“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.”
Reformation theologians set various concepts in opposition when explaining how God’s gracious salvation is applied to human beings. They did so because the Bible sets various concepts in opposition. Therefore, we must do so as well if we are to be faithful to Scripture and to the Reformers’ example. With respect to salvation, it is important to see that we oppose grace and merit, not grace and human activity. What do we mean by this? At no point in salvation does our merit enter into the equation. We do not and cannot merit or earn election, regeneration, faith, justification, sanctification, or glorification. There are points in salvation, however, where we do act, though not in a meritorious way. For example, we act in the exercise of faith. We do something because we put our trust in Christ. Though faith is God’s gracious gift, God does not believe for us. We believe. But—and this is essential—our believing is not meritorious. The Lord does not take our faith as a payment for eternal life. He does not reward faith; faith merely lays hold of Christ and His righteousness, and that is what merits eternal life.Another place in salvation where grace and human activity are not opposed is in our sanctification, our growth in Christ and progress in holiness over our lifetimes. Just consider Philippians 2:12–13, wherein Paul tells us to work out our own salvation “with fear and trembling.” Clearly, Paul has some human activity in mind. But Paul stresses God’s initiative. We work because God works in us. The Lord’s grace is operative in sanctification. He works in us to give us the will to obey Him, and He works in us to produce good works of obedience. These good works are the result of grace, but they are not meritorious of salvation. God looks upon and is pleased with our sanctification, but it is not because we keep His commandments that we receive eternal life. We receive eternal life because Christ kept God’s commandments perfectly.Grace and our own merit are opposed at every point in salvation. We can make no claim on God. But grace does not mean we are passive in the outworking of the Lord’s redemption. At key points—such as sanctification—we act, not to earn our place in heaven but because Christ has earned our place in heaven and because He is working in us to prepare us for heaven. God initiates, sustains, and completes our holiness. We act in a non-meritorious way to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, and we produce good works because God’s sanctifying grace alone guarantees them.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
Until we are glorified, the presence of sin remains in us, affecting all that we do. Thus, our obedience cannot merit salvation because none of our obedience is perfect. But God is pleased to accept good works done in Christ and by grace, using them to conform us ever more to the Lord. So, we act and obey, not to earn heaven but because heaven has been earned and secured for us by Jesus.