When it comes to our understanding and experience of Christian sanctification, I can’t think of a more important biblical text than Philippians 2:12-13. Here is what Paul wrote:
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).
Paul’s point is that we work out the Christian life, or act in obedience to the Word of God, only because God has already been at work within, performing a miracle in our lives. At the heart of Paul’s argument is the fact that when it comes to the Christian life, God is always antecedent. He comes first. He acts before we act. We only act because he has already acted. God works in us in advance of our working for him. To put it in slightly different terms, God is always prior. He is earlier in time and order. His working is the cause of which our willing is the effect.
All of us struggle to make sense of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility. How do they relate to each other? If God is sovereign, how can we be responsible? And if we are genuinely responsible for what we do, doesn’t that undermine any notion that God is sovereign? I’m sure you’ve asked questions like these:
“How am I supposed to respond to the call to personal holiness? Where do I find the power to obey? Should I wait and remain passive until I feel the Holy Spirit prompting me to act? What is God’s role in my obedience? What does he do? If he is sovereign and I am dependent on his grace, does that destroy my freedom and responsibility? When it comes to God and me, who does what?”
This passage comes closer than any other biblical text to answering these questions and explaining the relationship between God’s gracious sovereignty and our moral responsibility. Yes, God is sovereign and his work always takes precedence. As Paul said in Ephesians 1:11, God “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” But we also must act. We must make choices and decisions and be energetic in embracing our moral responsibilities. The fact that God must first perform a miracle in the human heart does not mean that humans do nothing at all.
Clearly, God must first produce within us the power to act. But we must then perform the deed. The miracle that takes place in your heart by God’s sovereign and supernatural hand does not undermine or contradict your duty; rather he makes it possible for you to fulfill it.
You act because God has already acted. The fact that God’s action in you comes before your action on his behalf doesn’t mean your obedient response is unnecessary or superfluous or meaningless. His action doesn’t preclude yours; it empowers it.
The Christian life is a battle that calls for the active and energetic engagement of our minds and our wills. We are not made holy or like Christ at one stroke, instantaneously. It is a process, but one in which we take a very active part (see Phil. 3:12; Rom. 14:19; 1 Cor. 9:24-27; Heb. 12:1; 1 Tim. 6:12).
The sanctifying grace of God is not a divine kiss that suddenly transforms a frog into a handsome prince! Holiness is not something that falls from heaven willy-nilly. It is what God produces in us through certain instruments, experiences, and means that he has ordained and it always involves struggle and effort and focus and sacrifice and energetic commitment on our part.
Paul’s words in this passage are a clear refutation of those who believe that the key to Christian living is to do nothing. Some called this quietism since the idea was to remain silent and passive until the person felt the inner prompting of the Spirit or until they heard the Spirit speak in some way. In other words, these people embraced passivity in their approach to Christian living. Christians should simply “let go and let God.” Quietists insist that we should resist trying to do anything that we believe pleases God until we sense the prompting and urging of the Holy Spirit to act. Otherwise we are acting in the flesh.
But you cannot reconcile a passive and quietistic approach to the Christian life with what Paul says here in v. 12. The verb translated “work out” has the sense of laboring at something until it is brought to completion, hence to accomplish or to achieve. Thus, “produce it,” “bring it about,” “effect it.” This calls for continuous, sustained effort on our part. When it comes to your experience of the saving and sanctifying grace of God, says Paul, unfold it, discover it, make progress in it. When I speak to a young married couple and say, “Work at your marriage,” I’m not telling them to go to a pastor and repeat their vows and sign a certificate. They are already married. I’m calling on them to live in accordance with what is already true.
Take in hand this salvation God has graciously given you in Christ and put it on display. Bring it to consummation. Take the necessary steps in order that the salvation you have received by grace might unfold and flower and take shape in a way that pleases God.
Paul doesn’t say “work to acquire or obtain or earn your salvation, for God has done all he can and now it is up to you.” Remember that Paul is addressing Christians. These aren’t unsaved folk whom he commands to work so they might earn or merit acceptance with God. These are believers in Jesus in the church at Philippi. Therefore, he cannot be telling them to get themselves saved. He can’t be saying, “work for your salvation” as if salvation is something they haven’t yet experienced but are to strive to obtain.
There is a vast difference between “work for” and “work out.” Work “for” assumes that “salvation” is a goal or reward for which you are laboring or striving. Work “out” assumes that “salvation” is already in place; salvation has already been accomplished and experienced and you are now unpacking it, exploring it, laboring so that it might come to full flower, as it were.
