Trusting in God’s Sovereignty

(I laughed when reading back over this post at how unpopular the ideas in it generally are. My prayer is that biblical truth and doctrine will stand despite unpopularity, and that these things will grow us in love and trust in God.)

So far in the book of Philippians, the focus has been on response. The book has highlighted the practical outcomes of the gospel in a believer’s life. Paul begins the book by celebrating the ways that the Philippian church is already living out of the truth of the gospel, and he points out that this is a result of God’s work in their lives (Philippians 1:1-11). He goes on to talk about how in the midst of suffering for the sake of the gospel, he has hope and joy knowing that God is working through the suffering (Philippians 1:12-18). Then Paul tells the Philippians that the reason that he can have joy in the hardship is because he knows the surpassing worth of Christ, and that is what drives him to a radical life of gospel living (Philippians 1:18-26). Underlying the whole discussion has been an assumption that drives Paul’s theology; an understanding of what God is like that shapes the way Paul thinks about his circumstances. In encouraging the Philippians for what they are already doing, Paul says that it was God’s work in them, and that it will be God’s continual work in them that will keep them moving toward righteousness. In talking about his own circumstances, Paul takes solace and finds joy in the fact that God is working through it. The reason that Paul can talk this way is because he understands the sovereignty of God. Paul knows that God is in control of all things, and as he notes in Romans 8:28 that He is working all things for our ultimate good.

In the final verses of the first chapter of Philippians, Paul finally lays out his understanding of the relationship between God an His circumstances. He tells us why he has confidence. Why he has hope. Why he has joy. It is because of the sovereignty of God over his circumstances.


“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.” 

Philippians 1:27-30 ESV


The passage begins with the call that we looked at in last week’s post, that Christians should live in a way that reflects who Jesus is and what Jesus has done in our lives. What is really intriguing, though, is what Paul gives as the result of this living. He says, “This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.” I want to pause here and note the obvious major thing before getting to the beginnings of the discussion on God’s sovereignty: those opposed to Jesus and Jesus’ people are destined for destruction. This is not to say we don’t desire the opponents to change and find salvation in Jesus. This is not a threat saying that we desire to destroy all those opposed to our cause. This is a fact of Christian eschatology (study of last things). There will be a day when we all stand before Jesus to be judged, and those who are not found righteous through faith in His atoning work for them will be sent to hell. I know this is not a popular thing to say today, but it is as true a thing to say today as it has always been. As Christians, our response to this should be an earnest desire to see sinners and those opposed to us saved, not destroyed. They are opposed to us because they do not know the truth, or because they have rejected the truth. Let us pray that their hearts are changed by the gospel as displayed and spoken by Jesus’ people.

Moving on… the last part of that claim is what I want to look at, “and that from God.” And what? What is Paul claiming to be from God here? There are two big things that God’s sovereign control is linked to in this passage that I want to look at: salvation and situation.

Salvation
Paul says, “your salvation” is “from God.” That is not a cut and paste job to make the text say what I want. He says outright, “This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.” In the next sentence he says, “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should…believe in him.” It is granted to us by God to believe in God. Salvation is initiated by God, purchased by God, and it is God who chooses who will be saved. We were sinners, and Christ stepped into creation to save us (1 Timothy 1:15). It is by Christ’s blood we are purchased, not by our own works. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV). It is God “who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9 ESV). We were not searching for God, God came and searched for us when we were “dead in [our] trespasses and sins” and we “loved the darkness rather than the light because [our] works were evil” (Ephesians 2:1, John 3:19 ESV). Jesus himself said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44 ESV). “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:4-5 ESV). God is sovereign over salvation. God initiated, He came to us. Through His Holy Spirit he opens our eyes and hearts to truth. God purchased us. He provided everything necessary for us to be saved. He payed for sin through Jesus’ work on the cross so that anyone who believes in Him will be saved. God secures our salvation. He knows who will be saved, He is perfect in His foreknowledge, and He will not lose any whom He has chosen. We are saved only by the grace of God. Paul rejoices in this because it means that those who are in Christ will be saved. He does not have to fear that God is angry and punishing him for something he did, Jesus has been punished in his place and God looks at Paul, and all believers, in love as righteous. He does not fear that he will make a mistake somewhere and lose his salvation. Paul trusts God’s work of saving him, and lets that fuel his faithfulness.

(note: I understand that this is a doctrine a lot of people struggle with, I am strictly dealing here with the sovereignty of God over salvation as that is what the passage deals with, not denying the compatibility of human response in it. I believe that God is simultaneously sovereign and we are responsible to respond. These two are compatible, not contradictory. The Bible frames this in a way in which God is the first and primary actor, and so to claim human free will as the essential issue is to deny a clear Biblical truth. For more info on this discussion and to hear from someone way smarter than me, I recommend the book “What About Free Will?”)

“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Philippians 1:29-30 ESV).

Situation
The second part of Paul’s claim is that God is sovereign over our situation, including any opposition we face. He says, “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should” both “believe” and “also suffer.” The suffering that believers face is not outside the control of God, but is in fact granted by God to accomplish His purposes. The Bible shows us that God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26 ESV). The environment we find ourselves in, the one that shapes us, and all the different situations and opportunities that arise in that environment are determined by God. He has placed us historically and geographically for His purposes. The Psalms tell us that God has known us intimately since before we were even born, and that he knew every one of our days before there were any days (Psalm 139:16). Proverbs 16 tells us that the Lord is the One who has established all things, even the wicked and our very steps, for their intended purposes. “For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?” (Isaiah 14:27 NIV). God is in control. His plans will be accomplished. His purposes will be achieved. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NIV). God is powerful. He is in control. He has a plan that He intends to see through, and in His sovereignty He will. That plan is not for evil, but to do good. When we find ourselves in suffering, facing opposition or hardship, this is what we can trust in. God is not punishing us, and we have not thwarted his plans somehow, he uses our circumstances, even the bad ones, to accomplish his purposes. When man has opposed us, we can stand like Joseph and say what man meant for evil, God has worked for good (Genesis 50:20). We can trust God’s plan.

Like Paul we can trust that we are not suffering on accident. We can trust His purposes because He is working for good. We too can trust in His power in salvation and situation. Even if we don’t yet see why we are in our present circumstances, He is trustworthy. He is faithful. For Paul to end this chapter saying he is “engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” is not a lament. He is not expressing a grief over where he is at in life, but a trust in the fact that God has “granted to” him that he suffer “for the sake of Christ.” In all this we can stand firm, strive, and not fear, because God’s sovereignty gives us a holy confidence.


“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.” 

Philippians 1:27-30 ESV

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