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Living Out the Gospel

Philippians 4:4-23

Listen or read the following transcript as D. A. Carson speaks on the topic of Gospel from Philippians 4:4-23


I’m going to begin by reading Philippians, chapter 4, verses 4–23, and then I want to have a rather extended introduction before we plunge into the passage itself.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need.

Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Greet all God’s people in Christ Jesus. The brothers and sisters who are with me send greetings. All God’s people here send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

When I was a very young man, I wrote a manuscript that has never been published. It didn’t deserve it, but the title was right. The title was The Beauty of Biblical Balance. In it I tried to outline different kinds of balance that you find in Scripture. In some cases, it’s a balance of how you use your time. In some cases, it’s a balance of how different truths play off against one another to complement each other.

In some cases, there’s a balance that’s bound up with mystery, tied up with the very person of God. God is sovereign. God is personal. God is transcendent, above space and time. God is immanent. He is with us always, and we cannot escape him. So there are different kinds of balance. In fact, it was a messy manuscript. It didn’t deserve publication, and if I ever wrote it today, it would have to be completely rewritten.

But that made me start thinking about a lot of things along these lines, and in recent years, I have thought about it again. In the last 15 to 20 years or so, there has been, for example, in the Western world, a lot of controversy about the doctrine of justification. Because of this, there have been many publications in the last 20 years by confessional Christians who have tried to rearticulate the doctrine of justification and defend it.

Doctrines need to be defended. If you remain quiet about them, then pretty soon some aberrations come along, and they get twisted and distorted and so on, but I have gradually come to the conclusion that many of us have spent so much time on the doctrine of justification we have, perhaps, occasionally downplayed other doctrines no less significant for an understanding of what the gospel is.

I’m not downplaying justification. What chapter 3 says in Philippians is of blistering importance, and we must see that justification is bound up with the fundamental issue of how sinners can be reconciled to God. We must be declared just before him, now and on the last day, but by itself (and in reality, justification is never by itself), justification doesn’t deal with the problem of the power of sin in our lives.

It deals with the guilt of sin. It deals with the punishment of sin. It deals with our alienation from God. It deals with God’s wrath upon us unless God’s love also draws us and pays for our sin by the death of Christ’s own Son, but it’s another doctrine that addresses the question of transforming power. That’s the doctrine of the new birth. Historically, the Reformation emphasized justification by grace alone through faith alone. It was the evangelical awakening that tended to emphasize new birth.

Of course, both parties in both cases talked about both things, but in terms of emphasis, that’s the case. George Whitefield, for example, preached in his lifetime, it is estimated, 3,000 messages on John 3. He would get on his horse and ride to the next village and preach evangelistically on John 3, “You must be born again.” Then he’d get on his horse and ride to the next village and preach in the next village, “You must be born again.”

He would do this for three, four, or five villages a day. You can understand how you’d tot up 3,000 after a while. Eventually, somebody asked him, “Mr. Whitefield, ‘You must be born again, you must be born again, you must be born again.’ Why is it you always preach on the same text, ‘You must be born again’?” He said, “Because you must be born again.”

In truth, the gospel is so embracive it deals not only with our guilt in a fundamental way in the doctrine of the cross but flowing out from the cross is Christ’s bequeathal of the Spirit, who comes in us and convicts us of sin and regenerates us and renews us and works in us in sanctifying transformation until the very end, and glorification follows that.

One could also say that the gospel of God works in us so that our relations change too. That is, although we are saved as individuals, not only in our families but in the churches we become a living body. There’s a relational organic wholeness component to genuine Christian salvation. Then there’s an eschatological component.

At the end of the day, whether you’re saved or not, you will get older, and unless Christ comes first, you will die. Every time I take a shower, a few more hairs go down the plughole never to be seen again. We get a little older, and we discover that we can’t do things we could do when we were younger. We’ve been a family of walkers. When the kids were really small, I had one or the other of them on my back, and we hiked and hiked and hiked.

Eventually, they were on their own two feet. We lived for nine years in Britain, and we’ve walked through the hills of Wales and Yorkshire and hiked through the Peak District and so on. I always led the pack. Not anymore. My son, who’s a Marine, laughs at me. I can barely keep up with my daughter. The only one I can beat is my wife, and she has had cancer. So you discover that your physical abilities shift after a while.

But one day, we’re going to have resurrection bodies, like Christ’s resurrection body, and our anticipation of the fullness, the climax, the glory of salvation does not end in a horizon here that just means you’re a little older but a little more godly (well, I hope you’ll be more godly when you’re a little older) but ends finally in the transformation that was also secured in the cross: glorification yet to come, prompting Christians across the generations to cry, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”

To think about salvation, you have to think about all of these things all the time, and more that I don’t have time to elucidate. Now it’s within that kind of framework that one also needs to think about the part that we play, for there is a stream of evangelicalism that thinks in terms of quiescence. We know that salvation is all of God. Yes, that has been reiterated for us. That’s right. That’s true.

