The Day of Christ in Philippians
by Bob Wilkin
Words and expressions carry meaning. The danger in reading anything is that we think we know what certain words and expressions mean, when in fact we may not. That is especially true in understanding the Bible. Too often people have wrong notions of what words and expressions mean and those mistaken ideas bar them from correctly understanding portions of God's Word. Two such expressions are the day of Christ and the day of Jesus Christ. These two expressions occur only three times in the Bible. All three occur in Philippians.
The Day of Jesus Christ
(Only NT Occurrence)
This verse ("being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ") is a favorite of Calvinists who think it teaches the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints the fifth point of Calvinism. Yet that is an unfortunate misreading of the verse based in great part on misunderstanding what "the day of Jesus Christ" is.
Dr. John Piper recently discussed this verse. At his website, Desiring God, he has a March 10, 2012 blog post entitled, "Will We Arrive Blameless at the Day of Christ?" (http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/will-we-arriveblameless-on-the-day-ofchrist). In it he indicates that the issue Paul is discussing is the eternal destiny of his readers. According to Piper, the Apostle Paul in Phil 1:6 is saying two things about the eternal destiny of the believers in Philippi. First, their arrival in Jesus' kingdom is certain. Second, "That arrival is contingent on persevering faith" (italics added).
Piper has an entire section entitled "Contingency." In that section he says, "Nevertheless, though it is certain for all who are new creatures in Christ, Paul tells believers, 'You...[Christ] has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith' (Col 1:21-23, italics his).
"The holiness that we are to have at the day of Christ's coming is contingent on continuing in the faith. This contingency does not contradict certainty. God is faithful; he will do it. But no believer should think that he will be ready to meet Christ if he does not 'continue in the faith.'
"God's faithfulness is experienced in his continually awakening in us the grace to keep believing. He keeps us. And he does it by giving us the passion to treasure him and pursue holiness."
Piper concludes, "Therefore, let the truth of Paul's certainty make us sure. Let the truth of contingency make us serious. And let the truth of agency make us to surround ourselves with praying brothers and sisters who intercede for our faith and holiness" (italics his, underlining added).
How can our eternal destiny be certain if it is also contingent? Those are contradictory concepts. The word contingency means, "1) dependency on chance or on the fulfillment of a condition; uncertainty; fortuitiousness... 2)...possibility conditional on something uncertain" (dictionary.com). That which is contingent is uncertain.
Piper is merely seeing in Phil 1:6 the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Piper believes that every person, believer and unbeliever, will be judged according to his works to determine who is "finally justified" and who is not. This final justification, according to Piper, "confirms" initial justification by faith. Or it does not. If it doesn't confirm initial justification by faith, then our belief that we were justified by faith was wrong. Since for Piper and other Calvinists, faith is not belief, but belief that results in persevering in good works and faith, no one can be sure of his eternal destiny.
Piper fails to examine and discuss what the day of Jesus Christ means. It refers not to the Great White Throne Judgment, but to the Bema, the Judgment Seat of Christ.
The Bema is the place where the works of believers will be judged to determine their eternal rewards. There is no future judgment of believers to determine their eternal destinies as the Lord promised in John 5:24 ("shall not come into judgment"). See Rom 14:10-12 and 2 Cor 5:9-10, which speak of the Bema (cf. 1 Cor 3:5-15; 9:24-27; 2 Tim 2:12; 4:6-8; 1 John 2:28; 4:17-19).
Piper also fails to examine and discuss what the "good work" is to which Paul refers. He assumes that it refers to the good works that the Philippians were doing and would continue to do if they were truly regenerate. But Paul uses a singular here, good work. The good work is their financial support of Paul's ministry as the previous three verses show (Phil 1:3-5). Their "fellowship in the gospel" (v 5) is a clear reference to their financial support. That is why Paul says he thanks God for them (v 3) and prays with joy for them (v 4). Compare Phil 4:17, which confirms this understanding.
[For a more detailed discussion of Phil 1:6, see John F. Hart, "Does Philippians 1:6 Guarantee Progressive Sanctification?" Parts 1 & 2 (JOTGES, Spring and Autumn 1996). These articles are available here.]
Paul is saying that he is confident that God will take their gifts and keep on using them right up until the Bema. That means that our gifts can keep on having eternal significance until the Rapture, even if we die long before that time.
Did not the gifts of the Philippians result in several of Paul's letters? Aren't those letters still bearing fruit two millennia later? That means the believers in Philippi are still gaining eternal rewards for their support of Paul's gospel ministry.
Zane Hodges died in November of 2008. Yet he is still laying up treasure since his books are still being read and are still impacting people. As I edited The Free Grace Primer and as I edit Zane's commentary on Romans, I realize that I am in some small measure entering into ministry with him and I am helping both of us gain at the Bema. Even after Zane has died, he can gain more rewards because the impact of his life lives on. So too for all of us. I find that encouraging.
Do you think that your financial gifts to churches and ministries may have value not just for the month in which you give, but right up until the Bema? That is an awesome thought. As long as our money goes to those who are clearly proclaiming the Apostolic message, our gifts may well keep on working.
The two different ways of looking at the day of Jesus Christ are radically different. It is no surprise that people in Calvinist churches struggle with assurance. While Free Grace people are not sure about what our evaluation at the Bema will be (1 Cor 4:1-5), we are sure about our eternal destinies (John 5:24), and about the ongoing value of giving for Christ (Phil 1:5-6). The one who understands the day of Jesus Christ as referring to the Great White Throne Judgment is on a collision course with despair and eternal destiny concerns.
The Day of Christ
(2 NT Occurrences)
A few verses after Phil 1:6, Paul mentions the day of Jesus Christ again. This time he calls it simply, the day of Christ.
Paul wanted the believers in Philippi to "be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ," that is, until the Bema.
Now admittedly some might die before the Rapture. And the Bema doesn't occur at the very moment of the Rapture. But Paul's point is clear. He wants the believers to live exemplary lives so that at the Bema, the day of Christ, they will receive a good report from the Lord, a "Well done, good servant" (Luke 19:17). Compare Phil 1:6; 2:16; 4:17.
The "normal" understanding of this verse is that Paul wants them to be faithful until the Great White Throne Judgment so that they might be finally justified and finally saved by their works. [Note: for many commentators the Bema is the same thing at the Great White Throne Judgment. They believe that there is one "final judgment" and the purpose of it is to determine who spends eternity with the Lord and who is excluded. The basis of who gets in and who does not is works, not faith.]
Once again, the issue here is not eternal destiny (though many pastors and teachers understand this verse in that way), but eternal rewards.
Paul told the believers in Philippi to "hold fast the word of life, so that I [Paul] may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain."
Note that Paul's concern is not merely for their rewards and their outcome at the Bema. He is also concerned about hisrewards and his outcome at the Bema. This theme of not running and not laboring in vain runs through many of his epistles. See, for example, Gal 2:2; 4:11.
It is sad that many Evangelicals do not know where they are going when they die. Part of their confusion stems from failing to understand what the day of Christ is. It is not a reference to the Great White Throne Judgment. It is a reference to the Judgment Seat of Christ. Believers are guaranteed that we will not come into judgment concerning our eternal destiny (John 5:24). We will be held accountable for our words and deeds, but that will impact our eternal rewards, not our eternal destiny.
To whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48). If you know with certainty that you are eternally secure, then you've been given much. You should be ready and willing and able to share that assurance with anyone who is open.
We live in a world that longs for eternal life and for eternal significance as well. We who know the truth can tell them about both the free gift of everlasting life and the potentially wonderful payday that is the day of Christ.