Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"GODíS ABUNDANT GRACE DRIVES THE PEOPLE OF GOD TO ABUNDANT PRAYER"
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
We are all familiar with the gospel of Ďsalvation by grace aloneí. With gratitude in our hearts we accept that we "were yet sinners" when "Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8). We realize: we offered nothing to God to attract His grace; He gives us His mercy without us doing anything to earn it. Grace alone.
As it is, brothers and sisters, this thought is true not just with respect to the beginnings of the Christian life, but true also for its duration. Paul stresses in our text that God was working daily in the lives of the Philippians Ėundeservedly, graciously- and that is why Paul speaks so much in chap 1 about prayer. He knows, and he wants us to know: the doctrine of grace drives to prayer.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
GODíS ABUNDANT GRACE DRIVES THE PEOPLE OF GOD TO ABUNDANT PRAYER.
With Paul we look in two directions:
1. Godís work of grace in the past.
The apostle Paul was somewhere in prison, with the distinct possibility of soon being condemned to death. According to chap 4:18, his day was brightened by the arrival of a certain Epaphroditus, an ambassador sent by the Philippian congregation to bring a gift to Paul. Epaphroditus could do more than present a gift; he also updated Paul on the well being of the congregation in Philippi. In response, now, to Epaphroditusí gift and the news he brought, the apostle wrote a letter to the Philippians.
As we do in our official correspondence, Paul first prepared a letterhead, containing the origin of the letter. Thatís the first part of vs 1: "Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ." Then Ėas we also do- Paul mentions the addressees: "to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons." His next line is different from what we do in our letters, for Paul, as minister of God, lays the blessing of God upon his readers. Vs 2: "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Those are the words we hear Sunday by Sunday at the beginning of the church service.
Thereafter Paul gets into the body of his letter. And see: the apostle does a remarkable thing! He has just heard from Epaphroditus how things were in Philippi, indeed, heís just received a gift from them, something that certainly helps him survive his imprisonment. But look: he does not set out to thank the Philippians, or to compliment them for their generosity! Instead, he straightaway tells the Philippians about his prayer life, how it is Ėvs 3- that he thanks his God upon every remembrance of the Philippians. Why, we wonder, might that be, for this is not the way we do things! Our practice is straightaway to give a hearty thank you to the person who has given us some gift. Why, then, does Paul first talk about his prayer life?!
The reason, brothers and sisters, is set out in our text. He talks about prayer, because, says the apostle, God was so wonderfully at work in Philippi. Then sure: in the concluding verses of this letter Paul will actually thank the Philippians for their gift, and compliment them for their thoughtfulness. But Paul knows: first must come God, praise must be directed where praise is due. In our culture where we are encouraged to compliment our children and each other quickly, here is a perspective we need to bear in mind Ė simply because we live by grace. Letís go, then, into more detail into the thought of our text, so that we may learn how the Lord would have us respond to the good we see another do.
God, says Paul in our text, "has begun a good work in you." The emphasis is on God. Thatís because the Philippians, like all men, were by nature dead in sin. But the Lord had elected certain persons in that heathen city to salvation and life. So it was that the Lord in His mercy sent messengers of His good news in Jesus Christ to that city. Itís what we read from Acts 16. The apostle Paul had wanted to "preach the word in Asia" and Bithynia, but the Holy Spirit forbade him (vs 7f). Instead, through a vision the Lord directed Paul to Macedonia to preach the word there. So Paul crossed the water to Macedonia and preached first in Philippi, "the foremost city of that part of Macedonia" (vs 12). And see: "a certain woman named Lydia heard" the apostleís preaching, and "the Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul." So "she and her household were baptized" (vss 14f) Ė the first Christians of Europe. God, says Paul in our text, "has begun a good work in you," and this is the beginning.
Thereís more. Shortly after Lydiaís conversion Paul cast out an evil spirit. That work of God in Philippi in turn led to a riot in town. As a result of the riot, Paul and his companion Silas ended up in prison. But the Lord continued His work in the face of Satanís opposition. Through an earthquake the Lord broke open the bonds which held the prisoners, and when the jailer saw it all he also came to faith and was baptized, he and his household (vss 16-34). Here is more of the beginning of Godís work in Philippi, gathering His elect into His church.
This small beginning of Godís work continued in the years that followed. The word of God sown in the midst of that heathen city resulted in a dynamic church. Not necessarily big Ė must we think of 20 Christians, 50, 100? Nobody really knows, but certainly that church was not as big as the churches we are used to. But the group was dynamic, spiritually alive. In the course of time elders and deacons could be appointed in this congregation (Phil 1:1). More, under the labors of these office-bearers the saints of God in the city were equipped for the work of ministry (Eph 4:12). The specific work of ministry this congregation embraced was their desire to help Paul in his task of preaching the gospel to others who still lived in darkness. Thatís the point of Paulís words in ch 1:5: Paul writes that he thanks God "for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now." And his point in vs 7: "in my chains and in the defense of the gospel, you all are partakers with me of grace." Again, this desire of the Philippians to support Paul comes up in ch 2:25, where Paul describes Epaphroditus as "my brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier," but right away adds that Epaphroditus is "your messenger and the one who ministered to my need." That is: the Philippians looked after Paul through this ambassador they sent from their midst. So too ch 4:14: "you Philippians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only" (vs 15). Indeed, "even in Thessalonica you sent aid once and again for my necessities" (vs 16). Indeed, beloved, the church in Philippi was living, was dynamic, and the evidence lay in their adopted policy of helping Paul in bringing the gospel to the Gentiles.