We do not bring anything to the table to commend us to God. That’s right and true, but that has sometimes led to a theology that is summarized under the slogan, “Let go and let God.” In its worst forms, “Let go and let God” sounds a long way removed from striving for the faith of the gospel. “We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and powers.”

We are to work like a farmer. We are to fight like a soldier. We are to mortify our sins. We are to press on toward the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus, all of these words that are bound up with discipline, hard work, industry, and self-sacrifice. Let go and let God? I don’t think so. There is, inevitably, some little truth in “Let go and let God,” at the end of the day, but when it is pushed all the way to the floor it introduces a quiescence that is flat-out against what Scripture says.

That brings us to the kinds of exhortations Paul not infrequently gives us at the end of his letters, in this case at the end of Philippians. What we’re given is a whole lot of things to do, a whole lot of things to resolve to do or not to do, with great effort to be expended. We’re to rejoice. We’re not to be anxious. We’re to pray. We’re to resolve to think certain kinds of holy things and more, as we’ll see. These are all things we are exhorted to do.

What saves this from being mere moralism is that it is nestled against the backdrop of the entire epistle. These are not miscellaneous moralisms. Paul comes to this point in his letter and says, “Okay, I’ve given you my theology now. Here are a few practical little advices for how to live happy Christian lives.”

These moralisms are tied up with the theology of the entire book thus far, as we’ll see. Moreover, they’re set in the matrix of what we read in chapter 2. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling …” That doesn’t sound like quiescence to me. “… for it is God working in you.” So we’re commanded again and again in Scripture to believe, and then Ephesians 2 tells us that faith is the gift of God.

We are not to think of salvation as that which is achieved when you run from here to here, and God does it all the way up to here, and then we do the last bit. If you think of it in those terms, at the end of the day, God doesn’t do it all. God doesn’t do enough. At the end of the day, the final reason I get to heaven is because I do that last bit.

Rather, it’s a slightly different pattern. God does the whole lot, and we also do this bit. That’s harder to get your head around, but it is essential elementary Christianity. When you exercise faith, it is your faith that you exercise. It’s not as if God dumps a load of faith in you so that you can’t speak of you believing. You must believe. You are exhorted to believe. The texts say that various people believe or disbelieve, and they’re held accountable for it.

Yet at the same time, if people believe.… “By grace you are saved through faith, not of yourselves, lest anyone should boast, and this faith itself is the gift of God, which he has given that we might perform good works.” So although God is behind all of it, yet this, far from reducing us to quiescence, actually becomes biblically an incentive to effort.

When we find these moral exhortations at the end of Paul’s letters, or scattered through Paul’s letters in some cases, we are not to think, “Aha! Now God has done his bit. This is where I contribute my bit.” That’s much too antithetical. That presupposes that God has sort of quit just before the last bit, and you take the ball over the line or put the puck in the net. Choose your own sports metaphor, depending on your country.

No, what it means instead is that if we do persevere all the way to the end, if we do work out our salvation, if we do exercise faith, these things are the signs that God is working in us, and it is the fact that God is working in us in the context of this glorious gospel that offers incentive to us to persevere and press on.

Now it’s within that framework that Paul brings this letter to a close by offering us a number of resolutions Christians must take, but for fear of succumbing to mere moralism, I want that introduction to be absorbed first, because if I were to preach these exhortations abstracted from the rest of the book, you might think Christianity subsists merely in making a few internal resolutions and trying really hard to keep them up, but that’s not it at all.

These things are the outflow of the gospel. That doesn’t make them less mandatory. It provides the reason why God himself works in us and enables us to maintain these high standards. So here we are, then: six resolutions for every Christian to take.

1. Resolve always to rejoice in the Lord.

You can see where I get that in the text. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” The very fact that Paul thinks he has to say it again shows how easy it is to lose this one. We’ve seen already that this book has warned against complaint and moaning. We heard that four or five messages back. Farther on, there will be more comment on the nature of Christian contentment. Here, resolve always to rejoice in the Lord.

Surely, all redeemed men and women will want to rejoice in the Lord. To us has been given forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with our Maker, Redeemer, and Judge, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the communion of saints, the very things that are mentioned at the beginning of chapter 2, and the prospect of glory yet to come, all secured by Christ. Now we actually have to be told to rejoice in him? In one sense, the fact that such a thing has to be told us is a pretty sad mark of how blind we can be.

I sometimes think that about the Lord’s Supper. I know that in the history of the church there is no more disputed set of four words than, “This is my body,” yet at the end of the day, there is only one command in the words of institution: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Imagine Christ goes to the cross. He does so much. All that we receive flows from his work on the cross, and then he thinks he must leave in place a rite to remind his people to say thank you.

