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God Always Finishes What He Starts

Tom Pennington • Philippians 1:6

  • 2013-05-26 AM
  • Sermons


This morning in preparation for the Lord's Table, I want us to turn to Philippians 1. We live in a world in which it is not uncommon for things to be started and to remain unfinished. There are buildings that are begun and, to use our Lord's words, they are begun without really counting the cost and understanding what it's going to take to complete it. We saw that even in India. There were several buildings that someone had started that I think would have been wonderful buildings, but they today rest completely unfinished and a legacy to someone who had the capacity to start but couldn't deliver. There are bridges I have seen, massive structures, that have been partially built and then just end and drop off into nothing. There are works of literature that are begun and not completed. Why in the world anyone would want to read Jane Austen's uncompleted works I don't understand. What's the point? But I guess my daughters enjoy it so….

Here's the reality. Our God has never failed to finish one thing that He has started, and that's what Paul wants us to understand in this text that we come to this morning. Philippians 1. Let me begin in verse 3 just to get us some context. Paul says,

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation (or literally your 'koinonia,' your fellowship) in the gospel from the first day until now. For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.

Paul is absolutely confident that God will bring our salvation to full completion. It's like what Jude, the half-brother of our Lord, said at the end of his letter. "[He] is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy…"

Now in this verse, Paul makes his case for God's completing the work of salvation in us, and then he explains the consequences of that reality. So that's sort of how I want to look at this text this morning. We're going to first of all look at the case for a completed salvation, and then we'll look at the consequences of a completed salvation. First of all, let's look at the case for a completed salvation. What was the basis of Paul's confidence? It's because he was convinced that from beginning to end, salvation is the sovereign work of God. Now when an attorney presents his case in the courtroom, he supports his case with arguments, and Paul does that here. Paul's case for our completed salvation consists of three arguments, and those arguments are all tied to God's sovereign work in salvation. Look at the arguments for the case for a completed salvation. The first argument is that God began the work of salvation in us. Paul says, "For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you…." Clearly the 'good work' here is our salvation, our spiritual rescue.

Now you could argue that God began the work of our salvation in eternity past when He chose us in Christ. In Ephesians 1:4, Paul writes, "[God, the Father] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him." And apart from God's choosing us, we would never have chosen Him. Our Lord says this in John 6:44: "No one can come to Me (for salvation, is implied) unless the Father who sent Me draws him (compels him, irresistibly draws him to Himself)…." This is what Paul says in Acts 13:48, or I should say, Luke says of Paul's ministry, "…as many as had been appointed (by God) to eternal life believed (the message)." As many as God had appointed to eternal life, they believed the message.

So God began the work of our salvation really in eternity past. But here in verse 6, Paul isn't talking about election because he uses the expression, notice, "…He…began a good work in you…." And by the way, the word 'you' here, the pronoun in the Greek text is plural. There are different forms of pronouns. They can be either singular or plural in form based on how they're structured. This is plural. Paul is saying, "He began His work inside of all of you who are believers." So not only did God initiate our salvation in the sense that He chose us in eternity past, but here in this text Paul is saying God even initiated the process of salvation that took place in our hearts. Paul is referring here to what theologians call regeneration. Regeneration is simply that act of God by which He imparts new life, a new principle of life, to the sinner.

The New Testament pictures this act of God. And by the way, this happened at the moment of your salvation. You were regenerated. What does that look like? Well the New Testament gives us three images to help us understand regeneration. The first image is an image of a new birth. Jesus, in talking to Nicodemus in John 3, said, "You need to be born from above. You need a new birth. You need to be spiritually born just as you have been physically born." That's regeneration and that happens at the moment of salvation. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, there's another image used. It's the image of a new creation. You are a new creature in Christ. God recreated your soul at the moment of your salvation. A third image Paul uses in Ephesians 2:5 of this regeneration, and it is resurrection. In Ephesians 2, he says you were dead spiritually, unable to relate to God in any way. You were completely a spiritual corpse and God made you alive. He resurrected you from death and He gave you life.

