Making Excellent Choices
Topic: Expository Passage: Philippians 1:9–11
A number of years ago I read a devotional book by D. A. Carson entitled, A Call to Spiritual Reformation. Carson’s basic purpose is to teach us how to pray for each other with God’s priorities by examining how Paul’s prayed for the churches in his epistles.
It was a wonderful read, because Carson pushed me into some of the most personal, rich passages in Paul’s letters. I came away with a far better understanding of what godliness is, and I learned a lot about how I should pray for myself and for others. This morning, we get to study one of these prayer reports in Philippians 1:9–11.
This passage is pure gold, because it articulates a couple of Paul’s fundamental burdens for his friends at Philippi and by extension a couple of God’s fundamental burdens for us at Life Point. It also opens the door to talk about some very practical issues of godliness that we all frequently face. So I hope you will be especially attentive, because there is so much to learn from this text. My outline is fairly simply. There are 2 requests in v. 9. There are 2 purposes for the requests in v. 10. And finally, there are 2 results in v. 11 that come as the requests are fulfilled. Let’s begin in v. 9 with the 2 requests.
I. 2 Requests (v. 9)
A Growing Love: Paul begins by praying that the Philippians “love may abound still more and more.” It’s not surprising that this is a priority. God is love, and God’s greatest commands are that we would love him and love each other. Love is central to the Christian life.
And in this particular context, Paul is especially concerned that the Philippians love each other. I say this because Paul just complimented the Philippians in 5, 7 for the love they had shown him. Now he follow by praying that their love would “abound still more and more.”
As well, Paul will go on (e.g., 1:27; 2:1–4) to challenge the Philippians several times about their need grow in love for each other. So if Paul was burdened about their need to love each other, it only makes sense that he would pray about that burden.
If they were going to honor the Lord, advance the gospel, and support each other well in the Christian race, they had to love each other and lean on each other.
The same is true of us. The Christian life is too hard for you to do it on your own. And the Great Commission is far beyond any of our capabilities. We need each other, and we need to approach the fellowship of the church with a selfless, sacrificial
When you walk in this building, you need to have an intentional vision for people, where you want to get to know them, see their needs, and meet their needs. As we do so, we will support each other well, we will manifest the transforming power of the gospel, and we will be effective witnesses for the gospel. We must strive to see our love abound more and more.
Of course the point of our text is that we should pray to this end. Do you ever wonder how you can pray well for your brothers and sisters, or how you can pray well for this church? Paul gives you a great prayer request right here. Pray that Christian love “may abound still more and more.” So the first request is for a growing love. The second request is for…
A Discerning Mind: This request and the fruit of the request, which Paul develops in v. 10, is so important and so practical to the Christian life.
First Paul prayed for a growing knowledge. The normal Greek word for knowledge is gnōsis, but Paul uses the emphatic form epignō Gordon Fee states, “Its primary sense is not so much ‘knowledge about’ something, but rather the kind of ‘full,’ or ‘innate,’ knowing that comes from experience or personal relationship.” As such, Paul is not simply praying that the Philippians would know more facts; rather, he prayed that they would develop deep and personal knowledge of a person—specifically, Christ.
Paul expands on this knowledge in 3:8–10. Paul says that Christian knowledge is centered on Christ in the gospel. This is because the only way that we can see ourselves, spiritual growth, eternity, and life in general correctly is if look at them through the lens of the gospel. I belong to Christ, I am a new creature in Christ, and someday I will be with Christ in eternity.
Christ changes everything, so that Paul can even say in 3:10 that he wants to know “the fellowship of His suffering.” That’s not normal, but Paul understood that sharing in Christ’s suffering creates a unique knowledge of the Savior and a unique fellowship with him. And again, that knowledge is foundational to all of life. You cannot see the world accurately apart from a deep knowledge of Christ, so we should long to know Christ above all else.
I love Paul’s prayer for this knowledge in Ephesians 3:17–19. He prays “That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
We need to pray that God would show us more and more of Christ, and we need to dig into his Word with a passion to know the Savior.
And then notice that when we see the world through this knowledge of Christ in the gospel, we can grow “all discernment.” Fee says that this word was commonly used for “moral understanding based on experience.” So it’s not just that you know a lot of rules or facts. You’ve experienced life, and you know how to apply what you know to the real questions of life.
It’s what we might also call wisdom. In fact, the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek translation of the OT) uses this term frequently as a synonym for wisdom. So Paul prays that the knowledge of Christ would combine with deep moral insight and wisdom allowing us to discern what is good and what is not.
We have to park here for a while, because this is so vital to Christian living and so lacking in our age. Yet sadly many Christians have a twisted and immature understanding of godliness.