Now the Lord’s Supper is more than thank you. I understand that. It is much more than that, but it is not less than that. That’s because Christians can be so concerned about organizing the right committees and the next evangelistic outreach and the series on the Psalms that’s coming up and the workshop on marriage and family and what color the carpet should be, and on and on and on, that what we forget is what Christ said. “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Similarly, we have had exposed to our eyes the spectacular gospel, the one who did not think equality with God was something to be exploited but made himself a nobody and then humbled himself even to the death of the cross, and that is why God has highly exalted him. So rejoice, folks. It is so anomalous and so necessary.

If we have to be reminded to rejoice, it’s because we are so prone to forget the glories and the privileges that are ours in the gospel. Happy is the Christian who can repeat David’s words with understanding in Psalm 40. “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.”

Happy is the Christian who constantly reminds himself that sin is a vile monster that could continue to snare him apart from the grace of God and rejoices in the salvation that is found in Christ. That’s why Peter, writing to suffering Christians, says, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

Or again, Romans 14: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The rejoicing here is not necessarily tied to a particular form of boisterous praise. Visit with Christians around the world and you will find many, many styles of praise. It is reflective, instead, of what is said about the apostles in John 20. “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”

The cure for despondency of many sorts, the cure for a crushed, complaining, or bitter spirit is to see Jesus Christ and rejoice in him. Indeed, Nehemiah 8:10 reminds us, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” You will never be a strong Christian unless you rejoice in the Lord, for it is the joy of the Lord that is your stronghold.

There is something ugly about a form of Christianity that is so morally upright it is whining all the time about the sins of the age. There’s nothing attractive in that. There’s something wonderfully attractive about Christians who can look at the sins of the age and the decline of the culture and the multiplying evils and without, in any sense, softening on moral perspectives still rejoice in the Lord. There’s something wonderfully clean about that. It is putting things in another frame of reference, another set of priorities.

Notice two things. The text insists we rejoice in the Lord. It’s possible to rejoice just because you have a buoyant personality. I don’t want to lay a guilt trip on everybody who has a bit of a glass-half-empty sort of personality. I know there are different personality types. My wife is essentially glass-half-empty. I’m essentially glass-half-full. We get along famously.

We don’t agree about anything, but somehow that glass-half-empty/glass-half-full thing works out in our lives, so I become a little more realistic and my wife becomes not quite so discouraged about things. Then I meet Tim Keller, and he likes to say that for the Christian, optimism is naÔve. We have such a doctrine of sin, optimism is naÔve, but pessimism is atheistic. It acts as if God is not on his throne. God may bring judgment on this country. He may bring revival. Pessimism is atheistic.

So we lay hold of God, and we rejoice in what he has done in Christ Jesus, and our rejoicing is not dependent on circumstances; it’s in the Lord. It’s in the gospel. That is really what is meant in the light of the entire book. We see things through different lenses. The true child of God gazes into the heart of his heavenly Father and delights to be his, delights to worship him, delights to know him, delights to love him, to be loved by him.

The text also answers the questions, “When are we to rejoice in the Lord, and for how long?” The answer is, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” For how long? Always. And it is a command. I am persuaded that God has commanded that we rejoice in him because he well knows a believer who is rejoicing in the Lord cannot be a backbiter, nor a gossip, nor spiritually proud, nor filled with conceit, nor stingy, nor haughty, nor prayerless, nor a chronic complainer, nor endlessly unbelieving, because the joy he has in the Lord is a bulwark against all of these things, a contradiction of all of them.

On the contrary, the believer who practices rejoicing in the Lord discovers so regularly balm in the midst of heartache, serenity in the midst of tears, even rest in the midst of tension and love in the midst of loneliness. When I was a young man at McGill University studying chemistry and mathematics, we had a man come onto the campus leading the McGill Christian Fellowship, leading a Bible study, and began to expound James, chapter 1.

Of course, in those days, in English we all read from the King James Version. I was brought up in an old-fashioned English version, and then in French I was brought up in an old-fashioned French version, Louis Segond. So as I read James 1:2 in those days, it was, “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations.” “Count it all joy, brothers, when you fall into trials of various kinds.”

A few of us made a pact together, thinking, “Well, okay. The Bible says it. We’d better do it.” So we made a pact together that anytime anyone in the pact heard any of the others complaining, we would quote this verse at him. You can guess what happened. The next day, somebody walked onto the campus complaining about a calculus exam at 10:00. “Count it all joy, brethren, when ye fall into divers temptations.” One for me.

Somebody complained about lower finances. “Count it all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into divers temptations.” Another one for me. It became a kind of spiritual one-upmanship. It didn’t really help all that much. But in the mercy of God, in due course, we got past that and began to hear it as it truly is: the voice of God.

We were, to use the language of Paul, listening to the Word of God as the very oracles of God. Do you know what? In that cabal of students, complaints ceased. We really did learn that year to rejoice in the Lord, and we saw more converts in McGill Christian Fellowship that year than in the other three years combined. So resolve always to rejoice in the Lord.

