Work Because He Works
Topic: Expository Passage: Philippians 2:12-13
Without question, one of the hardest aspects of our faith to comprehend is how to merge divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The Bible is clear that our God is in absolute control of everything and that nothing is truly random or left to chance. On the other hand, the Bible clearly teaches that we are responsible beings. It is filled with commands and consequences for our actions.
As a result, we tend to have a lot of arguments right along the fault line between these doctrines. If you want to get a group of Christians fired up, just bring up Calvinism and Arminianism. You’re almost certain to get some fireworks.
Therefore, we might be tempted to just ignore the complexities in order to keep the peace. But the problem with this strategy is that both doctrines are incredibly significant to the Christian life. And if you mess one of them up, it’s like sending up an airplane with only one wing, or with one that is too short or deformed. That plane is doomed to crash.
No, divine sovereignty and human responsibility provide a necessary foundation for all sorts of doctrines. And this morning, we get to study an important text, which simply but beautifully articulates how God’s sovereignty and my responsibility work together in the most practical of areas—our spiritual growth (read).
It is essential that every believer has a good understanding of how spiritual growth works, because growth is our most basic duty. And even if you understand the process, you haven’t arrived. We all have a long way to go, and we all need lots of reminders of the 2 foundational pillars of this process that Paul articulates in this text. So, this is an extremely practical, important passage. Verse 12 begins the text with a command to fulfill our role in the pursuit of holiness. Specifically, God commands us to work hard at holiness.
I. Our Role: Work hard (v. 12).
I’d like to emphasize four truths in this verse about our role in spiritual growth (i.e., the pursuit of holiness, sanctification). The first is…
The goal is Christlikeness. Notice that the center of this text is the command, “work out your own salvation.” You may be wondering if Paul is saying that we need to earn our salvation by doing good works? That can’t be what Paul means, because salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. And Paul is very clear about this fact in 3:9. We are not saved by our own righteousness but by receiving Christ’s righteousness through faith.
But if that’s true, then what does Paul mean in 2:12? Clearly, Paul is talking about the practical side of our salvation. In other words, when someone receives Christ as Savior, he is immediately declared righteou That’s what 3:9 describes.
However, practically speaking we are still far from righteous. But through the lifelong process of spiritual growth, God is making us righteous. He is forming the character of Christ in us. So, the salvation that Paul has in mind in our text is this practical transformation.
I want to emphasize that this is the most important priority in the life of every Christian. It’s more important than your job, your hobbies, your comfort, and everything else. The central way that we glorify the Lord is by transforming into his likeness so that our thoughts, our actions, and our affections reflect his likeness. Therefore, this is a very important command. The 2nd truth in v. 12 is…
Christlikeness requires hard work. Again, the central command is to “work out your own salvation.” Paul uses a verb that describes intense effort that is focused on finishing a task. Paul’s not talking about the road worker who poses with his shovel all day while getting little down.
No, this verb reminds me of some of the farmers I baled hay with growing up. They worked hard and fast to get the job done. There was no complaining about the heat or the dust, just focused effort.
And God commands us to take a similar approach to the pursuit of holiness. We need to work hard at developing Christlike character and habits. Similarly, 2 Peter 1:5–6 command us, “Giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness.”
God is clear that we can’t be content with half-baked holiness, and we can’t sit back and wait for God to zap us with godliness. Maybe at some point you have told your kids, “Those dishes aren’t going to wash themselves” or “That paper isn’t going to write itself.” And Paul is saying the same thing about godliness. It doesn’t just happen; no, we have to pursue change.
This is worth emphasizing for a couple of reasons. On the theological side, there are those who argue that any effort at sanctification is necessarily legalistic and ineffective. Essentially, “Just love Jesus and wait for him to fill you with spiritual desires.” But that’s not what God says here. He commands us to work hard at godliness.
But on a more practical level, I’m emphasizing hard work, because I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say something like, “I don’t go to church, because I don’t want to be a hypocrite.” Essentially, they are admitting that they are not in a good place spiritually, and they believe that doing the right thing and acting like a Christian should when you don’t feel like it, is worthless, vain, and hypocritical.
It’s nonsense, because feelings don’t define The Bible never says obedience and spiritual disciplines are only significant when you feel like doing them. And you don’t change your feelings by sitting back and waiting for them to change. But No, God says to just keep working hard even when it feels like you are stumbling in the dark. This is because real faith is not a feeling; it’s doing what is right even when you don’t feel anything.
So Christian, if you want to make progress in the Christian life, understand that it’s going to require lots of work. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:27, “I discipline my body and make it my slave.” You’ve got to discipline A 3rd truth in v. 12 is…
Christlikeness requires consistent obedience. Notice that Paul opens v. 12 by commending the Philippians for how they obeyed the Lord while he was with them. They had a testimony of faithfulness to the Lord. And now Paul urges them to continue that pattern of integrity even while he is gone and even if he never sees them again. They needed to do what was right before the Lord, because he is the Lord, not simply to keep Paul happy.
