What Does It Mean to Live a Life Worthy of the Gospel?

The Meaning of Worthy

What is implied in Paul’s exhortation “Only let your manner of life be worthy [axios] of the gospel of Christ”? In English versions of the New Testament, the Greek word axios is usually translated “worthy.” But its flavor is expressed elsewhere when it is translated “in keeping with” (Matt. 3:8; Acts 26:20). Like many other words, there is a picture lying behind the origin of axios. It means “Properly, ‘bringing up the other beam of the scales,’ ‘bringing into equilibrium,’ and therefore ‘equivalent.’”1

The basic idea is that a life that is worthy of the gospel of Christ expresses in the form of a lifestyle what the gospel teaches in the form of a message. Such a life takes on a character that reflects the character of the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I was a boy, my morning chore before school was to collect some of the provisions our family would need for the meals of the day. One of my tasks was to go to the local butcher. My mother charged me to ask for a specific cut of meat and a specific weight of it. In those now far-off days our butcher used old-fashioned scales with two pans. On one he placed weights to the amount I asked for. On the other he measured out the meat, adding to it or subtracting from it until the central pointer indicated a perfect balance between the two pans. It was fun to watch him add or subtract the meat in order to get just the right balance. Simple but ingenious!


Sinclair B. Ferguson

Theologian Sinclair Ferguson explores what it means to live worthy of the gospel by imitating Christ, and why it matters for believers.

That is the picture the word axios conveys. On the one hand, here is the gospel. And on the other hand, here is your life. And Paul’s exhortation is this: Live in such a way that your life “weighs the same” as the gospel! Live in a way that is “in keeping with” the gospel, that “matches” the gospel. This is what “the balanced Christian life” looks like. The gospel is the message of the good news of Jesus Christ, and our lives are to be the embodiment of that good news. Put another way, the gospel is “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16), and we are to live in a powerfully saved way!

For Paul this was neither a trivial nor an optional matter. It was instead a “one and only” kind of thing, an essential.

A Kind of Citizenship

But “worthy” is not the only picture word Paul uses here. When he writes “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel,” he uses the Greek verb politeuomai. It is derived from the word for a city (polis, the source of our word politics). Literally it means “live as a citizen.”

Paul could have used the verb meaning “walk,” as he does in Ephesians (“walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called”—Eph. 4:1) and Colossians (“walk in a manner worthy of the Lord”—Col. 1:10). But you can probably guess why he uses citizenship language. Philippi was a Roman colony; its civic life was structured according to Roman law and the Roman way of life. Citizens of Philippi were Roman citizens. That was why the local magistrates there had been so alarmed when they discovered that the man whose garments they had torn off and whom they had beaten with rods without due process of law and then thrown into prison—this man was in fact a Roman citizen. No wonder they came to Paul eating humble pie (Acts 16:22–23, 37–40).

Paul may simply have been saying in Philippians 1:27, “As citizens in Philippi live your life in a way that reflects the gospel.” But there is almost certainly more. Was Lydia, who had first welcomed him, still there? The jailer and his family whom Paul had pointed to Christ surely were. And perhaps too the young slave girl Paul had rescued from abusive men and abusive spirits was listening. Paul was reminding them, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20).

The grace of God in Christ provides us with a new identity, a heavenly one; it follows that this—and not our natural identity—determines everything we do.

Philippi was not in Italy but in Macedonia. But a Philippian lived there as a citizen of Rome, according to Roman law, following the patterns of life in the capital city. Paul’s message, then, was that while his friends were living in Philippi, their real citizenship was heavenly; their church family was a colony of heaven here on earth. And because that was true, they were to live not according to the pattern of life of any earthly city but according to the pattern of life of the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem.

In short, the Christian life is to be a version of “heaven on earth.” The privilege could not be greater; and the standard could not be higher! For that reason, the summons could not be more demanding—nothing less than all-embracing. And yet, for all that, Paul’s exhortation is a million miles from legalism because he understands how the gospel works.

The grace of God in Christ provides us with a new identity, a heavenly one; it follows that this—and not our natural identity—determines everything we do. Our identity, our citizenship, is heavenly. As Paul says elsewhere, our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3), and when Christ appears, to bring about our final transformation into his likeness, then our true identity will become clear (Phil. 3:20–21; Col. 3:4; 1 John 3:1–2). What, then, could be more logical, more compelling, than to live in this world as those who are citizens of another world? Like Daniel in the Old Testament, we are called to live out the lifestyle of the Jerusalem (above) to which we belong, even when we live in the Babylon (below) where we don’t really belong.

So we are to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” (Ps. 137:4). That’s not a matter of legalism, for “his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Jesus tells us that being yoked to him, the meek and lowly one, brings ease, not dis-ease, and rest, not restlessness, for our souls (Matt. 11:28–30).


  1. Werner Foerster, in Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. and ed. G. W. Bromiley, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 379.

This article is adapted from Worthy: Living in Light of the Gospel by Sinclair B. Ferguson.

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