And bear in mind, beloved, what sort of reputation Paul had. The man was popularly seen as a troublemaker, a nuisance! In Philippi already he was straightaway put in jail for cutting off someoneís source of income! Elsewhere he was stoned, whipped, scourged. Even now in prison, condemned by some as a teacher of false doctrine. Certainly not the sort of person one would automatically support! But despite all of that, the Philippians have held to their course of action over the years; they supported and continue to support this preacher of the gospel.
Now: how come? What lies behind this eagerness on their part to support Paul? This is Paulís point in our text: here is the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. Christ Jesus has been to the cross, there not only to pay for sin but also to destroy the power of sin. The triumphant Christ has poured out His Holy Spirit so that faith might be worked in hearts by nature dead in sin. More, since Christ has broken the power, the bondage of sin, these hearts can be changed so that believers produce the "fruits of righteousness" that belong to faith (1:11)
The point of all I am saying? This: whatever good Paul may notice coming out of Philippi is not the work of man; it is instead the work of God. And that, beloved, is why the apostle does not begin his letter with complimenting the Philippians for the care they have shown and the support they have given Paul in his efforts to preach the gospel. To begin the letter with such a compliment is out of place, because it lays the emphasis where it does not belong. Thanks belong to God, and that is why Paul begins with relating something about his personal prayer life. Paul sees in the gifts and care of the Philippians something of Godís work in those saints, and so, whenever his thoughts go to these Philippians, he turns to God in prayer. Vs 3: "I thank God upon every remembrance of you." That the Philippians could share his ups and downs over the years, that they could help and support him in his task of being Godís apostle to the Gentiles: here is Godís work, and so to Him be the praise and the thanksgiving.
Here, congregation, is a thought we do well to take on board. It is said that we should be quick to praise our children for the good work they do at school or in the home. And thatís fair enough; a positive comment goes much further than time and again picking on their failures. But the thing is this: we need first to make clear to our children and to each other that the positives they accomplish are not first of all their own accomplishments, but are Godís work in them. Let our eyes be open to it: when we see our children deny their natural selfishness and make it their business to help out in the family and do their best in the classroom, we see God at work. So: let us thank Him for it Ė be it our personal prayers, be it in our family prayers, be it at school. For praise must go where praise is due.
The same is true with respect to ourselves. We take an opportunity to reach out to another with some form of help. At the end of the day we look back on our accomplishments of the day with a feeling of satisfaction; helping another does feel good. But do we recognize that the ability, even the willingness, to help another is a gift of Godís grace? Had the Holy Spirit not worked in us, weíd still be dead in sin, in bondage to sin and therefore concerned only for ourselves. So it is for us to thank God, that is, to give ourselves to prayer.
Please do not underestimate the significance of the point. We say that we live by grace alone, and thatís true. But, congregation, that statement may not refer only to the fact that God once worked faith in our hearts. Every fruit of righteousness that we produce ever since our conversion is because of Godís work in us, and His work in us is always grace, is never deserved. The confession of grace alone leaves us with no room for an inflated self-image, leaves us with no room either for seeking compliments. The reality that God has worked in us must drive us to prayer, to giving of abundant thanks at every remembrance of the good things we have done or our children have done. Otherwise we are no better than those who do good things, who help others or do their best, simply for their own sakes, that they might themselves feel-goodÖ.
The doctrine of grace, then, drives to prayer, to thanksgiving. Let us not be ashamed to thank the Lord in front of each other for the work God in mercy has done in those around us. Give praise where praise is due Ė to God. And never underestimate, beloved, the positive effect upon the person for whom you give thanks to God! That God would work in a certain person, would use a certain person to benefit another: how encouraging for that person to hear us thank God for the work we see God doing in that person!
Letís move on to our second point, and now look with the apostle into the future and Godís further work in time to come.
2. Godís work of grace in the future.
Paul expresses in our text that he has great confidence in this fact that the God who had begun a work in the Philippians "will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ." The term Ďcompleteí captures the notion of Ďperfectioní, Ďbringing to fulfillmentí. The point is that the God who began a work in these Philippians when Paul first brought the gospel to Philippi did not make these Philippians perfect straightaway. Yes, God worked faith. And yes, God continued that work over the years, so that the Philippian Christians produced "fruits of righteousness" (vs 11) Ė "to the glory and praise of God;" recall all the assistance the Philippians gave to Paul in his ministry. But at the same time so much weakness remained in these Philippians. Paul knew of specific weaknesses Ėno doubt Epaphroditus told the apostle- weaknesses so real that Paul felt he had to address them in the letter heís now writing. Look at ch 1:27: "Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that Ö you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel." We understand the situation: despite Godís renewing work and their love for Paul and his ministry, there was some division amongst the Philippian saints, they were not standing shoulder to shoulder in the battle of faith. Thatís why in ch 2:3 Paul says that nothing is to be "done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself." Itís clear: the Philippians were not at all perfect. In the words of the Catechism: "they had but a small beginning of the obedience God requires."
