Phil. 2:5-8: What Christ’s ‘Emptying’ Means for Us

Philippians 2:5-8

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (ESV).[1]

The passage for consideration is undoubtedly one of the more challenging in Scripture to grasp and accurately exegete. I, by no means, claim mastery over it and am humbled to even endeavor to understand it, much more critique Luther’s exegesis of it. Luther dissects this passage in a 1519 sermon entitled Two Kinds of Righteousness, in which he seeks to prove the existence of both an “alien righteousness,” that is Christ’s righteousness imputed to believers at baptism, and a “proper righteousness,” that is righteousness imparted to believers for the purpose of doing good works.[2] The latter necessarily being the product of the former. This paper will highlight the richness of Luther’s pastoral theological exegesis of Phil. 2:5-8, while conversely critiquing his non-metaphysical interpretation.

When one is truly repentant, Christ’s righteousness is given to him, and thus he can boast, “mine are Christ’s living, doing, and speaking, his suffering and dying, mine as much as I have lived, done spoken, suffered, and died as he did.”

Luther expounds considerably on the content of Phil. 2:5, perhaps especially on the phrase, “which you have in Christ Jesus,”[3] bringing it to bear on the doctrine of double imputation. Citing several other passages (1 Cor. 1:30; John 11:25-26; 2 Pet. 1:4), Luther asserts that when one is truly repentant, Christ’s righteousness is given to him, and thus he can boast, “mine are Christ’s living, doing, and speaking, his suffering and dying, mine as much as I have lived, done spoken, suffered, and died as he did.”[4] To Luther, it would seem Christ’s humility is more than merely an example for believers to follow, but a basis for all Christian living. He states, “he who trusts in Christ, exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he” and this righteousness “is the basis, the cause, the source of all our own actual righteousness.”[5]

I cannot with confidence say that Luther saw the doctrine of union with Christ explicitly in the text of Phil. 2:5 (That is, he may have expounded on union with Christ based on other passages and not Phil. 2:5). He never said as much and, in fact, appears to take a more ethical interpretation in his restating of the verse later in the sermon.[6] Silva notes that Phil. 2:5 often receives an ethical interpretation, directing believers merely to have the same “mindset” or “attitude” as Christ had (NIV, NASB, KJV).[7] Nonetheless, Luther does a great service to his audience in helping them see how it is the believer’s union with Christ that allows them to serve others, and is not at all a work of the flesh. In support of understanding Phil. 2:5 to signify union with Christ, Silva draws a parallel to Romans 15:5 where Paul uses similar language in a prayer for unity among believers based on their unity in Christ.[8] Furthermore, in his commentary on Greek language in Philippians, Eadie suggests the sentence structure in verse 5 points to Christ’s example as “power” and “living legislation” that “in showing what is, it enacts what ought to be.”[9] While many move quickly through verse 5 thinking it just an introduction to the meat of the passage (verses 6-8), Luther rightly plants his feet firmly in the ground here. How can we begin to ponder Christ’s humility and service if we do not grasp that it is union with Christ that makes possible and empowers our doing so? The pastoral theology from Luther on this point is incredibly rich.

Paul’s words were meticulously chosen to showcase Christ’s full and inalterable deity and his full and inalterable humanity

So then, what should this “alien righteousness” bring about in the lives of believers? Now, we interact with verses 6-8. Fee states, “the thrust of the main clause is simple enough: Christ’s being God was not for him a matter of ‘selfish ambition,’ of grasping or seizing; rather it expressed itself in the very opposite” whereas Paul calls believers to the same self-sacrifice. “But the ideas are profound, full of theological grit, and the language not at all simple,” Fee immediately acknowledges.[10] Thus, Phil 2:5-8 contains some of the deepest Christological mysteries in all of Scripture and much ink has been spilt trying to make sense of it. But, in one sense, there is consensus that Paul’s point in this passage is primarily illustrative—that is not to say the mysteries do not matter; they do!. However, Luther, in Two Kinds, fully embraces the illustrative view. He states, “The Apostle means that each individual Christian shall become a servant of another in accordance with the example of Christ … if one can excel others and boast in the ‘form of God,’ so to speak, one … should surrender it to God and become altogether as if he did not possess it.”[11] Luther desires that believers put off the form of God and put on the form of a servant, “conduct[ing] himself as if his neighbor’s weaknesses, sin, and foolishness were his very own.” Luther uses “form of God” in a symbolic way, thinking the phrase not to mean divine essence but “wisdom, power, righteousness, goodness … and freedom.”[12] In doing so, he preaches very well the illustrative point of the passage, but unfortunately seems to disregard the metaphysical nature of the passage.

The reality is, Paul’s words were meticulously chosen to showcase Christ’s full and inalterable deity and his full and inalterable humanity.[13] Paul uses morphē twice signifying Christ’s essential form as God and servant. In speaking of Christ’s “emptying,” human language is stretched to its limits to portray how Christ set aside divine rights and glory to become one of us, to serve us, and eventually die for us .[14] As Fee argues, this reality gives “extraordinary potency” to Christ’s example of sacrifice.[15] The more we can amplify the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice the better—and this passage not only allows it, but calls for it. While for the purposes of Luther’s sermon a solely ethical interpretation may have worked, a metaphysical interpretation that highlights Christ’s full deity and humanity is better. A correct metaphysical interpretation of Phil 2:6-8 does not detract from the illustrative point Paul is making but enhances it, and has stark theological consequences elsewhere. As for Luther’s deeply theological understanding of union with Christ yet ethical interpretation of Phil. 2:5-8; it makes sense by way of his devotion to pastoral theology, to how Christ impacts everyday life, and perhaps even the early date of this sermon.


[1]All Scripture quotations will be from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

[2]Martin Luther and Timothy F. Lull, Martin Luthers basic theological writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 135

[3]Luther, 135, This is the first translation of Phil. 2:5 recorded in Luther’s sermon. The second time Luther quotes the verse it goes as follows: “Let this mind be in you, that was also in Christ Jesus.”

[4]Ibid., 135

[5]Ibid., 135

[6]Ibid., 137

[7]Moisés Silva, Philippians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House), 107

[8]Silva, 109

[9]John Eadie and William Young, A commentary on the Greek text of the epistle of Paul to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 94-95

[10]Gordon D. Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, New International Commentary on The New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 198

[11]Luther, BTW, 138

[12]Ibid., 137

[13]William Barclay, The Letters to Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, 3rd ed. fully rev. and updated., The New Daily Study Bible (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 41.

[14]Barclay, 43

[15]Fee, 205

Phil Shiver

A seminary student living in Greenville, SC.

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