So, to sum up, Paul is simply calling on all Christians to be diligent in the pursuit and practice of holiness. Be devoted in your Christian walk to becoming ever more like Jesus, conformed to his image, loving what he loves, hating what he hates, thinking and talking and choosing in a way that would please him.
We are to do this with “fear and trembling”? I think by this he has in view our attitude toward God. Perhaps we can catch a glimpse of what Paul had in mind by thinking back on what he said in Philippians 2:9-11. If every being in the universe, whether human or angelic, will one day acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus and bow in his presence, then the only reasonable response to him is humble, reverential fear and a healthy dose of trembling. He is God, and we are accountable to him for every though that passes through our minds and every word that falls from our lips and every action we take, every moment of every day. If that doesn’t cause you to tremble, nothing will.
Perhaps there is also a measure of “fear and trembling” at the prospect that if we fail to “work out” our salvation we will not have lived up to our privileges as God’s children and will suffer the loss of rewards and perhaps the loss of experiential intimacy with God. The bottom line is that diligence in Christian living is no casual or flippant matter. It must be undertaken with urgency and seriousness.
Therefore, the “fear and trembling” of v. 12 comes from our recognition of who Jesus Christ is, as explained to us in Philippians 2:5-11. The fact that he is Lord, before whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess, awakens us to the magnitude of our responsibility and the awesome majesty of the one whom we obey.
Perhaps the most important word in this passage is “for”. We could as easily translate it with the English word “because.” “For” or “because” is there as Paul’s way of alerting us to the way in which we are going to carry out the command of v. 12. How are we going to do this, Paul? His answer: only by the antecedent working of God in your desires and actions.
So, Paul is not telling us to sit idly by, twiddling our spiritual thumbs, passively waiting until some inner urge stirs us to act. He is saying quite the opposite. Get up and get to work with the confidence that what just prompted and empowered you to do so was God antecedently at work in your heart.
Paul is not saying that God is working in our place, as if to say he’s doing the work so we don’t have to. God himself does not work in children’s ministry so that you don’t have to. God himself does not greet visitors with a smile and a warm embrace so that you don’t have to. God himself does not attend a small group or pray for the sick so that you don’t have to. Rather, God is supplying us with the power so that we can perform the work. We act the miracle he produces.
It’s also important for us to see that Paul doesn’t say, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling so that God might then go to work in you.” God’s working in us is not the divine response to our acting but the divine cause of our acting. God doesn’t act in us as a reward for our having first acted for him. God’s working in us is the cause and the explanation for how we find it possible to work out our salvation. God’s work in us is always antecedent. His work comes first. The word “for” is Paul’s way of putting these two realities in proper order. God’s working in us is the cause. Our working out our salvation is the effect.
When God works antecedently in you, it doesn’t make your effort unnecessary; it makes it possible. God performs a miracle in your heart in order that you might obey his Word (see Heb. 13:20-21). He causes us freely and joyfully to take advantage of the resources he gives. God is faithful to his new covenant promises: “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes” (Ezekiel 36:27; see also 1 Cor. 15:10).
God is antecedently operative in our hearts “to will and to work for his good pleasure.” If left to ourselves we would neither want to obey nor find the power to do so. Or even if we want to, sometimes we simply can’t. But God is present to transform our desires and to energize our actions.
Not only does God empower our “doing” of certain deeds, such as humble service for the sake of others, but also the very “willing” that lies behind and accounts for the doing. Paul isn’t advocating a division of labor between God and man. It’s not 50-50. God does 100% of the work in providing power and incentive, and we do 100% of the acting through the power he has supplied.
God works in us what pleases him! It is his “good pleasure” that we strive to fulfill through obedience. God is acting on behalf of his own good pleasure. God is acting in us because it makes him happy when we will and do what he wants. And whatever is ultimately for the sake of his good pleasure is good for us as well.
Be sure you remember that Paul does not say that God works in us to produce everything we do. He has nothing to do with our sin. He only produces the power and will for us to do what is pleasing to him, namely righteousness. So, how precisely does the Holy Spirit do this? How does he work in us to produce the willing and the actual doing of what pleases God? I think J. I. Packer has nailed it. Here is his answer:
[The Holy Spirit’s] “ordinary way of working in us is through the working of our own minds and wills. He moves us to act by causing us to see reasons for moving ourselves to act” (Rediscovering Holiness, 156).
“So if, for instance, you are fighting a bad habit, work out before God a strategy for ensuring that you will not fall victim to it again, ask him to bless your plan, and go out in his strength, ready to say no next time the temptation comes. Or if you are seeking to form a good habit, work out a strategy in the same way, ask God’s help, and then try your hardest” (157).
Can you see, now, why I regard this passage as perhaps the single most important biblical text on the Christian life and sanctification?