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The command to work in connection with one’s “salvation” (Phil. 2:12–13) has perplexed many a believer. On one level, this is due to the fact that in answer to the Philippian jailer’s question, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul told him to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 16:30–31), but in Philippians he tells believers to work for the same goal. On a deeper level, it can trouble someone who is prone to doubt his salvation because of a sense of lack of spiritual growth.

Two facts should help dispel such uncertainty. First, the word “salvation” does not always refer to acceptance by God and admission into His heavenly family. The Apostle used it himself in a larger sense in two places in this very epistle (1:19, 28) with regard to his deliverance from prison or via death that will bring complete conformity to Christ. Second, the opening words of the command refer back to Jesus’ obedience unto death and the fact that those addressed have experienced the transforming power of the gospel (2:12).

Consequently, this command should never be disconnected from faith in Christ that results from grace, not works (1:29), but instead it should be seen as mapping out a pursuit of the fullness of salvation. This includes the process of sanctification, with which this command is usually and correctly identified. There are two main things which should be noted about this command for sanctification.

The Command Is in the Plural

All too often, sanctification is thought of in relation to one’s own growth in grace. While sanctification is so related, it must not be pursued individualistically. Perhaps there is an implied rebuke of the kind of individualism that was beginning to disrupt the unity of the church at Philippi in the very form of this command. Some commentators have pointed that out, and it cannot be excluded given the emphasis on “oneness” in the epistle. If instead of one’s own “salvation,” the “well-being” of the body of Christ were to be considered—and the noun can be so understood—then the danger of becoming individualistic would be lessened. The command would then be endorsing the exhortation previously given to “let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests [or needs] of others” (2:4).

But while the corporate dimension is undoubtedly present, an individual aspect remains. This is because the harmony of the whole is always the result of its particular parts. The plural exhortation is therefore applicable to each person individually and not merely to all believers corporately.  Sanctification is both personal and interpersonal.

It is the highway of grace to glory.
The Command is Twofold

First, to “work” is “to will and to do,” and that is true of all work, even of the most routine kind. It is always the result of a decision being put into effect even if it is made relatively unconsciously. Life is divided into thought and action, whether of word or deed. It is not mindless but involves motivation.

Second, two different words for “work” are used, and that is indicated somewhat by the prepositions “out” and “in” that follow the verb “work” in our translations. It is important to realize that the distinction between them does not lie between the visible and the invisible but between activity (v. 12) and energy (v. 13).

Third, two parts to the duty are connected by the preposition “for,” and while they should be distinguished, they should not be divided. They bring together law and grace. How should the parts be described? As a condition and promise? No. If they were, the sense would be “You obey and God will help you,” which leaves the believer defeated and bereft. The first part is a command or gospel exhortation. What is the second? It is an explanation—one that is immensely encouraging. The exhortation tells everyone what they are to do, and the explanation declares that they are not alone in doing it. The word order in verse 13 is unusual—the opening word is “God,” which assures the “working” believer that his “willing” and his “doing” are divinely energized and brought to completion.

So, how does the Christian comply with this command? It is not by thinking in percentage terms or by alternating phases of action. Such apportioning is destructive of the remarkable combination that is present in this declaration, which amounts to God’s being active in the believer and the believer’s being active in God. Such a union is only possible because God, as Creator and Regenerator of human beings, indwells them as their Sanctifier. As the believer is brought into communion with the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit, such interpersonal activity becomes a reality. This is the very center of the gospel mystery of sanctification.

A circle of cooperation is therefore set up in which concurrent and cooperative “willing and doing” become a mysterious and deepening reality. Private and public, individual and corporate, study and service, praise and prayer, worship and witness, meditation and the means of grace all cohere, intensifying reverent submission (“fear and trembling”) with a view to pleasing God (“his good pleasure”) according to His mind and will.

This pathway, however, is not easy to tread. There is the flesh and the fiend to contend with, but it is the highway of grace to glory. There will be many falls on it but none out of it. But willing and working according to God’s Word means that He is energizing and will enable and complete what He has begun on the day of Christ.

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From the April 2018 Issue
Apr 2018 Issue