He Who Began a Good Work in You | Philippians 1:6
Brian Hedges | May 3, 2020
Well, I just want to say welcome once again to our online service. I feel this morning like I see you just a little bit more clearly, because there are so many photographs taped to the back of seats. That was a very kind gesture of our congregation to do that, to give me a few more people to preach to. But it’s not nearly like the real thing, is it? We still miss you and long for the day, hopefully soon, hopefully within a few weeks, when we’re able to gather together again.
Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles this morning to Philippians 1. A couple of weeks ago we started a new series, “To Live Is Christ,” from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. As you know, Paul wrote this while he was in prison, and he’s writing to these dear friends of a church that he had planted probably about ten years prior to the writing of this letter. He’s now in prison, they have been partners with him in the gospel and the ministry of the gospel, and he’s writing a letter of encouragement, a letter of friendship; he’s writing to build them up in their faith as well as to warn them about certain dangers and to encourage them to be united together as one in Christ.
So far we’ve just looked at the first eight verses together, and I want to read those verses again this morning, and then focus in on just one verse from this first paragraph on verse 6. This is surely one of the most beloved verses in all of the New Testament for believers. This is a verse that most of you will know, perhaps by heart, and I want to spend some time looking at this one verse together this morning. Let’s read the passage, Philippians 1:1-8, with a focus on verse 6. Hear God’s word.
“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.”
This is God’s word.
This morning I want us to focus on verse 6. Let me read it again. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that this may very well be described as the key verse of this entire epistle. He said it’s one of those “magnificent, fundamental, profound statements which lead us into the very depths of Christian doctrine and Christian theology.” Indeed, you have in this verse a window into the biblical teaching about salvation, the whole doctrine of salvation kind of compressed into just this one verse.
What I want to do this morning is just walk through several observations, several insights. In fact, I have five of them for you. I want to give these to you in several statements, several propositions about salvation. There’ll be five of these, and as we work through it together, let’s pray that God will give us a deeper understanding of his saving grace, his work in our lives, and perhaps if some of you have never experienced this before, today will be the day of salvation. Five insights.
1. Salvation is described as God’s good work in you.
Here’s number one: Salvation is described as God’s good work in you. Just notice that, first of all. “He who began a good work in you…” This is a description of God’s work in the lives of believers. Peter O’Brien, in his commentary, says, “It is that work of grace in the reader’s lives that began with their reception of the gospel.”
Now, we have to remember that when the Scriptures speak about salvation there are always these objective and these subjective aspects to salvation. Salvation has things that are objective to us, that are external to us, things that have been accomplished in history. We might describe this as God’s work for us, especially through Christ, through the death and the burial and the resurrection of Christ. This is objective work of God through Jesus Christ in history that’s already been accomplished.
But there’s also this subjective application of that. It’s not only what happened in history outside of us, it’s what happens in our own experience inside of us. Salvation involves not only what Christ did for us, but also what Christ now does in us. Redemption must not only be accomplished, it must also be applied.
As Paul describes the experience and his confidence in the experience that the Philippian believers have had of God’s work among them, God’s work in their lives, he describes it in this way, as “God’s good work in you.” It’s the application of redemption to their own hearts and to their own lives.
We just have to remember that both aspects are necessary. The objective is necessary. There is no salvation without Christ and his work on the cross and his resurrection. There’s no salvation without that. But listen, there’s no salvation for you and no salvation for me unless the work of Christ is not only outside of us, but is also inside of us. God must do a good work in us.
This good work in Scripture is referred to in a number of different ways. Sometimes it’s called regeneration. Another word for that is the new birth; it’s being born again. It’s the idea that we start all over again with a new kind of life, the gift of eternal life. Sometimes it’s called a new creation. Remember how Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” Sometimes it’s described as passing out of darkness into light, or passing out of death into life.
In every case, whether it’s the language of birth or of resurrection or of creation or of moving from death to life, or whatever the language is, it always carries the idea of a something new, of a new beginning. It carries the idea of God doing a creative, transformative work in our hearts and in our lives. Paul here simply calls it the “good work,” the good work that began.
Gordon Fee, in his commentary, says, “This is language that he uses elsewhere to refer to the ethical dimension, the moral dimension, of salvation in Christ.” “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,” right? The reason, Fee says, is because “for Paul, there is no salvation that does not include a transformed life.” For every single person who is saved, God does something in them, he does something in their hearts.