2. Resolve to be known for gentleness.

“Let your gentleness be evident to all.” The word translated gentleness is really a hard one to get across in English. In older translations it’s often forbearance. In a few translations it’s something like selflessness. There’s irony built right into it. To be known for selflessness? It’s really strange. It’s the aggressive type-A personality that wants to be known for something.

You might want to be known for your quick wit or for your ability to preach or for your athletic ability, your charm, your beauty, your “hunkishness.” Who knows what you want to be known for? But to be known for selflessness? Yet that’s what the text says. It’s remarkable. So when we think of making Christian men, for example, Christian men are also to be moved with the compassion of Christ, and Christian men and women are to be known for selflessness.

There is strength in gentleness. Gentleness does not always signal weakness, and we are actually to want to be known in the church for forbearance. We want to be known for it, because the text says, “Let this virtue be evident to all.” We want it to be seen. Now there are some virtues where we’re told to exercise them in private. Your prayer life, for example. There’s a place for public praying, but there is some praying to be done in private. You’re not supposed to be talking about it.

When you give money away, again, you’re not to flaunt your money but, rather, your left hand shouldn’t know what your right hand is doing. There are some Christian virtues that really should be exercised primarily in private, but here the text actually says your gentleness should be evident to all. How many church fights would we have if every member in our churches wanted to be known in the congregation for gentleness?

All this is, of course, is working out some of the ramifications of “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who did not think equality with God was something to be exploited.” The self-sins are tricky things. They are damnably treacherous. A.W. Tozer in The Pursuit of God writes, “To be specific, the self-sins are these: self-righteousness, self-pity, self-confidence, self-sufficiency, self-admiration, self-love, and a host of others like them.

They dwell too deep within us and are too much a part of our natures to come to our attention until the light of God is focused upon them. The grosser manifestations of these sins … egotism, exhibitionism, self-promotion … are strangely tolerated in Christian leaders, even in circles of impeccable orthodoxy. Promoting self under the guise of promoting Christ is currently so common as to excite little notice.” That was written in the 50s. What would Tozer say today?

“Self can live unrebuked at the very altar. It can watch the bleeding victim die and not be in the least affected by what it sees. It can fight for the faith of the Reformers and preach eloquently the creed of salvation by grace and gain strength by its efforts. To tell all the truth, it seems actually to feed upon orthodoxy and is more at home in a Bible conference than in a tavern. Our very state of longing after God may afford it an excellent condition under which to thrive and grow.”

Over against all of that, we are to be known for gentleness, for selflessness, for forbearance. We are to resolve to live that way. God grant that you in your ministries, in your lives, in your families, in your contexts, that all associated with deep commitment to the gospel may see that one of the entailments of the gospel, by the grace of God, is to resolve to live selflessly. That’s why we sing …

May the Word of God dwell richly

In my heart from hour to hour,

So that all may see I triumph

Only through his power.

Paul also gives a reason for this injunction. Do you note it in the second half of verse 5? “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” That expression, “The Lord is near,” could be taken in two ways. It could mean the Lord is near us all the time. He is present with us. After all, doesn’t Jesus himself insist that all authority is given to him in heaven and on earth? “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Supposing now, as I was speaking, somehow the glorified, incarnate Christ were to open the back door and walk down the aisle, and we all somehow knew it was him, and he came and sat down in that chair right there. Which of us would be likely to rush up to him and say, “Boy, I’d like to give you my CV”? The point is the Lord is with us. He is near us all the time. So when we stand next to him, why on earth would we want to boast about anything?

Although that’s one possible way of taking this expression, I suspect it’s the other one that Paul has in mind. “The Lord is near.” That is, the Lord’s return is impending. We will one day give an account to him. In other words, salvation does not end in threescore years and ten. We will stand before the judgment seat of Christ.

That means we must remember the plethora of biblical verses that talk about being ready for the Lord’s return, as you guard against the coming of a thief in the night. How would you like to be living when Christ comes? What would you like to be doing? Now think back over what you have said and done in the last month and think what you would not like to be doing. The Lord is near. When I was a boy, I sang the chorus:

Doing good deeds, sowing good seeds

Leaving life’s follies behind me,

Doing my part, standing each test

That’s how I want the Lord to find me.

Of course, that can be just mere moralism, but it can be profound Christian insight as well, because the Lord is near. Perplexing decisions often become elementary in the light of eternity. We get ourselves so tied up in knots about how to live and what to do and how to choose things, yet if you try to look at things from the perspective of 50 billion years into eternity it adds a certain kind of reality to things.

The Lord is near. That was the example of Christ Jesus. He made himself a nobody not only to save us, not only to fulfill the Father’s plan, but in that Father’s plan to be exalted, to be lifted up. “Therefore, God has highly exalted him and given him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.” There is a sense in which we live, likewise, in the pattern of Christ, expecting to be vindicated on the last day by this same heavenly Father.

