It’s clear that God expects a human response in our relationship to him, but do we sometimes emphasize what we do above what he’s doing? It’s important to recognize that God’s saving us begins, continues, and ends with his initiative, not ours.
Notice how Paul mentions both in this passage:
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 (Philippians 2:12-13).
It’s a play on words, one scholar says: We are to “work out” because God “works in” (R.R. Melick).
I’ve done—and you’ve heard—a lot of preaching on the “working out” part, but maybe not as much on God’s “working in.”
Maybe that’s part of the reason we often struggle to feel truly secure in our salvation. We know, more than anyone else (except God), how far short we fall of being who we ought to be. If it depends on our efforts, we know we’ll miss out on salvation—even if we don’t like to admit it.
On the other hand, when we recognize that God is working in us “to will and to work for his good pleasure,” it directs our focus Godward, instead of inward.
That’s where we find comfort. I’ll always fall short, but he won’t.
In another place, Paul wrote this: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). There’s a reluctance to embrace this because we fear that emphasizing what God is doing will cause us to relax . . . to fall into spiritual apathy. But I think we’ll find that it’ll do the opposite.
Maybe when we put more trust in God’s power to accomplish in us whatever he chooses, we’ll find ourselves obeying more faithfully out of gratitude, instead of some kind of misguided attempt to earn what we can never earn.
It ought to comfort us in a way that our attempts to measure up never can—God, who loves us infinitely and wants to save us, is working within us to accomplish his will.
Do we obey? Absolutely.
But we do it in response to what he’s already done, and what he continues to do.