So in regeneration, this act of God that happens at the moment of salvation - it is the first act of God in the process of saving you – He illumines your mind and enables you to understand the gospel. Then He purifies your heart and makes you new. He cleanses you, according to the language of the new covenant. He renews your desires. No longer do you desire solely to sin, but you now desire to obey God and to love God. He changes your affections, and we begin to live a new life.

Now the truth that's at the heart of regeneration, that God is the One who takes the initiative, is found throughout the Word of God. In fact, look at Philippians 1:29. Paul says, "For to you (believers) it has been granted (understood, by God; God has granted you) for Christ's sake…to believe in Him…." God granted you to believe. In Acts 16:14, Luke says of Lydia, the first European convert, "…the Lord opened her heart to respond to [Paul's message]." In Acts 11:18, we read as they discussed the salvation of Cornelius under the ministry of Peter, "God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life." God gave them repentance.

Look at 2 Timothy 1:9. Paul puts it like this in this context. He says, "[God] has saved us (God has spiritually rescued us from His own wrath) and [He has] called us with a holy calling…." This is what theologians call the effectual call. You probably heard the gospel many times before you really heard it. And on that day when you really heard it, God was in that gospel message by His Spirit drawing you, calling you to Himself. That's what he's describing here. And he says that calling came "…not according to our works…." Our salvation and this holy calling were not according to our works, but instead it was "…according to His own purpose and (His own) grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity…."

Turn to 1 Peter 1:3. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…." Again, it wasn't us. It wasn't our work. It wasn't our effort. It wasn't our intelligence. It was His mercy that initiated our regeneration.

Now how does God accomplish this new birth? What mechanism does He use? The answer is through His Word. Look at 1 Peter 1:23. "…you have been born again (you have been regenerated; you've been made new) not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, (what's he talking about?) that is, through the living and enduring word of God." The mechanism that God uses to bring regeneration is the Word of God. Either you hear it preached, you read it – and at that moment, God is in that Word by His Spirit giving you life.

In James 1:18, another half-brother of our Lord, James here, tells us how this happens. James 1:18. "In the exercise of [God's] will (not yours; in the exercise of God's will) He [birthed] us (He regenerated us; and how did He do this?) by the word of truth…." This is what He did when He began His work in you. He regenerated you.

Charles Wesley, in his magnificent hymn "And Can It Be," describes regeneration with these words. Listen to them.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,

Fast bound in sin and nature's night;

Thine eye diffused a quickening ray -

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

My chains fell off, my heart was free,

I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

That's regeneration. That's what happens at the moment of salvation. God began the work of salvation in us by this act of regeneration. Your salvation was initiated by God, and Paul says that is a strong case for God's completing the work, because He's the One who began it.

Now Paul includes a second argument in his case for God's completing the work of our salvation – not only because God's the One who began the work but, secondly, God is accomplishing the work of salvation in us. Notice back in Philippians 1:6, "I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ (until Christ's return)." Implied in this is not only in the past at regeneration did God begin the good work of salvation in each of us who believe and in the future He will perfect it, but it also means that God is working today to accomplish in us what He wants, and He will stay at it until He accomplishes it.

In fact, Paul makes this explicit over in Philippians 2:12-13. Here you have an explanation of the process of sanctification. Salvation is what theologians call monergistic. It means God alone did it. He was the One working and only God was the One working. The reason you are a Christian (if you are in fact a believer) is not because you were smarter and more intelligent than the people around you. It's because God did it. He made you alive.

