Too many people think the grace of God means they can say “whew! That’s a relief! I don’t have to do the will of God anymore!”
Anyone who thinks that has completely misunderstood Paul.
Paul’s message is clear, but his instructions to the Philippians in Philippians 2:12 is sometimes misinterpreted: “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Is Paul saying we’re saved by works? Of course not.
There’s no question here of Paul thinking that salvation in any way comes because in some measure God owes it to us. That’s not even a consideration here.
When Paul speaks of God at work within us, he means that God is working and willing to accomplish things through us for His good purpose. The point is that we ought to be His obedient subjects. We ought to cooperate with God in the work that He is doing.
We can’t be obedient on our own.
The Fall has enormously damaged the will. Paul reflects on this in Romans 7:21-24. To paraphrase, “The wishing is present within me, the willing is present within me, the one who wishes to do good, but the doing of the good is not. Oh wretched man that I am…”
Paul is referring here to Israel and Adam and all people outside of Christ, though the passage can also apply to the Christian dilemma. He uses the same Greek term here that he used when he told the Philippians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” He says that the effecting, the working, of the good is not in him.
Israel’s failure has been redeemed in us.
This is the dilemma that Israel faces. Paul refers to this in Romans 2:17 and following when he says,
If you bear the name “Jew” and rely upon the Law and boast in God, and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness… you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? (Romans 2:17-18, 21)
Israel was supposed to be a teacher of all the nations, to bring them back to the one, true, and living God.
The problem for Romans 2:17 and following is not just that Israel sinned, but that Israel failed in her mission to be a light to the nations.
This is what the Old Testament anticipated. Israel was chosen to bring the nations back to the worship of Yahweh, the one, true, and living God.
Israel was supposed to teach the law of God, but instead she committed idolatry. Israel worshipped pagan gods, and the Lord God had to ship her out in judgment into exile.
This is just what was promised in various prophetic passages in the Old Testament. You see this in Deuteronomy 30:6, in Jeremiah 31:31-33, and in Ezekiel 36:26 and following.
To summarize, in these passages God is basically saying this: “Israel, you’re supposed to obey me, but you don’t. The day is coming when I will transform your heart. I will establish a new covenant, and I will pour my Spirit out upon you so that you can keep my laws.”
Grace enables obedience.
God wants us to obey, and it is His grace that makes us capable of obedience. Look at Romans 2:4:
Do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?
Paul repeated the same kind of idea in Ephesians 2:10:
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
Take a look at the end of Titus, chapter 2, also:
For the grace of God has appeared… instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. (Titus 2:11-14)
God gave us His grace so that we can obey Him. The work of God, the will of God, the grace of God, and the gift of the Spirit are so that we may obey. The Spirit works so that the mind and the heart can be transformed.
Read more about the Holy Spirit in “3 Ways the Holy Spirit Works in Your Life Today.”
We take on Israel’s mission.
We have been transformed by the Spirit of God, by the grace of God, to do what Israel could not do. And that is, to accomplish the will of God:
What the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3)
Paul continued this thought in Romans 8:12:
So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh to live according to the flesh—for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
We are saved so that we may do the will of God.
We’re still working out our salvation with fear and trembling.
This doesn’t mean we won’t fall into sin. Just as the work of Christ is a beginning work, and will be fulfilled and finished on the final day of Christ Jesus when we’re raised from the dead, so we are beginning the journey to obedience.
We will fail, but we should not celebrate our failures. The grace of God is here so that we can obey.
That’s Paul’s point in Philippians 2:12. To paraphrase, “So then, my beloved brethren, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now even much more in my absence, in light of the fact that God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure, you’ve received the gift of the Spirit, because you believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Live in a way that is consistent with the salvation that you have through Jesus Christ. Work out your salvation—it’s a serious matter—with fear and trembling. For God is at work in you to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
The previous was adapted by Rachel Motte from a sermon featured on Dr. Sloan’s radio program, A Higher Education, on July 29, 2013.