“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).
What an incredibly big word “f-o-r” is! 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.
As I noted earlier in the examples I gave you, 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 at your church 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.
The author of the book of Hebrews says virtually the same thing in 13:20-21 of his letter. There he writes:
“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20-21).
Here he tells us that God’s covenant with his children is eternal and sure because he will not leave us lacking the necessary resources to do his will. He abundantly provides you with whatever you need to do his will. But he does even more than that. Just as we saw in Philippians 2, God works in us the very willing and working that he requires of us.
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).
You should know that virtually every non-Christian religion and philosophy reverses vv. 12-13. All other religions in one way or another put your effort first and God’s action second. That is utterly disastrous. Only Christianity asserts the antecedence and priority of grace and then the obedience and good works of men and women.
Paul says much the same thing in 1 Corinthians 15:10 – “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Paul worked hard. He labored long. He struggled and strained more than all the others combined. And when he was done, and wiped the sweat from his brow, he declared that it was all of God. It was all of grace.
How do we experience this power of God, this inner reality of grace that stimulates and then sustains our work? Galatians 3:5 provides us with the answer – “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” God is at work in us through his Spirit to will and to do of his good pleasure by means of our faith-filled hearing. We hear God speak. We believe what he says. We exercise faith in his Word. And it is in and through that faithful hearing and trusting that the Spirit supplies us with power to say No to temptation and Yes to obedience.
“But Sam, how do we hear faithfully? How do we find the power to trust what God says in the first place?” We hear with faith because God has already been at work in us to open our spiritual ears and to give us a taste for his glory and a love for holiness. We hear with faith because God is antecedently at work in us to will and to do in our hearts what is needed so that we will hear with faith!
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.
John Piper is careful to remind us 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.
In all likelihood, when Paul talks about the “will” of God and doing what is “pleasing” to him he has in mind those things he mentioned back in 2:1-4. So, if you find yourself lacking the desire or the will to defer to others and serve their interests above your own, God can awaken in you what you lack.
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” (Keep in Step with the Spirit, 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).
And when you are done, you can say what Paul did: “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).
To be continued . . .