These four verses admonish us on what God expects of us as the child in our relationship with Him. It is important for us to understand that "work out your salvation" does not mean work for salvation. It means we must take what God has given us to its logical conclusion. God liberated Israel from Egyptian slavery, but His purpose was not complete until they trekked across the wilderness and possessed the Promised Land. Their liberty came as an act of God's grace, but that same grace required them to meet responsibilities and carry them to their conclusion.
Verse 13 explains that God's grace did not end at the borders of Egypt for them, nor does it end for us once we are justified. He gives us both the motivation and the power to accomplish what His pleasure is for us. But we should understand that He gives us the desire and power to accomplish His will, not our pleasures. This is an excellent principle for parents to apply in motivating their children to respond positively. Children are largely the creations of their parents. If parents expect their children to reach certain goals, they must equip them with the attitudes, skills, and tools necessary to accomplish those aims.
"Fear and trembling" indicates both a deep respect for the Almighty who has called us, as well as a healthy measure of concern for uncertainties about what will be required of us as we proceed along this way. As we spiritually mature, the trials we must work through generally become more difficult, not easier. When the Philippians took up their cross, they did not know for sure what lay ahead, nor do we. For them, it was conflict (Philippians 1:29-30); for Jesus, death (Philippians 2:8); for Paul, martyrdom (Philippians 2:17); for Timothy, costly sacrificial service to the church (Philippians 2:20); and for Epaphroditus, physical illness nearly to death (Philippians 2:27).
Of course, these things are far more serious than a child's responsibility to put his room in order, but we must consider if God is fair in His dealings with man. Is a parent fair in charging his children with responsibilities to carry out around the house?
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Sovereignty of God: Part Seven
There is our example and the instruction as to the mind that we have to adopt and make our own. If we are going to go through this with a kind of growth that God wants us to have, it takes a certain mindset to be able to do it.
One of the things God wants us to get out of this is that He wants us to consider often that He, the Father, did not withhold suffering from His Son and our Savior Jesus Christ. He shared suffering with us despite His high status as God in the flesh and living a totally sinless life. We are neither God in the flesh nor have we led a sinless life. He did this to be our Savior. He did it in order to be our example, and He did it to be perfected to carry out His job as High Priest and Savior. He set His mind to be this way, and He carried through.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Wilderness Wandering (Part 5)
These verses make it clear Paul believed in works. God lays the responsibility upon us to work in partnership with Him as He works with and in us. The purpose of this work is not to earn salvation, but to allow God to do His creative labors in us and test us. He wants us to be prepared for His Kingdom, and at the same time, He wants us to glorify Him through the witness of our lives.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Elements of Motivation (Part Three): Hope
The apostle is urging us, not to work to achieve salvation, but to labor to carry out the responsibilities that the receipt of God's grace has imposed on us (Titus 2:11-15). Christianity is not merely the passive receiving of forgiveness and the Spirit of Jesus Christ. We are to carry forward what we have freely received from God to its proper end.
We need to add to this another thought found in Deuteronomy 5:29: "Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!" Which of these - the will to carry forward what we have received or the heart - is more important to growth in conversion and leaving Babylon? Which of them is subject to the other? Is the will a self-determining agent, or does something else determine it? Is the will superior to every other faculty of the body? Is it sovereign or servant? Does it govern, or is it subject to the pleasure of other faculties?
Most who consider themselves Christian, believe that, because free moral agency exists, the will is the more significant. Human philosophies also insist that the will governs man. However, this cannot be. To the contrary, the Word of God teaches that the heart or mind is the dominating center of our being.
Consider a circumstance that each of us faces, perhaps many times on any given day. If a person has before him two options, which will he choose? Unless some overriding reason exists, he will choose the one most agreeable to him, that is, to his heart, his innermost being.
What if the choice is between moral or immoral alternatives? If a person is what the Bible calls a "sinner," and he must choose between godliness and sinful indulgence, which will he select? He will choose the latter because he prefers it, all arguments to the contrary notwithstanding.
Why? Because, as Jeremiah 17:9 says, his heart is desperately wicked. Jesus reinforces this in Matthew 15:19-20: "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man. . . ."
If one were to present a truly converted person with the same options, he would choose the life of piety and virtue. Why? Because God has given him a new heart:
For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. (Ezekiel 36:24-27)
Ezekiel's prophecy is in perfect harmony with God's promise of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34. Thus, it is not the will that makes the sinner impervious to all appeals through the gospel to forsake his way, but it is his corrupt and sinful heart.
The sinner will not come to Christ and keep the Sabbath and holy days, quit stealing from God, or do any other thing commanded by God because he does not want to. He does not want to because his heart hates Christ and loves sin. Romans 8:7 is proof that human nature is at war against God.
The human will is the faculty of choice, but it is as much subject to the mind as the hands, feet, eyes, and sexual organs. It is a servant of the mind, and in turn, various influences affect the mind throughout the course of life. Proverbs 4:20-23 confirms this:
My son, give attention to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Do not let them depart from your eyes; keep them in the midst of your heart; for they are life to those who find them, and health to all their flesh. Keep your heart with all diligence, for out it spring the issues of life.
The heart determines one's preferences and inclinations, and thus it determines one's choices, subjecting the will to it. Because of this, it is imperative to understand the evil that Satan and his demons have communicated to us either directly or through the course of this world. The world has shaped our pre-conversion heart, and thus it affects our relationship with God.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Communication and Leaving Babylon (Part Two)
It is God who saves! God saved Israel from Egyptian slavery. Israel did not overcome Pharaoh and Egypt by either warfare or by dint of superior intelligence. Jesus Christ is our Savior, and we cannot save ourselves from sin's power. When we accept Him as Savior, it obligates us as His servants to obey Him.