In fact, this is described for us later on in this letter to the Philippians, and it’s described in such a way as to show the link between what God does and what we do. Notice this in Philippians 2:12-13. Paul says, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence, but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Now listen to this. “For it is God who works in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
In other words, God’s work initiates and empowers our cooperative work, our working out our own salvation. When Paul uses that language, he’s thinking about our sanctification, our ongoing obedience.
But this good work, this good work that Paul refers to here in chapter 1:6, it is the work that begins in regeneration, it begins in new birth as God establishes that beachhead for the kingdom of God in the terrain of our own souls, our own hearts and lives; this work continues in his sanctifying work through the Spirit as we cooperate with him in obedience; and it is not complete until our final and full glorification, when we are made like Jesus Christ.
Perhaps one of the greatest historical stories to illustrate this is the conversion of George Whitefield. Whitefield, of course, became the great evangelist, in not only England and Scotland but also North America, during the First Great Awakening in the 18th century. But Whitefield was not converted until his dear friend Charles Wesley gave him a book. The book was a Puritan book by Henry Scougal called The Life of God in the Soul of Man.
Whitefield said that God used this book to show him that “I must be born again or be damned.” "The life of God in the soul of man" — that’s a beautiful description of God’s good work in the believer.
I just have to ask each one of us, have you experienced that? Have you experienced the beginning of a good work in you, so that you are not what you once were? Once you were dead, but now you’re alive; once you were blind, but now you see; once you couldn’t hear his voice, now you do; once the things of God, the things of eternity, the kingdom of God, Jesus Christ himself, the cross, the resurrection—once these things meant nothing to you, now they mean everything to you. Why? Because God has begun a good work in your heart and in your life.
There is no salvation without the beginning of this work in us. So the first insight is simply this, that the nature of salvation includes this subjective element, God’s good work in our hearts and in our lives.
2. God takes the initiative in saving us.
That’s first; now here’s the second insight. God always takes the initiative in saving us. He is the one who begins this work. Notice again our verse, “He who began a good work in you…” Of course, this is referring to God. God is the one who begins this work. God is always the one who takes initiative in our salvation.
One of my pastimes occasionally is to play the game of chess. I’ve always enjoyed the game of chess. One thing that anyone who knows or loves chess knows is that there are two colors, there are white and black, and white always begins the game. White always has the initiative in the game of chess.
In our relationship with God, God is always white. He’s always the one who takes the initiative. In fact, C.S. Lewis, in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he described his conversion as a process of being slowly outmaneuvered into a checkmate, as God was outmaneuvering him and bringing him to the point of faith in Jesus Christ. That’s true for every believer, that God takes the initiative and that God is the one who is moving the pieces in our lives in order to bring us to the point of salvation.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones brilliantly shows how Acts 16 and the founding of the Philippian church actually illustrates this point. Let me just read a few of the verses from Acts 16, and I want you to see this, because when you read the narrative, it is unmistakably clear that God is the one who is the author of it all, that God is the one who is the initiator in the salvation of those initial converts in the little Roman colony of Philippi that made up the nucleus of that church.
Acts 16:6. Luke is narrating this. This is what he says. “And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” Isn’t that interesting? They were wanting to speak the word in Asia, and they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit. We don’t know exactly what that means, whether the Spirit providentially closed a door or whether he was working in their hearts in such a way that he kept them from being able to give a proclamation of the gospel; but what’s clear is that the Spirit is at work.
Verse 7: “And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” Again you see the Spirit of Christ is at work in maneuvering where Paul and his little band of missionaries will go.
Verse 8: “So passing by Mysia they went down to Troas, and—” get this “—a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia was standing there urging him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” Philippi is in Macedonia.
What was Paul seeing? He was seeing a vision that was no doubt given to him by the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit was working in supernatural ways to point Paul and his missionaries in the right direction.
Then verse 10 says, “And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” They had tried to go two other places, and the Spirit forbade them, but then God called them to go to Macedonia.
Then, when they get into Macedonia (let me pick up the story), they go to Philippi, and we pick up the story in verse 13. It says, “On the Sabbath day, we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer. And we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together.” Now listen to this, verse 14: “One who had heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshipper of God.” And listen, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”
Who began the good work in the Philippians? Who began the good work in Macedonia? Who began the good work? It was God. God is the one who opened Lydia’s heart, God is the one who sent Paul and those other missionaries there in the first place. God was clearly at work. He was the one initiating, closing doors, opening doors, issuing the call, preparing the way for the gospel, opening hearts to respond. Listen, brother or sister: if you have responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the only reason is because God initiated that work in your heart and life.
