Teaching series from Philippians

Work Out What God Works In

Philippians 2:12-13

Teaching t12675


Brief review of setting (MAP).  We come now to a brief but crucial and rich passage in Philippians.  It is perhaps the most concise explanation in the New Testament of the dynamics of Christian spirituality – especially what God does and what we do.  Read 2:12,13.  The distillation of this concise passage is: “Work out what God works in.”  Let’s see how Paul describes what God “works in,” and then let’s see what he says about what and how we “work out.”

What God “works in”

Re-read 2:13.  Almost every single word and phrase in this verse is important.  Note especially:

The “you” does not refer to all people; Paul is not teaching that God is in every human being (e.g., pantheism).  The “you” refers to people who belong to Christ (1:1 – “saints in Christ”) because they have personally received Him as their Messiah.  The Bible teaches that all humans possess the image of God (e.g., personality; spiritual awareness), but that being indwelt by God requires the forgiveness of our sins – and this forgiveness comes only through faith in Christ as Savior.

“God” here refers specifically to the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity whom Jesus promised would  personally and permanently indwell those who receive Him as Savior (read Jn. 14:16,17).  The Holy Spirit indwells all who belong to Christ to make His life-transforming presence personally real to them.

“Is at work in you” is in the present tense and indicative mood, which means that God’s Spirit is at work in all Christians at all times.  This is true of all Christians, whether beginners or veterans.  This is true at all times, whether we sense His work or not, whether we have been “spiritual” lately or not, etc.  You can resist God working in you (“do not grieve/quench the Spirit”), but you cannot stop Him from constantly initiating His work in you (ELECTRICAL POWER & LIGHT SWITCH).

“For His good pleasure” (eudokia) refers to the purpose toward which God’s Spirit is at work in us.  He is at work in us to fashion our lives into what delights Him, just as a sculptor fashions a block of marble into a sculpture what delights him.  God is well-pleased with His Son (Matt. 3:17- eudokeo), and His Spirit is constantly at work in us to fashion us into the likeness/character of His Son (2 Cor. 3:18).  We will learn more specifically what this looks like when we examine 2:12.

“Both to will and to work” explains two keys ways in which the Holy Spirit is constantly at work in all Christians.    

“To will” (thelo) here means not “to make your decisions for you,” but “to impart desire and motivation” for God’s purpose.  All new Christians notice this new desire (EXAMPLES: to relate to God as Father; to learn His Word; to tell others that you believe in Jesus; to share with other Christians; to admire and pursue godly character; etc.)  Spiritual motivation is not something that we must self-generate; it is something that God supernaturally generates in us. 

“To work” (energo) means literally “to energize,” or “to empower.”  God’s Spirit not only imparts motivation for God’s purpose; He also imparts power to accomplish His purpose.  All true Christians have experienced this (EXAMPLES: ability to pour heart out to God in prayer; enlightenment of His Word; courage to tell others about Jesus; power to resist temptation; ability to build up another Christian; etc.)  Spiritual power is not something that we screw up by our own moral will-power; it is something that God constantly makes available to us (Eph. 1:19,20a; Col. 1:11,29).

Think of the effect of the sun on a flower (PICTURE) – it exerts a power that causes the flower to bend toward it, and its rays cause the flower to grow and mature.  God’s exerts a similar influence on all the people He indwells.

SUMMARIZE: What an amazing and encouraging promise!  No matter how big and/or deep our sin problems are, God is at work to overcome them.  No matter how naturally slothful we may be, God is at work to motivate us.  No matter how much damage we may have incurred from others, God is at work to heal this damage.  No matter how reluctant other people have been to help us with our needs, God is at work to help us become like Christ.  Ask yourself: “What difference would it make to view my problems in light of this promise?” (vs. fatalism; vs.  comparison to other people)  “What difference would it make to view other Christians problems in light of this promise?” (vs. defining them by their weaknesses; vs. cynical negativity)

“If God does this, do I need to do anything?”  The answer is “Yes,” because humans are not flowers.  A flower responds to the sun unconsciously and automatically, but it is the glory and dignity of humans to respond to God’s influence consciously and willingly.  This is why some Christians grow, while others do not.  This is why some Christians grow during some periods of their lives, but not during other periods.  This is why some Christians progress more or less consistently, while others tend to stagnate and/or regress.  God is always at work in all of us, but we need to respond properly to His working.  Paul describes how to respond in 2:12 (read).

How we “work out”

The main command here (our part in spiritual growth) is: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”  As with 2:13, every word and phrase in 2:12b is important.

“Work out your salvation” – not “work for your salvation.”  This would contradict the core of Paul’s teaching about how we receive salvation (read and explain Eph. 2:8,9).  We do not earn our salvation by our works; we receive salvation as a free gift apart from our works, by simply putting our faith in Jesus to give it to us.