In like manner, when God broke Egypt's power, enabling the Israelites to be free, it obligated them to walk out of Egypt if they wanted their liberty. If the Israelites wanted to save their skins and be totally free of Egypt when God parted the Red Sea, it obligated them to walk the path God made for them between the walls of water. When God said, "I am going to bring you into the land and provide for you along the way," if Israel wanted these things, they were obligated to walk all the way to Canaan. It is very clear that if Israel wanted what God said He would give, then Israel had to also cooperate by working in the form of walking to where God said He would lead or take them. "Walk" is a code word for living.
With this as a background, when Paul says to "work out your own salvation," it cannot possibly mean we are going to save ourselves. Rather, like what confronted the Israelites when God opened the way to their physical salvation from slavery in Egypt, we should be ready to make God's spiritual salvation practical and operational. Paul does not say we must work for salvation, but rather carry our salvation out to its conclusion. He uses "work out" in much the same sense as when a student is told to work out an arithmetic problem—to bring it to its conclusion. For us, the conclusion, the goal, to work toward is Christ-likeness. The salvation here is sanctification, victory over sin unto holiness.
To make it very plain, if we want to be one with Him, we must get moving in the direction He is pointing, and He points toward His standards of conduct and attitude. Each person's walk is not exactly the same because each person's experience and makeup are somewhat different. There is enough similarity among humans, though, to make the Bible always relevant.
One of the beautiful things about this is that each person's walk toward the image of God is exactly right for him. What is more, Philippians 2:13 also says God gives us both the will and power or energy to do it! The New Testament in Modern Speech renders it, "For it is God Himself whose power creates within you both the desire and the power to execute His gracious will." This work of God in us is another aspect of His grace, and without it, we could never be one with Him.
God Himself produces in us both the desire to live righteously and the effective energy to do so. He does not demand what we cannot do (I Corinthians 10:13). We see in Philippians 2:12 our responsibility and in verse 13 help to accomplish it.
We can see this working together with God in simple illustrations from physical life. We may launch a sailboat upon the water, but it takes what God supplies, wind, to make it move. We may plant vegetable seeds, but it is the power of God in nature that makes the plant grow and produce food. We may generate gigawatts of electricity in power plants, but God provides the wind, water, sunlight, coal, oil, or gas to turn the turbines. In each case, we add something to what God already supplied.
Our salvation is something already given because it is God's will, and He is sovereign. We, though, must do something to make it practical by applying ourselves to salvation's demands. Even in this, God enables us to do it!
We will never know where the dividing line is between what God supplies and what we are responsible to do because it is different for each according to God's purpose. This proportion must be different because each person is different, and He is preparing us for different responsibilities within His Family. This is sure, however: Our walk toward salvation will always be difficult enough to be challenging and edifying.
Even here the analogy of Israel in the wilderness comes to our aid. Where did Israel get the energy to walk across the wilderness to the Promised Land? Did it not come from the manna and water God supplied, as well as the vision and hope of the inheritance which He also provided? Still, Israel walked! They had to work, to cooperate.
The verb "work" in Philippians 2:12 is in a tense that indicates continuous working. Just as Israel did not leave Egypt and arrive in the Promised Land in one step, neither are our salvation and oneness with God accomplished at once. It, too, is a process; it is our life's work.
John W. Ritenbaugh
All in All
There is no question that God can save us. Of course He can make us inheritors of "the land" and give us eternal life. All these are beyond question! He has the power to do this, and He has the will to do it. He certainly wants to do it—it is part of His purpose.
Even so, we can stop the process. We can choose not to be sanctified. This is why Paul says, "Work out your own salvation." We learn from the analogy of Israel in the wilderness how the first generation of those who came out chose—they made the choice—to die in the wilderness. It was not God's purpose that they die there. He had the power to get Israel into the land. Indeed, He did it. Yet, their lack of faith, their disbelief, their stiff necks, the fact that they never got rid of the patterns of thinking they had in Egypt, they would not yield, they refused to make the right choices (as Joshua and Caleb did) were the deciding factors in their bodies being scattered all through the wilderness. God had it written down as a lesson for us (see I Corinthians 10:1-11). He is saying, in effect, "Choose life. Don't choose to do what these people did—in lusting, tempting Me, and so forth."
So, who can we possibly blame if we do not make it? Has not God called us? Has He not given us His grace? Has He not given us His Spirit, a new heart, the divine nature, access to Him, the promise that He will never give us any trial that is too great for us? And let us not forget he additional promise in Hebrews 13:5, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." He has given us all the tools, so now the onus is on us.
God is not demanding that we do everything perfectly from day one, but He does want to see evidence that we want to be there! He wants to see that we are making efforts to walk the talk. He wants to see that we are not going backwards. He wants to see us move off dead center and that we begin to grow on a steady, consistent basis—regardless of how fast it is. He wants to see that we are using and applying what He has given to us, and He is willing to add whatever we lack! He will give us the gifts that we need in order to serve Him. If we do what He wants us to do, the changes will take place.
The mainstream Christian approach leaves one with the impression that salvation is complete at the point of justification. But that is completely out of step with Colossians 1:22, where Paul writes, "if you continue in the faith. . . ." Israel had to walk to the Promised Land, and as they walked, God prepared them to inherit the land. In this way, they became sanctified. Sanctification is what gives evidence of growth.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 9)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Philippians 2:12: