A Prayer for Spiritual Growth | Philippians 1:9-12
Brian Hedges | May 10, 2020
Welcome this morning to our online service at Redeemer Church! I’m glad that you’ve tuned in. We are longing for a day, hopefully very soon, when we will be back together again, but we’re glad that we have the technology and we have this kind of venue, where we’re at least able to worship and to open the word and share in this way.
I hope this morning that as you’re worshipping with your family that you will turn in your Bibles to Philippians 1.
Every once in a while, physicians (pediatricians in particular) will diagnose children with a condition called FTT, or failure to thrive. The causes of failure to thrive can include genetics or sickness or poor nutrition, but the diagnosis is given in cases of arrested development, when a child is not hitting its growth markers, certain measurements of growth that are to be expected. When they fall below a certain percentile, the children are diagnosed with this condition, FTT.
I think that there is an analogy in that to the Christian life, where sometimes Christians have what we might call spiritual failure to thrive, spiritual FTT; when Christians should be growing, but they’re not. In the Christian life, growth is normal, it is healthy, it is to be expected. God begins a good work of salvation in us, and he continues with that work until the day of Jesus Christ. We looked at that last week from Philippians 1:6.
But there are times and seasons when perhaps it seems that that growth is arrested, where Christians are characterized by arrested development. This happens when levels of holiness are low, when Christians are not growing in love for one another, when there is division in the church, when there is a failure to hold forth the word of life in our society. All of these would be examples of a failure to thrive spiritually.
The apostle Paul, as he was writing this letter to the Philippian church, was concerned for them. He was confident that God would continue his work, and yet he also prayed for them, and he prayed specifically for their spiritual growth. It is that prayer that we come to this morning in Philippians 1:9-11.
This is really the final part of Paul’s introduction to this letter. We’ve taken several weeks to look at his greeting and his thanksgiving and his confidence in God’s work in the Philippians. We’ve already talked about our identity in Christ, what it means to have a gospel identity. We’ve talked about gospel friendship and what it means to build relationships on the basis of our identity in Christ and on the basis of the gospel. Last week we considered the work that God himself does in saving us.
But now, flowing out of everything that Paul has said this far, he prays for the Philippians, and it’s a prayer for spiritual growth. The apostle Paul would have agreed with Robert Murray M’Cheyne, that Scottish pastor who wrote his diaries and journals, and those have been preserved for us. M’Cheyne in his journals one time said that he was convinced that he was not growing, that no grace in his life was growing if it was not thriving. He wanted to see thriving grace in his spiritual life. Well, Paul wanted that as well, and that’s what he prays for in Philippians 1:9-11.
Let’s read the passage together, and then I want you to see how this prayer highlights three crucial dimensions for spiritual growth. Let’s read the text, Philippians 1, beginning in verse 9.
Paul says, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
This is God’s word.
I want you to notice three crucial aspects of spiritual growth that Paul prays for in this passage that you and I should also pray for for our church, for our own lives, and also dimensions of spiritual growth that we should be cultivating in our lives as well. These are three of these: growth in love, growth in discernment, and growth in holiness.
Let’s look at each one.
1. Growth in Love
First of all, growth in love. Look again at verse 9. Paul says, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,” or as the NIV says, “in knowledge and depth of insight.” Growth in love.
Now, if you know your Bibles well at all, you know that love is the membership badge for the Christian church. Christian disciples, followers of Jesus, are to be characterized by love. It is the defining mark of those who follow Christ. You remember how Jesus said in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Love is the sum and substance of the Christian life. It is the very principle, the central, defining motivation of Christian ethics. Of the three Christian virtues, faith, hope, and love, Paul tells us that love is the greatest (in 1 Corinthians 13). Paul tells us that the “whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” Galatians 5:14. In Romans 13:8 he says, “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
The fullest description of love, of course, is given to us in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, where Paul defines love in terms of what it does. He uses strong, active verbs to describe what love looks like in action. He says, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not [proud].” It does not dishonor others, it is self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. This is love.
