Work Out Our Own Salvation

As believers, we long to be more like Christ but some days we feel we are taking three steps forward and two steps back. How do we approach the Christian life? How do we make steady progress in our spiritual growth? How can we overcome sin and become more like Christ? The teaching in Philippians 2:12-13 is key to answering these questions. But first, let’s think about two unbiblical extremes, popular imbalances in our understanding of sanctification.

Error #1: “Let Go and Let God” (Quietism)

The first unbiblical extreme we must avoid is the “Let God and Let God” approach that is also known as Keswick theology. According to an article written by New Testament professor Andrew Naselli, entitled “Why ‘Let Go and Let God’ Is a Bad Idea,” Keswick theology comes from the early Keswich movement, named after the small town in northwest England which has hosted an annual weeklong meeting on the deeper spiritual life since 1875.

Keswick theology is “one of the most significant strands of second-blessing theology. It assumes that Christians experience two ‘blessings.’ The first is getting ‘saved,’ and the second is getting serious. The change is dramatic: from a defeated life to a victorious life; from a lower life to a higher life; from a shallow life to a deeper life; from a fruitless life to a more abundant life; from being ‘carnal’ to being ‘spiritual’; and from merely having Jesus as your Savior to making Jesus your Master. People experience this second blessing through surrender and faith: ‘Let go and let God.’”[1]

This theology is “appealing because Christians struggle with sin and want to be victorious in that struggle now. Keswick theology offers a quick fix, and its shortcut to instant victory appeals to genuine longings for holiness….You can tell that Keswick theology has influenced people when you hear a Christian ‘testimony’ like this: ‘I was saved when I was eight years old, and I surrendered to Christ when I was seventeen.’”

This kind of theology is sometimes put in the category of Quietism. Quietists believe that the will of the Christian is quiet, or passive in sanctification. Concerning Quietism, John MacArthur writes, “Quietism tends to be mystical and subjective, focusing on personal feelings and experiences. A person who is utterly submitted to and dependent on God, they say, will be divinely protected from sin and led into faithful living. Trying to strive against sin or to discipline oneself to produce good works is considered to be not only futile but unspiritual and counterproductive.”[2] In short, Quietism is a less than biblical approach to pursuing holiness.

Error #2: Pietism

A second unbiblical extreme is known as Pietism. Pietists are “aggressive in their pursuit of correct doctrine and moral purity. Historically, this movement originated in seventeenth-century Germany as a reaction to the dead orthodoxy of many Protestant churches. To their credit, most pietists place strong emphasis on Bible study, holy living, self-discipline, and practical Christianity….Yet they often stress self-effort to the virtual exclusion of dependence on divine power.”[3]

Pietism, as a movement, emphasized many good things in the area of spiritual disciplines and the mutual encouragement and exhortation of believers. However, it has its downsides as well. Pietism is often the parent of legalism, which is a false measurement of spirituality stemming from a dependence upon adherence to the law in place of resting in faith. Pietistic tendencies also tend to feed what I like to call “The New Pharisaism,” which is an over-emphasis on externals, and the addition of extra-biblical rules and regulations to the neglect of the internal issues of the heart. The New Pharisaism is also characterized by a hyper-critical spirit toward believers who fail to conform to the Pharisee’s demands.

Both Quietism and Pietism fail. Both of these unbiblical extremes fail in the same way: They place importance upon only one side of the process of sanctification. Quietism places emphasis upon resting in God by faith, while Pietism places emphasis upon the diligent, unrelenting pursuit of holiness. But growing in Christ requires both personal responsibility and a dependence upon God in faith.

I am personally indebted to Jerry Bridges who helped me to understand the importance of keeping these two equally true concepts in tension with one another. Now, keeping them in balance continues to be a journey for me. In his first book, The Pursuit of Holiness (1978), he emphasized every Christian’s personal responsibility to be diligent in godliness. God expects us to wage war against the remaining sin in our lives and run the Christian race with great effort. We are not to flirt with sin, but fight against it. In a later book, Transformed by Grace (1991), he wrote of the energizing power of God’s grace to transform us into Christlikeness. In that book, he warned believers to beware of the “Performance Treadmill,” the never-ending tendency to base our relationship with God upon our personal, spiritual performance. Then, in 1993, he wrote The Discipline of Grace, which combined personal responsibility and divine empowerment into one. The book’s subtitle says it all: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness. Philippians 2:12-13 keeps before us—in equal balance—both of these two truths: personal responsibility and divine empowerment.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

We are fully responsible for our own spiritual growth.

We are commanded to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, with sober-mindedness (1 Peter 1:13-16; 4:7; 5:8). The apostle links what he is about to say with the emphasis upon the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Remember from last Sunday, no one makes Jesus Lord. He is Lord. The response of biblical faith is to recognize that and submit to His rightful rule over our lives.

The Christian life is not a playground; it is a battlefield. It is a race to run. It is a fight to fight. It is a war, and we are called to be good soldiers. There are other Scriptures which emphasize our personal responsibility in the pursuit of holiness (Matthew 5:27-30; Ephesians 4:17; 22-24; Hebrews 12:1; James 1:21-22).

We are also fully dependent upon God for our spiritual growth.

Verse 13 affirms that “it is God who works in you.” His work is in two areas: to will and to work for His good pleasure. God gives us the desire to become holy (“to will”) and He also provides the power “to work,” to do the things that please God. Other Scriptures that emphasize God’s work of sanctification (John 15:5; Galatians 5:22-25; Ephesians 2:1-10; 2 Peter 1:3, 5).

The apostle Paul testifies that it was this balance of two truths that governed his own progress in Christ. First Corinthians 15:10 says, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” And so it must be the same with us.

[Listen to the Delight in the Word podcast: Work Our Your Salvation.]


[1] Andrew Naselli, Why “Let Go and Let God” Is a Bad Idea.

[2] John MacArthur, Philippians, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 2001), p. 152.

[3] MacArthur, pp. 152-153.

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