Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
Sanctification, or growth as a Christian, is not entirely monergistic (involving one agent only) but synergistic (involving two or more agents). Augustine says it best, “Without God we cannot; without us God will not.” In some sense, every command issued to believers to live a holy life assumes we have the capability to carried out that command (2 Cor 7:1; 1 Thess 4:3-4; Heb 12:1; 1 Pt 1:15-16). Yet, Scripture also insists that it is God who, by his grace, initializes and accomplishes everything that is holy in you (1 Cor 15:10; Col 1:28-29). Just as no one can take credit for their salvation, so no one can take credit for their sanctification. The same grace that saved us is the same grace that sanctifies us. At the end of the day, it is God alone who gets the glory for any spiritual progress made, though we are privileged to participate in the process.
Nevertheless, our participation is not entirely passive since we are responsible to live out what God is doing in us. No passage is clearer about this synergistic model than Philip 2:12-13.
- Contextually, this passage has nothing to say about “getting/becoming saved.” Rather, it speaks to us who are saved and how we should walk in our salvation, particularly in the church and in the world (see, Philip 3:16-18 for the latter).
- The phrase “working out your salvation” complements “as you have always obeyed.” In other words, Paul is exhorting the Philippians to grow in obedience (“salvation” here is tantamount to obedience). It is a call to obedient living as depicted by a life already saved.
- “For it is God . . .” is better translated “because it is God . . .” In effect Paul is telling us that we are not left to our own resources. All of God’s gracious activity in salvation, from first to last, is accomplished by him who will “carry it on to completion” (Philip 1:6).
- This activity of God is dynamic and ongoing. Paul sees no tension between exhorting us to do something on the one hand, and showing confidence that it is accomplished by God on the other (comp., e.g., Rom 8:12-14 with Rom 8:4).
- Obedience is always good for us because it is God’s purpose in us, even though we don’t always know precisely how this might look (cf., Gen 22:1-18; Heb 11:8).
- Philip 2:12-13 beautifully and unashamedly illustrates the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.
- The text does not say “Work to gain salvation, because God has done his part.” Or, “Perseverance depends entirely on you.” Nor does it say, “Relax! You’re one of the frozen, chosen.” Still, it does not say that God is doing the “work” for us since the command is to us to do something.
- God works deep in our souls at the level of our will to inspire us with the determination to obey and provides the power to carry out his “good purpose.” We could almost say that the work of sanctification is ultimately and finally accomplished by God, despite our cooperation (Philip 1:6)! That you do occasionally obey demonstrates the reality that God “works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
- Hence, the ability to “work out” our salvation, though in us, is not from us. A will inclined toward God is always a product of God and never solely the result of self-determination (Jn 15:1-5).
- Finally, coming to grips with the reality that God is mightily at work in us is anything but a disincentive. The profound significance that God’s sovereign rule over the universe will never be made contingent by the “free” choices of humans should not only inspire us at the intellectual level, but ignite in us a firm resolve at the practical level to live every waking moment for Him who died, has risen, is coming again, and empowers our will for his glory at every turn! To this we were called. For this we are chosen. By this we are empowered.