I love the words of the hymn-writer Josiah Conder. He said,
“’Tis not that I did choose thee,
For Lord, that could not be.
This heart would still refuse thee
Hadst thou not chosen me.
“’Twas sovereign grace called me
And taught my opening mind;
The world had else enthralled me,
To heavenly glories blind.
“My heart owns none before thee;
For thy rich grace I thirst,
This knowing, if I love thee,
Thou must have loved me first.”
He’s almost quoting from 1 John 4:19, “We love him because he first loved us.” God takes the initiative. “He who began a good work in you…” God is the one who began it.
3. God's saving work begins a process is not yet finished.
Here’s the third insight. Notice also that God’s saving work begins a process that is not finished yet. This is implied in what Paul says. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Implication? It’s not complete yet. He’s going to bring it to completion, but he’s not going to do that until the day of Jesus Christ. It’s not complete yet.
This phrase, “bring it to completion,” translates a Greek word, a Greek word that Paul uses six times, epiteleō (επιτελεω). The word carries the idea of putting the finishing touches on something. It’s used four times to describe the beginning—well, to describe, really, the completion of an offering that Paul wanted to take up, something that had been perhaps pledged to him, but he’s urging people (this in 2 Corinthians 8 and Romans 15) to complete what they had begun. They had begun to give, now he wants them to complete it. Probably they had made a pledge, and now he wants them to fulfill their pledge.
It’s used another time in direct reference to the work of salvation. In fact, it’s the only other place in Paul’s letters where you have the word “begun” and the word “completed” used together in the same verse, other than in Philippians 1:6. This is in Galatians 3:3, where Paul there is writing a warning letter to a group of churches who are straying from the gospel. They’re resorting to works.
Listen to what he says in Galatians 3:3. He says, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” There are the two words, “begun” and “perfected.” He’s just reminding them that if you began in the Spirit, the only way to finish is in the Spirit. What God began, God has to complete. What the power of the Spirit initiated in our lives has to be perfected by the Holy Spirit as well.
Now, when we look at these various verses, it just shows us that salvation is not yet complete. In fact, we could think of salvation as having three dimensions: past, present, and future. It would be true biblically to say that you have been saved, you are being saved, and you will be saved.
You have been saved. Ephesians 2:8, “By grace you have been saved through faith.” There are some aspects of your salvation that are complete. If you are in Christ, if you’re a believer in Jesus Christ, you are justified. Your sins are forgiven. You are already united to Christ, you are already adopted into the family of God. There are aspects of this that are already complete. You already are in Christ. You have been saved.
But it’s also true to say that you are being saved, that you are in the process of being rescued from sin and corruption and the consequences of sin in your own life. In 2 Corinthians 7:1 Paul is writing to Christians, and he’s writing to urge them on in their sanctification and their holiness. Listen to what he says. He says, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” It’s the same word that’s used here. Bringing holiness to completion.
You know what that means? It means you’re not fully, completely holy yet. Holiness still needs to be brought to completion. You’re still in the process of being perfected. All of us are, we might say, unfinished works of art.
I just came across an anecdote today about a cathedral that was built in Cologne, Germany. It was a cathedral that was begun, I think, in the 13th century, and it wasn’t completed until the 19th century, a magnificent cathedral, the Cologne cathedral. In a very real way, you and I are like that cathedral. The work has begun, but it’s not yet finished, it’s not yet complete.
Maybe the best illustration of this of all is from C.S. Lewis’s Narnian story The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Do you remember the character Eustace in the story? Eustace is introduced in the book. Eustace Clarence Scrubb is his name, and Lewis says he almost deserved the name. As soon as you start reading about Eustace’s character you know that he’s kind of a spoiled brat, he’s never getting along with the other kids, he’s selfish, he’s inward, he’s always complaining.
About the halfway through the book, the Dawn Treader lands on an island, and on this island Eustace doesn’t want to help with the chores, so he wanders off by himself, and he finds himself in a dragon’s lair. It’s full of gold, it’s full of treasure, and Lewis says that he’s right there in that dragon’s lair having “greedy, dragonish thoughts,” and he falls asleep, and lo and behold, he turns into a dragon. For six days Eustace is in this dragon body, and he can’t talk, he can’t communicate. It’s completely humiliating to him, a humbling experience.
