Christ’s obedience and humility spur us to a closer walk with God, but do you think you have to do it alone, in your own strength? Study through Philippians 2:12-13 for more insight.
Part 8 of a whole book study series called “Joy in Christ: A Study Through Philippians.”
Obedience Modeled on Christ’s
12 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, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
The saying goes, “When you see a ‘therefore’ in scripture, you need to ask what the ‘therefore’ is there for.” This is a good example of how important it is to read your bible in context. Paul makes a slight shift in subject, but what he is talking about in these two verses is based upon what he has just finished with: Christ and his obedience.
Paul has seen the obedience of the Philippian believers and encourages/expects it in his absence as well. (related: Philem. 1:21) Their walks with Christ do not depend to a full extent upon his (Paul’s) personal involvement and example (although there is nothing wrong with them imitating him, as he exhorts elsewhere in his writings), but upon the grace and power of Christ.
“Lowliness and obedience are needful, that they [believers] may look away from themselves to Jesus Christ, who is the “author and finisher of their faith.” (Expositor’s Greek Testament)
As before we trusted Christ, we were slaves to sin, now we are slaves to Christ to love Him and to show that love through our obedience to Him. That means our obedience to Christ is not only patterned after His, but supersedes our feelings and personal desires.
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed. [Rom. 6:16-17 ESV; boldface mine]
We obey as a slave obeys his master. There is a blend of reverence and respect, of love and duty. Because it is no longer sin we are serving, but Christ.
Note that Paul calls these believers his beloved. In Greek, the word is agapétos, and when it’s used of Christians, it is as beloved of God, Christ, and one another. I’m sure you recognize the root of this word as agape, the highest and holiest of all types of love. As Kenneth Wuest puts it, the phrase Paul uses describes us as “divinely loved ones.” In this phrase is an example of how we are to love one another in the body of Christ — as we are loved in Christ.
Work Out Your Salvation: A Contradiction to Grace?
Here Paul does not mean to say that salvation — in the sense of being saved from the consequence of our sin — needs to be completed by a believer’s own effort or that God requires our partnership to complete the once for all efficacy of salvation. That would be a denial of the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and a reversal of all Paul has written elsewhere. Let me be very clear here:
Salvation is found in the finished, atoning work of Christ alone. He alone paid our sin debt and there is nothing we can add to it. And the fact we have faith in Christ is a gift of God by grace, and consists of nothing we did or could ever do. (related: Eph. 2:1-10; Col. 2:13-14)
So in terms of how Paul refers to salvation in verse 12, we need to see it in a different sense, that of the ongoing process of being delivered from sin and sanctified. The idea here is to “finish out” the race well. Just as you “frame in” a house that you’re building after the foundations are laid, we began with the foundation of our faith and we continue on until the whole house is finished (for us, this final aspect of salvation is glorification).
MacLaren summarizes it nicely:
“Salvation, in one aspect, is a thing past to the Christian; in another, it is a thing present; in a third, it is a thing future. But all these three are one; all are elements of the one deliverance–the one mighty and perfect act which includes them all.” (MacLaren’s Expositions)
The daily effort that is required is accomplished not in our own strength, but in God’s. What we are to do is:
- Be constantly surrendering in faith to God.
- Be constantly seeking to live a life pleasing to Him by seeking Him in His word and in prayer so that we know more of Him and His ways.
- Be seeking more and more of His holiness in us by His Spirit.
The more we know of Him, the more we are able by His power to do His good pleasure. We do not do “nothing,” but we do not hold the whole apparatus together by our own means.
In Reverence of the Holy One
The thing that clarifies this apparent tension of an “already but not yet completed” salvation is the phrase with fear and trembling. Fear isn’t a word we’re necessarily comfortable with. We don’t usually like being afraid unless we feel it is a fear we can control in some sense. For example, some people (myself definitely excluded!) enjoy the fear of a roller coaster or of a horror movie.
Trembling is tromos, a word “used to describe the anxiety of one who distrusts his ability completely to meet all requirements, but religiously does his utmost to fulfill his duty.” (Thayer’s) There are scriptural parallels to this idea of fear and trembling when Paul speaks of the slave-master relationship:
Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ. [Eph. 6:5 ESV; boldface mine]
Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. [Col. 3:22 ESV; boldface mine]
David exhorts kings and leaders of the earth in a similar way:
Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. [Ps. 2:11 ESV]
From our verse in Philippians and these scriptures above, we can see how these two ideas of obedience — as it relates to our ongoing sanctification — and fear and trembling — as it relates to our humility and reverence toward God — are tied together.
As Christ obeyed with humility as a servant, so we also obey, and particularly because we know who it is we obey. This is the God who created this universe. This is the sovereign, omnipotent, ruler and king, by whose grace we were saved and by whose grace we draw each breath. His holiness is beyond measure and beyond the understanding of our finite minds.
God Works in Us
13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
This is the confidence we have: that God works through us. That it is God who completes the work He began (see Phil. 1:6). “[Verse 13] speaks of an inward, real, and efficacious operation of the Indwelling Spirit of all energy on the spirit in which He dwells.” (MacLaren’s Expositions)
To me this is a huge reason for joy. If I had to rely on my efforts to please God, I’d be sunk. I’d be in despair and anxiety. Knowing that God sees I have a heart that seeks after Him, that longs to live in His ways, and that because of that desire (which He really put in me by indwelling me with His Spirit to give me new desires than before; in effect, a new “will”) He will help me live that way is a reason for joy. He doesn’t just say, “here, have the power to live for me,” then walk away.
“I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. [John 14:16-17 ESV; boldface mine]
This Helper, the Holy Spirit, gives me the desire for God, and at the same time, I continue to seek more desire for God. He gives me the desire to live in His ways, to do His will (all that He teaches in His word). It is one of those beautiful and mysterious things. If we could wrap everything about God up with a bow, He would be a very small God indeed.
I pray that you lean into God for the grace to walk in His ways.