But, brothers and sisters, the fact that the beginning did not lead straightaway to perfection doesnít take away from the reality of Godís work in these Philippians! His gift of faith and fruits of righteousness the Philippians were producing were certainly reason for Paul to "thank my God upon every remembrance of you." More: Paul could know Ėgiven Who God is- that God would certainly not drop His work half way! If God so loved the world that He gave His only Son to save the lost, surely God Ėafter He began a work of grace in the Philippians- God would not leave it unfinished! Thatís not God! In the words of Ps 138: "Yea, Thou wilt finish perfectly What Thou for me hast undertaken." Thatís the confidence Paul has; such is Godís grace that God will certainly complete the work He had begun in the Philippians. It cannot be different, because God is God, His grace astounding. Then Yes, the completion of the work may not come about "until the day of Jesus Christ," but come about it certainly will!
And precisely this conviction, brothers and sisters Ėthe conviction that God will complete His work until the day of Jesus Christ- drives Paul to further prayer! Vs 3: "I thank my God upon every remembrance of you," and straightaway he adds in vs 4 that he "always in every prayer of mine [makes] request for you all." Request: literally the word is supplication. On the one hand the apostle in prison thanks the Lord for the work God has already done in these Philippians. But on the other the apostle implores God on behalf of the Philippians, beseeches Him. What he says to God in his prayers for the Philippians? Vs 9: "And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God."
Yes, Paul sees evidence of love in the lives of the Philippians. That they, for example, could support him so much in his ministry is surely evidence of the gift of love the Holy Spirit has worked in them. But the love wasnít perfect; it had to abound still more and more. What Paul could do to reach that goal? Sure, Paul will write them a letter and address this problem, and he does. But first Paul prays, and doesnít beseech God on the matter only once and thatís it; Paul implores God for growth among the Philippians "upon every remembrance of you". He knows: God wants to be asked for the things his people need. More, Paul knows the power of prayer, knows prayer is the strongest weapon God has given his children Ė strongest because it demonstrates dependence on God, an awareness that we live by Godís grace completely.
And not only that, beloved. Paul also comes out and tells the Philippians that he is continually praying for them. He doesnít keep his prayer-life under wraps, a secret from men. No, he makes a point of telling the Philippians that he is praying for them, and in so doing he shows them his love.
On the topic of prayer we have the words of our Lord to His disciples firmly in mind. He once told His disciples not to be "like the hypocrites." For, Jesus added, "they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men." Instead, Jesus told His disciples, "when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is in secretÖ" (Mt 6:5ff). So we pray privately, even keep our prayer habits to ourselves. And indeed, congregation, there is no call for us to trumpet to the world how often we pray and for whom we pray, etc; there is place for healthy modesty here, with no place to draw attention to ourselves. Paulís example in Philippians 1, though, does not contradict Jesusí instruction. Paul doesnít draw attention to his prayer habits in order to attract praise from men; he rather tells the Philippians what he does in secret so that the Philippians might be encouraged.
Here is very much an example for us. The Holy Spirit has told us of Paulís repeated supplications for the Philippians in the context of Godís past and continuing work in His people so that we might learn the lesson and do the same. More, the Holy Spirit tells us that informed the Philippians of his habit so that we might be encouraged to do the same. To pray for somebody conveys so much love, so much care! It shows so much care and love because the person for whom you pray is set before the throne of God with the request that God please supply the needs of this person Ė and only God is able to make a person grow the more in faith and love and all the other fruits of righteousness.
More, by praying for each other we also demonstrate that we take the gospel of grace seriously. Our growth in the Lord does not depend on our efforts, but on His work. Well then, let us turn repeatedly to God to pray for His blessings, and let us tell each other that we are doing that. He began a work in us at some time in the past, and He will complete it on the day of Jesusí return, and in the time between beginning and completion He continues to prompt growth. Well, if that is His promise, let us pray His promises to each other, time and again imploring God to continue the work He has begun Ė that the fruits of righteousness God has worked in saints near and far may abound still more and more, till finally we are perfected on the day of Jesusí return.
The gospel of grace, brothers and sisters, does not concern only those moments when people dead in sin are raised to new life, become believers in Jesus Christ. Godís work continues in His own until we reach the goal of perfection on the last day, and every work God does in us day by day is grace, grace alone. It is undeserved, always a gift. That is why we need not just to thank God for His work in us in the past; it is equally why we need to continue to ask God to keep working in us all the time. The gospel of grace drives us to prayer!
Therefore: people who pray little appreciate Godís grace but little. Amen.