Rev. Terpstra is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of South Holland, Illinois.
Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: …that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.
The apostle Paul had a great concern and desire for the believers in the church at Philippi. That was that their conversation, their manner of conduct, their walk of life, be worthy of the gospel of Christ. He did not want them in any way and to any degree to have a conduct that was unbecoming the gospel of Christ, a walk of life that did not harmonize with the Person and the truth they had received and believed, a behavior that would bring shame to Christ’s name.
“No,” he says, “whether I get out of prison and come to you, or whether I cannot be with you because of my bonds and can only hear of your affairs, this one thing I want you to have and call you to have, a conversation that becomes the gospel of Christ.” And he defines what that worthy walk is, one in which they are standing fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.
What the Spirit said to the saints in that church at that time is what He says to us as believers and as churches today. Each of us as individual believers must have a walk of life that befits the gospel we have heard and by which we have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ and been saved. And we as a denomination of churches collectively must have a walk worthy of the gospel of Christ. And for us too, whether as individuals or as churches, that conduct is that we stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.
This charge of the Word of God is no option for us; it is mandatory. It requires our faithful commitment and our diligent obedience. And it is especially pressing given the ecclesiastical climate in which we find ourselves. This Word of God is more urgent now than when it was first given
The Spirit used a distinctive word for conversation in this verse, a word which has important implications for an understanding of the text and the calling contained in it. It is not the usual word for manner of living in the New Testament but a word that is found only here and in Acts 23:1. Literally it means “to behave as a citizen” or “to live as one who belongs to a city.” It is a derivative of the Greek word for city, polis.
It ought to be understood that the idea of this word must be taken spiritually here. The Spirit is not instructing the saints to live as good citizens of the city of Philippi or of the empire of Rome, though of course as Christians they must also do that. Rather is the Spirit instructing the saints with regard to their life in the spiritual city of God, which is the church of Jesus Christ.
In the Old Testament the people of God lived in the spiritual realm of God in the earthly land of Canaan with its center in the city of Jerusalem. That was the church of Christ, beautifully described, for example, inPsalm 48. In the New Testament all believers belong to the spiritual and heavenly city of God called the new Jerusalem (Ga1.4:26; Heb.12:22). Of this city God is the Founder; over this spiritual community God is King, ruling in men’s hearts through His Son Jesus Christ and by His Spirit. In this city law and order is maintained by submission and obedience to His infallible Word, which every citizen is bound to do, and has been saved to do. This city is the true political realm to which we belong as saved sinners.
It is for this reason that the text connects our conversation with the gospel of Christ. Not only is it the case that in the gospel of Christ the truth concerning this spiritual city of God in all of its aspects is set forth; but it is also the case that through the gospel of Christ we are brought into the city of God. The gospel is the power that delivers us sinners from the city of darkness and our evil citizenship in it and translates us into the holy realm and godly citizenship of God’s city.
And thus it is that our text exhorts us to have a life in the city of God which becomes the gospel of Christ: “Only let….” We are to have a conduct that is worthy of what the gospel of Christ has taught us and has made us. We are to have a citizen life which is in harmony with what is revealed in the scriptures. Just as the citizens of an earthly city are to uphold the reputation of their city by living in harmony with its laws, so must we who belong to the city of God have a life that upholds the honor of our God and the reputation of His church by keeping His Word and truth.
Applying this specifically to our life as churches and to the labors of our Synod, this admonition speaks first of all to the affairs which we treat, to the business which occupies us. And it teaches us what we must not be dealing with as churches. That we belong to the city of God means that our business as churches and as a Synod is not taken up with the politics of our national governments, with the policies of the earthly states in which we live. Our Synod does not meet to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of our political systems or to talk about the latest actions of our national legislatures. We do not meet to align ourselves with a political party and candidate for the upcoming national election in this country. We will not discuss the party platforms of the Democrats and Republicans.
There are churches that will do this in their national meetings; but this is not conduct becoming the gospel of Christ.
Nor will our business as citizens of the city of God be taken up with social, economic, and environmental concerns and policies. We do not have on our agenda a discussion of poverty in America and Canada, or social injustice and racial problems in the cities of our land. We will not treat ozone layer destruction and global warming, or the need for recycling. Again, there are churches across this country who will be dealing with these things in their assemblies and Synods; but this is conduct unbecoming the gospel of Christ; this is not what the city of God is about.
Rather is our business as churches and as a Synod the gospel of Christ, or the faith of the gospel. Our concerns lie with the spiritual things of the city of God, not the carnal things of the cities of man; our policies involve the kingdom of heaven, not the kingdoms of this earth. Letting our conduct be as it becomes the gospel of Christ means that as churches we make the good news of salvation from sin and death in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our chief and central concern. It means that as a Synod we busy ourselves in the preaching of the gospel of Christ in our churches and in, our mission fields, that we are busy in ensuring the pure administration of the sacraments and of discipline and of the other ordinances of the gospel in the churches. It means that we are concerned with Reformed, Christian orthodoxy, with the defense and the maintenance and the promotion of the faith of the gospel, i.e., of the historic, biblical truths of sound doctrine and godly Christian living.
