From the earliest days of the church, the relationship between the power of God and the responsibility of believers in salvation has been debated. Is our salvation and spiritual growth essentially a matter of passive trust or of active obedience? Is it all God’s doing, all the believer’s doing, or a combination of both? Scripture makes it clear that it involves both God’s sovereignty and human response.
2 Opposing Views from History:
1. Quietism: this religious philosophy held that it was possible to acquire a state of sinless perfection in this life, but this state was gained through passive contemplation of the mind, and not self-discipline or warfare against sinful conduct. This view emphasizes God’s role while virtually eliminating the believer’s involvement. A common modern maxim is, “Let go and let God.” Another is, “I can’t; God can.”
a. Quietism tends to be mystical and subjective, focusing on personal feelings and experiences. A person who submits to God and is totally dependent on Him, they say, will be divinely protected from sin and led into faithful living. In fact, trying to strive against sin or to discipline oneself is seen as futile counterproductive and even unspiritual.
2. Pietism, on the other hand, promotes aggression in the pursuit of correct doctrine and moral purity. Most pietists place strong emphasis on Bible study, holy living, self-discipline, and practical Christianity. They emphasize such passages as “Let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1) and “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:17).
a. But pietism often stresses self-effort to the virtual exclusion of dependence on divine power. Pietism frequently leads to legalism, self-righteousness, a judgmental spirit, and hypocrisy.
I. The Resolution of Scripture: Philippians 2:12-13 – Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;13 for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. Paul presents the appropriate resolution. He is content to speak of both God and man and makes no effort to rationally harmonize the two. Salvation comes through both man’s response and God’s free gift.
A. That divine-human synergy is exemplified in the Old Testament.
1. Consider the confident cry of Moses as Pharaoh threatened to destroy the people of Israel. Exodus 14:13-14 – 13 And Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever.14 The LORD will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace.” God would save them through His power alone.
a. But the Israelites also had a part to play. Notice vs. 15-16: 15 And the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to Me? Tell the children of Israel to go forward.16 But lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it. And the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea. It was not the Lord’s will that His people merely keep silent and be passive but that they participate actively in accomplishing His purpose. His purpose for them was to be accomplished through them.
B. 2 Peter 1:3-10: This dual emphasis is also found in the teaching of the New Testament. In his second letter, Peter, reminds believers that God’s divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. (2 Peter 1:3-4)
1. Based on the divine provision, Peter then charges believers in v. 5-10 – “Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins. Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble.
C. Paul described his own salvation in this fashion: 1 Cor. 15:10 – But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. In this inspired statement, the apostle makes it clear that God’s divine grace and power undergird the obedience of believers.
D. James admonished, James 4:7-10 – 7 Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up. Believers’ sanctification and ultimate salvation requires diligent effort. Yet it is empowered by God, through the work of His Spirit in the believer. James had said earlier, “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:17). To not do what one knows should be done is sin: “To one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).
II. “ Work Out Your Own Salvation” (Phil 2:12) – The main verb in this section is found in the middle of verse 12: “Work out”, katergazomai – it signifies the energy needed to finish a task. Everything in life requires energy. It takes energy to walk, work, think, meditate, obey and worship God. The word is also translated as accomplish or cause to happen. Is there a sense in which we cause our salvation? What does Paul want us to recognize about exercising the energy needed to complete our own salvation?
A. Humility (example of Jesus) – Verse 12 begins with “Therefore” or “So then”, which was used to draw a conclusion from a preceding statement. Paul refers us back to the example of Jesus Christ’s perfect model of humility and submission (vs. 5-8).
1. “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition” – Our work must be from a sincere submission to God and others, and not for ourselves. The obedience of Jesus was “even unto death”. He did not place restrictions on his willingness to do the will of the Father. The esence of living the Christian life is being obedient like Jesus: “The one who says he abides in [Christ] ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 John 2:6).
B. Continued Obedience – “just as you have always obeyed”, (2:12) . Obeyed translates a word from which the English word acoustics derives. The compound verb has the basic meaning of placing oneself under what has been heard, and therefore of submitting and obeying.
1. Implied in this word is the believer’s responsibility to listen attentively to God’s Word so as to be obedient to it.
a. Lydia obeyed the Word that she heard Paul preach. She was already a worshiper of God, and as she “was listening, . . . the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14).
Note: this opening of Lydia’s heart was not a mystical or supernatural operation on her heart by God. She was influenced by the Spirit of God through the preaching of the word. Compare Luke’s statement in Acts 17:2-3 – 2 Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.” The word translated “explaining” in vs. is the same word used to describe what God did to Lydia’s heart (opening)
b. The Philippian jailer, who may have been among those to whom the apostle was now writing, after Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house, . . . he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household” (Acts 16:32-33).
c. The Jews in Berea “received the word with great eagerness,” because they were “examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
d. To preach the gospel is more than merely sharing one’s faith and offering an invitation; it is to call sinners to obey God, “to bring about the obedience of faith . . . for His name’s sake” (Rom 1:5).
C. Accountability – “not in my presence only, but now much more in my absence” . The Philippians may have had such a personal connection with Paul that he feared they might obey just to please him, and therefore be tempted to not be obedient if he was absent. The presence of authority usually makes us act as we think that that authority wants us to. It is different when we are by ourselves. Paul praises them for their consistency. What about us? How do we act when the teacher leaves the room? parents are away? No policeman is around? The boss isn’t watching? We aren’t around fellow Christians?
1. We must not act as “men-pleasers.” Colossians 3:22– – 22 Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God.23 And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men,24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. . Believers must never be primarily dependent on their preacher, teacher, Christian fellowship, or anyone else for their spiritual strength and growth. Their supreme example is the Lord Jesus Christ, and their true power comes from the Holy Spirit.
D. Motivation – “with fear and trembling” – Paul connects obedience with a full understanding of the consequences of disobedience. Although God is loving, merciful, and forgiving, He nevertheless holds believers accountable. Knowing that we serves a holy and just God, we must always live with fear and trembling.
a. Fear translates phobos, which describes fright or terror as well as reverential awe.
b. Trembling is from tromos, which refers to shaking and is the word from which the English word tremor derives. Both of those are proper reactions to the awareness of one’s own spiritual weakness and the power of temptation. The Lord seeks such an attitude in His children, as His words in Isa 66:2 indicate: “To this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.”
c. Psalms 111:10 – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. This is not a fear of being doomed to eternal torment, nor a hopeless dread of judgment that leads to despair. It is rather a reverential fear, a holy concern to give God the honor He deserves and avoid the chastening of His displeasure. Such fear protects against temptation and sin and gives motivation for obedient, righteous living.
d. John MacArthur writes.. To have such godly fear and trembling involves more than merely acknowledging one’s sinfulness and spiritual weakness. It is the solemn, reverential fear that springs from deep adoration and love. It acknowledges that every sin is an offense against holy God and produces a sincere desire not to offend and grieve Him, but to obey, honor, please, and glorify Him in all things.
Conclusion: It seems incredible that anyone who has read and understood this verse could believe that one is saved before and apart from his obedience to the will of God. We have a part in our salvation. We must “work out” our salvation through humble obedience to, and a true sense of accountability and reverential respect for God’s commands.
- Do You Tremble at His Word?
- Are You “Working Out” Your Salvation?
- Wiil You Obey Him Today?