Now we come to sanctification, and it is synergistic. Not only does God work, but I'm responsible to work. Now don't misunderstand. You can't sanctify yourself. You can't change your heart. You're probably all too aware of that. You can change your behavior to some extent, but you can't change your heart. Only God can do that. Nevertheless, He will only do that in response to your doing what He's commanded you to do. Look at Philippians 212. What are we commanded to do? "So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed (there's what we're supposed to do; we're to strive to obey God's Word), not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling…." That Greek word translated 'work out' is a word that's often used in secular Greek of cultivating a garden or a field. He says, "Cultivate the salvation that God has begun in you." How do you cultivate it? By seeking to obey God's Word. By feeding yourself with the Scripture and allowing the Spirit to use that in your life. But you can't change yourself, so how does change happen? Notice verse 13. Here's God's work. You try to obey, you work out your salvation, you cultivate your salvation with fear and trembling, but then God – here's what He does - "God who is at work in you…." Think about that for a moment, believer. The God of the universe, if you belong to Him, He is today at work in you. And what's He doing? Notice the rest of verse 13. "…both to will and to work for His good pleasure." God is working in both your will and your actions. He supplies your will with the determination to obey His commands. And then He supplies you the power to carry out what you have willed to do. He is the One at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Listen. Anytime that you desire to obey God, that is the work of God in your heart. And anytime you actually carry out that desire, that's the work of God as well. God is working in you to will and to work for His good pleasure.

Now, you know, that's very encouraging, isn't it? But it's not only encouraging; frankly it's a sobering reality. Listen to James Montgomery Boice. "Think about this verse in this light; not like this, 'Oh, everything will be all right for me because God will certainly keep me secure until I finally get to heaven,' but rather, 'I know that God Almighty saved me for a purpose, and He will keep whittling away at me until He accomplishes it in me, whether I want Him to or not.'" Listen. Here's the bottom line. If you're truly in Christ, God will keep working on you until He produces what He wants to produce in you, and He will use whatever means necessary. If you have a humble and submissive heart, then things go easier for you. But if you are stubborn and resistant in your sin, if you cling to your sin, then God disciplines every son He loves and He'll bring whatever He has to into your life to accomplish the work He has in mind.

Now what exactly is the goal of this good work that God is determined to do in us? Well, Paul answers that back in Romans 8. Turn back there for a moment. Romans 8:28. Very familiar verse. "and we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God (now notice the end of verse 28; here's a description of Christians), to those who are called (that's the effectual call; you've been called through the gospel to God) according to [God's] purpose." So what's God's purpose? Verse 29. "For those whom He foreknew (here's His purpose), He also predestined…." That is, He predetermined your destiny. What's your destiny, believer? "…to become conformed to the image of His Son…." That's what God is at work to do. God will not stop working on you until you look like His Son.

You see, our salvation isn't primarily about us. The Father promised to give His Son a redeemed humanity that would serve Him and would reflect His glory for all of eternity, and that's what you're caught up in. Just so you know that I'm not making this up, turn back. I want you to see this. John 6:37. Our Lord says this, "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me…." Now think about that for a moment. Jesus says, "All that the Father gives Me – they're the ones that will come to Me in faith." In other words, everyone who comes to Christ for salvation was first given to Christ by the Father. That means that every person chosen by God and drawn by God is simply a gift of the Father's love to the Son. Christ, in eternity past, was promised by the Father that He'd give Him a gift of His love, and that's a redeemed humanity who will forever love Him and serve Him and praise Him.

And notice in verse 37, Jesus says, "…and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out." Jesus says, "If the Father gave them to Me, I'm going to hold onto them." And in fact, notice verse 39. "I will raise each one of them [to eternal glory]."

"This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day."

No one will be lost in the process. God's eternal purpose cannot and will not be thwarted. Until you and I are conformed to the image of His Son, God will continue working in us, not because we're deserving of it, but because we are gifts of the Father to the Son, and He will finish what He started so that His Son has the gift that is the expression of His love. Until then, salvation will be God's constant work in us. God began our salvation in regeneration at the moment of salvation, and He is accomplishing that work every day to conform us to the image of His Son. And that is why we know it'll be completed.