And then notice that obeyed and the command work out are parallel to each other. Paul says, “as you have always obeyed…(so now) work out your own salvation.” So, obedience and working out your salvation are tightly connected. You work out your salvation by obeying.
Of course, Paul just said that Jesus set the standard of obedience. Jesus obeyed the Father to the point of dying on a cross. So, the core of spiritual growth is obeying the Father the way Jesus obeyed the Father.
Now, that’s not surprising. But it’s worth emphasizing because obedience is often very difficult, and we can be very creative in finding excuses why we don’t need to do what’s right. But Jesus didn’t make excuses; he just obeyed. And God calls us to follow his example.
Furthermore, v. 12 reminds us that holiness (as big as it seems) begins with day by day, moment by moment obedience to the Father’s will. Do the right thing over and over, and God will change your heart, change your mind, and change your affections step by step over time. A 4th truth in v. 12 is…
Christlikeness requires reverence for the task. Verse 12 ends by saying that we must approach this entire process with “fear and trembling.” This is an OT phrase regarding reverence and awe before a holy God. And here it speaks of the fact that we must pursue holiness with a proper sense of Christ’s glory and lordship, as was described in vv. 9–11.
We need this reminder, because we live in a day of laughter and levity. Even Christians often mock other believers who are serious about holiness. They say, “Lighten up a bit. Just relax. Don’t take your faith that seriously.” Obviously, God wants us to have joy. But Psalm 16:11 states, “In Your (holy) presence is fullness of joy,” not in staying as far away as possible.
So yes, God desires our joy, but pursuing holiness is also serious business. We live and serve under the shadow of a holy God who demands our worship and obedience. So, we need to take the process seriously and work hard! In light of this, I’d like to emphasize 3 simple ways we work hard at spiritual growth.
Practice the spiritual disciplines. Again, 1 Corinthians 9:26–27 say, “I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air (i.e., aimlessly). But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” Those are strong words. 1 Timothy 4:7 says, “Discipline yourself toward godliness.”
There are lots of ways we discipline ourselves, but the Bible especially emphasizes 3 basic spiritual disciplines. Read/meditate on your Bible, pray, and go to church. These are the primary disciplines that God has given to shape your mind, your affections, and your actions.
You’re kidding yourself if you think that you will thrive spiritually if you are not practicing these disciplines. Yes, life is busy, but you make time for the things that matter. I promise you that nothing is more important than your walk with God.
So read your Bible, listen to your Bible, memorize your Bible, listen to Bible sermons and Bible teaching. Make time to pray. You need God more than anything else, so make time to get alone with him. And go to church.
It’s amazing how many times I’ve heard Christians who don’t attend church consistently admit how much healthier they are when the church is a priority. Come to church, and come as often as possible. Honestly, what’s going to do your soul more good—to lounge around the house, or to sit under the Word and fellowship with Christians? It’s no contest. Spiritual growth begins with the spiritual disciplines so make them a priority. Second…
Obey God’s Word. We’ve already hit this one hard, so, I’ll just say again that godliness happens one step at a time. Steps become patterns. Patterns become habits, and habits transform the life. Commit to obedience. 3rd…
Strategize for success. Hebrews 12:1 says that running the race well requires “lay(ing) aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us.” It’s hard to run a race when you are dragging 50 extra lbs. And yet so often that’s how we try to run the Christian race. We constantly fill our hearts with trash. We tolerate rival passions, and we make foolish choice after foolish choice. It’s like were planting land mines along the path of godliness, and then we are shocked when we get blown up.
Philippians 1:9–10 state that we should pray for “Knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent.” You’ve got to put thought into pursuing holiness. What is excellent? What will help me grow? Honestly, what is slowing me down? And then strategize for success. Have a thoughtful plan, just like you would for any other major project.
In sum, v. 12 tells us that God expects us to work hard at spiritual growth. We are responsible to change. But if that’s our only perspective we have on spiritual growth, we are like an airplane with one wing. It might be the greatest wing of all time, but that plane is going nowhere. So, notice in 13 the second wing of the plane.
II. God’s Role: God energizes our effort (v. 13).
Notice that v. 13 is stated as the foundation for v. 12. Why should we throw ourselves head first into the hard work of pursuing holiness? The only reason why it is worth even trying to climb that mountain is because, “God works in you…”
God has not left us alone to pursue holiness. Instead, he is the foundation of any genuine progress we make in holiness. Hebrews 13:20–21 state, “Now the God of peace…equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” And 13 builds on this principle by stating that spiritual growth happens in 3 stages. First…
God creates our desire. Verse 13 states, “God works in you.” The Greek verb is energeo. We get our word energize from it. That’s a good picture of what God does. He provides the energy that brings to life spiritually dead sinners. And he doesn’t just give us a jump start. No, you could translate v. 13 as saying, “For it is God who is working in you.” He is a constant energy source.
