Dear saints in Christ Jesus,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
You are a work in progress. You are the Lord’s work in progress. In the opening verses of St. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, he reassures us, “I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). It is a comfort to know that even though Jesus Christ, your Saviour, has already completed everything necessary for your salvation when He gave His holy, divine life for you on the cross, He still has more to give.
Last week we meditated on verses from the first chapter of this epistle, which emphasized that the Lord is bringing us to completion through our suffering. St. Paul saw it in his own suffering in prison and facing the possibility of execution. And he pointed out to the Christians in Philippi and to us, that through the sufferings which we endure Christ is conforming our life to His own. We share in His sufferings which took Him to the cross, in order that we might have proof that we are united to Him and also fully anticipate sharing in His glory when He comes again.
In the second chapter of the epistle, which is the focus of our meditation today, St. Paul tells us that the Lord is bringing to completion His work in us through humiliation. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:5-8).
Last week I talked a little bit about the Theology of Glory and the Theology of the Cross. Martin Luther highlighted this distinction in the Heidelburg Disputation. The Theology of Glory focuses on praise and honour to the point that it deceives itself and cannot see God on the cross or present with the sufferings of man. The Theology of the Cross focuses on God being on that instrument of humiliation and torture for our salvation. It can then honestly see that our salvation comes through the suffering and death of Jesus, who is not separated from us in our sufferings, but sharing them with us.
Luther took up another aspect of this vital teaching in his writing on Two Kinds of Righteousness, and he based it on verses from today’s Epistle Reading: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (2:5-6). Luther explains for us that there are two kinds of righteousness. One is the righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the righteousness that saves us. He is perfectly holy, sinless, without blemish. He is perfectly obedient to the heavenly Father. And in this perfect righteousness, the Son perfectly submitted Himself to the Father’s will and became for us, not just a man, but a servant. He served us in His humility, perfectly, righteously, to the point of His humiliating death upon the cross.
He is like neither of the two sons in today's Gospel Reading (Matthew 21:28-32). He did not tell His heavenly Father, “'I will not,' but afterward changed His mind and went.” Neither did he answer, “'I go sir,' but did not go.” Rather, as expressed in the hymn 'A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth' (LSB 348): “Yes, Father, yes, most willingly I'll bear what You command me. My will conforms to Your decree, I'll do what You have asked Me.” And in 'Dear Christians, one and All, Rejoice' (LSB 556): “The Son obeyed His Father's will, Was born of virgin mother; And God's good pleasure to fulfill He came to be my brother. His royal pow'r disguised He bore; A servant's form, like mine, He wore To lead the devil captive.”
This is the only righteousness that can save us from our sins. For any good that is in us, any humility, any obedience, is crooked and bent and stained with sins of pride, arrogance, and self-centred corruption. Our righteousness must come from Christ Jesus, the Righteous One, or we cannot be declared righteous before God. But thanks be to God that through faith, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and by this alone we are saved.
In addition to this righteousness of Christ that alone can save us, there is a second kind or righteousness. This is the righteousness that truly comes forth from a Christian himself, although it does not originate in him. We truly do righteous works when our sinful nature is overcome and we serve our neighbours in humility, as Christ served us by becoming a servant and the ransom for many.
This righteousness exhibits a meekness before God, not claiming anything of itself, and also a meekness before man when we make no claims before our neighbour, but do the kind of things that St. Paul outlines to us in this epistle: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (2:3-4).
This righteousness which we work out in our lives before God and man is the result of the imputation of the first kind of righteousness that Christ worked on our behalf. For Paul bases all of his exhortations to a holy life on the fact that the Holy One has condescended in order to serve us the free gift of salvation. Our righteous actions do not arise from our own fallen, sinful nature, but from the Christ, whose divine nature has taken our nature into Himself to be the source of our holiness and rightness.
That is why St. Paul makes it clear that this is the mind of Christ, not the mind of the old Adam in us: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (2:5), and then he goes on to show how Christ lived this out, not merely as an example, but because it is who He is. Paul’s desire, and that of our Lord, is that we might become who we are not of ourselves, but in Christ, as a working out of our union with Him.
To be sure, we need to be told to humble ourselves, to consider the needs of others, to serve one another, even sacrifice ourselves for others. But it would never be effective just as a set of instructions. We know all too well that we resist being told what to do, like the two sons in the Gospel Reading. So St. Paul rightly does not neglect to tell us what Christ has done, for only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness for us, will that second kind of righteousness develop in our lives.
Every time you hear the good, glad news of the Gospel, and meditate on the extent to which Christ humbled Himself to serve you, as the lowest servant of all; every time that you hear how He has given His righteousness to an undeserving self-centred sinner like you, His righteousness works in you the righteousness that not only pleases your loving heavenly Father, but also serves your neighbour and gives to him a picture of the love of God for all in the blessed Saviour.
Dear saints of God in Christ Jesus, our comfort does not rest in the knowledge that we have been humiliated or that we are really good at serving others, or in any form that our righteous deeds might take. Our comfort is in the righteousness of Christ, which God has freely given you through faith. By believing that the Righteous One has humbled Himself to serve you, His perfect righteousness is yours. Through the blessed grace of Holy Baptism, the righteousness of Christ covers you. In partaking of the holy body and blood of your Saviour, that righteousness by which He humbled Himself to the point of death on the cross, is poured into you to find its expression in your own humility to serve others.
While the righteousness of Christ is perfect and complete in every way from eternity, the second kind of righteousness which is expressed in your life is a work in progress. That is why St. Paul reminds us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12). The fear is that we reject the righteousness of Christ and look to our own. If we think that we are righteous enough on our own, then our salvation is lost, for it is not the perfect righteousness that the law of God demands. Or, if we forget the righteousness of Christ and look only to our own righteous deeds we are apt to fall into despair, knowing that we have failed and faltered so many times.
Our comfort is that our salvation is entirely in the first kind of righteousness, the righteousness of Christ. With fear and trembling we cling to that righteousness alone. And we acknowledge with thankful hearts that we continue to be a work in progress. For on the basis of the righteousness of Christ, which is ours by faith, God continues to work in us and will until the Day of Christ.
The Holy Spirit is at work in us through the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (2:13). On this basis do we live the life of Christ, both before God our Father and our fellow man. “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (2:14-16), the Gospel, the good news of all that the almighty, eternal, Son of God has done for you through His humiliation in taking on the form of a servant to the point of death on the cross; and all that He continues to work in you through His exaltation and by the authority that has been given to Him. You see, He has more to give.
It was for your salvation that “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:8-11). In anticipation of the day when that universal confession is made by all, you can know for certain that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.”
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.