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Philippians 2:12-13

One often hears the accusation that Calvinism is less a product of careful exegesis than of philosophical deduction (see, for example, the comments of Clark Pinnock in his article, “From Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology,” in The Grace of God, the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism [Zondervan, 1989], 21). Arminians, we are told, derive their view from Scripture whereas Calvinists impose theirs upon it. If anything, the opposite is true, as I hope this examination of Philippians 2:12-13 will illustrate.

Arminians typically assume that the antecedence of divine sovereignty empties subsequent human effort of any spiritual significance. If foreknowledge or predestination or foreordination or any other act of God is causally antecedent to human activity, the latter is rendered morally vacuous.

The obvious trouble with this view is that it lacks biblical warrant. No text of which I am aware says any such thing. This philosophical assumption is based on what the Arminian considers “intellectually reasonable.” It is brought to the text as a pre-exegetical criterion to be used in deciding what a passage will be allowed to say. When confronted with texts that simultaneously assert the antecedence of divine sovereignty and the significance of human behavior, Arminians recoil, insisting that such is at best theologically contradictory and at worst morally devastating.

Interestingly, neither God nor the authors of Scripture seem bothered by what agitates Arminians. A case in point is the well-known comment by Paul in Philippians 2:12-13. Here Paul writes:

“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.”

This passage is an explicit denial of the aforementioned Arminian assumption. Here Paul asserts the urgency of responsible human behavior based on the antecedence of divine causality. In other words, it is because (note the “for” with which v. 13 begins) God is already at work in our hearts to enable us both to desire and to do his will that we are commanded to “work out” our salvation with fear and trembling.

Not everyone, however, believes this passage may be used in the way I propose. Gerald Hawthorne, for example, in his otherwise excellent commentary on Philippians, argues that “Paul is not here concerned with the eternal welfare of the soul of the individual. . . . Rather the context suggests that this command is to be understood in a corporate sense. The entire church, which had grown spiritually ill (cf. 2:3-4), is charged now with taking whatever steps are necessary to restore itself to health and wholeness” (98). In other words, the focus of Paul’s exhortation, says Hawthorne, is more sociological than theological (both Peter O’Brien and Moises Silva in their respective commentaries on Philippians provide an extensive refutation of this view).

Those who endorse this interpretation base it on five points. First, Paul’s rebuke of the Philippians for their selfish disregard of others (2:3-4) makes it unlikely that he would reverse himself (in 2:12-13) by urging them to focus on their individual salvation. This is hardly convincing, for it falsely assumes that concern for salvation is tantamount to selfishness. Philippians 2:12-13 does not contradict the call to cultivate those virtues of service and humility urged on the readers in Philippians 2:1-4. An exhortation to be diligent in holiness (vv. 12-13) is hardly a reversal of a prohibition against selfishness (vv. 3-4). Indeed, one can hardly think of a better way of responding to the rebuke of vv. 3-4 than by obeying the exhortation of vv. 12-13.

Moises Silva also insightfully points out that “Gal. 6:1-5 shows how easily Paul can move from the need for spiritual self-concern (‘looking to yourselves,’ v. 1) to concern for others (‘bear one another’s burdens,’ v. 2) and back again (‘let each one examine his own work,’ v. 4)” (120).

Hawthorne’s second argument is based on his interpretation of the verb translated “work out.” Paul, says Hawthorne, “in effect commands the Philippians to keep working and never let up until their ‘salvation’ is achieved” (98). But this is compatible with the view I’m defending so long as we remember that the effort encouraged in v. 12 is energized by the promise of v. 13. Also, the “salvation” Paul has in view is not restricted to justification. We must remember that although we have already been saved (Eph. 2:5; Titus 3:5) there is a sense in which we are still being saved (Romans 5:9-10; 1 Cor. 3:15; 5:5; 2 Tim. 4:18). As Silva points out, “because salvation in its entire scope necessarily includes the manifestation of righteousness in our lives, it follows that our activity is integral to the process of salvation” (121).

Third, Hawthorne contends that since both the verb (“work out”) and the reflexive pronoun (“your own”) are plural, Paul has in view a corporate rather than individual responsibility. But a plural verb does not preclude reference to individual obligation. Virtually every command in the New Testament is plural (see Phil. 2:14,16,18 for three examples in this same chapter) because the epistles are addressed to the entire church. And what is the corporate church if not a collection of individuals on each of whom the obligation falls? And what is “corporate responsibility” if not each Christian, in his or her mutual relationship with and dependence on every other Christian, working out his or her salvation with fear and trembling? Therefore, I agree with O’Brien that the plurals “work out” and “your own” indicate that “all the believers in Philippi are to heed this apostolic admonition; it is common action that is in view rather than corporate” (279).