3. Resolve not to be anxious about anything.

Verse 6: “Do not be anxious about anything.” That’s what the text says. This just sounds desperately unrealistic, doesn’t it? Indeed, there is a sense in which we are called upon today to worry about more things than any previous generation. If you lived 200 years ago, you were called upon to worry about events in your own village, but even something 20 miles away, you wouldn’t hear about it for at least a day.

Something that happens in the nation’s capital, it could be months before the news came to you, and in terms of international affairs, you might never hear about them. Nowadays, a few shots are fired anywhere in the world and, cheer up; you can see it all tonight on the news at 10:00. You’re called upon to worry about tsunamis that nobody would have heard about 200 years ago. You’re called upon to hear about race riots and genocide, and you’re called upon to hear about poverty and suffering in the Sahel. Nobody would have heard about it here 200 years ago.

So there is a sense in which our age of communication informs us of a lot more things to worry about. Then our mass media means we have an endless plethora of experts telling us about all of the stupid things we’re doing to our children and all of the stupid things we’re eating and all of the stupid ways we’re driving and all of the stupid habits we’ve developed.

Everything is blown up so it’s a crisis, and extravagant words are used. If you have any sort of fretting personality, you really are called upon by our culture, by our media, by our tweets, as well as by our blogs and by Facebook and by the fact that you’ve caught a sneeze and you might be distributing germs.… You are called upon to worry and fret and be anxious.

Then along comes God’s Word and says, “Be anxious about nothing.” Either you smile cynically and say, “You don’t understand; it can’t be done,” or you say, “All right, I’ll resolve not to worry,” and you begin to worry about worrying. There just seems no escape. The text is so plain, yet it just seems so implausible.

After all, aren’t you supposed to worry about being a good mother or father and paying your mortgage and about how you’re going to pay for your kids’ education and about the health of your grandchildren and the new baby just born with Down syndrome and what that’s going to mean for the family? Isn’t it reasonable to worry?

The problem is that we hear the command not to be anxious, and we forget what the rest of the text says. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” In other words, the way to be anxious about nothing is to be prayerful about everything. That’s what the text says. It doesn’t mean there’s no context in which responsible anxiety and focus and concern for all of the churches Paul speaks of is not to be part of what makes us human beings: caring for one another.

Of course. There are responsibilities upon all of us, but instead of being responsibilities we learn by the grace of God to discharge, burdens that we carry in some sort of joyful context, we turn them into the things that give us ulcers, pain, fretting, fuming, bad temper, and sleeplessness, precisely because we have not learned to pray, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High shall rest in the shadow of the Almighty.”

I cannot explain why you face the things you do. Should we not ask with Genesis, “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?” Will you snip Romans 8:28 out of your Bibles or will you follow the advice of the apostle Peter and cast all of your cares on him because he cares for you? Doesn’t Jesus say the same thing? “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much better than they?”

You fearful saints, fresh courage take;

The clouds you so much dread

Are big with mercy and shall break

In blessing on your head.

 

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust him for his grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

 

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flower.

 

Blind unbelief is sure to err

And scan his works in vain;

God is his own interpreter,

And he will make it plain.

In fact, we’re even to go on the offensive. We’re to present our requests before God with thanksgiving, the text says. That’s why Horatius Bonar could write:

I stand upon the mount of God

With sunlight in my soul;

I see the storms in vales beneath,

I hear the thunder’s roll.

 

But I am come with thee, my God,

Beneath these glorious skies;

And to the height on which I stand

No storms, no clouds can rise.

Or with Whittier:

Drop thy still dews of quietness

Till all our strivings cease;

Take from our souls the strain and stress,

And let our ordered lives confess

The beauty of thy peace.

 

Breathe through the heats of our desire

Thy coolness and thy balm;

Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;

Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,

O still small voice of calm.

Let me insist again, this is not escapism. This is not forgetting that there are responsibilities out there, tough decisions to be made in the business world, in the home, in our families, in our churches. It’s not suggesting that there is no place for weeping over the city, as Jesus weeps over the city, for being concerned for the culture. This is not a laissez-faire carelessness. No, it is precisely in the midst of all of these batterings that instead of them turning inward and eating away at us, we learn to take them to God in prayer. These are invitations, commands, to cast our cares on him in prayer.

4. Resolve to think holy thoughts.

In the wake of the prayer comes the peace of verse 7, the peace of God in the wake of this prayer that transcends all understanding. This peace guards our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus, and the mention of our hearts and our minds leads the apostle to think through what else goes into our minds. We think in computer speak of “Garbage in, garbage out.”

That’s why the gospel keeps telling us that where it really takes hold in a person’s life it involves the renewing of the mind. Isn’t that what the apostle says when he writes to the Romans? “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” When I first went to teach at Trinity, there was an old man who taught homiletics there, and he was known for his endless aphorisms, his one-liners.

