Roger E. Olson
No two verses in the Bible have been discussed and debated more than these together. Throughout Christian history, these two verses, this passage, has provided comfort and affliction to numerous Bible readers. Among the many biblical scholars, theologians and church leaders who have struggled with the passage and commented on it are St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Scottish theologian Donald M. Baillie labeled the truth communicated here “the paradox of grace.”
The whole gospel is expressed in these two verses—in a nutshell. But for many Christians it has been and remains a tough nut to crack. That’s because of its paradoxical nature—two truths that seem to conflict with each other and yet are inseparable.
Here’s the paradox of this passage: salvation is both gift and task. For those of you who have taken the Rosetta Stone course in German, there’s a play on words in that language’s theological interpretation of this passage: salvation is both Gabe (gift) and Aufgabe (task).
But we are all familiar with this paradox if we’ve studied our Bibles carefully. Ephesians 2:8-9 says that “For by grace are you saved through faith and that not of works; it is a gift of God.” On the other hand James 2:18 says “Show me your faith without works and I will show you my faith by my works.
Probably no truth of the New Testament is as difficult to grasp as this. It seems contradictory. On the one hand, salvation is all of God, a sheer gift that cannot be earned. On the other hand, salvation is something we work at, we have a role to play in it.
Throughout Christian history, and still today, this paradox has given rise to two opposite and equally mistaken interpretations. The pendulum swings between two extremes.
During Christianity’s early days in Rome a monk named Pelagius taught that we must earn our salvation; salvation is our responsibility. It is all “task.” Church father Augustine opposed Pelagius and taught that salvation is all God’s doing; we really don’t contribute anything. God chooses whom he will save and saves them without any cooperation or contribution on their parts.
During the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther and the Catholic Church fell into bitter dispute over this. Luther insisted that people being saved don’t even have free will. Man, he argued, is like a horse ridden either by God or the devil and God decides who the rider will be. The Catholic Church, however, insisted that good works play a role in maintaining salvation.
During the Great Awakening in Britain and America John Wesley and revivalist George Whitefield fell into disagreement and, for a while, ended their friendship over this issue of God’s role and ours in salvation. Wesley taught that we have a role to play; Whitefield attributed everything to God’s electing grace and denied any human cooperation in salvation.
And on and on the argument has gone. Today it’s once again dividing equally God-fearing, Jesus-loving, Bible-believing Christians. Something called “the new Calvinism” or “young, restless, Reformed” movement led by Christian teachers like John Piper is again denying any human role in salvation; it’s all God’s doing and none of ours.
Many of these people, maybe like many of us, have wrongly divided verses 12 and 13 of Philippians 2 and pitted them against each other—emphasizing one to the neglect of the other. Either verse 12 is underscored with human beings contributing to our salvation with good works or verse 13 is highlighted with God doing everything himself.
What many don’t see is that Philippians 2:12-13 isn’t about initial salvation—conversion. It’s about the Christian life after conversion—about maintaining a healthy relationship with God as a converted believer.
As Baptists, like many evangelical Christians, we tend to specialize in initial salvation—conversion. We know all about that: we are forgiven by God on account of our simple, unadorned faith or trust in Jesus Christ. Good works play no role in conversion. But we aren’t always so sure about what comes after that. We get confused about the roles of grace and good works in living a life pleasing to God—maintaining a healthy relationship with God our savior.
To put it plainly: how do we stay in God’s good favor after we are saved? Is maintaining a right relationship with God and growing in God’s grace our doing or God’s? What must we do to enjoy the benefits of salvation throughout life? What does God to maintain that relationship?
That’s where Philippians 2:12-13 comes into play. It answers that crucial question in a paradox but not a contradiction.
A clue to why the message is not a contradiction lies in the Greek words translated “work” in English Bibles. “Work out your own salvation,” it says, “for God is at work in you….” The secret is that in the original language, these are two different words, not one. We just don’t have two different English words to translate the two Greek words, so most English translations simply use “work.” But that’s confusing because it makes the passage sound like it’s contradicting itself—verse 13 sounds like it’s contradicting verse 12. But it’s not.
The Greek word translated “work” in verse 12 is one that means “continue a task; carry it out to completion.” The Greek word translated “work” in verse 13 is one that means “provides the ability and means, the energy.”
So let’s read the passage with the Greek in mind: “Carry out, continue your task of salvation with fear and trembling, for God is providing all the ability, means and energy….”
Now the light is dawning. The passage’s meaning is clearer. When it comes to maintaining a healthy relationship with God, we do something and God does something.
I want to suggest that these two verses together express the Christian life, our relationship with God, as unconditional good news. We are not puppets, being micromanaged by God. We are responsible people in a personal relationship with a personal God. But, on the other hand, we are weak and God gives us everything we need to maintain a strong, healthy relationship with him.
I have three points to make about this good news, this paradox of grace, these two verses and the truth they tell about God and us in relationship.
1. Grace is Free!
The problem is that, in our human weakness and ignorance, we often want to think there is something we must do to buy or boost God’s grace. Either from fear or pride, we create grace boosters—acts that we think will merit God’s favor and shore up our relationship with him.