Essentially, they would say that every issue of godliness falls in one of two circles. I’ll call the first circle, “The Circle of Prohibition.” This circle includes everything the Bible explicitly tells me I cannot do or must do. There’s no debate about these things. God said, “Do not steal.” “Do not commit adultery.” “Do not lie.”
But the fact is that there are massive areas of life about which the Bible does not explicitly tell us what to do. It never tells you what T.V. shows to watch, how much time you should spend watching T.V., and many other things. So many Christians shove all of this into a huge circle, which I will call “The Circle of Permissibility.” And they assume that God is happy with whatever you decide about anything in this circle.
So for example, if you challenge an immature teenager regarding whether or not he should watch a particular movie, spend so much time playing video games, or touch his girlfriend in a particular area, there is a predictable reply. “Show me in the Bible where God says I can’t do this.” What’s the assumption? If it’s not in the circle of prohibition, it is automatically permissible.
But the problem with this model is that it ignores all sorts of biblical principles and commands that are designed to help us make wise choices, and God commands us to be discerning because not all choices are equal.
For example, the Bible doesn’t give a model budget, but it has a lot to say about financial priorities. It doesn’t give you a weekly schedule, but it says a lot about how you should spend your time. It doesn’t tell you what entertainment to enjoy, but it commands us “to make no provision for the flesh.” To say that God doesn’t really care is absurd.
Now, I should add that many people are very uncomfortable with a large circle of permissibility. They want clarity. As well, when there’s a lot of gray area, immature sinners usually run toward sin, not holiness. So many people respond by moving all sorts of things into the circle of prohibition even when the Scriptures are not explicit.
They make their entertainment standard the Bible standard. They declare what modest dress is for all people everywhere. They claim, “God says you must wear this to church, and you must spend your money this way. You may eat at this restaurant but not that one.” On and on it goes.
I want to be clear that we should help each other develop godly and wise convictions. We should feel free to push other toward better convictions. But we have to do so with love and humility. The moment I hold up my personal conviction as God’s absolute standard, it’s a problem. That’s what the Pharisees did, and Jesus did not have kind things to say about their legalism.
Therefore, we need to add a third circle, which I’m going to call, “The Circle of Excellence.” Notice that v. 10, says the goal of discernment is, “That you may approve...” What does that imply? First, it’s not always obvious what is right and wrong. Sometimes it takes discernment. Second, the fact that some things are excellent means that other things are not. God has an opinion about many issues beyond just the prohibitions of Scripture. We are responsible to discern what is excellent.
But determining what is excellent is usually not easy. For example, if you are going to make the best use of your time, you’ve got to balance everything the Bible says about Bible study and prayer, involvement in the church, family obligations, work obligations, time with extended family, and rest. That’s a lot to balance, and it takes discernment. And God expects you to practice this kind of discernment with your budget, the media you consume, what you wear, relationships, etc.
And understand that developing this kind of wisdom takes a lifetime of practice. If you want to make excellent choices, then you need to spend a lifetime getting to know God and what he loves and hates. You need to learn how to apply biblical principles to each question. You need to listen to godly counsel and be open to seeing your blind spots.
And in this context, I especially want to emphasize that it requires prayer. You need to pray for the knowledge of Christ, because again you can only discern what is excellent if you look at life through a gospel lens. And then you need to pray for discernment or wisdom.
And finally understand that this discernment is essential to godliness. God cares about how you apply his Word. And what you do in this circle is vital to your own spiritual health and to your impact on those around you. So work hard at developing and practicing discernment, and then pray for yourself and for your brothers that God would grow the knowledge of Christ and spiritual discernment. So v. 9 offers 2 requests. Then notice in v. 10…
II. 2 Purposes (v. 10)
Excellent Choices: “The things that are excellent” refers to the “best things.” So Paul is describing the fruit of discernment. We have ability to look at a list of principles or options and to discern which is most important in a given situation and what choice would best please the Lord.
This is important because sometimes we don’t simply have to choose between something good and something bad. Sometimes we have 2 or more good options, and we have to choose which is the best one.
For example, suppose I have to choose between spending time with Heidi or visiting a shut in. Both options are good, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are equal. If I have been working long days and Heidi is worn down, I may be neglecting my responsibilities as a husband if I go out visiting. On the flip side, if we have had plenty of down time recently, and this member really discouraged, going visiting would be more important. The challenge is that I have to discern what is most important.
I believe this is where many Christians fail. In fact, I believe that when we stand before the Lord at the judgment, most of our loss will not be because we failed in the circle of prohibition. It will be because we failed to do what is best and most important. It won’t be that we spent our money on pornography but that we didn’t invest in the best things. It won’t be that we spent our time in a nightclub but that we wasted our time when we could have invested in people. It won’t be that we committed adultery but that we stalled in the pursuit of holiness, because we constantly fed the flesh with worldly entertainment.
