It isn’t a complicated task to pick up on the apostle’s main thrust in the first eleven verses of Philippians 2. As he erupts in christological song, he, likewise, expresses that which is the hallmark of all those who’d say they are Christ’s — that is, humility. He speaks of its essence (Phil. 2:1–4), its embodiment (Phil. 2:5–8), and its exaltation (Phil. 2:9–11). At every turn, St. Paul amplifies the significance of humility in the life of the church. Such is what sustains that sweet “fellowship of the Spirit” and animates otherwise self-concerned individuals into others-oriented servants (Phil. 2:1, 3). And because this sort of thinking doesn’t come naturally to the human mind, Paul evokes the life of Christ as the divine epitome of what it looks like to “esteem others better than themselves.”
It is fitting that the apostle’s deep albeit brief exploration of humility is encapsulated in the One who, indeed, embodies humility in its fullness. Humility is God’s appointed method by which the world is remade. Such is why the Scriptures are teeming with exhortations towards humility (Matt. 18:4; 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14; James 4:10; 1 Pet. 5:5–6). So what, then, is God’s enterprise behind such an insistence on the joyful life of the humbled soul? What is the endgame behind this divine design of the life of “lowliness of mind” (Phil. 2:3)? As it happens, Paul answers that for us in verses 12–18.
God’s work in us.
Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12–13)
Paul’s “wherefore” suggests that his next words are meant to be understood in conjunction with everything he has already said. This is important when examining these verses (verse 12, especially), since the apostle stresses the horizontal work which is borne out of the Christian’s vertical faith. A cursory reading of verse 12 might lead one to focus on the words “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” and arrive at a very imprecise and incorrect assumption regarding Paul’s point. What the apostle is, decidedly, not suggesting is for some sort of cooperative view of God’s salvation. While that might seem overly basic, it remains the chief peril of the Christian faith to presume that we can add something to it.1 That we have a part to play other than empty-handed belief. Such is often the conclusion after a perfunctory reading of Paul’s words.
I would say that our innate sense that we are the masters of our own fate caters to the fawning over the words “work out your own salvation,” as if the apostle has just gift-wrapped the words we’ve so longed to hear: that we can save ourselves, so long as we’re adequately “fearing and trembling.” Indeed, verse 12 is ample breeding ground for the notion of a synergistic redemptive system. I guess “God helps those who help themselves” after all, right?2 Driving this point home is a 2017 study conducted by Barna Research which found that an astonishingly 52 percent of “practicing Christians” strongly agree that God does, in fact, help those who help themselves. Search the Scriptures line by line, though, and you will not find that principle taught anywhere. Not at all — and especially not here by “the apostle of grace.”
You see, while it might speak to our inner “god complex” that so long as we do our part, God will do his, that’s not at all what the apostle is suggesting. You can’t “work out” something that hasn’t first been “worked in” you. His words aren’t meant to speak to one’s salvation as much as they are to one’s witness of salvation. The “working out with fear and trembling” is the apostle’s directive that the church “be the church” by faithfully submitting to the church’s Head and Lord. It is Christ alone who works in us through his Spirit “both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). His effectual work in us brings about our work for him, not the other way around. “Every holy initiative,” comments John Henry Jowett,3 “springs from Him, and from Him alone.” There is nothing good in us except the Spirit of Christ be in us.
Consequently, Paul is not undercutting the gospel of God’s full and free salvation by his sentiments, here. Rather, he is engaging the Philippians (and us) with a proper view of what follows the proclamation of the gospel, which is a deepening understanding that it is God’s work all the way down. From the moment of repentant faith to one’s final breath, the Christian will always be exploring the fathomless caverns of God’s gospel. Our “fearing and trembling” give way as we realize that “the gospel is not only the door into the Christian life but also the living room of the Christian life.”4 Our life as God’s beloved is sweetened the more we humbly recognize that it is God’s work alone which changes us. Such, I think, is what faith is all about — namely, relinquishing our hold over our own lives and humbly surrendering to the work God is prepared to do in us and on us.
God’s work on us.