This is our business. As long as we stick to these things of the city of God we shall conduct ourselves worthy of the gospel; but if we depart from these things and become engrossed in anything else, then we will bring the city of God into disrepute and shame the Head of the church.
The calling to have conduct that becomes the’ gospel of ‘Christ also pertains to the manner in which we do the work of the church as the city of God. Philippians 1:27sets forth three things with regard to this.
First, our conduct must be with steadfastness in the truth of the gospel. Our text says, “That ye stand fast in one spirit….” If we are going to behave worthy of the gospel of Christ as believers and as churches, we have to be steadfast and unmovable as far as the faith of the gospel is concerned. With respect to the doctrines of the Christian faith, with respect to the distinctives of the Reformed truth, we must be stationary; we must have our feet planted in the cement of God’s Word and truth so that we never move from the faith once delivered to the saints.
Standing fast in the truth is not a popular concept in today’s church world. At the present time it is fashionable to be drifting with the latest doctrinal winds, to be constantly changing with the times, to be tolerant of all kinds of views. Or, to use the figure of the city, it is popular to be knocking down the walls of the truth and throwing open the gates to all manner of false teaching and practice. Truth is said to be relative, not absolute; the scriptures are said to be culturally conditioned, not changelessly relevant. Steadfastness is called intolerant stubbornness and theological bigotry. Compromise is the order of the day. But this too is conduct unbecoming the gospel of Christ.
To be obedient to our calling we must be steadfast and unmovable in the true gospel of the infallible scriptures. We must not be unfixed and unstable as regards what we believe and what we practice on the essentials of the faith. We may never compromise with error on any Christian doctrine or practice. Never may we tear down the bulwarks and ramparts of Reformed truth that surround the city of God or open the gates of the church to invite in false teachers and error. We must stand fast in the gospel of Christ; we must know what we believe and tenaciously hold on to the truth. That alone is conduct becoming the gospel of Christ.
Secondly, in carrying out the business of the gospel of Christ as citizens of the city of God, we must have diligent effort and labor for the faith of the gospel. The word “striving” points us to this truth. Literally it means “to engage in a contest, to contend in public games”; thus it has come to mean, in a general sense, fl to labor, to work hard for, to strive for.”
This is what must characterize our work as churches and as a Synod. Just as an athlete expends himself and puts forth all effort in competing in a game, so must we expend all of our energy and put forth all effort for the faith of the gospel. There must be no slothfulness, no lackadaisical indifference, no careless labor in doing the business of God’s city. We must be striving as we do the Lord’s work. We are, after all, dealing with the gospel of Christ!
This applies to our defense of the faith of the gospel. Striving suggests opposition; the word has the idea of contesting, and indeed there is such; only it is not the contesting of a game but that of a battle. We face opposition from those who are enemies of the faith of the gospel. The city of God is surrounded by foes: Pelagianism and Arminianism, Roman Catholicism and modernism, feminism and evolutionism, Pentecostalism and mysticism, worldliness and materialism, humanism and hedonism. Against these errors and evils we must compete and contest in the sense of fighting and wrestling. We must put forth all effort to guard the city both from within and from without. We must man the walls of the truth and watch! We must maintain the walls and repel the foe!
Further, this diligent effort and labor also applies to our promotion of the faith of the gospel. It is not enough that we defend and maintain the faith of the gospel; we must also positively strive for it, i.e., put forth all diligence to promote the Christian religion and the Reformed faith both at home and abroad. God is giving us many opportunities to do this. And we must stretch ourselves forward with renewed effort to see the gospel of Christ go to the nations, including our own nations. We must use all our resources to see the faith brought to others who do not have it at all or who do not have the faith in its fullness. This too is conduct worthy of the gospel.
Thirdly, our labors as citizens of the city of God must be marked by unity. The text also emphasizes this: “in one spirit,” “with one mind,” “striving together.” This is a necessary reminder for us, and it is absolutely essential to the conduct that becomes the gospel of Christ. The sins of disunity and division are constant dangers for us. How easy it is for us to stand fast but not in one spirit, to strive for the faith but not together and not with one mind! We must hate and resist these sins of disunity and rather make sure that our labors as churches and as a Synod are in true Christian unity, that we are standing fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith.
This unity is the unity of faith of course. It is that oneness of believing and holding to the same truth of the gospel as far as the essentials of Reformed Christian doctrine and practice are concerned. But it is also the one spirit and mind of Christian love, love for God, love for His church and people, love for His Word and the cause of the gospel. It is the one spirit and mind of Christian humility, that lowliness of our Lord set forth in chapter 2 of Philippians (vss.3, 4). It is that unity of purpose, that we seek together the glory of God and the good of His church. Having this unity, we will have conduct becoming the gospel of Christ. Any other behavior will bring the city of God into shame and dishonor.
And how shall we be able to fulfill this calling to walk worthy of the gospel of Christ? Certainly not by our own determination and our own strength, for the help of man is vain. Our sufficiency is not in ourselves. We will do so only by the grace and Spirit of God, by the power of the very gospel according to which we are to walk. Our sufficiency is of God alone. May we always look to Him and put our trust in Him for all of our labors as churches and as a Synod.