So Christian, pursue what is excellent. Get to know God in his Word, because the only way you will be good at discerning what he loves and hates is if you know him. For example, I’m a lot better at buying Heidi gifts today than I was when we first met, because I know her tastes. I can look at a shirt, and I just know if Heidi would like it or not. It’s the same with discernment. Get to know God so you have a sense of what he values.
Listen to godly counsel. Godly people have spent countless hours studying and experimenting with what is wise. There are people in this room who have lots of perspective on what you facing. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Ask.
And then pray for discernment, because your sanctification depends on growing and practicing discernment. The second result is…
Sincerity and Edification (read): Notice that this result is framed by the fact that one day we will stand before the Lord and give account of our lives. God will judge both our motives (i.e., our sincerity) and our conduct (i.e., whether or not we have offended).
God will judge all of our motives and conduct, but in this context where Paul just prayed for abounding love among believers, Paul is specifically saying that Christ will judge us based on our love and care for each other.
The word for “sincere” refers to pure motives. It describes someone who doesn’t just do the right thing; he does the right thing for the right reasons. Specifically, in light of the first request in v. 9, we conduct ourselves based on love for our brothers. We don’t just consider on what’s good for me; we consider what is good for others, because we care about them and we want to see them thrive.
And if we have this love, it will lead to conduct that is “without offense.” A lot of translations use the word “blameless” here, but in light of the emphasis on love in this context, the NKJV nails it by saying “without offense.” As well the only other place Paul uses this term is in 1 Corinthians 10:32. In that context Paul is also talking about the need to pursue unity by deferring to others, and he commands the church, “Give no offense either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God.”
In both places the term refers to conduct which does not offend or hurt other people; rather, because we love people we are careful to only do that which edifies or builds. This is so important, because we don’t live on an island. Your choices affect others.
Just because you can do something with a clean conscience doesn’t mean it is best if it negatively affects a brother. For example, just because a movie doesn’t arouse your flesh doesn’t mean it doesn’t arouse someone else’s. And setting a stumblingblock in the way of brother is terribly selfish.
It’s fascinating that Paul highlights this concern here, because it is a vital aspect of discernment that we often don’t consider. Have you ever heard a Christian huff, “It doesn’t bother me,” as if that’s all that matters? But considering how important love, unity, and mutual edification are to godliness, you can’t truly “approve the things that are excellent” if you don’t consider what will edify others and promote unity among believers.
Therefore, this second purpose challenges us that that a vital result of fulfilling the 2 requests in v. 9 for love and discernment is that we will consider the effects of our decisions on others. As a pastor who watches people a lot and cares deeply about the mutual edification of Life Point, I want to really challenge you to take this to heart. Love this body well by making it a priority in your pursuit of excellent choices. So in sum, Paul has noted 2 requests. He prays for abounding love and discerning minds, so that we will make excellent choices and that edify the body. He closes in v. 11 with…
III. 2 Results (v. 11): As God does these works in us, the first result is that we will…
Filled with Righteousness: Notice that v. 11 builds off of the end of v. 10. Someday we will stand before the Lord. And if we have been marked by love and discernment we will be, “filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ.”
Notice that it won’t be because we were so wonderful and smart. In fact, in chapter 3 Paul is going to compare his manmade pursuit of righteousness under the law to a trash pile. No truly righteous fruit only comes in the power of Christ.
But if Christ lives in our hearts, by his grace, we can grow love and discernment. We can make excellent choices that edify others. And we can have hope that someday we will stand before the Lord “filled with the fruits of righteousness.”
This is such an important encouragement because Paul has held up a high standard in this text. I’ve seen Christians who are so fearful of missing what is excellent that they never make a choice. But God doesn’t want us to be dominated by fear; he wants us to live with confidence. By God’s grace, you can be filled with the fruits of righteousness.
So Christian, pray, work hard, make good choices, and anticipate the day you will stand before the Lord with abundant fruit. And because it’s all by the grace of God, notice that the 2nd result is that we will…
Glorify the Lord: There won’t be any proud people in heaven. When we stand before the Savior one day with our gift of righteous deeds, we will appreciate our sin and his magnificent grace far beyond what we can comprehend today. We won’t be sticking our chests out or pointing attention to ourselves.
No, we will know that our righteousness is all grace, and we will give humble thanks that we had the privilege to glorify him by our deeds. What a blessing that we can glorify the Lord by loving each other and making excellent choices.
So Christian, don’t live an aimless Christian life. See Christ in all his beauty and glory. See the fellow believers all around you for whom Christ died and love them like Christ. And then live with a razor sharp focus on pursuing what is excellent—that which reflects God’s righteousness and that which will edify your brothers. And then pray that God would do this work in your heart and in all our hearts, because the power is not in us; it is only in the grace of God.