Thursday, December 20, 2007

For To You It Has Been Granted

It seems to me that the first chapter of Philippians is book ended by two great passages that intertwine the doctrines of the perseverance of the saved with the actual doctrine of salvation itself. Both the Philippians’ continual perseverance in the faith of Jesus Christ and the fact that intensifying persecution was looming on the horizon for them seem to be the immediate motivation for why Paul provides both of these encouraging statements.

The opening book end in chapter one is that Christ will complete the “good work” of the gospel that He started in the life of all who believe (v.6). The true Philippian believers, as do all true believers for all time, were to have no fear that God will allow them to fall from grace, be lost, or apostatize. The very fact of their final, total, and eternal salvation was as sure of a reality as the fact that they even possess saving faith, because, just like their perseverance and final salvation, faith too is based upon God’s work and His perseverance alone. This powerful and gloriously stated truth was given as a comfort to the Philippian believers in their continuing life of faith. What makes this truly glorious, in my opinion, is that Paul bases the reason for their comfort on nothing less than God’s character and nature; the fact that since God began their faith, He will finish what He began.

The closing bookend of the first chapter of this book is set in the context that the Philippian believers will endure the “same conflict” or suffering that Paul was undergoing. And in his desire to comfort and encourage them in this increasing persecution, Paul again connects the reality and purpose of this type of suffering with their faith itself; not simply the faith in the gospel, but the actual reality, presence, and existence of their own faith (believing) as well as the “why” and “how” that they now possess this faith.

The Scripture here leaves nothing to the imagination. It is clear that Paul is telling these Philippian believers that they are (or will be) on the receiving end both of the gift of faith and the gift of suffering, and that the giver of these gifts is God Himself. But the question that I have, and I am sure this is the question that we all want answered by God is this: Are we the beneficiary of both of these gifts too?

And in order to address this question, I want to first look at the issue of suffering and then look at the issue of faith. And the reason why I want to deal with it in this order is that the primary intention of the text here, I believe, is encouragement in the face of coming suffering, whereas the underlying, larger principle that is the basis for comprehending this uncomfortable reality is the reality that they understood about their faith and that it is naturally foreign to them as well. Saving faith is as foreign to the natural man as transatlantic flight is to the North American continent.

The main point that I want to communicate with the issue of suffering and the Christian, at least at this time, is this: suffering for the sake of Christ is truly a gift from God to those who believe in His name.

11 Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 12 "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:11-12)
18 If the world hates you ,you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. 19 "If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. 20 "Remember the word that I said to you, ' A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.” (John 15:18-21)
”12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” (1 Peter 4:12-14)

Christians in America have been blessed with centuries of virtual persecution-less existence. Now, I use the word “blessed” cautiously here, but that is the fact. Since the founding and taming of this nation and its geography, the greatest extent of persecution that Christians have had to endure has been fairly harmless. Christians may be asked to move a few feet, get off private property, or be the recipients of a frustrated cough or grunt, or even the occasional verbal berating, but it is nothing compared to the violence perpetrated against God’s people throughout the history of the church. That being said, I think that it is safe to say that today’s American culture is far more openly hostile to Christianity than it has been at any other time in its existence. And in that light, perhaps Paul’s statement to the Philippians is, to a great extent, a message that will ring true with us in our cultural context.

One of the things that the Philippians prided themselves on was the fact that they were Romans. This is not uncommon or unheard of because being Roman citizens instead of simply being occupied and conquered foreigners carried with it rights, status, and privileges that others did not enjoy. And looking back with the 20/20 vision of history, we can see that the Roman Empire was rocked with the persecution of Christians. And this persecution was carried out upon all people, citizens or not, by the government itself.

The stories of the Neronic persecution are far too gruesome and on too great of a scale for me to deal with them here, but the main point that I want to get across is simply this: The Philippians’ status as Roman citizens did nothing to stop the persecution that was on the horizon and was being driven by their own government. And as a point of warning for all of us in the West, hear me well: our status as American citizens will not save us when (I personally don’t think that it is a question of “if”) persecution begins to intensify in the states. The unjust persecution and suffering of those chosen by God is a consistent occurrence throughout the history of the world.

I am not convinced that Christians, at least in America or the West, really understand, like, or agree with either of Paul’s statements here. In the West we have been so sheltered from persecution on account of our faith because we have been privileged to live in various forms of democracy that have protected religious liberty. But going along with that, the idea of God’s absolute sovereignty over all things, including our salvation, is so contrary to our democratic, capitalistic, American ideals and society (where we have rags to riches stories of millionaires who grew up on the streets with nothing and ended up in the highest class of citizens) that the very notion that I would have no “right” to heaven or that I would not be able to cast my “vote” for Christ slams up against so many of our presuppositions about all of life.

So it is with a desire to exalt God in all of His glory and to proclaim His greatness that I would like to look at the gift of faith. God has granted the faith to believe in His son to those individuals whom He has chosen from before time began, and this is one of the most precious gifts that any man could ever receive from God.