One of his best was, “You’re not what you think you are, but what you think, you are,” which is what Scripture says. Proverbs declares, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” You’re not what you say, because you can always button up your lips to be a little more acceptable in public. You’re not even what you do, because you can always act in such a way that you prove you’ve been decently socialized and civilized, but you are what you think; therefore, real change must come in terms of what we think.

That’s why the apostle here says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Now I know I was brought up in a different generation, where Christians had all kinds of rules about what we wouldn’t do. Probably too many rules. Dangers of legalism. I understand that.

But do you not find it troubling today what kinds of movies people can see, what kind of garbage they put in their heads without any sense of embarrassment? And they think of themselves as more sophisticated because they can do it. “We’re not like our parents, you understand. They wouldn’t watch this stuff. They’re a bit narrow-minded, you know. We’ve gotten beyond that now. We’re sophisticated.”

To say nothing of the porn that’s available to us on the net today. No pastor who knows the men in his church thinks this is not a problem. This text is not saying, “Just memorize Bible verses, and you’re all right.” It’s painting a huge swath of glorious color. Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is clean, whatever is right. There’s so much good stuff to think about. There’s so much good literature you could read. There are so many good films, and you fill your mind with trash? Resolve to think holy thoughts.

David did not begin by sleeping with the woman next door. He began by lusting after her. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is anything offensive in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” This suggests that we are responsible for what we think, and like computers, garbage in, garbage out.

Think about true things, not the false. Think about noble things, not the base. Think about right things, not wrong things. Think about pure things, not sleazy things. Think about lovely things, not disgusting things. Think about admirable things, not despicable things. That’s what the text says, and we’re responsible for this.

In fact, this extends eventually to entire worldview issues. That’s what Paul has in mind when he writes to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 10:5. “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” He’s not just talking about turning off your computer and not flicking the porn switch. He’s talking about the very frame of reference of all of your life. You take it all captive to Christ. That’s a gospel perspective.

This, in fact, is tied in the text to imitating the apostle. “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” Have you noticed how much the Bible depends on passing things from one generation to another via imitation? Do you ever say to young Christians in the church …? By young I mean immature Christians, regardless of what age they are when they’re converted.

Do you ever say to immature Christians in the church, “Watch me; I’ll show you what it is to be a Christian”? You ought to be doing that. Paul says, “Be imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ.” That’s part of the mandate: to pass things on. That means you who are a little older ought to be looking for young men in the church who have gotten converted recently out of some desperately pagan background.

They’ve never read the Bible. They don’t know the Bible has two testaments, scarcely, and they certainly don’t know anything about family devotions or personal devotions. They don’t know anything about cleaning up their language. They’ve barely been converted. It’s glorious and it’s wonderful, but these are real babes in Christ.

Why don’t you go to someone like that and put your arm around this young fledgling Christian shoulder and say, “Come on, I’m going to teach you to be a Christian man. Come on, my dear sister, I’m going to teach you to be a Christian woman.” Isn’t that mandated in Scripture? Read the Pastoral Epistles.

In churches that are very old, where the average age of the population is something like 60 or 65, then you bring in some young whippersnapper who really does have some evangelistic gift, and gradually you’re beginning to get some people in the church who are 22 and 26, but they’re right out there compared with these senior saints who are themselves on quite a different planet.

How do you bring these two groups together? You can split a church over that as fast as anything. Do you know what you do? You don’t enter the music war. You make sure that all of the senior saints are linked up to responsibility for junior saints, and you get the junior saints to do physical things and other things that can help out the senior saints.

It’s hard for some of them to cut the grass now. Why don’t you do it? You’re a brother in Christ, for goodness’ sake. Get off your duff and cut the guy’s grass. Meanwhile, he’ll teach you to pray. That’s how the church works. You rarely have a lot of culture wars in the church when you have people mentoring each other in that sort of fashion. Wasn’t that already brought up in this book? Now Paul again and again and again.… He says twice, for example, in Colossians, repeatedly in the Pastoral Epistles.… He says, “Imitate me, even as I also imitate Christ.”

There are many things in the Christian life that are caught by imitation, including what you think, because what you think is so very largely determined by what you read or by what you watch or by what you view or by how you talk or by what values you have in terms of the input into your mind. That’s why Paul can say, “Think holy thoughts.” “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.” That’s how you will discipline yourself to think holy thoughts. “And the God of peace will be with you.”

5. Resolve to learn the secret of contentment.

Verses 10–13: “I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this …”

That’s a good translation. It’s not “all things.” The context shows that the “all things” are this. “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Verse 13 is sometimes taken as a blank check ripped out of its context. “I can become a nuclear physicist who will sort out the problem of unified field theory, because, after all, the text says I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” No, no, no. The context is I can live in any context and be truly and genuinely content because Christ gives me strength.

Now how does this work out? You cannot learn contentment merely by living in difficult places. You cannot learn contentment merely by living in happy places. You learn contentment by living in both places and discounting your joy as being dependent on either place. Let me explain that. It is very important. When I was a young man in this country, I became a friend of Steven Bell. Some of you will know the name.

