exhortation | ek-ˌsȯr-ˈtā-shən | noun | an address or communication emphatically urging someone to do something

In Philippians 2:12-13, Paul issues a general exhortation to the believers of Philippi, then spells out more precisely (2:14ff) how it should look in their lives. What follows are some observations on the general appeal.

  1. Paul refers to the Philippians as “dear friends,” literally “my beloved ones” (ἀγαπητοί μου). After commending their obedient walk up to this point, Paul encourages them to continue the Christian faith in the same way they began, namely obedience.
  2. “Therefore” indicates a logical connection with what came before (following through with the idea of “obedience” from 2:8). The connection goes something like: “Since Christ demonstrated such extreme obedience for your sakes, you ought also to follow in his steps.”
  3. Lest we think that obedience (typically characterized by works) is unrelated to entrance into the kingdom (typically characterized by faith), it is important to remember that “for Paul faith in Christ is ultimately expressed as obedience to Christ, not in the sense of following the rules, but of coming totally under his lordship” (Fee, Philippians, p. 233). Obedience characterizes true faith (see esp., Rom. 1:5; 15:18; 2 Thess. 1:8; Jm. 2:14-17).
  4. The entire command/exhortation in v. 12 hinges on our understanding of the term “salvation.” Consider:
    • Although “working out your salvation” complements “as you have always obeyed,” this passage has nothing to say about “getting/becoming saved.” Rather, it speaks to believers who are saved and how that salvation should look practically, particularly in the church and especially to the world (see, vv. 16-18 for the latter).
  5. Paul has the entire Christian community in mind here, not necessarily individuals. This is a corporate command and not limited to the “mature” (so too with 4:19. See also, 1 Cor. 3:16-17). Moreover, though the assumption is that it applies at an individual level, the import of this passage is on the entire church’s reflection of Christ to secular society (cf., 2:15).
  6. The manner in which the Philippians are to grow in obedience is “with fear and trembling.” This has both horizontal and vertical implications. Horizontally, we are to have a sense of awe and respect for the mighty working of God in our churches. Put differently, we must take seriously our walk with the Lord as it relates to others in our fellowship. What others think does matter! Vertically, since every creature will someday bow to Jesus as Lord, the Church must mirror a degree of reverent submission and humility before her Master (see 2 Cor. 7:15; Eph. 6:5 where the same expression is used).
  7. “For it is God . . .” is better translated “because it is God . . .” (see Rom. 6:14 for the same use of the word “γὰρ” rendered “because” in some translations).
    • In effect Paul is telling the Philippians that they are not left to their own resources. All of God’s gracious activity in salvation, from first to last, is completed by his divine power and in accordance with our willing cooperation. Still, God is sure to see it through and “carry it on to completion” (1:6).
    • This activity of God in us is dynamic and ongoing (note the verb tenses, θεὸς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ἐνεργῶν ἐν ὑμῖν). Paul sees no tension with exhorting us to do something on the one hand, and showing confidence that it is accomplished by God on the other (consider Rom. 8:4 along with Rom. 8:12-14; 1 Cor. 6:11-16; and compare Col. 3:3 with Col. 3:5).
    • Obedience is always “good” for us and part of God’s “purpose” for us, though we don’t always know what His purpose is (cf., Gen. 22:1-18).

Philippians 2:12-13 illustrates the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our 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 believers, since the command is to us to do something. God works at the level of our wills and provides the determination to obey and the power to carry out His “good purpose” (see esp. Col 1:26). The work of sanctification (the process of becoming like Christ) is ultimately accomplished by God, not despite our cooperation but because of it (1:6)! That we do obey demonstrates God’s will to “act” in us, not our own will to act apart from his presence and power. Hence, the ability to “work out” our salvation is in us, but not from us. A will inclined toward God is always a product of God and never the result of sheer self-determination (Jn. 15:1-5; Col. 1:29).

Moreover, 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 is never made contingent by the “free” choices of humans should not only inspire us at the intellectual level, but ignite in us a firm resolve to live every waking moment for Him at the practical level.

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