And notice specifically how he energizes us. He creates the will or desire to fulfill his purpose. He causes us to desire him, to desire holiness, and to love the Word. Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with parents who question the salvation of their children. In those conversations, I’m never so much concerned about the problems, because all sinners have problems.
What I am most concerned about is whether or not the child has a will to follow the Lord. Are they responsive to Scripture and to conviction? Do they desire God, and do they want to please him? This is crucial, because a fundamental fruit of conversion is that God creates a desire for righteousness, even if we don’t always follow through.
Praise the Lord for this work. Left to myself I was dead in sin. But God brought me to life, and his Spirit is constantly energizing a desire for him. It may not always be as strong as it should be, but it’s there. And my Christian experience would be dead without it. As Paul said, “I am what I am by the grace of God.” Praise the Lord that he creates our desire for holiness. The 2nd stage…
We respond by working hard. Again, v. 13 says, “God works in you both to will and do.” So not only does God create the desire, but he creates the doing. We work at spiritual growth because of his work in us.
It’s interesting that Paul uses the same verb, energeo, for God’s work in us and our doing or work in response. God works, and causes us to work. What a simple way to think of the 2 wings to the airplane. God is absolutely sovereign, and he is doing his sovereign work. He is changing his children, and 1:6 promised that he will complete the work of sanctification that he has begun.
But that doesn’t mean that we can just sit back and wait for God to work. Rather, God’s work creates the other wing, and we work in response to his work. He gives us the desire, the power, and the hope to keep going, and then we do it. And then the 3rd stage is…
God is glorified. Verse 13 ends by saying that all of this is “for His good pleasure.” This is very similar to how 11 ended. Everything God did through Christ is “to the glory of God the Father.” And it’s the same for everything that he does in us.
Yes, God absolutely loves us and works for our good. But it’s good for us to remember often that he is infinitely higher than us. As a result, Ephesians 1:6 says that his entire work of salvation is, “To the praise of the glory of His grace.” It’s ultimately about him.
So, v. 13 is clear that the sovereign grace of God undergirds the pursuit of holiness. We work because he works. So, what practical significance does this work have for our approach to spiritual growth? I’d like to make 3 applications. First…
Believe that holiness is possible. Very often we look at holiness, or a particular requirement of holiness where we really struggle, and getting there seems about as realistic as swimming to Hawaii. It’s not happening, so why even try?
But v. 13 encourages us that holiness is possible. And we aren’t talking about a little smidge of holiness; we are talking about real Christlikeness. I love the encouragement of 2 Peter 1:3–4. God has given us “all things pertaining to life and godliness.” You have everything you need to fight sin and grow in godliness. And what’s the result? God says that through these “precious promises” we are taking on “the divine nature.” That’s incredible.
So, don’t be a mopey Christian who is always making excuses and claiming, “I can’t.” No remind yourself all the time that you live in the strength of Christ, and then believe that holiness is possible, because only then will you work hard at your salvation. Second…
Remain hopeful when you fail. When I coached basketball, I could put up with mistakes, because they are going to happen. But I couldn’t stand it if a kid committed a turnover and then moped while the other team went down and scored a layup. No, get back on defense!
A lot of Christians make the same mistake as that kid. They fall, they commit some sin, and they don’t get back up. They just lay their stunned that they fell, and failure multiplies. Instead of sinning once, they sin 10xs, and they tell themselves that they will never get up.
But that’s simply not true. There is always forgiveness in Christ, even when there are consequences, and there is always more than enough strength to get up, keep fighting, and make progress.
So, when you fall, run to the cross for forgiveness. And then run to the glorified Savior that we saw in vv. 9–11 for hope that you can change. There is an obvious parallel in our text. The Father glorified Christ, and he will glorify us. There is hope, so, get up and keep fighting.
Depend on God on your “best” and “worst” days. I bring up the “best” days, because on those day, we sometimes we feel invincible. We love Jesus and holiness feels easy. And what happens? We get overconfident.
And then there are other days when our sin is overwhelming. We feel broken and hopeless. But we need to remember that rain or shine, good days or bad, God’s grace is both an anchor for the soul and the wind in our sails.
I love how Jerry Bridges says it. "Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God's grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God's grace" (Bridges, Transforming Grace, p. 18). No matter how you feel, and no matter how you think you are doing, just keep looking to him. His grace is always there, and it is always more than enough.
In conclusion, the message of our text is very simple. Work hard at holiness because God is working for your holiness. See what God is doing, and respond by giving everything you have to win the race.