Do all things without murmurings and disputings: that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain. (Phil. 2:14–16)
St. Paul proceeds to identify what it is that God “wills and does” in us by referring to the work he performs on us. The imperative to “do all things” would be utterly impossible without God’s active work in us. Such is the point of the gospel. It is the sovereign enterprise of God’s redemption of man to resurrect sinners into saints in order to shine a light on his glorious, redeeming, life-giving work. As he makes us “blameless” and “without rebuke” through the cleansing power of his blood, so does he guide us to walk as his “harmless” (that is, pure) sons and daughters “in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation” (Phil. 2:15; Eph. 5:8–11). Again, the purpose has nothing really to do with us and everything to do with him. His intent is such that his beloved sons and daughters live as holy lenses refracting his wondrous Light. So writes Rev. Alexander Maclaren5:
As the stars lighten the darkness with their myriad lucid points, so in the divine ideal Christian men are to be as twinkling lights in the abyss of darkness.
God’s work on us is part of his mission to push back sin’s dark domain. He takes the sovereign initiative to make a way for those who are “dead in trespasses and sins” to be raised to walk in the “light of life” (John 8:12) and the “light of the world” (Matt. 5:14). He imparts his Spirit to dwell in us, in order that the finished work of the Son might forever be at the forefront of our faith and that we might be formed into the Son’s image (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; 1 John 3:2). It is the Spirit of Christ who informs us of the light and life that’s been gifted to us in the person and work of Christ. “The Spirit ignites our contemplation of Jesus Christ,” Dane Ortlund writes. “The subjective work of the Spirit works in tandem with the objective work of Christ.”6 There is no such thing as blamelessness apart from him. Rather, we are made blameless as we behold in faith the One who took the blame for us. Such is what will keep us “burning and shining” (John 5:35) as God’s life-giving lights.
God’s work through us.
Yea, and if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all. For the same cause also do ye joy, and rejoice with me. (Phil. 2:17–18)
The apostle culminates this section by expressing that which consummates this life of humility — which, if I were forced to summarize in a word, it would be acceptance. God’s enterprise of humility brings us in faith to the point of acceptance of God’s purposes for us, even if that purpose involves our death. Such, I think, is the proper sense in which Paul’s words in verses 17–18 are understood. He has accepted his role in the mission of the gospel, deeming his life of little value except that it be lived testifying to “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). He understood that his immediate future very likely included the end of his life. His shackles surely served as an ever-present reminder that his course was nearly done (2 Tim. 4:7).
This is a remarkable testimony articulated by St. Paul. I’m sure he, too, was taken aback that he could say wholeheartedly that this was his joy. Indeed, there’s nothing feigned in these words. Paul wasn’t bluffing. He rejoices even as a fearsome fate stands in front of him precisely because his life of joy wasn’t tied to his circumstance but to his Christ. God had seen fit to humble him throughout the course of his life, such that he now considered his own death as a testimony to the joy that’s found in Christ alone. And, for the same reason, the Philippians could rejoice, too — because God’s work was ongoing even if Paul’s work had come to an end.
But, even still, the apostle refuses to linger on the melancholy aspects of his own death, instead imploring the Philippians to “rejoice with him” at the prospect of being “offered upon the sacrifice and service of [their] faith” (Phil. 2:17). The word “offered” carries with it the idea of being “poured out,” as a drink offering to the Lord (Lev. 23:13, 18, 37; Num. 15:8). He saw his life’s labors, including his impending death, as nothing but a liquid tribute to the work of the Lamb, which preceded and undergirded and sustained each and every effort he offered for the cause of Christ and the good of his church (Phil. 2:16; 1 Cor. 15:9–10). Such is the enterprise of humility and God’s humbling of his children, which brings the work of his Son to bear in their hearts and lives, allowing them cling to Christ as their joy in life and in death. The work God does through us ever and always evinces the work he’s done for us. The same One who began a good work in your soul is the One who continues bring about his work on you and through you (Phil. 1:6).
May our lives be humbled and tenderized to receive in faith the work the Lord does in, on, and through us by his Spirit. Amen.
The proper name for this would be “Pelagianism,” being the theological offspring of Pelgaius, whose overly moralistic and ethical view of Scripture eventually led to his denunciation as a heretic. Todd Brewer has an excellent treatment on the “real cruelty of Pelagianism” over on Mockingbird that is certainly worth your time.
Yours truly once wrote a lengthy essay dismantling this phrase, and it is humbly recommended to you now: “Pithy preachers proclaiming perplexing epigrams: on preaching, the pulpit, and Thomas Guthrie’s ‘Christ and the Inheritance of the Saints’.”
John Henry Jowett, The High Calling: Meditations on St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (New York: Revell, 1909), 80.
Dane Ortlund, Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 98.
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944), 14:1.286.
Ortlund, Deeper, 168.