Notice that Paul prays for the Philippians that their lives would be characterized by love. In a way, he assumes that the Philippians do have love. He prays that “your love,” he says, “may abound more and more.” So what he wants is for them to have more love. He prays that they would be abounding in love. It’s a very strong expression. He prays not just that they will have love, but their love will abound; not just that it will abound, but that it will abound more; and not just that it will abound more, but that it will abound more and more! He raises it to the superlative degree. He is praying for their growth in love, their abounding love.
You have a similar prayer in 1 Thessalonians 3:12, when he prays for the Thessalonian church and says, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you.” Paul wants us to be growing in love, and this is one of the primary healthy markers, the growth markers for the Christian life.
Probably all of us who are parents have at some time or another measure our children. Maybe we’ve held them up against the wall and we’ve marked their growth on the wall. We’re looking for those defining markings, those growth points in their lives. Well, Paul is doing the same thing in this prayer, and love is the first of those markers.
But notice he says something else about this love. He prays that they would abound in their love more and more, but it is love “with knowledge and all discernment.” It’s love that is then defined, it’s in the context of knowledge and discernment.
Alec Motyer, in his exposition of this book, views love as a seed that is to be characterized by vigorous growth. Think of a tomato plant in your garden. Motyer says that this growing love, "its upthrusting shoots are held by two stakes, knowledge and all discernment." So, just as in your garden you’ll sometimes put stakes by a plant to guide its growth and to give a scaffolding to guide and to govern its growth, that’s kind of how knowledge and discernment function here.
By knowledge, Paul means not merely intellectual knowledge (that is, grasp of information), but he means a deeper acquaintance with and a personal experience of Jesus Christ. We know this, because in Philippians 3:10 he defines his ambition in terms of knowing Christ. He says that he wants “to know him and the power of his resurrection,” that he may share “in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” That’s the knowledge he has in mind. It’s a deeper knowledge of Christ himself.
Of course, that includes a knowledge of who Christ is and what he has done, a knowledge of his word and of his will. Knowledge of doctrine is included, but it’s not merely knowledge of doctrine; it’s knowledge of Jesus himself.
The word discernment, translated “depth of insight” in the NIV, is a word that appears only here, I believe, in the New Testament, but it’s a word that is used often in the Greek Old Testament in the book of Proverbs. It carries the idea of insight, of application, discerning application of knowledge to one’s life. It’s been defined in this way, as a “level of understanding that penetrates beneath the surface to the complexity of something along with its implications.” It’s a deep knowledge of how things are.
What Paul wants here for his Philippian brothers and sisters is for them to grow in love, to abound in love more and more, but it’s not what I think it was J. Vernon McGee once called “sloppy agape.” It’s not sloppy love. It’s not love without any boundaries. It’s not just warm fuzzies. It’s not just sentimental emotion. It is, rather, growth in conformity to the character of Christ. It is increasing self-denial for the sake of others. It is an informed, insightful commitment to what is best for the church, the wellbeing of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We could say that this is love marked by mature biblical judgment, by developing emotional intelligence, and by an ever-deepening personal experience of Jesus Christ himself.
It shows us something so important in the Christian life, and that is the balance of knowledge and love. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul tells us that “knowledge without love puffs up.” On the other hand, we know that warm emotions that are not governed by truth and knowledge and insight can be like a river over-running its banks, a flood that brings destruction. Paul is interested in genuine emotion, but it is emotion that is governed by knowledge and insight. He doesn’t want emotionalism and he doesn’t want intellectualism; he wants, instead, head and heart combined together, truth and love, and he wants that to abound and to grow in our lives.
Growth in love. That’s the first marker, the first measurement of spiritual growth. We should all take account of our own lives and ask if our lives are characterized by this kind of love, this growing, abounding love for others, love that expresses itself in terms of 1 Corinthians 13, with its patience, with its selflessness, with its slowness to anger, with its positive outlook towards other, the slowness to take offense. We should ask if our love is characterized by this knowledge and this insight. Growth in love. That’s the first thing Paul prays for.
