To Will and to Work

So then, my beloved, even as ye 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; for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).

There are certain passages of Scripture that seem to juxtapose contradictory principles. In many ways, such passages are the most illuminating for us: they indicate how we put things together.

Paul’s statements in Philippians 2:12-13 certainly fit the bill. He first tells the believers to work out their own salvation; he then tells them that it is God who works in them to will and to work. Little wonder, then, that these verses are used in the battleground regarding God’s work and man’s work.

Many seek to emphasize the first statement: believers are to obey, and this involves working out their own salvation with fear and trembling. They then conclude that it is up to man to follow God’s will, to work out their salvation themselves. Yes, God works in Philippians 2:13, but it is easy for such people to minimize the second statement while emphasizing the first statement.

Others seek to emphasize the second statement: sure, Paul talks about believers working and obeying, but see the conclusion? They work out their salvation with fear and trembling because it is really God who is working in them. They then conclude that God is the only actor involved. Yes, humans should probably follow God, but it is easy for such people to minimize the first statement while emphasizing the second statement.

Believers are to obey, working out their own salvation, but it is God who works in them to will and to work. As we can see, such a statement easily causes fits. Everyone tries to explain it within their system. But Paul is not necessarily working in any such system. He is not confused; he is not suffering from some kind of split personality issue. He knows very well what he is saying. We do well to step back patiently and try to make sense of both statements in harmony, not in opposition.

These verses flow from what Paul has said throughout the chapter. He begins with the exhortation to love, peace, humility, and joint participation among believers (Philippians 2:1-4). The believers are to have the mind of Christ Jesus, who greatly humbled Himself and God glorified Him and highly exalted Him (Philippians 2:5-11). It is because of these things that believers are to obey Jesus, working out their own salvation (Philippians 2:12). This is because it is God working in them to will and to work (Philippians 2:13).

The challenge with this passage is really not with God, Paul, or the passage itself. The challenge is with us. Paul sees no contradiction between believers working and God working. Paul does not think that believers obeying the risen Christ in any way violates God’s sovereignty, nor does it somehow cheapen His grace– it is entirely possible only through God’s grace. Likewise, Paul does not envision God’s working in the believer as compromising the believer’s free moral agency.

How does this work? The order presented in this passage is important. The believer must obey, seeking to “work out” his or her salvation. This obedience is based in trust and rooted in God’s grace, for the believer understands that their standing only exists because of what God has done through Christ (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:1-10). But what does this obedience look like? How does one “work out” one’s salvation? By unaided moral striving? That did not work before we believed; it will not work now. To obey is to submit to the Lordship of Christ– we are to submit before God. Whatever power we can muster we use to direct our will toward God’s will (cf. Matthew 7:21-23); we must beg God in prayer to give us the strength, power, and grace to be aligned with His will (cf. Ephesians 3:20-21, Philippians 4:13). We must submit as servants for the Lord, no longer seeking our paths, but seeking to live for Him in Him (Galatians 2:20).

Therefore, to obey and to “work out” that salvation, the believer must submit completely and without reservation to God (cf. Romans 12:1). Then God will work in the believer to will and work for His good pleasure. God is not then violating the believer’s free will; instead, He actually accomplishes the will of the believer in a way that the believer could never do through his own unaided effort. All of us fall short; when we directed our own lives, it did not go very well (Romans 3:23, Titus 3:3-8). God is able and willing to provide the strength for us to endure (Ephesians 6:10-18), but we have to want that strength and pray for that strength. It will not be forced upon us. That is not how love works.

Are believers to work? Yes. Is God at work? Yes. We should be seeking to align our will with God’s will, and to allow God to use us as He sees fit for His purposes. Does that mean that we become passive agents? No; God works in mysterious ways, and we are going to have to expend effort if we are going to advance His purposes for His pleasure. Consider all the men of faith in Scripture and all the energies they expended in faith; yet would any of us deny that God worked in them and through them for His good pleasure? So it must be with us.

Let us not be fooled into going to extremes and causing contradiction where none exists. Let us not seek to vaunt our own responsibilities nor seek to abdicate them; instead, let us learn humility and to submit to God and His direction, through His prompting in Scripture and throughout our lives, praying that He may work in us to will and work for His good pleasure for His glory for all time!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Choice

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed; to love the LORD thy God, to obey his voice, and to cleave unto him; for he is thy life, and the length of thy days; that thou mayest dwell in the land which the LORD sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).

It was a deal that they should not have refused.

The LORD had been quite faithful to Israel. He delivered them with His strong hand out of the house of bondage and slavery in Egypt. He had led them throughout the parched desert wilderness; He had given them His instruction; He sustained them despite terrible conditions; He had even given them military success against their foes. He was about to fulfill another promise He had made to their ancestors– He was going to give them an inheritance in the land of Canaan.

So much promise; so many blessings. And yet God was willing to give even more– the hope of long and prosperous life in the land which He was giving them. It seemed so wonderful!

But there was a “catch.” Israel had to choose to follow God and His instruction. Over the generations, many would choose God and life. In pretense, most made the same choice. But, in practice, too many acted in ways contrary to God’s purposes and thus chose a curse and death!

But what would we think about God if He did not give them that choice? What if God compelled and coerced them into choosing life and blessing, and they had no real opportunity to refuse? Or what if He compelled them to choose death so as to display His wrath? What kind of God would we think Him to be?

There are many who think that such is the way God really is. To them, humans are really just puppets of some divine force. They feel as if we are all on some kind of supernatural strings and all direction is coming from elsewhere. In such a view humans ultimately have no choice: they are what they are from their genes and from the impulses they follow.

Yet such a view of God is not consistent with the revelation of God throughout Scripture. God wants all men to come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), just as He exhorted Israel to choose to follow Him and to receive life and blessings. God greatly desires for us to choose Him and to walk in His ways, but there is no compulsion or coercion to do so!

Think about it for a moment: if God was going to be the sadistic monster of a divinity that many make Him out to be, why would He make such agonizing pleas to Israel so that they would repent (cf. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea)? Why would He send His Son to experience such terrible cruelty if He just intended to still show people cruelty (cf. Romans 8:32-39)? Why would He bother with the creation after mankind sinned and it was corrupted with decay (Genesis 3, Romans 8:20-25)?

God’s commitment to man’s free will is very strong. Consider everything God has done to facilitate man’s salvation: He has given the creation, He has sent His Son to die for our sins, and through Him He has promised eternity in the resurrection and every spiritual blessing (Genesis 1:1-2:3, Romans 8:1-39, Ephesians 1:3). He has constantly exhorted His people, be it the Patriarchs, physical Israel, or spiritual Israel, to live according to His instruction. Wouldn’t it have been much easier for God to just compel us to do what He wants? How much heartache He would have saved Himself had He just fashioned mankind to do everything He told them to do!

Yet, as we know all too well, God did not make us that way. For whatever reason known to Him and not to us, God wants us to choose to serve Him, not to be forced into doing so. He has been willing to suffer the anguish of seeing His people turn their backs to Him, rebel against Him, and suffer the consequences both here and in the hereafter. Yet He still shows love toward mankind, having sent His Son to manifest His characteristics in the flesh and to provide the way to eternal life (Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 4:7-21)!

We are not pawns or robots in some contrived supernatural machine. For better and worse, we have been created as free moral agents, and the loving Creator God beckons us to choose Him, and in so doing, choose blessings and life. This is not a guarantee that life will be a walk in the park, but is the assurance that if we seek to serve Him, God will always be there for us, will love us, and will ultimately reward us beyond our imagination (Romans 8:17-39). Therefore let us all choose God and thus life, and be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry