7 Paul says, as a believer, that the very thing he wished to do he did not do. He was frustrated by this. As he sought to please God as a believer via the Law of Moses, sin increased. It seems then, at least on the surface, that a godly will does not necessarily produce godly work. Paul had a godly desire to do good, but the doing of good was not present. Though a godly will seems to be a key ingredient in conducting godly works, it doesn't seem to guarantee good works. Perhaps what is paramount to doing godly work is this: to operate one's life from the assurance of one's standing as a child of God based solely on the promise of God.

#3  Posted by Cameron Buettel  |  Tuesday, July 29, 2014 at 4:45 PM

Chad, one of the effects of having the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a heightened awareness of sin. I once heard John MacArthur describing sanctification as a process where a person is becoming more holy while feeling more sinful (my paraphrase). As Christians we have a greater sensitivity to sin and growing awareness of issues that may have once been oblivious to us. It is probably why, late in his Christian life, Paul could describe himself as the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).

Scripture is clear that genuine conversion results in a genuine change in nature resulting in a genuine change in our actions causing us to walk in greater obedience to God's commands (Ezekiel 36:25-27). As that process takes place you will start to identify more and more areas of sin that need to be dealt with.

#4  Posted by Chad Nelson  |  Tuesday, July 29, 2014 at 6:14 PM


Thank you for your input. I appreciate it. I guess where I'm left wondering is this: If genuine conversion results in a genuine change of our actions to greater obedience, why does Paul encourage believers to obey Jesus? That is to say, if obedience will be a necessary result, why do we need to be encouraged to obey? If obedience will necessarily occur, it seems that it should happen with or without Paul's charge.

#5  Posted by Randy Johnson  |  Wednesday, July 30, 2014 at 1:28 PM

We are encouraged to obey because there are still opposite capabilities present in us even after conversion. We have a new nature. The old one is dead, but sin is still present in our members (flesh). Thus we have the capability to grant control to the Spirit or to the flesh (Romans 8:5-9).

#7  Posted by Guymon Hall  |  Friday, August 1, 2014 at 2:11 PM

"That is to say, if obedience will be a necessary result, why do we need to be encouraged to obey?"

Good question, and one that demands we have a correct view of God's working in order to understand it.

Just as God is sovereign over the moment of conversion, He is also sovereign over the process of sanctification, as Dr. MacArthur and others have indicated in this series. However, God's sovereignty over the process of sanctification is not just limited to the result, but also to the way in which it happens. In other words, God is sovereign over the means as well as the ends.

So, when the Bible exhorts us to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling", that is a means by which God accomplishes His gracious purpose of sanctification. And He has stipulated that we do so through a variety of mechanisms: personal study of His Word; being shepherded by Godly elders in a local flock; warnings and examples of those who fail to do so; etc. All these are means over which God is in sovereign control and are used to further our obedience.

#9  Posted by Chad Nelson  |  Monday, August 4, 2014 at 2:18 PM


Thank you for your comments here. Supposing your post to be true, I can somewhat see why God would command us to do certain things pertaining to sanctification. But I guess my question still stands for the most part: If God is sovereign over the result and process of sanctification, why are we believers encouraged and exhorted to obey? That is to say, why is it not enough for God to simply command us to do certain things that are a part of the sanctification process? If the result of sanctification is a necessary event, the command at the most seems to be required; not the encouragement/exhortation to obey.

#6  Posted by Rick Stauf  |  Thursday, July 31, 2014 at 8:57 AM

Pastor John, Thank you for so clearly debunking the false god "Let go and let god." And so glorifying the One true God.

#8  Posted by Darrell Astelle  |  Sunday, August 3, 2014 at 7:33 AM

I was struck with the idea of humility during the processs of sanctificaton when the verse said, "...with fear and trembling...". We are to work out our salvation in the land of the living. We are not to be proud that we did it, in and of oursleves, but know that it is God that works in us to perform His will in the sanctification process. I have heard that meekness can be defined as "power under control".

#10  Posted by Rourke Michael  |  Thursday, August 7, 2014 at 5:16 PM

The "process" of sanctification, which is all of God's doing and "how" He works it out over time, is in a portion, the revealing of the mystery of faith and love. Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

This verse was largely a thing of wonder for me at the beginning of living in God's grace. But there was smaller deeper conviction that faith was truly real. As the struggles with sins were engaged Heb. 11:1 was always applied. When the Holy Spirit brought victory, the evidence of faith was seen in receiving His grace.

Sanctification brought more of my failures, yet Scripture always brought encouragement and exhortation. God's grace on top of my failure created a hatred for the sins which grew as time moved on purging sin. My cries for God's mercy to remove the sins, in His perfect time were answered.

During this time at some point I heard Pastor JM teaching on one of his CD's and he referred to Eph. 6:24 Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. His comment was powerful, pointing out the love for God of those with true sincerity. I did a study, finding more passages using that idea of believers 'who love God' which moved me more into the light of loving God.

Looking back, some time later, I could see it was then, in that area of time, that my true love for God emerged. There was a break from what I thought was love or love lite, into a stronger, I'll die for You dedication of being in love with God. Henceforth, the "process" of sanctification was clearer, cleaner and powerful with a real Father and son bond. The desire to please God grows and the will in me wants to be nearer still to Him, and it's all a gift from God.