The Believer’s Responsibility in Sanctification

Mike Harding

Paul’s framing of the paradox regarding divine sovereignty and human responsibility takes one of its most striking forms in Philippians 2:12-13. In order to soften the apparent contradiction between Paul’s imperative in Philippians 2:12 and the doctrine of justification, interpreters have sought to understand this passage in terms of the “sociology” of the church as opposed to the common “soteriology” of the believers at Philippi. As will be seen, however, Paul is addressing that aspect of salvation known as progressive sanctification without which “no man will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).

The Believer’s Responsibility

Note how verse 12 begins: “So then, my beloved …” The vocative, “my beloved,” recalls the tender, affectionate relationship Paul had with these believers (1:8). Before Paul explicitly exhorts his readers, however, he commends the Philippians for their past obedience: “just as you have always obeyed”. “Obeyed” has special reference to one’s submission to Christ, the gospel, and apostolic teaching (Phil 2:9-11; Rom 1:5; 5:19; 6:16-17; Heb 5:9; 11:8).

Now to the main imperative of the passage: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling [with godly fear]”. Fundamental to Pauline theology is the idea that salvation is not by works (Rom 4:5). Keeping this in mind, the indicative in verse 13, which states that it is actually God who works in believers “to will and to do,” could render the imperative (“work out”) in verse 12 meaningless. The tension, therefore, between the imperative and the indicative in verses 12 and 13 constitutes an “extreme formulation of the paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.” The dilemma is remedied when one realizes that we are to “work out” by His grace what God has worked in. Paul’s terminology in 2:12 is predicated on his prior use of “salvation” in 1:28: “which is to them an evident token of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that of God” (KJV). In Paul’s writings “salvation” has a consistent reference to deliverance from the power and consequences of sin. He uses the verb “to save” 29 times (more than anyone else in the NT) and “salvation” including its cognates about 20 times— each reference is soteriological in nature.

Exactly what does Paul intend by the use of his imperative “be working out”? Bauer lists the present imperative katergazesthe under the category which says “to bring about [or] produce.” Paul uses the term similarly in Ephesians 6:13, “and having done all to stand” (KJV). James employs a similar nuance in 1:3, “the trying of your faith worketh patience” (KJV) or “produces endurance” (NASB). The basic sense of katergazesthe is to “accomplish” something in the sense of “carrying it out” (Rom 7:18). Both the context and grammar verify that katergazesthe has the theological equivalence of “obedience.” The imperative (work out) is the apodosis (“so then”) of a comparative sentence whose protasis (“just as you have always obeyed”) clarifies Paul’s authorial intent. Paul commands the Philippians to participate in their response to divine grace by developing salvation fruit now and in the future through the divine energy of the Holy Spirit. Their continuous action, elsewhere, is described as a pursuit, pressing on, a fight, and a race (Philip 3:12; 1 Cor 9:24-27; 1 Tim 6:12). For Paul to emphasize that believers must work out their own salvation in their everyday living in no way denies that salvation is wholly the work of God. Homer Kent explains this well:

“The biblical concept of salvation must be understood to comprehend Paul’s intent here. Salvation has many aspects … Regeneration initiates the believer into a life with obligations. Acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord obligates the believer to obey him. Hence, working out salvation does not mean ‘working for’ salvation, but making salvation operational. Justification must be followed by the experiential aspects of sanctification, by which the new life in Christ is consciously appropriated and demonstrated.”

Paul accents the seriousness of his command in two ways. First, they must obey God whether or not Paul is there to continually encourage them. Second, they must obey “with fear and trembling”. This unusual phrase originates from the Septuagint where it references the dread that pagans experience at the presence of the living God (Ex 15:16; Isa 19:16; Deut 2:25; 11:25) and the terror of the surrounding circumstances bringing death (Ps 54:5). Even as all will bow and confess that Christ is LORD to the glory of God the Father (Philip 2:9-11), so then believers should with holy fear pay homage to their Lord by getting on with the business of obedience. Nothing of failure is implied here. Paul asserts that the method of obedience coupled with the mood of reverent fear toward God is necessary in the persevering walk of all believers.

God’s Sovereign Power (2:13)

The subject, “He who works in you,” closely parallels Philippians 1:6, “He who began [a good work] in you”. Paul commends their conduct (1:5) and then assures these believers that God who began the salvific work in them will surely bring it to completion. God is working in believers both to will and to act. The participation of the Christian is not done in a legalistic spirit with a view to earn or merit divine favor. Rather, a Christian obeys God humbly, realizing that without Christ he can do nothing (John 15). Murray summarizes Philippians 2:12-13 beautifully:

“God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of cooperation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result. God works and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us. . . . We have here not only the explanation of all acceptable activity on our part but we also have the incentive to our willing and working … The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God.”

Mike Harding is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Troy, Troy, Michigan.

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