2. Growth in Discernment
Here’s the second: growth in discernment. We’ve already seen that growing love must be marked by knowledge and discernment, but verse 10 adds another element to this. Look at verse 10, the first part of the verse, “...so that you may approve what is excellent…”
The first thing to notice there is that this request is the result of the first request. Paul says, “I am praying that your love may abound more and more, with all knowledge and discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent,” or, as the NIV says, “...so that you may be able to discern what is best,” or the New English Translation, “...so that you can decide what is best.”
Now, that little phrase is admittedly difficult to get our minds around. What does Paul mean, approve what is excellent or discern what is best? The word “approve” carries the idea of testing something, and then once you have proven the quality of something, to accept it or to embrace it. It’s the word that Paul uses in Romans 12:2 when he says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
You might think of how you pick out fruit or vegetables when you go to the grocery store. Let’s say you’re looking for an avocado, you want to make guacamole or something like that, and you go and you’re testing the fruit, you’re feeling it. You’re trying to see if it’s ripe enough. You don’t want something that’s too ripe, you don’t want something that’s now rotten, but you want something that’s ripe enough, so you’re checking the quality, and you’re choosing the best possible piece of fruit. That’s kind of the idea of choosing or of discerning or of approving.
Notice that Paul says, “Approve those things which are excellent,” or discern or choose those things which are best. By this he has in mind not a consumeristic idea; that is, picking out the best possible car or the best possible mutual fund or the best possible house. Of course, Scripture will sometimes give us common sense kind of practical wisdom and encourage that in the book of Proverbs, but what Paul has in mind here is moral and spiritual values. He has in mind discerning the difference between the good and the best, between perhaps what is allowable and what is actually excellent, that which is best.
D.A. Carson has written a very helpful book on the prayers of the apostle Paul, and Carson draws out the connection between love and discerning what is best. He essentially says that we can’t really approve what is best, we cannot really discern what is best, unless we are abounding more and more in love, with knowledge and discernment. In other words, what Paul’s praying for here is a kind of growth in love that then results in greater discernment and then valuing and choosing that which is best because we are abounding in love.
Now, this may seem a little subtle, but listen to some of Carson’s application questions. He defines what is best in terms of the priorities of the gospel, in terms of knowing Christ, in terms of seeking the wellbeing of God’s people, and then he begins to drill down into very practical application. I found these questions helpful as well as convicting, and perhaps you will as well.
He asks, “What do you do with your time? How many hours a week do you spend with your children? Have you spent any time in the past two months witnessing to someone about the gospel? How much time have you spent watching television or in other forms of personal relaxation? Are you committed in your use of time to what is best? What have you read in the past six months? If you’ve found time for newspaper or news magazines, a couple of whodunits, a novel or two, or perhaps a trade journal, have you also found time for reading a commentary or some other Christian literature that will help you better understand the Bible or improve your spiritual discipline or broaden your horizons? Are you committed in your reading habits to what is best?
“How are your relationships within your family? Do you pause now and then and reflectively think through what you can do to strengthen ties with your spouse and with your children? Do you make time for personal prayer, for prayer meetings? Have you taken steps to improve in this regard?
“How do you decide what to do with your money? Do you give a set percentage (say ten per cent of your income) to the Lord’s work, however begrudgingly, and then regard the rest of your income as your own? Or do you regard yourself as the Lord’s steward, so that all the money you earn is ultimately his? Are you delighted when you find yourself able to put much more of your money into strategic ministry, simply because you love to invest in eternity?
“Is your reading and study of the Bible so improving your knowledge of God that your whole-hearted worship of the Almighty grows in spontaneity, devotion, and joy? At what point in your life do you cheerfully decide for no other reason than that you are a Christian to step outside your comfort zone, living and serving in painful or difficult self-denial?”
Then he says this: “Behind your answers to all these questions are choices.”
Now, you can read a list like that and immediately think, “Oh, man, I have so many things to feel guilty about now,” because it’s a convicting list. That’s not Carson’s intention, and he goes on to distinguish between heaping up guilt in a legalistic, law-oriented approach to our choices from what Paul’s praying for here.
What Paul wants is for us to be so conformed to the heart of Jesus Christ, to be so abounding in love, that it informs our choices, so that we begin to automatically and naturally, and get intentionally, make choices that accord with those deeper values, the values of the gospel, the values of what is best in God’s economy.
