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Some things in the Bible are intuitive. Many statements in Proverbs, for example, could easily be discovered by personal experience (e.g., the wringing of the nose brings forth blood, Prov. 30:33). But some things in Scripture are so mind-bending that we’d probably never believe them if God hadn’t inspired them.
The relationship between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility is one of those things. How does Christian obedience work? Is it something we do, or something God does in us? And if it’s something we do, how can God get the glory instead of us? Moreover, is obedience something we should actively seek, or should we simply “let go and let God”? If salvation is something God does from start to finish (Phil. 1:6), what does that leave for us to do?
Some things in Scripture are so mind-bending that we’d probably never believe them if God hadn’t inspired them.
Philippians 2:12–13 speaks to these questions in a way almost no other passage does. Paul takes one of the strongest statements in all Scripture about our responsibility to obey, and then blows our mind by laying it right beside one of the strongest statements in all Scripture about God’s sovereignty over our obedience. And perhaps most important, he tells us how these two realities relate to each other.
Our Responsibility in Obedience
The main verb in verse 12 is the command: “Work out your own salvation.” Let the shock of that sink in. The Greek verb means to produce or bring about. It’s the same word Paul uses when he says “godly grief produces (or brings about) repentance” (2 Cor. 7:10; cf. Rom. 5:3). Only here, the thing we’re supposed to bring about is our salvation!
I would never have written it that way. But God didn’t seek my counsel when he breathed out holy writ. He says what he wants, and he expects us to humble ourselves and ask, “OK, God, given what you clearly say elsewhere, what do you mean by telling me to bring about my own salvation?”
We know that it involves obeying God, since it’s parallel to the word “obey” earlier in the verse: “Just as you’ve always obeyed . . . so now work out your own salvation.” We also know that it can’t be referring to how we first were saved, because Paul clearly teaches that we were saved (justified) by faith and not by works (Eph. 2:8; Titus 3:5–7). So when Paul says “work out your own salvation,” he’s not referring to past-tense salvation.
But salvation is also a present-tense reality we call sanctification (1 Cor. 1:18), as well as a future-tense reality we call glorification (Rom. 5:9; 13:11). If you’re a Christian, you’re someone who has been saved, is being saved, and will be saved.
If you’re a Christian, you’re someone who has been saved, is being saved, and will be saved.
The salvation we’re called to bring about is the sanctification that climaxes in glorification. And though this language may sound extreme, it’s not unusual. Scripture often speaks of us purifying ourselves (1 John 3:3), cleansing ourselves (2 Cor. 7:1), even saving ourselves (Acts 2:40; 1 Tim. 4:16). While not denying salvation by grace, such language reminds us that sanctification isn’t some passive affair like watching TV or receiving a blood transfusion. It takes effort, and God isn’t going to do it for us. If we’re going to grow in holiness, we can’t just sit back and coast. We have an active role to play.
In the words of commentator Moises Silva, “The thought should give us pause: our salvation, which we confess to be God’s from beginning to end, is here described as something we must bring about.”
But Paul doesn’t leave it there.
God’s Sovereignty in Our Obedience
This shocking command is immediately followed by one of the strongest statements on divine sovereignty in the Bible. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Why? “For it is God who is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
This language reminds us that sanctification isn’t some passive affair like watching TV or receiving a blood transfusion.
Don’t miss that little word “for” (or “because”) that connects the two statements. This is perhaps the most significant contribution of this verse. Paul’s logic is not “You shouldn’t work because God works,” or “If you work, then God will work,” but “You should work because God works in you.” Verse 13 provides the reason and the power for verse 12.
And notice—he’s at work in you not only “to work,” but even “to will.” God isn’t up in heaven saying, “If you can just muster the will to obey, then I’ll step in and help you finish the work.” Even your willingness to obey comes from him. If you’re struggling to want to obey God, this text authorizes you to pray with the psalmist, “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain” (Ps. 119:36).
Don’t sit back idly. Ask him to make you willing. Go to his promises (and, if necessary, his threats), and then step forward in faith toward obedience. And when you’ve taken that step of obedience, look back and give him the glory for all of it, because it was he who did it through you.
Acting the Miracle
God’s work is primary, and yet somehow his work doesn’t swallow up our personhood or take away our choice. Every work of obedience you do happens because God is at work in you. And yet at the same time, it really is you doing the work.
God acts through us, and yet it’s still our act.
That’s the mind-blowing mystery of this passage. Yes, there are actions, like election, that are 100 percent God and 0 percent us (Rom. 9:11; Eph. 1:4). There are also actions, like sin, that are 0 percent God and 100 percent us (James 1:13–14; 1 John 1:5). But when it comes to working out our salvation, it’s more like 100 percent God and 100 percent us. God acts through us, and yet it’s still our act. He is the one who puts the “earnest care” into our hearts, and yet we still act “of our own accord” (2 Cor. 8:16–17). John Piper calls this mystery “acting the miracle.”
This is the kind of thing you won’t believe unless you take the Bible’s logic seriously. And yet it’s exactly what we need in order to guard us from pride on the one hand and laziness on the other. Laziness says, “I don’t have to work out my salvation; I can just let go and let God.” Pride says, “I worked and so I deserve the credit.” But humility says, “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).
Divine sovereignty and human responsibility can be hard to reconcile. So let us be thankful that every now and then, passages like this connect the dots for us.