On Sunday morning at Capitol City we introduced our fall sermon series, To Live is Christ, from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. A couple of people asked me about a statement I made as I explained the way Paul addressed the original audience of this letter. Paul writes “to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi…” (Phil 1:1). (Some translations render that “to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi.”) I made the point that Paul isn’t describing the behavior of the Philippians when he calls them God’s holy people or saints – he’s describing their position in Christ Jesus. Let me expand on that.
When we think of holy people or (especially) saints, we think in terms of behavior. We picture the Mother Teresa’s of the world and think that letters addressed to holy people must be addressed only to those people who (seem) to exhibit such radically holy behavior that they become known for their holiness. But when Paul addresses the Philippians (and all Christians), he describes them as holy not because of their radically holy behavior. In fact, he would describe them as holy even despite radically unholy behavior. He does that very thing in 2 Corinthians, where he addresses the church in Corinth, saying: “To the church of God in Corinth, together with all his holy people throughout Achaia” (2 Cor 1:1). The church in Corinth was rank with unrighteous and unholy conduct among its members…These people would never be called saints because of their behavior. But Paul addresses them just as he addresses the Philippians, as God’s holy people. How does this add up?
The key to putting these things together is to realize that the New Testament reveals two dimensions of holiness that are relevant for Christians. The first is the kind of holiness we mostly understand but fail to attain. It is personal, behavioral, and moral. It involves our everyday actions and decisions, our battles against temptation and sin. Every Christian is called to increase in this kind of holiness because God demonstrates this kind of holiness perfectly (see 1 Pet 1:13-16). Though we will never succeed in this life, Christians are to exert great effort, empowered by God’s grace, to progress in this kind of holiness.
But the other dimension of holiness that is important to grasp is positional, not behavioral. If you are a Christian, this positional holiness is something you already have, fully and perfectly. And you have it because you are in Christ, who was fully and perfectly holy. Christians are positionally perfect, not because of their performance, but because of their union with Jesus, whose perfect performance is credited to them. That dimension of holiness – that perfect position in the eyes of God – is not the result of moral effort or behavior. Rather, it is a free gift of God through the gospel that comes to those who place faith in Christ.
Positional holiness is a gift that brings incredible freedom. Freedom from the need to measure up. Freedom from the pressure to satisfy someone’s expectations. Freedom from the struggle be good enough for God. The good news of the gospel liberates us from such demands, because through the gospel God measures our lives not by our behavioral holiness, but by our positional holiness. In other words, God doesn’t measure our lives by our performance for him, but by Christ’s perfect performance for us.
That’s why Paul can write to sinful Philippians and sinful Corinthians and greet them as God’s holy people. Were he with us today, if you have placed faith in Christ, he’d say the same thing about you.