“Work out” doesn’t mean simply “work hard at something,” as when we do a physical workout.  Katergazomai here means something like “bring forth” or “bring out into view” what is already within. 

The Roman scholar Strabo, in his discourse on geography (60 BC), uses katergazomai when describing mining operations.  “Katergazomai  . . . describe(d) the working of a silver mine with the goal of extracting all of the precious ore.  By analogy, we are commanded to ‘mine out’ of our lives all the richness of salvation God has (already) so graciously deposited in us.”[1]  Paul presumes that we already have our salvation within us; he is calling us to actively bring it out into external reality, into our actual lifestyle.

What is this lifestyle that we are to work out, that God is constantly working in us?  The passages immediately preceding and immediately following 2:12,13 answer this question.  It is not embracing a lifestyle of religious observances, or of sterile, self-righteous moralism.  It is embracing a lifestyle of love – toward the other Christians God has put in your life (read 2:3-5; LAST WEEK) and toward the non-Christians God has put in your life (read 2:14-16; 2 WEEKS).  This lifestyle was not Paul’s idea or command; it was Jesus’ mandate to all of His followers (Jn. 13:34,35; Matt. 5:14-16).  The Holy Spirit has poured God’s love into our hearts so that we may pour His love out to others (Rom. 5:5).

Paul calls us to embrace this lifestyle with a certain heart-attitude – “in fear and trembling.”  This does not mean “cringing in terror by the prospect of God’s condemnation.”  We have already seen that through Christ our salvation is in us and secure.  It is a figure of speech that Paul uses elsewhere, and by referring to these usages we get two insights into its meaning.[2]

Read Eph. 6:5,6.  “With fear and trembling” is paired with “with sincerity of heart.”  “Sincerity” (haplotes) means “one who is free from pretence and hypocrisy.”  You know the difference between doing something out of peer pressure, or just to get a favor, versus doing something out of sincere respect for a person.  Many Christians make no spiritual progress because they are man-pleasers (trying to fit in with Christians when they are around Christians) and/or mercenaries (trying to put God and others in their debt).  This attitude blocks God’s work in our lives.  But we can choose to live before God, “as unto Christ” (“the Audience of One”) because we are convinced that His will is right and good (Rom. 12:2).

Read 1 Cor. 2:3-5.  Here, “with fear and trembling” is paired with “in weakness.”  Paul is describing his heart-attitude when he spoke about Christ to the Corinthians for the first time.  He was not a self-confident word-smith, relying on his human intelligence and finely-honed oratory skills.  He was acutely aware of his inadequacy and impotence to do what God wanted – to bring them to faith in Christ.  In other words, he spoke with humble dependence on the power of God’s Spirit to do through him what he could not do.  Many Christians make no spiritual progress because they try to serve God by their own power.  This attitude likewise blocks God’s work in our lives.  But we can choose to accept our complete spiritual impotence (2 Cor. 3:5,6a) and learn to humbly depend on Him to work through us as a branch (Jn. 15), an instrument (Rom. 6:13), an impotent would-be parent (Rom. 4:19-21).

“Fear and trembling,” then, is simply a synonym for “faith in God.”  Since katergazomai is in the present tense, this is an attitude we are to choose day by day, situation by situation, rather than a one-time crisis event (why “embrace a lifestyle”).

SUMMARIZE: What a simple yet searching challenge this!  Ask yourself: “Am I choosing to give myself to God for His purpose?”  Or are you still living for some form of living for self (e.g., MATERIALISM; HEDONISM; CLIMBING A SOCIAL LADDER)?  If so, you are swimming upstream against God’s constant influence, nullifying His motivation and power.  But you can change this at any time, including right now!

If you have given yourself to God for His purpose, ask yourself: “Am I choosing to relying on God to empower me to live for His purpose?”  It is easy to drift into relying on your own will-power, personality, natural talents, etc., instead of humbly admitting your impotence and asking Him to work through you.  This also is swimming upstream against God’s constant influence, nullifying His motivation and power. 

Here’s the good news.  If you simply embrace this lifestyle day by day with humble sincerity and dependence on Him, He will supply day by day all the motivation and power you need to live a fruitful life (quote Jn. 15:4,5).  The only one who can stop you is you.  Once you choose to walk down this path, no one and nothing else can stop you from being gradually transformed!  God doesn’t want to stop you, and others (including Satan) can’t stop you.  


NEXT WEEK: Philippians 2:14-18 – “Being Lights in a Dark World”

[2] “An attitude of ‘(sincere) obedience’ or ‘holding oneself in weakness’ toward the will of God according to the pattern of Jesus Christ (Pedersen, ST 32 [1978] 1–31). This last meaning excellently fits the present context.” Hawthorne, G. F. (2004). Philippians (Vol. 43, p. 142). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.