To Will and to Work
How can a Christian safely talk about doing good works? Is it even possible to speak about obedience without becoming a bit self-satisfied?
When we listen to the Ten Commandments, how do we not think of it as a checklist, things we do (or don’t do) to score points with God? ‘Nope, haven’t blasphemed. Haven’t stolen anything. Certainly haven’t coveted my neighbour’s donkey or his manservant.’ So we can think we’re doing OK—and that’s a danger.
Or how can Paul say in Philippians 2:12,
Work out your own salvation?
This verse looks like a minefield. We hear the word ‘work’ in the same sentence as ‘salvation,’ and the alarm bells start clanging.
Is he suggesting that salvation is conditional on our effort? That we need to hold up our end of the bargain before the Lord rewards us? Is this Paul’s ‘inner Pharisee’ coming through—an old habit dying hard?
Paul certainly does not say that God has done his part in salvation, and now the rest is up to you. But neither does he say that because God has redeemed you, you’re free to sit on your hands. The Holy Spirit is calling us to be busy working out the implications of being saved. He calls us to show that we are saved through the way that we live tomorrow and every day.
Philippians as a whole makes no suggestion of a “do-it-yourself” salvation but emphasizes how our deliverance begins and ends with God alone. For instance, that’s the theme of the great ‘Hymn to the Saviour’ in 2:6-11. The words are familiar, that Christ, “being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation” (v. 6). And then Jesus did not shun the very lowest of tasks, for “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (v. 8).
How can anyone sing this song and still think that salvation is based on what we do?
So when Paul says ‘work out your salvation,’ that’s not coming from a place of pride, but humility. See what he says right after: “Work out your own salvation,” and then: “for it is God who works in you” (Phil 2:12). In everything, God is the one working. He is forever busy behind the scenes, bringing about good things in us and for us. Even when we believe and perform humble works of faith, it’s through God’s enabling grace.
We do good because we’re motivated by the Father’s grace, commanded by his Son, and strengthened by his Spirit.
God’s gift of salvation should inspire you, stimulate you, motivate you to service. Even in the mundane chores and ordinary events that fill our days, we remember that this is what God has called us to do, at this moment.
These are the good works He has prepared for us (Eph 2:10). He has put you in this place for a holy purpose: Here is where God calls you to be faithful.
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” Paul writes, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13).
What is our will? It is the source and beginning of our desires, intentions, plans and purposes. This means our will has a key role. The kind of things we set our minds on each day, the priorities we make for ourselves, the commitments we have—these have a great impact on how we live.
Our will is in the driver’s seat every day. Trouble is, controlling our will is like trying to steer an elephant: it’s big and powerful and stubborn, and once it’s made up its mind, it’s so hard to manage.
So we pray for God to make our will more submissive and agreeable to what He wants. It’s God the Spirit alone who transforms our wills, but here too, we have a calling. ‘Work it out,’ says Scripture. ‘As God bends your will through his Spirit, let it be bent. As God teaches your will, let it be taught.’
And what about the second half of the phrase? God is working in us, so that we ‘work.’ From desire comes action, from planning comes doing. This concerns whatever we’ll be doing tomorrow morning, and Wednesday evening, and Saturday afternoon. God saves us and works in us so that our ambitions, plans and activities are all for a new cause.
‘Work for his good pleasure.’ This is one of those commands where God leaves the application entirely up to us. It can be tailor-made for whatever situation we’re in: working for God’s pleasure in how we start our day. In how we greet our spouse, or our parents. In how we drive. In how we work. In how we study. In how we eat and drink, play and relax.
Is there a uniquely Christian way to eat your breakfast, or to do the laundry, or to play soccer, or to fill in a report at work? In all these situations, we must let the gospel move us to worthy action. They are all opportunities to ‘work out’ our salvation, to act differently because of what Christ has done for us. To speak kindly. To labour faithfully. To do our chores without grumbling. To play fairly.
And God is delighted when we do. As Paul says, “It is God who works in you…for his good pleasure.” Amazingly, the LORD is gladded by our good works. He delights to see us busy with our salvation, working it out, extending its reach. He delights for all of us to ask, ‘How can I better serve in the church? How can I be a more Christ-like friend to my friends, or parent, or spouse, or grandparent, or employee?
How can I will and how can I work for God’s good pleasure?