That’s the challenge for us in this passage. It’s a challenge to grow in discernment that expresses itself in wise choices, choices that prioritize the things that are closest to the heart of God. That, again, is a marker of spiritual growth. When we grow spiritually, when we begin to thrive spiritually, we grow in love, and we also grow in the discerning use of our time and our money, the discerning approach to relationships. We grow in choosing and deciding what is best, making that the priority in our lives.
3 Growth in Holiness
There’s one more area of growth that Paul prays for, and it’s growth in holiness. You see this in the second half of verse 10, all the way to the end of verse 11. He prays that they would “be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
(a) Paul uses a lot of words there to describe a holy life, to describe a righteous life. He says, first of all, that he wants them to be pure and blameless. The word “pure” carries the idea of being unmixed. It’s the idea of inward sincerity or inward purity.
The English word “sincerity” comes from two words in Latin that literally mean “without wax.” The idea came from the marketplace in the ancient world, where pottery was often sold. Sometimes crooked and corrupt merchants would take a piece of pottery that had a crack in it, maybe fine hairline crack, and they would put wax in the crack, so that it would disguise, it would hide the fracture in that piece of pottery. But something that was without wax was genuine, it was pure, it was sincere.
That’s probably not the image in Paul’s mind here, but it illustrates well what Paul is thinking of. He’s thinking of inward purity of heart, of sincerity of heart. As the Christian philosopher Kierkegaard put it, "purity of heart is to will one thing." It’s that single-minded devotion to Christ and to his well.
Paul also wants us to be blameless. This carries the idea of not stumbling, or perhaps of not causing others to stumble. This is the word that Paul uses in Acts 24:16 when he says that he always takes pains to have a clear conscience before both God and man. A clear conscience; that is, a life that is blameless, that does not cause others to stumble.
These two things, sincerity or purity and blamelessness, describe both the inward character and the outward expression of that character in the Christian life. Inwardly, we are to be sincere and pure and single-minded; outwardly, we are to live lives that are blameless before God and others.
(b) Notice that the goal or the horizon which the Christian looks towards in the pursuit of holiness is the day of Christ. He says, “...and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” We’ve already seen this a couple of times in our studies of this letter, that Paul over and again looks towards this horizon of the second coming of Jesus Christ.
We saw it last week in Philippians 1:6, where Paul expresses his confidence that “he who began a good work in [us] will [carry it on to completion until] the day of Jesus Christ.” That is, God has begun a work in us, he is now continuing to carry on that work, and he carries on that work all the way up until Jesus Christ returns and the work is finally complete. In other words, we are to pursue holiness with an eternal perspective, with our minds and our hearts fixed on the second coming of Christ.
Perhaps this is nowhere put better in Scripture than in 1 John 3:2-3. Listen to these words. John says, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known, but we know that when Christ appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” That’s looking forward to when Christ comes again, the appearing of Christ. But notice this in verse 3: “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”
In other words, our hope that we will be like Christ motivates us now to purify our lives so that we are becoming more and more like Jesus Christ. Again, this is a description of holy living, but it aims for the day of Christ.
(c) Then there’s another phrase in verse 11, “filled with the fruit of righteousness.” This reminds us of the source of our holiness. This phrase “filled with the fruit of righteousness” could be taken to mean fruit that is characterized by righteousness; that is, righteous fruit, the fruit of right living; or it may be the fruit that comes from righteousness. If Paul has in mind the justified status of the believer, this is the fruit that flows from it.
There are arguments for both sides, but either way, just notice that it’s fruit. It’s fruit. Fruit is not self-producing. Fruit is an organic growth out of something else that has life. A tree produces fruit or a vine produces fruit. In the same way, in the Christian life we produce fruit as we are in Christ. In fact, Paul emphasizes that in the next phrase here in verse 11. He says, “...filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.” This shows us it’s the source of our holiness. It comes through Jesus Christ. We are filled with the fruits of righteousness as we are in Christ, as we abide in Christ, as we are united to Christ, as the power of Christ works in us. It’s crucial for us to remember that.