He had an older brother called George Bell. There were four brothers. Of course, George Bell had a father called George Bell. George Bell Senior, when I knew him, was a rather old man who was a minister in Fenelon Falls. George Bell was a Canadian Baptist missionary to China. He was there up-country near the Manchurian border for years and years. He didn’t come home for years and years.

Then in World War II, he and his family were interred by the Japanese in the Second World War, and they stayed on in China after the war. They suffered quite a bit in the camps, but after the briefest of respite, they returned to China until they were thrown out. They were one of the last Canadian Baptists to be turfed out of China under Mao Zedong.

By this time, George Bell Senior was something of a legend, so when he returned back, there were a lot of churches that were opening their doors to him and saying, “We’d like you to minister in our church. We’re multi-staff. You could be our minister of missions,” or “With all of your experience, I’m sure you could evangelize here. We have a lot of international students in our place,” or whatever. There were a lot of pressures on him to accept this or that or the other.

He calmly and carefully looked around and took a job as a day laborer on the Canadian Pacific Railway. He did that for two years. Do you know why? I asked him why. It happened before I got to know him, but I started finding out pieces of his story, and I asked him why. He said, “Because I had lived for such a long time in a context where there was so much poverty and hurt that if I came back into a Canadian middle-class church in 1951, I’d be whipping the people all the time.

I’d be asking what’s the matter with them. They have so much, and they’re so discontent. I have learned to be content when I’m poor. I have not learned to be content when I have a lot.” So he had to learn that, he thought, and worked, therefore, as a worker on the Canadian Pacific Railway until he learned what it was to be content regardless of circumstances.

You see, there are some people who are miserably discontent unless they’re surrounded with luxury, but there are a lot of Christians who begin to serve somewhere. They serve in some really difficult part of the world, and do you know the toughest part of their job? It’s not the culture shock when they go to Pago Pago or someplace. It’s the reverse culture shock when they come home.

They come home and they think, “All these stupid rich Christians. So many things they have. They’re playing around all the time, frittering away their money. Why don’t they learn a little about self-sacrifice? I could show them what it’s like to work in an AIDS center or a leprosy center in North Africa. What are they doing here? I can’t stand this. I’m not really content unless I’m suffering.”

That’s not what Paul says. Paul says, “I have learned to be content when I have plenty, and I have learned to be content when I have nothing.” What does that mean? That means his contentedness is not finally a function of his life circumstances. It means that his contentedness is in Christ. It’s not finally dependent on how smoothly things are going.

So he says, “I’m very grateful for the supplies you’ve sent down, and I want to thank you for them.” Then he immediately says, “But this is not that kind of missionary prayer letter where I thank you for things in order that you send me even more things.” He said, “Even there, I have learned to be content, and that is independent of circumstances. My God makes all of this possible. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, what this means is that we must develop such a contentedness in the gospel, in Christ Jesus, in all that we have because of him, that the circumstances of life in which we are to be engaged, where we are to serve, are not the things that snare us so they generate our malcontent.

6. Resolve to grow in the grace of gratitude and courtesy.

Verses 14 to the end. He does commend them for supplying his needs, but he is aware that even in saying that, he could, in fact, be giving them a kind of guilt trip, suggesting that they quickly send some more. Paul actually means what he says here. It’s astonishing.

He says, “I’m so glad you’ve sent so much to meet my needs. You’re the only church in Macedonia that really did this. Do you know the reason why I am especially glad? Because before God, that chalks up something wonderful in your account.” After all, he’s the sort of man who has learned to live with plenty or with not. If they hadn’t sent anything, he’d still be content. It would have slowed down the work a wee bit, but it wouldn’t have frustrated him half to death.

Verse 17: “Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account.” The more you give away, the more is credited to your account. That’s the divine mathematics. Give and give and give, and more is credited to your account. “I really want a lot to be credited to your account.” Now on the minds and lips of some unscrupulous people, that’s sheer manipulation. You can find some televangelists using exactly that kind of argument.

“What I really want for you is to write me a huge check, because I want much to be credited to your account.” It can be deeply manipulative, but for the apostle Paul it’s not manipulative in the slightest, because he has learned the kind of contentment that does not depend on receiving things. He really does have the mind of Christ, because the physical goods are not really all that important, not nearly as important as what they signify about where the heart is.

Within that framework, then, he pours out thanks upon them with wonderful language. “The gifts you sent are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. You haven’t just given it to me, Paul; you’ve given it to God himself. This is wonderful. I want you to know that God is no one’s debtor. My God will meet all your needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”

Even there, the language is wonderful. Paul returns to this phrase, “Riches in glory in Christ Jesus,” several times in the course of his letters, and in every single case, what he means is gospel blessings. The “riches in glory in Christ Jesus” are all of the things Christ has secured. “My God will supply all of your needs, all of the gospel blessings, all of the things that flow from all that has been secured by Christ on the cross.”

