Act the Miracle! Unraveling the Mystery of the Christian Life2
“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” (Philippians 2:12-13).
I need to explain the title to today’s article: Act the Miracle. It isn’t original with me. I didn’t make it up. I stole it. I have unapologetically plagiarized the words “Act the Miracle” from the Desiring God national conference that Ann and I attended last year in Minneapolis, with their permission of course.
The “miracle” in view here is the activity of God in producing in our hearts and minds and wills the desire and power to obey his Word. The word “act” has in view what you and I do as a result of the miracle God has already performed in our hearts and minds and wills. To “act the miracle,” therefore, is a call to each of us to be diligent in doing what God has commanded, knowing that our energy and enthusiasm and exertion are all the fruit of a miracle in our hearts that has already taken place. 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.
Let me put it in slightly different terms. I’m going to use a word repeatedly in this series of articles that is key to what Paul is saying here. It is the word “antecedent”. Antecedent simply means to come before, to precede. 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. I hope that’s clear.
We see this principle in operation when it comes to the love of God. In 1 John 4:19 the apostle makes this simple statement: “We love because he first loved us.” In other words, God’s love for us is antecedent to our love for him. It is only because God first took the initiative in loving us that we, subsequently, are enabled to love him. God is always antecedent.
That, dear friend, is the profound truth that Paul is trying to communicate to you and me in Philippians 2:12-13. It is a truth that not only explains the mystery of the Christian life, but one that serves to encourage us when we are frustrated, and gives us hope when we are in despair.
I’m going to make an extremely bold claim: If you don’t understand this truth you will never understand the mystery of the Christian life. If you don’t walk away from this passage with a solid grip on that most fundamental of theological principles, your struggle with sin and your desire to please God with your life will forever remain shrouded in mystery.
Let me say one more thing before we jump into the deep end of the pool. 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. Think of it in this way.
When God filled many at Bridgeway with generosity to give so our kids could attend summer camp, they were the ones who wrote the check to make it happen.
When God stirs them with love for our children so that they volunteer to help on a Sunday morning, they are the ones who sign their names on the dotted line.
When God healed the paralytic in Acts 3, it was the man who got up and leapt about and ran.
When God awakens compassion in your heart to pray for someone who is sick and oppressed, you are the ones who lay hands on them and intercede on their behalf.
When God reminds you of the beauty of Christ and fills your heart with the reality of his saving grace, it is you who shut down that pornographic website and walk away from the computer.
When God infused resurrection life into the body and soul of Lazarus, it was Lazarus who walked out of the tomb on his own two feet.
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. This is the principle that is found in our text and one that we will continue to explore.