James Montgomery Boice, in his exposition of this verse, told a story about Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence of Arabia, of course, was that British soldier and author and explorer who spent so much time in Arabia. The story goes that one time he went to Paris with some of his Arab friends, and when he was in Paris, they didn’t really want to see all of the sights. He tried to take them to the Louvre and other places. They weren’t interested in the historical sights, they were just fascinated by running water in the hotel rooms. They were fascinated with the faucets, because they were from a desert. They were from a place where you couldn’t have water unless you could find a well or find a little oasis in the desert.
When it was time for them to leave Paris, the one thing that the Arabs wanted to take with them was a faucet. What they didn’t understand is that the faucet has to be connected to a source, a water source, a water supply, in order for the water to come out. So Lawrence had to explain to them the whole system of waterworks, and that the ultimate source of this water was actually the Alps, and how they snow in the mountains would melt into the rivers, and this would feed the underground supply in Paris, and so on.
In the same way, in our Christian lives, we must never forget that the source of our holiness is Christ. It’s not something you can just turn on with a spigot; it’s rather something that comes from being in a saving union with him, a relationship with him. That leads us to holiness. Nevertheless, we are to be focused on the pursuit of holiness. We are to cultivate holiness and seek to grow in holiness in our lives. We do that as we look to Christ and as we seek to imitate him.
(d) The final thing you see here is that the motivation for the pursuit of holiness is the glory of God. Again, look at verse 11. “...filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
Remember that old catechism question, “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Well, it’s the chief end of the Christian life, it’s the chief end of holiness, it’s the chief end of prayer. It all is for the glory of God.
We’ve seen now three things that Paul prays for. He prays for growth in love, he prays for growth in discernment (that we would choose what is best), and he prays for growth in holiness. The question for us this morning is this: Do we pray this way, and are we growing in these ways? Could it be said of us that we are growing in love, abounding in love more and more, that we choose what is best, and that our lives are marked by purity, by blamelessness, that we are looking to the day of Christ, and that we are filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through him, to the glory and the praise of God?
I have a friend who was a mentor to me many years ago, a man named Mark Bearden. Some of you will know him. For one year I traveled with Mark Bearden in a parachurch ministry team, a road team. I remember Mark used to tell a story about meeting a baseball player named Craig Reynolds. Craig Reynolds was with the Houston Astros. He wasn’t particularly well-known; I believe he was a Christian.
Mark met him, and he remembered that Craig Reynolds said these words. He said, “I find myself in the twilight of a mediocre career.” Well, if you haven’t heard of Craig Reynolds, that’s probably why. He wasn’t really a stellar baseball player.
But Mark said something that has stuck with me ever since. He said, “I don’t want to find myself at the end of my life at the twilight of a mediocre Christian life.”
Well, Paul’s prayer is prayer against mediocrity. It’s a prayer that we will thrive, it’s a prayer that we will grow, it’s a prayer that we will be marked by these defining characteristics of spiritual health and spiritual growth. Rather than being characterized by a failure to thrive, may we pray in this kind of way. May we pray this for our church, may we pray this for our families, may we pray this for ourselves, and then may we seek to embody in our lives this kind of growth: growth in love, growth in discernment, and growth in holiness. As we do so, Christ will be glorified. Let’s pray together.
Our gracious God, we acknowledge before you this morning that too often our lives are not characterized by abounding love or by discerning and choosing what is best by purity and blamelessness and the fruits of righteousness. Too often we are living for this present world instead of the day of Christ. Too often we’re living on our own resources rather than looking to Christ.
So, first of all, we pray for forgiveness, we pray for the searching ministry of your Spirit to examine our hearts, to help us see if we are thriving, or rather, perhaps, are languishing. Where there is a need for repentance, where there is a need for change, where there is need for renewed focus on these priorities of Christian discipleship, love and discernment and holiness, may you bring these things about in our hearts. May we value what you value, may we love what you love, may we pursue the very intention for which you have redeemed us through your Son. May Paul’s prayer be a pattern, a blueprint on which we build and shape our own prayers, and may it be the blueprint on which we shape our lives. I pray that we would become healthy, thriving followers of Jesus Christ. I pray it in Jesus’ name, Amen.