Related somewhat to the preceding point is the argument (the fourth of five) that Paul actually says, in v. 13, that God is at work “among” the Philippians (i.e., “in their midst”), not “in” them, again, as if a corporate rather than individual divine operation is in view. But “one must ask,” notes Silva, “how it is that God works in the midst of people if not through personal transformation. To state that the passage refers not to individual salvation but to the church’s well-being already assumes a conceptual dichotomy that is both false and lethal” (119). As 1:19 and 1:27 indicate, “personal sanctification takes place precisely in the context of the Christian community” (119). Silva also points out that “in” you is the far more likely rendering, given the parallel in 2 Cor. 4:12 (cf. also Eph. 1:20; Col. 1:29; Rom. 7:5; 1 Cor. 12:6).

Fifth, Hawthorne defines “salvation” as “health” or “wholeness,” that is, the spiritual well-being of the church at Philippi in which selfishness and dissension are eliminated. Aside from the fact that the Greek word soteria more readily means spiritual salvation in the traditional Pauline sense (cf. 1:28), what is “health” or “wholeness” if not another way of describing the sanctification of individual believers in their mutual relationships with others in the body of Christ? And is not sanctification one among the many elements in our salvation through faith in the Son of God?

Silva also points out “that out of nearly twenty occurrences of this noun [“salvation” = soteria] in the Pauline corpus, not one instance requires the translation ‘well being’; the vast majority require – and all of them admit – the theological sense” (119-20).

I see no reason, then, to doubt that Paul’s exhortation is “to common action, urging the Philippians to show forth the graces of Christ in their lives, to make their eternal salvation fruitful in the here and now as they fulfill their responsibilities to one another as well as to non-Christians” (O’Brien, 280).

Of primary concern to us is the basis on which Paul issues his command. “Work out your salvation,” says Paul, “for (gar) it is God who works in you” to provide both the incentive and the strength to do that which is eminently pleasing to him. Far from undermining the responsible activity of the believer, God’s sovereignty is its inspiration!

Paul unashamedly asserts that antecedent or prior divine causality is the foundation on which Christian men and women actively and responsibly build the superstructure of holiness. He does not believe that the causal priority of divine power enervates the decision making of man. In fact, God’s sovereign power sustains it by reassuring us that our efforts, if undertaken in the strength that the Spirit supplies, will not prove vain. The hope for working out our salvation in all its varied dimensions is grounded in the help of God’s working in us the will and the wherewithal to pursue his good pleasure.

Again, the causal priority of divine “in-working” in no way precludes the moral significance of human “out-working”. The former makes the latter possible. Each impulse and act of the human heart may be traced to the prior operation of divine power without in any way diminishing its moral value. The urgent call for responsible human “doing” follows and flows out of the assurance of a divine “done”.

A closer look at Paul’s language supports this understanding. The theological foundation and explanation for what we do in the flowering of our salvation is the dynamic activity of God (ho energon = the One who powerfully works) in us. Thus “there is no suggestion of any division of labour between God and the Philippians, and so it is inappropriate to speak of synergism” (O’Brien, 280).

The present infinitive “to will” (thelein, v. 13) denotes a volitional resolve on the part of the Christian. God energizes the mind and heart of the believer to want his will. Paul does not explain how this transformation occurs, but we may reasonably assume that the Holy Spirit creates in us a desire and a love for that which, prior to regeneration, we spurned and hated.

God also energizes the believer to do what he wills. The present infinitive “to do” (energein, v. 13) indicates that God’s work in us brings to effectual fruition the behavioral end toward which one’s will is inclined. In other words, the continuous and sustained “working out” of the Christian is the gracious product of the continuous and sustained “working in” of God. We not only desire but actually do by virtue of the dynamic, antecedent activity of God in our souls. It is not that God does it for us, in our place, as if to say that because he “wills” and “does” we don’t need to. Rather Paul’s thought is that God supplies and infuses the motivation and energy so that we, through that divine power, will do what is eminently pleasing to him.

Clearly, there is no room for synergism in Paul’s thinking. But neither is there a place for human passivity, for as J. I. Packer reminds us, “the Holy Spirit’s ordinary way of working in us is through the working of our own minds and wills. He moves us to act by causing us to see reasons for moving ourselves to act. Thus our conscious, rational selfhood, so far from being annihilated, is strengthened, and in reverent, resolute obedience we work out our salvation, knowing that God is at work in us to make us ‘. . . both . . . will and . . . work for his good pleasure’” (Keep in Step with the Spirit, 156).

Any suggestion, then, that the priority or antecedence of divine causality nullifies the moral urgency of human behavior is not biblical. Paul certainly did not believe it. Neither should we.