Some churches have formal, official grace boosters. They’re called sacraments. As a Baptist, I don’t believe in them. But we Baptists have our own grace boosters—good works we think are necessary to somehow guarantee God’s favor and blessings: tithing, volunteering, attending, witnessing…whatever.
When these good works are thought of as grace boosters, they become like the pillars famed architect Christopher Wren added to the Town Hall of Windsor, England in 1689. The city fathers wanted a beautiful new town hall with a large meeting room above and an open space for a farmer’s market below. They commissioned Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, to design it. Wren used a new construction method to support the meeting room above the open-air market on the hall’s first floor. When the city fathers viewed the building, they were alarmed. The farmer’s market below the meeting room was without pillars except around the periphery. In the middle there were no pillars to support the ceiling, the floor of their meeting room above. They asked Wren to add four pillars in the middle of the open air market space to keep them from falling down into the first floor below when they met in their new meeting room. Wren refused, pointing out how beautiful the open space was without pillars in its middle. But the city fathers insisted, so finally a bitter Wren added the pillars. Years later the ceiling of the market space needed repairs. The workmen built their scaffolds around the pillars, climbed up to repair the ceiling and found something shocking. The four added pillars did not reach all the way to the ceiling. Wren’s pillars were deceptive; they didn’t support anything.
Our good works, meant to sustain and even increase God’s favor, are like Wren’s deceptive pillars. They be beautiful and give a false sense of security, but they contribute nothing to grace.
The practical point is that our relationship with God is supported from God’s side; everything we need to have a good relationship with him is provided by him. That’s the point of verse 13.
2. Grace is costly!
Wait! Doesn’t this contradict point 1—“grace is free?” Not really.
Grace is free to us, but not to God.
A popular definition of “grace” is “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” What are God’s riches? God’s favor, adoption into his family, peace, joy, confidence that our future is secure in him.
The Bible calls this “life abundant” and “eternal life”—not just something future but available now. All can be ours, now. But only because God himself lowered himself to our level and took on our shame and guilt and died an innocent death of capital punishment on a cruel cross.
God’s grace is free to us, but not to God. It cost him much.
This is what German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he condemned “cheap grace” and promoted “costly grace”—not that grace costs us something, but that it cost God much and we cheapen it by being ungrateful, by living lives of lazy spirituality or by sinning so that grace may abound.
This explains why we do good works. They are not “grace boosters,” but acts of gratitude for the price God paid to save us and draw us into relationship with him so that he can share his riches with us.
3. Grace is relational.
Yes, grace is free; it costs us nothing—nothing even to maintain a healthy relationship with God and enjoy the benefits and blessings of his favor.
However, our Christian life is a relationship; it’s not a condition. It requires maintenance and that means both parties have something to do—as in any personal relationship.
God’s doesn’t impose his favor, his blessings on us. He invites us to enjoy them and offers to provide everything we need to have them.
Then why do we so often not enjoy the blessings of God’s favor? Why is our relationship with God often so weak and stagnant, even almost non-existent?
Earlier I said there are no grace boosters. So it’s not due to lack of grace boosters, good works. God is not waiting to see us perform for him before he blesses us. His grace is always already full and free and offered to us.
There are no grace booster, but there are “grace blockers.” This is the answer to What does Paul mean in verse 12—to “work out your own salvation?” It doesn’t mean “built more pillars” that don’t even reach the ceiling. It doesn’t mean “do more good works so that grace will be increased.”
Let me illustrate what Paul does mean with another illustration. I have a common frustrating experience during these hot Texas summers. I have a large yard with many trees and decorative bushes, but the house has only two outdoor faucets. So I see one of my bushes needs water; it’s wilting in the blistering sun and above one hundred degree temperatures. I connect my one hundred foot hose to the faucet on the wall of the house and turn on the faucet. Then I drag the hose away from the house, around the corner and way, way out to the poor thirsty bush. I stand there and aim the spray nozzle at the bush and pull the trigger. Nothing happens. I go back to make sure the faucet is really turned on so that the water is flowing into the hose. It is. I go back and pick up the nozzle and point it again and pull the trigger. Again, nothing. What’s wrong?
Ah, I finally realize it—somewhere in the length of that hose there’s a kink that’s stopping the flow of the water. The fault isn’t with the water pressure; the water is pushing to come out and drench the thirsty bush. So I go back the length of the hose and find the one or more kinks and work them out. Then the water that’s already there is free to flow.
Like the water in the hose, the grace of God is not lacking. It doesn’t need to be boosted. It’s already “turned on” by God’s love and mercy and our repentance and faith. But often it can’t flow in our life because we have put grace blockers in its way or allowed them to happen in our lives.
What are “grace blockers?” Wrong attitudes, dispositions, habits, neglect of spiritual disciplines…
When Paul says “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…” he means “identify those grace blockers that are stopping the flow of God’s grace in your life and remove them with the Holy Spirit’s help.” He does not mean “work harder at pleasing God with good works so that God’s grace in your life will increase.”
And when Paul says “for God is at work in you…” he doesn’t mean “God does everything and you do nothing,” he means “God will provide you with all the ability, all the energy, all the means to remove the grace blockers from your life so your relationship with him will be whole again.”
So what are the grace blockers in your life that are hindering the flow of God’s grace?