There's a third argument Paul uses in his case for a completed salvation, and that is that God has promised to complete His work in us. Look again at Philippians 1:6. "For I am confident of this very thing (Why was Paul confident?), that He who began a good work in you will perfect it…." It's because this is a promise God has made. The One who began the good work in us and who continues His work in us even now is the same One who will perfect it. The Greek word translated 'perfect' here means to carry something to completion. In verses after there, we read in Romans 8, Paul says, the God who predestined also called - that is, the effectual call. He called you to the gospel; He called you to believe. "…and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified." Nobody gets lost in the process. Everybody He predestined gets called, gets justified, gets glorified. And in fact, our glorification is so sure that Paul speaks of it as if it were in the past tense - it's already done, it's a done deal - because it will happen.

This same truth is taught in other passages. Look at 1 Corinthians 1. First Corinthians 1:8. "…[God] will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ". Now how's He going to do that? Verse 9 – because He is faithful. "God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord." Listen. God made promises to His Son in eternity past and God has made promises to you. And He's faithful. He's going to do it.

First Thessalonians 5:23. "Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely…." That's talking about right now. May God sanctify you in every part of your person. And here's the future. "…and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." And how's that going to happen? Because, "Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass." God has made promises to His Son and to you, and He's faithful. He will bring it to pass.

According to Philippians 1:6, God's redeeming and renewing work will not be complete until it reaches its climax in the day of Jesus Christ. Now that's a reference to our Lord's return. It's like John the apostle says, "We know that when [Christ] appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is." We can be certain of this: God always finishes what He starts. You understand that there are no piles of matter heaped up somewhere in eternity where God began something and He failed to complete it? God always finishes what He starts. And that means that someday, believer, you will be exactly like Jesus Christ in your moral character. You will be everything that you read on the pages of the gospel that He was in His humanity. Paul builds a case for divine sovereignty in salvation that's frankly unassailable. He says, "Listen. God started it. He began it. He continues to accomplish it in you. And someday, He'll complete it. It will happen because God promised it."

That's the case for a completed salvation, but what are the ramifications? And that brings us to Paul's second point in this passage and that is the consequences of a completed salvation. There are three of them. The first one is gratitude. Remember that verse 6 is in the middle of one long Greek sentence that begins in verse 3 and runs down through verse 8. Notice verse 3. "I thank my God in all my remembrance of you…." Paul's confidence in God's sovereign salvation that He would complete in the lives of the Philippians drove him to gratitude to God, and that's what it should do to us as well. Think about it for a moment. Although you weren't seeking God, God sought you and He made you alive. And today He continues His work to make you like His Son. And someday He will perfect you. And when you understand that – when you understand that because of nothing in you and in spite of everything you were and are, God moved to save you, He continues to work in you – it produces overwhelming gratitude. "I thank my God…" for what He is doing and has done.

There's a second consequence of God's sovereign salvation that completes itself in perfection and that is assurance. As a result of Paul's belief in God's sovereignty in salvation, he could be unshakably confident that God would perfect these people. Now Paul knew the Philippians and he knew that they were facing internal division. In fact, there are a couple of women that he has to call out by name in chapter 4 (Euodia and Syntyche), who couldn't get along. They were facing external persecution. And Paul, who loved this church, couldn't be there with them to help them. But because he knew that God would complete what He had started, he could write the Philippians with absolute confidence.

And you know, this is wonderful, because it allows us who minister - whether it's to our own families, our kids, or whether it's in the context of the church, some ministry we have – it allows us to be certain that everyone in whom God has begun to work will be perfected. You know, as a pastor, I pray for you. I preach the Word of God to you. But I don't stay awake at night wondering if you're going to get there, if God's going to do what He's going to do because I know, I am confident, that He will complete what He has begun. The eternity of the people to whom we minister doesn't rest on our skills, doesn't rest on our abilities, but on the power and promise of God. And so we can have assurance.

But I think there's something else here. I think Paul is giving us personal assurance. Part of the reason Paul includes verse 6 is that he wants the Philippians to share his confidence. Think about this for a moment. If Paul wrote you a letter, and he said to you, "Listen. I am confident that God began the work of salvation in you. And I am confident that He is continuing that work even today. And I am confident that He will one day perfect that work in you," wouldn't that increase your assurance? Well, that's exactly what Paul did. And he means for it to encourage you. If you're in Christ, it's because God took your dead corpse and He breathed spiritual life into it and He made you alive. And instantaneously, He gave you the gift of faith and the gift of repentance. And He will continue to work in you. And on the day of Jesus Christ, He will bring to perfection what He began on the day you believed.