It’s only six days later, when he finally encounters Aslan, the Christ figure, the lion in Narnia, and Aslan leads him to a mountain, then up into a garden, and in the garden there’s this huge pool, this huge bath, and he tells Eustace, “You have to undress yourself and go into the bath.”
Remember what Eustace does? He starts clawing at the dragon scales, he’s trying to take them off, and it’s just layer after layer after layer. He pulls off a layer, and there’s still another layer of scales beneath. He finally realizes that he can’t undress himself, and Aslan says to him, “You’ll have to let me undress you.”
Eustace is afraid of the dragon’s claws, he’s afraid of what it will feel like when Aslan pierces through those scales, but he’s desperate to be changed, so he lets Aslan go to work. Aslan does. He pulls off the dragon skin, and Eustace emerges and goes into the bath, and he comes out and is dressed in new clothes, and he is a little boy again.
I love Lewis’s comment at the end of the chapter. This is what he says. “It would be nice and fairly nearly true to say that from that time forth Eustace was a different boy. To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But the cure had begun.”
I think that’s true of about every Christian I know. It would be very nearly true to say that you’re completely different, but the reality is, you have relapses. The reality is I have relapses. The reality is we can be pretty tiresome sometimes.
But listen, the cure has begun! God has done something, and he is continuing to do something in our lives, and he will eventually bring it to completion. This should be very encouraging to us as believers, imperfect believers in Jesus Christ, who know that God has done something, but we also know the work is not finished yet.
4. God’s work will be complete when Christ returns.
Here’s insight number four: God’s saving work will be complete when Christ returns. It is going to be complete, but the time it’s going to be complete is when Christ returns.
Again, look at the verse. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion—” when? “—at the day of Jesus Christ.” The day of Jesus Christ. This is what Sinclair Ferguson calls the "horizon" in the Christian life. It’s what we’re looking towards, the day of Jesus Christ.
We saw last week that this is a significant theme in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In every single chapter, in some way or another, he points his readers to the second coming of Christ. In the prayer that follows these verses, in verses 9-11, he’s praying for them that they will be pure and blameless for the day of Christ. As he thinks about their sanctification, as he prays for their ongoing transformation, their holiness, their purity, their blamelessness, he’s looking towards the day of Jesus Christ, he’s looking towards the second coming.
Isn’t it interesting that when he gives them assurance here that God who began the good work will complete the good work, he doesn’t say, “You’re going to be perfect when you die.” That’s not what he says. Now, later on in this chapter, Paul will talk about his own impending death, and he says, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
But listen, death for the Christian, while it means we are with Christ, it is not perfection, because what happens when we die is the soul departs from the body, and the soul is in the presence of Christ. That’s wonderful, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to have the full humanity redeemed; not just our souls purified in the presence of Christ, but our very bodies redeemed.
Paul describes that in Philippians 3:20-21. He says, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
This is so important. Perfection for the Christian does not happen before death (that would be the error of perfectionism). Perfection for the Christian does not happen when you die (that’s Platonism). Perfection for the Christian happens when Jesus comes again and our bodies are resurrected and transformed and made like unto the glorious body of Christ and we are fully and completely redeemed, completely healed, completely transformed in every aspect of our human personality. 1 John 3:2 says when we see him, “When he appears we shall see him,” and we shall be like him, “for we shall see him as he is.” That’s what we’re waiting for.
“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it,” 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24. This is Paul’s emphasis, and it’s important for us to grasp this, that what we are looking for, what we are waiting for, the horizon, the next big event, is the second coming of Jesus Christ; and that’s when salvation will be complete.
5. God will finish what He has started.
God is faithful; he has called us, he is faithful, and he will surely do it. That leads us to the fifth and final insight from this verse. It’s simply this, that we can be certain that God will finish what he has started.
Again, let’s read the whole verse. Notice the certainty here. Paul says, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” “I am sure of this,” he says. “I am confident of this very thing.” There’s certainty, there’s assurance, there’s confidence in his voice. He says, “He who began the good work will bring it to completion.”
Spurgeon loved to preach on the “shalls” and the “wills” of the Bible, and when God says, “It shall be done,” we can be sure that it will be done. This is one of those passages. It echoes Psalm 138:8, “The Lord will perfect that which concerns you. Your mercy, O Lord, endures forever; do not forsake the work of your hands.”