There are many words used to describe those of us who have placed our faith in Christ Jesus as Lord and have repented of our sins and have been born again by the Spirit, “chosen” is only one of them but some people tend to recoil at the concept that individuals are chosen by God to receive His grace. For instance, in the Bible the name for a gathering of Christians or the universal body of Christ is “church”. But there are many different words that are used to speak of those who make up the church.
  • “Christians” is used 3 times in the New Testament.
  • “Believers” is used 12 times in the New Testament. And one of the truths that we understand from the text at hand is that the faith that we have to become “believers” is itself a gift of God.
  • “Elect” or “chosen” (the same Greek word) is used 22 times in the New Testament.
  • “Called” is used 31 times in the New Testament.
  • “Saint” is used 61 times in the New Testament. “People who have been separated from the world and consecrated to the worship and service of God.”1 Who does the separating and who does the consecrating?
  • “Church” is used112 times in the New Testament. The Greek word “eklesia” is a compound word. “ek” means out of or from, and “kalein” means to call. So literally, the term “church” speaks of “the called out ones”.
My point is this; I cannot find a word that describes our relationship with God or our position as those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ that doesn’t specifically imply and proclaim the fact that God is the active one in our salvation and we are not. So I as again that faith is a gift of God to those who have been chosen by God to receive it.

One other interesting note is that the Greek in verse 29 uses the same root words as does Ephesians 2:8. The words translated “grace” (Eph 2:8) and “granted” (Phil 1:29) both have “charis” as the root word. Likewise the words “faith” and “believe” in these texts both have “pistis” as the root word.

In Philippians, Paul is using doctrinal truth as a foundation for their understanding of the coming suffering. But in Ephesians Paul is declaring a doctrinal truth of man’s salvation. If the understanding of “grace” were insufficient, Paul makes it absolutely clear that the faith by which we are connected with that saving grace of God has its roots in God Himself alone and not in our condition as men.
“Faith is the most beautiful, the most God honoring, the most humble of all acts that a human being can perform. Therefore, we must not imagine that a natural man, who cannot even receive the things of the Spirit, would have the inclination to do the most wonderful, beautiful, God honoring, humble act that can be performed by a human being. Before a person can perform that act, the best of all possible acts, he must be born again. Thorns do not give forth figs, an apple tree does not give forth olives, and natural men do not believe, they cannot.”2
“Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” (James 1:17)

So I believe that we must understand faith in terms of being a complete gift from God. The first reason is simply that this text, as well as others, states that faith is a gift of God. That should be the end of any discussion of human merit or ultimate human determination over if one possesses faith in Christ or not, but sadly the debate rages. I believe, over and above the simple reason that the Bible says that faith is a gift; there are two very powerful Biblical arguments to say that faith must be a gift.

Now before I get into my argument much further, I want to be absolutely clear that fact that my doctrinal conviction that faith is a gift bestowed upon unworthy sinners, and thus it is only those who receive this gift of faith who are enabled to believe in Jesus does, not negate any personal responsibility on the part of an individual sinner. When we proclaim the gospel, we call all men everywhere to repent, and all of those who do repent of their sin and trust in Christ alone as savior will be saved. The issue here is not the response or responsibility of the sinner to the message of the cross. The issue here is who is ultimately responsible for the faith that any man expresses and places in Christ. It is my contention that since faith in God goes so far against anything that is natural to the unsaved man, it must have its origin with God.

First of all, the Bible says that the natural man is completely unwilling to choose to believe in God. God makes a sweeping declaration of the extent of the vileness of the human condition both before the great flood and directly after. In both of these places, God sums up man’s condition by stating that “every intent of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5) and that “the intent of man's heart is evil from his youth” (Gen 8:21). There is no way that one can read what God has said here and come up with any notion of some ability to do the very opposite of evil by trusting in and believing in God. The New Testament is not silent on this predicament either. When writing to the Galatians about the differences between the fruits of the Spirit and the deeds of the flesh, Paul begins by setting up a dichotomy,
“For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” (Galatians 5:17)

Even in the heart and lives of those who are saved (as the context is referring to here), there is nothing similar about the desires and inclinations of the flesh as compared to the Spirit of God that is present in the believer. And it is only after God has saved a person that there is even this type of a struggle. Before the gift of faith and the new birth, the flesh still is opposed to the Spirit, but there is no Spirit to move the person away from evil and toward God.

This dovetails into the next reason why faith must be a gift is that man is completely unable on his own to choose to believe in God. It is fair to say that the extent of man’s unwillingness is virtually indistinguishingly intertwined with his inherent inability to do so. And the inability of man to do anything righteous is best understood in our spiritual deadness in sin.
1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.” (Ephesians 2:1,2)

It is my belief and experience that if this doctrine of faith is rightly understood, it will be one of the most self-stripping, pride-crushing, and God-glorifying truths that will cause more thanksgiving to God and a richer understanding of grace. You don’t have to be a card carrying member of the Synod of Dort in order to agree with these truths. You don’t have to agree with everything that a French pastor and reformer ever wrote to understand the implications of this truth of the Bible. But what you need to be is humble, and see God as God is described in the Bible and see man as we are described in the Bible.

1 (from Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright (c)1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers)

2 John Piper – “That Which is Born of the Spirit is Spirit” 7/30/07 DGR (cf. Matt 7:16)/span>

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