Spiritual Formation, part 2 (Philippians 2:12-13)

Last week we began looking at this wonderful expression of how we are sanctified—that it is a synergistic cooperation between God’s grace and our determined effort.  We find it in Philippians 2:12-13

12 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, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

We saw last week that Paul is encouraging them to obey his commands to fight for unity and to live selflessly like Jesus did.  He tells them to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…” and we saw that this is a determined and continuous action on our part.  We also noted that this is a corporate action.

But what does Paul mean here?

Well, to be clear, Paul is not talking about working for our salvation.  Our justification is complete and secure.  We cannot lose it or improve upon it.  Paul is not telling them to work for their salvation, as if it depended at all upon them.

We should not even consider this as an option, because we know how dogmatic Paul is about the fact that men are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, apart from works (Romans 3:19-30; Galatians 2:20-21; 3:1-29; Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:4-7).  Paul expects his readers to understand that while we are not saved “by our works,” we are saved “unto good works” (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Rather, Paul is telling them to work out the practical implications of being saved.  He is not saying that there is something deficient with their justification, but that they needed to keep working on their sanctification.  Salvation can be compared to a huge gift that needs to be unwrapped for one’s thorough enjoyment.

We are justified by God entirely as an act of His grace, with absolutely no effort or earning on our part.

Again, this command is plural.  They were not told to work for their salvation but to work out the salvation God had already given them.  Because of the apparent problems of disunity and pride among those believers, this interpretation seems correct.  Some were not doing their work selflessly and with the interests of others ahead of their own (cf. 2:3–4).

A fourth comment on this statement is that it should be done “with fear and trembling,” indicating just how seriously we should take this command.  It is not optional.

Now, we don’t usually associate “fear and trembling” with God’s gracious provision of salvation.  Usually, we consider these words to be more appropriate to the old covenant and God’s wrath against sin.

“Fear and trembling” are words that speak of being “exceedingly afraid” and “quaking with fear.”  These are not tame words!  But then, our God is not a tame God.

The Scriptures call us to love God and to trust God.  But the call to fear God occurs more times in the Scriptures than both of these put together.  Even the New Testament calls us to fear God in passages like 1 Peter 1:15-17; Hebrews 12:28-29; 2 Corinthians 7:1; 2 Corinthians 5:10-11.

But I don’t think Paul is calling us to “work out our salvation” because we are afraid we might lose it.  Rather, we are to fear the possibility that we might lose out on opportunities for growth, on the opportunity to gain rewards, on the possibility we might lose ground spiritually or lose our testimony.

It seems to refer to the idea that we should be afraid that we might miss out on all that God has for us.

I think that basically what Paul is trying to do here is to get us to take our spiritual lives and spiritual growth more seriously than we do.  We need to realize that there is a spiritual battle going on, that people’s eternal destinies are at stake, that every day we are faced with opportunities to sow to the flesh or to the spirit, and every day we have only so many opportunities to make an impact on the lives of those around us.

We can waste our lives away, or be serious about spiritual growth.  Paul is telling us to work at it as though it was the most important thing in your life, as though your life depending upon it.

This seriousness is expressed in such passages as 2 Peter 1:10-11,

10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Do you want a rich entrance into the kingdom?  Do you want to keep from falling?  Then “be all the more diligent” in your spiritual life.

Too many people would rather have a rich now than a rich forever.

Tragically, we in the church in America are very lazy when it comes to fulfilling God’s desires for our lives.  When we examine the lives of the men and women of Scripture and throughout church history we fall tragically short of their legacies.

Will you run with all your might, stretching towards the finish line?

Now, in verse 13, we see that we are to work out what God is working in us.

work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

We work out what God is working in us.

Believe me, spiritual formation is only possible because God is at work prior to us doing anything.  The word “for” at the beginning of verse 13 indicates that the very possibility of us “working out our salvation” depends upon God first working “in us.”

Every act of spiritual formation we take finds its initiative in the fact that God is already at work in us.

The good news is that we are not left to ourselves to accomplish higher spiritual goals, but God is working ahead of us and within us to make this possible.

Notice first of all that it is God who is working in us.  Paul emphasizes this by the way he puts it:  “it is God who works in you” rather than merely “God works in you.”

Most of the pagan gods were impersonal and removed from human interaction.  But the God of Christianity is involved with us…each of us…on a personal level as if we were the only person on earth.

And God has unlimited power and resources to give to us.  We should never attempt to excuse ourselves from pushing ahead spiritually.

Peter says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).

Second, the word “work” in verse 13 is different from the word that Paul used in v. 12.  Here Paul uses energeo, from which we get energy.  Literally, “God is the Energizing One in you.”

This word means to “work effectively,” to bring an action to an effective end.

He grants energy for the work we need to do.  He is our power supply—not an impersonal thing, but a loving supplier of all we need for life and godliness.

Third, this word is a present participle, indicating that God is always, in every instance, working in you.  You may not always feel it, but it is always present.

Fourth, notice where God is working…it is “in you.”  That is where the Spirit is present in our lives.  God always works from the inside out.  True spiritual formation is not first about our adopting spiritual practices, but about the working of God in us.

Charles Spurgeon says…

In a certain sense, the salvation of every person who believes in Christ is complete, and complete without any working out on his part, seeing that “it is finished,” and we are complete in Jesus.  Observe that there are two parts of our salvation, the one complete, the other as yet incomplete, though guaranteed to be brought to perfection. The first part of our salvation consists of a work for us; the second, of a work in us…

Fifth, note what God is working in us—“both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

In other words, God puts the desire in us to say “no” to temptation and to move towards godliness.  And, he provides the enablement to do this.