Do you see what Paul has done here? Some of us come from backgrounds where we’re suspicious of manipulative preachers. There are some manipulative preachers who are so busy praising people for everything that, at the end of the day, it does sound a wee bit artificial. Some people just have the gift of overextended thanksgiving. I don’t know what to call it.

When I was at Cambridge, I studied for quite a while with Professor C.F.D. Moule. Charlie Moule had this gift, and for him it was just natural, but for the rest of us it was slightly embarrassing. We’d have him around to our house one of the years I was back there, long after the PhD, and he’d come around and play with the children. We didn’t have a lot of money. We had a macaroni dinner or something.

He would say, “Mrs. Carson, this is matchless macaroni. This is an exquisite repast. I’m so grateful for all the work you put in,” and on and on and on. You’d think, “Good grief.” From somebody else I would think, “This guy is just trying to get something from me,” but I knew him well enough that that’s just the way he talked all the time.

There are some pastors who talk like that too, and you think, “Good grief. Why don’t you come down to earth just a wee bit and just say thank you? It’s enough.” Then there are other pastors in another tradition where they think, “These gifts really come from God. They don’t come from you. Proverbs warns against flatterers. I’m not going to be a flatterer. ‘We thank you, heavenly Father, for all the things you’ve given.’ Hey, I said grace. I don’t need to thank the hostess. They came from God, not from her.”

Now they would never reason it quite that way, but at the end of the day, you discover that in that sort of church there’s not the oil of gratitude. There’s not the smoothness of encouragement, because you don’t want to puff anybody up. You don’t want to make them think they’re really important. You mustn’t say thanks to the musicians, for goodness’ sake! It could go to their heads. They could really be corrupted by this. Don’t say thank you. Whatever you do, don’t say thank you. Just thank God, and teach them some humility.

When you read Paul’s letters carefully, he follows neither track. What he often does is thanks God before them for them, and he talks about the gift they’ve given, not in such a way as to manipulate them by phony praise but by saying, “I’m so grateful. It’s a fragrant offering, but I recognize it’s really a sacrifice to Christ, and Christ will bless you for it.” He has simultaneously thanked them and taught them that, at the end of the day, if they have given anything (to use the language of chapter 2:12–13 again), it’s God working in them both to will and to do of his good pleasure.

He hasn’t just said, “I’m not going to thank you because it’s God doing it in you.” Nor has he showered them with praise. “I really do thank you. This has been fantastic.” Somehow he has melded the two together, because his theology of the providence and sovereignty of God and all of the blessings that flow out of Christ, all of the riches we have in God in Christ Jesus, the riches of glory by Christ Jesus.… That so much shapes his theology (this is gospel shaping) that at the end of the day he knows how to display the grace of Christian courtesy and encouragement.

That’s huge, because it reflects not only an understanding of the cross, how we’re dependent upon all of the riches of God in glory in Christ Jesus, but it also displays an understanding of God’s sovereignty and how it works out and how that sovereignty, as we tried to say in the opening remarks about balance, must work out in terms of learning from God’s sovereignty and completeness in his work to devotion, obedience, duty, responsibility.

The two are not to be set over against each other. They are precisely enjoined. It’s because God is this kind of God that we are enjoined to give and then to be grateful. Brothers and sisters in Christ, resolve to learn the secret of contentment, and then resolve to grow in the grace of gratitude, courtesy, and encouragement. All of these things, I insist, are not independent virtues, the kinds of moralisms that are tacked on after a person has become a Christian. They are part of what the gospel looks like. Let us pray.

So make us gospel people, we beg of you, with growing understanding of the richness and glory of your grace in the gospel, with renewed commitment to proclaim this gospel robustly, to bear witness to it, to share its supreme theme, Christ and Christ crucified, with those around us, to learn afresh how to live out this gospel so that all of life is cross-stamped, cross-shaped. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.”

Stir our hearts and minds, we beg of you, to follow this Master in life, in death, in easy times, in dark times, in fruitfulness, in fruitlessness, still to be content, to glory in you, to think holy thoughts, to learn not to fret in anxious anxiety, to grow in prayer, to rejoice in all that we have received, and still to encourage one another along the way in the grace of courtesy and edification. We beg these mercies of you, Lord God.

Purify the church, and in purifying the church, we beg of you, raise up afresh a new generation to stand and proclaim the gospel wisely, passionately, humbly, becoming known for gentleness. While blessing others in other parts of the world, we beg of you, do not pass us by, but in this part of the world too, will you not send forth your Spirit and bring repentance and renewal, refreshment, again in the church and then throughout the land?

Your arm is not shortened that it cannot save. You are the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You are the same God today. Have mercy upon us, we beg of you. Enable us by your Spirit to be conformed to the likeness of your dear Son, in whose name we pray, amen.