Saved by grace is a term that flows off our lips comfortably. If you have been an evangelical Christian for long, the phrase is as natural as saying your name. Suffering by grace just does not sound correct as it rolls off your lips. It sounds awkward. Nevertheless, we must deal with Paul’s assertion that not only is the believer saved by grace but suffers by grace as well.
Philippians 1:29 is a staggering verse: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” In Greek, “you” is at the beginning of the sentence for emphasis. Paul uses the verb translated “granted” (charizomai). which is related to the noun translated “grace.”
Paul is sometimes called the apostle of grace. It is an apt title since seventy percent of the time; the word grace is used in the Bible; it comes from Paul. Grace has been simply and appropriately defined as an unmerited favor despite what we deserve. Grace is not evoked by our actions but by the freedom of God to bestow it on the undeserving. For the Christian, faith is a gracious gift. But Paul goes on to say, for the Christian, suffering is a gracious gift for the sake of Christ as well.
In Philippians 1:29, Paul indicates there are two things God has graciously given to believers, but the emphasis seems to be on the surprising second gift. The focus is natural since, in Philippians, Paul is discussing his suffering (Phil. 1), Christ’s suffering (Phil. 2), and the inevitable suffering of the Philippian Christians.
Paul does not specify the nature of the suffering about which he writes in Philippians 1:29. Thus, it is best to understand this suffering in the broadest sense as any that the believer faces for the sake of Christ. Jesus consistently pointed to the inseparable connection between following Him and suffering (Matt. 5:11, 24:9–10, Luke 9:23, 11:49).
Often we are comfortable saying that God is sovereign over the believers suffering, but Paul says more than this. He says suffering is a gracious gift and a manifestation of the kindness and love of God in the believer’s life that produces character, hope, and glory.
Paul explains in Romans 5:3-5,
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
John Calvin describes suffering by grace in his commentary on Philippians 1:28-29:
Oh, if this persuasion were effectually inwrought in our minds—that persecutions are to be reckoned among God’s benefits, what progress would be made in the doctrine of piety! And yet, what is more certain, than that it is the highest honor that is conferred upon us by Divine grace, that we suffer for his name either reproach, or imprisonment, or miseries, or tortures, or even death, for in that case he adorns us with his marks of distinction.
The truth that faith comes to us by the sovereign grace of God brings awe and assurance, and the same is true when the believer understands suffering too is by grace. The pain, suffering, heartache, persecution, and betrayal we face can be understood as tokens of God’s grace and love for us? Yes.
Suffering described as coming by grace only makes sense in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The worst injustice and most significant suffering in the history of the cosmos is Jesus the Christ being crucified. But the suffering of Christ on the cross was God’s plan, and for the believer, it is the fundamental display of God’s grace in the atoning sacrifice of Christ. In 1 Peter, we are told that the sufferings of Christ led to subsequent glories (1 Pet. 1:11).
What does this have to do with the believers suffering? The sufferings and subsequent glories pattern does not stop with Christ. Paul writes,
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rom. 8:16-18)
God uses the suffering of Jesus to bring grace to those who believe. The humbling reality of what Jesus, the suffering Servant, has done for us by His cross and resurrection transforms how believers understand their own suffering. Our faithful suffering in Christ brings Him glory. The Spirit of God bears witness that we are the adopted children of God through our sufferings in a way that brings glory to Christ. Beyond that, for the children of God, if all of our sufferings were placed on a scale, it would not compare in any way to the glory that will be revealed to us.
In Christ, our sufferings are always purposeful and are to draw us closer to Christ. They are not all good, but they all work for good for those who love God (Rom. 8:28). If we saw everything as God sees, we would know, even our sufferings are a grace to bless us now and forever.
In the story of our life in Christ that God is writing, there will be suffering, but it creates and leads to glory. Therefore, we can know by faith it is a gift and God’s best for our life.