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God's Sovereignty and the Joy of the Lord

A leading theme of Philippians is joy. “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord” (Phil. 3:1. See also 4:4). In 3:1-11, the cross and the resurrection of Jesus has made it possible for Paul to experience joy in three areas of his redemption: self-denial, justification, and sanctification. 

He finds joy in the denial of his linage, nationality, pedigree, education, and social status in order that he might embrace Christ. His practice of Judaism could only produce a “blameless” life (Phil. 3:6; a life in which no man can point the finger at you and find fault), while knowing “Christ Jesus my Lord” (v. 8) has produced a righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 

He has joy in justification for he recognizes that despite his unfitness for heaven due to his sin, the Lord has fulfilled the requirements of the Law, including its curse; all of which is credited to Paul on the basis of faith, which itself is a gift of God (Phil. 3:9). 

And he has joy in sanctification. For he acknowledges that just as he is wretched before God in his justification, dependent upon him for grace, so also he is wretched before God in his sanctification, dependent also upon him for grace. So it is not difficult for Paul to live the Christian life. Nay, it is impossible! Just as it is impossible to cause one’s own spiritual rebirth, it is impossible to cause one’s own sanctification leading to holiness. It is all by grace. Where I am going to get the strength to overcome sin, to live fully for Christ, to find the courage for evangelism? The answer is not to resolve to try harder.  To do so is to set up one’s own competition and no one who is in a ring fighting an opponent has time for joy. It the knowledge that the Lord has accomplished our justification, and is sovereignly accomplishing even our sanctification, that prompts our joy in him. 

In what specific context does Paul know the joy of the Lord? In suffering (Phil. 3:10)!  But if all Paul knows is the “fellowship of his suffering,” then there is no basis for joy. For without the historical fact of the resurrection we are of all men most to be pitied. Rather it is only in light of the power of the resurrection that the fellowship of his sufferings is not merely bearable, but a springboard for joy. The knowledge that the Lord is in control of human history helps us say that “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (1 Cor. 4:17).


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