The disciple’s sanctification (Phil. 2:12-13)

POST OVERVIEW. This post is the second part of a series of articles on Philippians 2:12-13, exploring how the disciple of Jesus can “work out their salvation with fear and trembling.” Having discussed justification in the previous post (#579), we now examine the disciple’s sanctification. We will also explore how sanctification relates to discipleship. This is a foundational article in my own consideration of the broad topic of discipleship.


If we were to give a simplified sequence of events in the life of the disciple of Jesus Christ from birth to eternity, there would be four major components: condemnation, justification, sanctification, and glorification. Condemnation is the condition of being an unforgiven sinner and being subject to the judgment and wrath of God for your sins. All people are born as sinners and all people are therefore born into this state of condemnation (Rom. 3:23). Justification describes the event when God declares the sinner to be righteous in His sight because of the sinner’s initial confession of faith in Jesus Christ. In justification, the disciple passes from death to life (John 5:24), becomes a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), and no longer experiences condemnation (Romans 8:1). After the disciple has been justified (declared righteous), he enters the stage of sanctification, which lasts till the end of his earthly life. Sanctification is the process of growing in practical holiness and Christlikeness, which means decreasing sin and increasing obedience. (Note: “Discipleship” occurs in the sanctification stage.) The final state for every disciple of Jesus Christ is glorification, when all the saints are in heaven forever in glorified, resurrection bodies. All disciples will receive their glorified bodies on the last day (John 6:39, 40, 44, 54; 1 Cor. 15:51-54; 1 Thess. 4:14-17).


Since this consideration of justification and sanctification is in the context of discipleship, we need to see how these two ideas of justification and sanctification relate to the disciple of Jesus. In simple terms, the event of justification creates a disciple. We know that, prior to justification, the sinner is outside Christ, “having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). At justification, when the sinner believes in Jesus and is thus declared righteous, the sinner is converted into a disciple of Jesus. But if justification creates a disciple, sanctification grows a disciple into increasing Christlikeness. This is the process whereby the disciple learns “to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel” (Ephesians 4:1). It is apparent that sanctification is only possible if justification has already occurred, but we also know that, if justification has truly occurred, then it will certainly result in sanctification.


In further considering justification and sanctification, we can say that justification is necessarily “monergistic.” “Monergistic” means that justification, the event whereby God declares the sinner to be fully and forever righteous based on the sinner’s faith in Jesus, is exclusively the work of God. In the act of justification, God is the only actor. When God justifies the believing sinner, He imputes Christ’s perfect righteousness to the sinner’s account as if Christ’s righteousness were the sinner’s own, while the sinner passively receives Christ’s imputed righteousness based solely on his profession of faith. The point is that in justification, God is active and the sinner-disciple is passive.

By contrast, sanctification – the progressive decreasing of sin and the progressive increasing of practical righteousness – is a joint effort between the disciple of Jesus and God Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the clearest statement of this biblical truth is in Philippians 2:12-13:

12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.


In these verses, Paul is certainly speaking about the disciple’s sanctification. As we consider the bolded part of the passage, the cooperative, joint effort between the disciple and the Lord is apparent. First, Paul commands the disciple to “work out his salvation.” The apostle does not have in mind some ongoing work by which the disciple earns or merits his salvation, for the Bible rejects the idea of human works meriting salvation in many places. Rather, he is instructing the disciple who has already been justified by his faith to labor with all his might so that his changed life will be vividly displayed in the outward fruit of repentance. In other words, “work out your salvation” means “be diligent and vigorous in your sanctification efforts so that, as time goes on, there is a closer and closer agreement between the righteousness your life displays and the full righteousness that has been imputed to you.” The point is that progress in sanctification depends on the disciple’s active efforts to grow in holiness.  


But while it is clear that sanctification depends on the disciple’s efforts, we also see that sanctification is dependent on the ongoing work of God the Holy Spirit. “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” When a disciple comes to faith in Jesus, then not only is the person declared righteous, but that person is also “sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13). Thus, from the moment of salvation, the disciple is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and He, the Holy Spirit, immediately begins to accomplish the ongoing, unconscious transformation of the disciple. For example, the disciple receives the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). The disciple also receives a spiritual gift (1 Cor. 12), which allows him to serve and edify the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit reveals sin to the disciple and guides him into all truth (John 16:9ff). The Holy Spirit allows the disciple to put sin to death (Rom. 8:13), leads the disciple (8:14), testifies to the disciple that he is a child of God (8:16), and intercedes for the disciple in prayer “with groanings too deep for words” (8:26). This is the work of the Holy Spirit in all believers and the result of this unconscious work of the Spirit is that the disciple grows in sanctification.

We have seen, then, that the disciple grows in sanctification both by the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, who is unconsciously and invisibly transforming the disciple, and by the disciple’s own efforts. While acknowledging the Holy Spirit’s necessary role in sanctification, we want to now turn our attention to the sanctification that is brought about by the disciple’s own efforts, for this is the sanctification that we can directly influence.


Now we want to address the question, “What is the relationship between ‘discipleship’ and ‘sanctification’?” We remember that we defined sanctification as “the progressive decreasing of sin and the progressive increasing of practical righteousness in the life of the disciple of Jesus.” From this, we can say that a functional definition of discipleship is “the sanctification that is brought about in the disciple’s life as a result of the disciple’s  own conscious efforts.” This discipleship is what Paul has in mind in Philippians 2:12 when he commands us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Thus, in discipleship, the disciple of Jesus takes conscious actions to intentionally attack their sin and purposefully grow in their practice of righteous, Bible-approved acts until they finish the race.

Discipleship, then, is a logical outgrowth of justification, when the sinner passes from death to life (John 5:24) and is made a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Being made new in Christ generates in every disciple a desire for holiness and an ambition to be pleasing to the Lord Jesus (2 Cor. 5:9). This desire for holiness is part of the seed of justification and is a required product of the new birth such that, if the desire for holiness and the growth in Christlikeness are absent, the real occurrence of justification is brought into question.

In discipleship, then, the key words are “conscious,” “intentional,” and “purposeful.” This is because these conscious, intentional, purposeful actions to increase in holiness are the result of the disciple’s own planning and choices and reflections and efforts. This conscious, intentional activity is motivated by the disciple’s own desire for holiness and by his ambition to be pleasing to the Lord Jesus and is an example of the disciple “working out his salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). And while this activity is certainly empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, its initiation and execution depend on the individual disciple.


In the sense, then, that progress in discipleship depends on the disciple’s own wisdom and diligence and desire and activity and persistence, discipleship is similar to other human endeavors. In any human activity, those who are more diligent and energetic will make more progress in that activity than those who are less so. It is the same with the degree of sanctification you achieve from your own discipleship efforts. The spiritual resources for your sanctification have all been supplied. You have been set free from your slavery to sin (Romans 6), you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13), you have been given full access to God’s throne to send Him your prayers (Hebrews 4:16), you have been placed in His body the church so that you have brothers and sisters to encourage you, and you have His Word to read and to meditate on. You have every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3). Now, with all these resources available to you, you are commanded to work out your salvation. Both because the disciple has received apostolic command to work out his salvation and because the disciple has been entrusted with divine resources for working out of his salvation, discipleship is each disciple’s own responsibility.

SDG                 rmb                 10/19/2022                 #582