You know, in my own life, I’ve always been a goal-oriented person, ever since I was a kid. There have been a lot of goals that I have started and I’ve completed. There are achievements that I’ve had. But there are so many ambitions, there are so many projects I’ve started that I never finished.
When I was a kid (I don’t remember how old I was), I started the project of reading through an entire set of encyclopedias. I only got through part of the first volume of A! I never got very far. I could give you project after project, thing after thing, that was my ambition to do, and I started it, but I didn’t finish it.
Did you know that God is never like that? He never begins something that he does not complete. What God initiates he will finalize. What he has commenced he will complete, what he has originated he will perfect, what he has inaugurated he will consummate, what he has started he will finish.
It reminds us that the preservation of our faith lies ultimately in the hands of God himself. It’s true in Scripture that we are called to keep ourselves in the love of God, but we can only do that because he is the one who is able to keep us from falling, because he upholds us. We are called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, but we can only do it because he works in us to will and to work for his good pleasure.
There’s a wonderful illustration of this in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s the place where Christian is in the Interpreter’s house, and the Interpreter takes him to a room where there is a fire burning against a wall. One is standing by the fire always casting much water onto the fire. He has a pail of water, I suppose, and he is casting water onto the fire to quench it, yet the fire burns higher and hotter.
So Christian, puzzled by this mysterious scene, asks the Interpreter, “What does this mean?” The Interpreter says, “The fire is the work of grace that is wrought in the heart. He that casts water upon it to extinguish and put it out is the devil, but in that thou seest the fire notwithstanding burn higher and hotter—” Why is that? Again, Christian asks the question. Why is it? If the devil’s trying to put out the fire but the fire’s just burning higher and hotter, why is this?
To answer, the Interpreter shows Christian the back side of the wall. Think of a fireplace that is a fireplace in two different rooms, and in one room you have somebody throwing water on it. The Interpreter takes him around the corner and helps him see on the other side that there is a man with a vessel of oil in his hands, “of the which he did also continually cast, but secretly, into the fire.” The Interpreter says, “This is Christ, who continually with the oil of his grace maintains the work already begun in the heart, by the means of which, notwithstanding what the devil can do, the souls of his people prove gracious still.”
As one commentator puts it, “Commencement, continuance, and consummation: all three are of God.” He began the work, he continues and sustains the work, and he will certainly complete the work.
Hymn-writer Augustus Toplady said,
“The work which his goodness began
The arm of his strength will complete.
His promise is yea and amen,
And never was forfeited yet.
"Things future nor things that are now,
Not all things below or above,
Can make him his purpose forego,
Or sever my soul from his love.”
Nothing can separate you from the love of Christ. The work he began he will complete, he will finish. Listen, beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, as we face all kinds of pressures in the crazy world in which we live—unique pressures in 2020 to be sure, but there will be different ones in 2021, there will be different ones still ten years from now; there will be threats to your faith, there will be obstacles, there will be dangers, toils, and snares—what’s going to get you through? Only one thing: the same grace that began the good work in you will carry you through to the end. The one who began his work of salvation in you is the one who holds you in his hands, who holds you fast, who keeps your faith, who preserves you so that you continue to persevere in faith and in holiness.
We teach sometimes the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. This text shows us that the only reason the saints persevere is because God perseveres with the saints. He continues his work. This is the promise, and this is a great comfort to all of us, and I hope it will be so to you this morning: “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
Our gracious and merciful God, how we thank you for your grace, that when we were dead in sin, your eye sent that quickening ray to awaken us, to bring us to life, to rescue us from our darkness and our sin, our slavery. We thank you, Lord, for the grace that inaugurated salvation within us, and we thank you that you never give up on your people, that the work that you have begun you will be faithful to complete. We thank you that your Spirit continues to work within us to preserve us and to sustain us, to strengthen us, to give us everything we need for the grace set before us.
Our prayer this morning is that you would work in the hearts and the lives of every believer of Redeemer Church, and that everyone who hears the word this morning would be fortified by this good news of your grace, of your faithfulness, of your work, of the process that you have begun in our lives, and of this confidence that you will bring it to completion.
As we continue to reflect on this in worship, may you work in our hearts. May you give us courage, may you strengthen our faith. I pray that you would do it in Jesus’ name, Amen.