Working it Out with God

Paul’s words in Philippians 2:12-13 capture my attention:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill His good pleasure.

These two short verses provide what I see as the best description of the mysterious tension that exists in our lives between God’s power and our effort. Paul is challenging his readers to obey God – and his teaching about God – even though he is geographically apart from them and in prison. He offers a kind, yet challenging, word to the believers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

In essence, Paul is telling us that we need to put effort into our life with God. It will not just ‘happen’ without energy expended and time given to the work. Dallas Willard puts it this way: “Grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning. Effort is action. Earning is attitude.” It is not that we earn our salvation. No, we understand from Paul’s writings that salvation is a gift of God’s grace. But working out that gracious gift is something that demands – and deserves – diligence and effort. The tension between grace and effort is something akin to the difference between a Christmas gift of a bicycle and the ensuing effort needed in learning to ride that bicycle. I cannot help but think of Paul’s later encouragement to his young pastoral trainee, Timothy, to “train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7). His comparison in that passage to physical training seems to echo through the current words to the Philippian believers. ‘Get to it! Don’t stop working at it!’ Paul says.

But the other half of the equation is the reality that “it is God who works in you.” Salvation is not something based in human effort. Jesus reminds us in John 15:5, “Apart from Me you can do nothing.” In another place, Paul tells us that the power at work within us is the same as the power God used in raising Christ from death (Ephesians 1:19-20). Our own efforts find their strength and source in the truth that God is at work within us. This should encourage us but also give us that “fear and trembling” Paul references here. Right now and right here in our lives the Living God is at work. He will do His work in our lives. That’s why Paul said that God will “fulfill His good purpose” in us or, as he wrote earlier in this same letter, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Philippians 1:6).

So, we come to salvation-life in this mysterious tension that we are to work out our salvation, while knowing the truth is God is at work in us, even in our best efforts. We cannot wait for God to do something without putting some effort into it. Yet, we cannot believe that our efforts will do a thing apart from the powerful working of God in our lives.

5 thoughts on “Working it Out with God

  1. The analogy between a bicycle and riding a bicycle is excellent. The same tension appears in the present middle participle for the attainment (κομιζομενοι) of salvation in 1 Peter 1:9, “…you are attaining the goal of your faith – the salvation of your souls.” We are reminded of it every time we pray “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The prayer comes from us, but the deliverance comes from God.

  2. Thanks, Bruce, for the connections with 1 Peter and Jesus’ teaching on prayer. As I wrote, there is a tension in this but, of course, the initiation of salvation and the power for salvation is all in God.

  3. Another analogy would be marriage. Once married, always married. But what we become in marriage requires work every day. Likewise, we have certainty of faith that once saved always saved. But, we must work out that salvation. That is why I am persuaded by a divine command ethics. In the present work of salvation, we are confronted by the paradox of God’s clear stated will and his secret permissive will. Take slavery, for example. Today it seems self-evident that slavery is immoral. Yet, in LIncoln’s day, it was not so. He famously said that our nation was engaged in a great civil war to test whether “the proposition that all men were created equal” was true. If it is a self-evident truth, why did we need law-givers to write the 14th amendment to override the Dred Scott decision? Why did we need to fight a long and bloody Civil War, where Christians and Jews supported both the Union and the Confederacy? Lincoln’s Second Inaugural acknowledged that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” Discernment and wisdom for present living are also part of our ongoing salvaltion.

    • Marriage is a good picture where two parties are working together on something that is both derived from them and bigger than them at the same time. Reminds me of Augustine and his analogies about the Holy Spirit.

      I’d like to hear more of what you mean by “divine command ethics,” Bruce. This is a bit of a tangent from the post here, but maybe you could explain further.

  4. A tension exists between the ideal self and the real self on the psychological level. As Christians, we are concerned with God’s will, which places the tension on a different level from the psychological, in specific, the spiritual level. On the spiritual level of God’s will, we distinguish between God’s will of command and God’s sovereign will. God did not commit infanticide when he sent his Son to die, but he did will his crucifixion. We are instructed by Paul to “test and approve” what is the will of God (Rom 12:2). God wants us to exercise judgement when we apply his will of command. God’s will of command is absolute, but it must be applied differently in different circumstances. Circumstances are not controlled by the historical conditions of our own psychology, but by the ongoing revelation of God’s sovereign will. That is why a Bonhoeffer can (correctly) end up in an assassination attempt on the life of Hitler, while the majority of German Christians were on the side of Hitler and the Orders of Nature.

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