John Macarthur writes, "It's easy for believers to become discouraged when they focus on their problems and imperfections and those of other believers. Now those sins should not be ignored or minimized, but neither should they be allowed to overshadow the marvelous reality of the future perfection of the church and of every individual believer, as God's Word guarantees so frequently and clearly. Remembering that glorious truth," he writes, "removes the debilitating pressure of doubt and fosters triumphant joy, gratitude, and anticipation. It produces assurance."

Now there's a third consequence of God's sovereign salvation and that is perseverance. Philippians 1:6 is one of about five key New Testament passages that set forth the Biblical doctrine called 'the perseverance of the saints.' That means true believers keep on believing. They keep on following Christ. I think a better name for this doctrine is probably 'the preservation of the saints' because, yes, true believers will keep on believing. "He who endures to the end will be saved." But why do true believers keep on believing? Because God preserves them. The source of Paul's gratitude and the thrust of verse 6 is the fact that God will preserve all of those in whom He began to work until Christ returns.

Peter puts it this way: "[We are kept] by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time." Yes, we keep on believing. It's through faith. We persevere, but why do we persevere? Because we are kept by the power of God. Now Peter doesn't mean that everyone who professes to be a Christian is assured of eternal life. There are a lot of people who claim to be Christians who aren't. They make some profession of faith and then they live for years like a pagan and think they've got some life insurance policy in their pocket that's going to get them out at the judgment. That is a lie. What Peter and the rest of Scripture teaches is that not one true child of God - not one person whom God chose in eternity past, whom He called by His Word to believe, to whom He granted genuine repentance and faith, whom He justified and adopted; not one person like that - will ever come into condemnation. That person is eternally safe because of God's preserving grace. That person will persevere and finally and eternally be saved. John 10. "…I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand." Romans 8, Paul says, "For I am convinced that [nothing in life or death can ever] separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

So there are three consequences, then, of understanding this completed salvation: gratitude, assurance, and perseverance. You know, one of the realities that we celebrate in the Lord's Table is what we've learned in this verse – the fact that God will complete in us what He's begun. When Jesus inaugurated the Lord's Table on that Thursday night of the Passion Week, listen to what He said to His disciples. This is Matthew 26:29. "But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until the day when I drink it new with you in the Father's kingdom." He says, "Not only will God finish what He began in human history by creating a kingdom for His Son, but He will also ensure that every true believer gets there." Every true believer will feast with Christ, and the Lord's Table is a reminder of that. You know, this little thimble of juice and this tiny little cracker – pretty unsatisfying. But they're a reminder. They're a reminder of what our Lord did in the past. And they're also a reminder that we're going to get there. And someday in His future kingdom, He will finish and He will already have finished and completed what He began. And we will sit down and truly have a feast with Jesus Christ. The Lord's Table is a reminder not only of our Lord's past work of redemption, but it's also a reminder that He will finish what He started in me. And by His grace, I'll be there. Let's pray together.

Our Father, we bless You for the amazing work of redemption, for Your great wisdom that Christ poured out His life for us, that He suffered Your wrath as a guilt offering to pay for our guilt, for our sin. But Father, we also thank You for the wonderful reality that in this Lord's Table, in this remembrance that points back, we also look forward to the reality that You will complete the work You've begun in us. And not one who is truly Your own will fail to be perfected. Not one who belongs to You will fail to arrive at Your kingdom. And someday, in place of this little small reminder, we will truly feast with our Lord. Until that day, O God, keep us faithful. Continue the work You've begun in us. Lord, may You continually enable us to will to do Your will, and may You give us the power to carry it out. Lord, don't leave us on our own, but continue the work You've begun until the day You perfect it. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.