Desires are, in many ways, the most important thing about us. “Desire is the powerful subtext of our lives.  It determines our decisions.  This is why we need to pay attention to it.  If we are to change, desire must change” (Jen Pollock Michel).

Without God putting the desire for godliness in our hearts, we would not naturally desire it.  Unless he gives us the power, we would be unable to do it.

We know from common experience that there are two aspects to every conscious action: the hidden will and the outward work.  But God does more than merely strengthen our willing and doing.  Paul’s explanation goes deeper.  “God himself is working in us both to will and to act: he works in us at the level of our wills and at the level of our doing” (Carson).  God works in us, not merely with us.

Pascal’s approving quotation of Augustine will help our thinking along.  Augustine wrote, “Our deeds are our own, because of the free will producing them, and they are also God’s, because of his grace causing our free will to produce them.”

And he says elsewhere, “God makes us do what he pleases by making us desire what we might not desire.”  The work that God does in us “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (emphasis added) is expansive and complete.

Every time you desire to do something good and loving, guess who put that there…God!

Every time you successfully overcome temptation or accomplish a ministry that you wouldn’t have believed you could do, guess who gave you the strength….God!

Charles Williams says…

“The believer could not even desire the higher life of conquest over self and sin, and the sanctification of character and conduct, except as God through the Spirit works and helps him both to will and to work, to desire and do” (Charles B. Williams, A Commentary on the Pauline Epistles, p. 336).

Thomas Constable adds:

This verse is one of the most comforting in the New Testament.  Sometimes we want to do right, but seem to lack the energy or ability.  This verse assures us that God will help us.  At other times, we cannot even seem to want to do right.  Here we learn that God can also provide the desire to do His will when we do not have it.  If we find that we do not want to do right, we can ask God to work in us to create a desire to do His will. This verse gives us confidence that God desires both to motivate and to enable us.

Are you glad that God is working in your will?  Some people are uncomfortable with that thought.  Some would rather we keep our wills “free” and uninfluenced by anyone.

But the reality is, our will is never absolutely free.  It is always being influenced by someone or something.  Before we came to Christ our wills were heavily influenced by the world, the flesh and Satan’s forces (cf. 2 Timothy 2:25; Romans 12:2; Ephesians 2:1-3).

So I am glad that God is working in me, giving me new, holy desires and giving me the strength to be able to carry out those desires.

So notice how these two verses argue against both quietism (being totally passive, “let go and let God”) and pietism (doing all the work ourselves).  Philippians 2:12-13 argues that our sanctification depends upon diligent effort on our part, but the only possible way that happens is precisely because God has already been, and always is, working in us giving us the desire and the ability to put in diligent effort.

If we had only verse 12, we would conclude that spiritual maturity is all up to us.  If we only had verse 13, we would assume that it is all up to God.

But both verses together indicates that our sanctification involves our effort, but that it is God who initiates it and ultimately accomplishes it.

So how do we stay balanced?  We work hard at our sanctification with a conscious dependence upon God to provide both the desire and power to accomplish it.  It is a dependent discipline, not simply a dogged discipline on our part, but a discipline that depends upon God every moment, every step of the way.

The motivation for all this—for our sanctification—is “God’s good pleasure.”

Just like the exaltation of Christ is for the glory of God, so our sanctification and eventual glorification serves “God’s good pleasure.”

One might very well get the impression that God does everything to suit Himself, whether we like it or not.  There is a certain measure of truth here, which I do not in any way wish to deny. He is sovereign, and that means God can do what He wishes.  No one has said it any better than Nebuchadnezzar:

31 While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, 32 and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.33 Immediately the word was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws. 34 At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;

My concern is that we may get the impression that God pleases Himself at our expense.  Surely Philippians 2:5-11 would challenge this.  God does glorify Himself at the expense of His enemies.  But I am convinced that when God acts to please Himself, He is also acting in a way that is for our benefit, as believers in Him.  Is this not the point of Romans 8:28?  God causes all things to work together for our good and for His glory.  Our good (that is, the “good” of Christians) is what glorifies God.  This is part of the reason we do everything to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

He works in us for sanctification because it brings him joy.

It is all for the pleasure of our God.  Not just pleasure, but good pleasure.

At the very least, I believe Paul is saying that we should be humbled to realize that God is the One at work in us to will and to work His benevolent purposes for us. It may even be that Paul has structured this verse in a way that implies that the goal of God’s working is for His pleasure and ours.

Further, his “good pleasure” is, by virtue of his love for us, our great good.  And here, in respect to the Philippian church, what pleases God is an end to the dissensions among them, which would also be for their good.

Paul’s magnificent “therefore” sentence of verses 12, 13 is meant to be sweetly motivational: “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.”

What an incentive this was to this beloved church to carry on!

How do we grow?  We grow when God works in us.  And we grow when we work out what God is working in us.

John Ortberg compares it to crossing the ocean.  If we set out in a rowboat by ourselves, we’ll never cross that ocean.  We don’t have what it takes.  But if we just drift, expecting God to blow us across the ocean, that won’t work either.

Neither trying nor drifting are effective in bringing about spiritual transformation.  A better image is the sailboat, which if it moves at all, it’s a gift of the wind.  We can’t control the wind, but a good sailor discerns where the wind is blowing and adjusts the sails accordingly.

God works, and then we work out what God is working in us.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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