12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. [NASB ‘77]
In light of who Christ is and the example of His obedience and submission, followers of Christ must complete their salvation – pursue godliness and Christ-likeness – in the power God provides. In these verses Paul gives an excellent summary of sanctification and stresses both our responsibility and our dependence. To the question of who is responsible for my sanctification, God or me? Paul answers ‘yes.’
Paul begins this verse with “So then,” which refers back to what he’s just said about Jesus. Jesus obeyed God unto death and God exalted Him such that all will someday worship Him. In light of that obedience and in light of Jesus’ glory, we too must obey. Jesus’ love, sacrifice, and glory motivate us to obedience.
And obedience is key. The mark of sanctification – what Paul refers to in these verses – is obedience. As we obey God’s precepts more and more we grow to be like Jesus – who ultimately and perfectly obeyed – more and more. The goal of sanctification is Christ-likeness, and the ultimate mark of Christ-likeness is obedience.
Incredibly, Paul commends the Philippians for having always obeyed and tells them to continue obeying (wouldn’t you like someone to write that about you?). He admonishes them to obey whether he comes to them or not. He’s the one who taught them the gospel, but his presence isn’t necessary for them to live in a way that’s worthy of it. His imprisonment must not affect their sanctification.
What he says next is at first somewhat surprising. He says they need to work out their salvation. This almost sounds like he’s telling them to earn their salvation, but we know that can’t be the case. What he must mean instead is that they need to work toward the completion or perfection of their salvation. Salvation in this case means progressively coming to experience all of the aspects and blessings of salvation (ESV Study Bible, note on Philippians 2:12-13.). They need to continually increase in their obedience and godliness – become increasingly more like Christ. And note that this is something they do. They need to work out their salvation.
This idea goes along with other commands in the New Testament. Consider:
- On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance. For it is for this (godliness) we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers (I Tim 4:7b-10).
- Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
He ends the verse with instruction as to the attitude and perspective they should have as they work. They must work with fear and trembling. It’s hard to know exactly how he means this. We could take it to mean that they must be sober-minded as they approach their sanctification and have a healthy fear of falling away. In that case, the meaning would be one of self-examination, what he urges the Corinthians to do (II Cor 13:5 – Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! See also – II Pet 1:10). It could also mean that this is the attitude they should have toward God. They obey with fear and trembling because of God’s justice and holiness and because of who Christ is. Christ is the one who will someday have every knee bowed to Him and every tongue confessing Him. Thus they (we) approach Him in reverence. As we work to become more like Him we understand what an awesome thing it is to be in His presence. If this is the correct meaning, it would go along with Paul’s words to the Corinthians where he also combines the pursuit of godliness with the fear of God – Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (II Cor 7:1).
The start of verse 13 – for it is God – makes the second meaning more likely. Obedience is motivated both by love and awe. As we meditate on the gospel we’re overwhelmed by the love demonstrated in it. But we’re also in awe of the holiness that required it. God is both awesome and loving, just and Justifier, holy and merciful. We come boldly before His throne because we’re His sons and daughters (Heb 4:16), but we never forget that it is in fact a throne, and on the throne is the One about whom it’s said day and night for all eternity, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God almighty” (Rev 4:8). We obey in fear and trembling.
Thankfully, Paul doesn’t stop after telling us to work out our salvation. He gives us more information in verse 13. While we are the ones who work, it is only in God’s power that the work can occur. We don’t work alone and we don’t work in our own strength. As a matter of fact, we don’t even work as a result of our own will. We work in God’s strength and because of the will God gives us.
This is the great qualifier. We aren’t wholly responsible for our sanctification. We work, but we work in God’s strength. We strive to live in a manner worthy of the gospel but we do it in the Spirit. There is no way to become increasingly like Christ without the strength His Spirit provides. We don’t grow the fruit of the Spirit on our own. We aren’t left alone – we aren’t told to spread our wings and be like Christ and then pushed out of the nest to see if we can fly. God is with us every step of the way. He didn’t save us to leave us alone. He saved us and now walks with us and gives us what we need day by day to honor Him and please Him.
And that’s ultimately why He does what He does. It is for His good pleasure. We honor God when we obey Him. We glorify Him when we become like Him. We please Him with obedience. God does all things for His glory, and giving us the strength and guidance to progress in our sanctification furthers that glory.
We pointed it out already, but it’s important not to miss that Paul says God works in us both to will and to work for His good pleasure. He not only gives us the strength to accomplish His will, He gives us the WILL to accomplish His will. Our desire to serve Him, our desire for righteousness, our desire to obey, they come from God. On our own, we don’t want to obey (and even as believers we have times when we don’t want to obey also – but that’s when we know we’re walking in our strength and selfishness instead of in the power of the Spirit – Gal 5:16). But as saved children of God, we have the Spirit in us and He gives us freedom from the power of sin and a desire for righteousness. Can anything be more radical than that? It means that every good desire, every Christian thought and aspiration which I have is something which has been produced in me by God. God controls my willing, it is God who energizes my very desires and hopes and aspirations and thoughts, he stimulates it all. (D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Life of Joy and Peace; 169.)
Verse 13, then, really brings us back to 1:6. God will perfect us until the day of Christ Jesus. And that underlies all our effort in sanctification. When we compare 1:6 with what Paul says here, we see that we work toward greater godliness with the confidence that Christ’s Spirit works within us toward the same goal. We work in His strength and with His will infusing ours, confident that God will complete us until that day. And for this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me (Col 1:29)
Which is a huge encouragement we shouldn’t miss. It means we never work toward godliness in vain. As much as we seem to live in fits and starts, and as much as our life seems to be a series of two steps forward and one or two or three steps back, we keep going because we know that He will complete us for His good pleasure. Paul says this very thing to the Corinthians – Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord (I Cor 15:58). No matter how many times we seem to fail and fall short, it is never wasted effort to pursue godliness so we must never give up.
What this passage shows us is that we’re responsible for our sanctification but we’re also wholly dependent. We must work toward godliness, work to become more Christ-like, but do it only in the strength God provides. We work, but we work in the knowledge that even our desire for godliness comes from God. So we’re both sobered by our role in sanctification and encouraged by the promise that God goes with us every step of the way and will complete us. We don’t sit back and say, “OK God, sanctify me.” But we also don’t carry the burden of sanctification alone.
And that’s a vitally important concept to remember. When we feel like giving up, when the list of things we’re supposed to do as believers seems overwhelming, it’s likely because we’re living in our own strength. It’s sometimes why people walk away from the faith. We mentioned this above, but Christ didn’t die for us so He could leave us to struggle on our own. The enemy wants us to fight alone and in our own strength so we’ll become discouraged and give up. Our Savior wants us to fight in His strength so we’ll know Him more and enjoy Him more and grow to be more like Him every day.
II Peter 1:2-11 gives us another picture of what Paul admonishes here. In it Peter shows how the knowledge and strength of God enable us to live for Him. Verses 2-4 show God’s provision and verses 5-11 show our responsibility. Knowing God enables us to partake in the divine nature which gives us the power to live godly lives – it gives us everything pertaining to life and godliness. We work and are responsible, but we work in His strength. And in that strength we strive toward moral excellence, perseverance, self-control, etc. The outcome of a life lived this way is verse 11. The ultimate result of God’s provision and our striving within His power is a godliness that shows we’re His, and if we’re His we’re given entrance into His eternal kingdom.
2 Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; 3 seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. 4 For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. 5 Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge; 6 and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness; 7 and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; 11 for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you. (II Pet 1:2-11)