Serving Jesus: Our Effort or His?

by Paul Davis January 5, 2023

I have often struggled understanding what I should leave up to God’s sovereignty and what is my responsibility. 

Some people emphasize God’s sovereignty in salvation almost to the exclusion of human responsibility. For example, when William Carey planned to go to India as a missionary, he was told by one minister, “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine.” I disagree. That does not square with my understanding of the Great Commission, nor did it square with Carey’s understanding of God’s sovereignty.

Other people take human responsibility to the extreme. Rick Warren once said, “It is my deep conviction that anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart.” Really? I don’t even understand the keys to my own heart, let alone others’ hearts. This sentiment places far too much emphasis on human ability to manipulate and persuade.

When it comes to sanctification, or growing in our salvation, some teach a very passive approach. Let go and let God, they say. Proponents of the “Higher Life” movement have argued that to actively strive against sin is to operate in the flesh. Conversely, others stress high standards of spiritual discipline to the Holy Spirit’s work, so that people end up trying to live the Christian life in their own strength. For instance, the Institute for Basic Youth Conflicts boasts of its “non-optional principles of life which, when followed, will result in harmonious relationships in all areas of life.”

It seems I’m not the only one who struggles to reconcile God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.

Where is the biblical balance? Or, more to the point: do I need to get busy working on becoming Christlike, or should I simply pray and ask God to do the work in my heart?

Consider Paul’s words in Philippians 2:12-13. I’m indebted to Steven Cole in his handling of this critical text.

12 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, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13 ESV)

Previously, Paul had exhorted his readers to live in a manner “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). This gospel-worthy life is itself a picture of a life that is at work serving Christ and trusting in God’s sovereignty. It is not passive but active, because of its deep rootedness in relationship with Jesus Christ. Let’s see how Paul describes this lifestyle in Philippians 2:12-16.

Verse 12: Our Human Responsibility

Paul begins with a call to obedience: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence…” (v. 12a).

Paul begins by commending the Philippians for their obedience. He has been discipling them, mentoring them and teaching them how to follow Christ, and he is pleased with their progress.

But what if Paul never returns? That is a real possibility, given Paul’s legal predicaments. So he calls them to obey his teaching regardless of his presence.

Paul is looking for unprompted obedience. I once developed a program at our Christian school with the goal of producing in students what we called “unprompted service.” The goal wasn’t just for students to serve but to develop the habit of serving—of being a person who student who sees needs around them and simply serves, unprompted by a leader. 

This is similar to what Paul was looking for. He wanted his Philippian disciples to follow Christ while he was watching and when he wasn’t. He wanted their obedience to Christ to be free from Paul’s prompting.

Paul’s second call was to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (v. 12b).

The day we put our faith in Christ, we obliged ourselves to obey him too. By embracing Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord, I removed every other god off the throne of my heart and welcomed him to assume the throne of my life. Since then, I have been working out the implications of that decision in my life.

Working out our salvation does not mean we are working for our salvation. No one can receive eternal life by working for it. Rather, as Cole helpfully points out, the only people going to heaven are those who have recognized that they were lost and called out to God to save them through the blood of his Son Jesus. Yet once we receive Christ, we enter the process of sanctification, whereby believers begin adopting and demonstrating their new life in Christ.

In fact, the ultimate aim of evangelism is not simply to avoid hell but to obey everything Jesus has commanded us: “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who died for his stand against Nazism, said, “Only the believer is obedient and only those who are obedient believe” (Stephen R. Haynes and Lori Brandt Hale, Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians, 1st edition., Armchair Theologians Series [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009], 44).

Paul expects his readers to understand that while we are not saved by our works, we are saved for good works (cf. Ephesians 2:10).

“Working out our salvation,” then, means living out the faith we have in Christ. It is virtually the same thing as letting our manner of life be worthy of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27)—a life-long process.

Make no mistake about what Paul desires. He wants real change in the lives of the Philippian believers and he is calling them to obey and work hard to make those changes. This is our human effort side…But wait, look at verse 13.

Verse 13: God’s Side of the Equation

“[F]or it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (v. 13).

Paul just told us to obey and work hard. Now he defines the way in which that obedience and hard work happens. And the ability to obey and work out our salvation is supplied by God himself!

It is God himself that produces both our desire (or will) to live righteously and our ability to work for God’s good pleasure. This is all of grace. 

Sometimes I catch myself thinking, I know that my salvation is from God, but now it’s up to me to do the hard work of living for Jesus. But the Dutch Reformed minister Andrew Murray (1828-1917) had this to say: “No, wandering one, as it was Jesus who drew thee when he spoke ‘Come,’ so it is Jesus who keeps thee when He says, ‘Abide.’ The grace to come and the grace to abide are alike from him alone.”

In other words, the same grace that God supplies for us to come to him in faith is the same grace that transforms believers and enables them to live obediently and righteously.

Paul described his own conversion this way. He went from being a church destroyer to a church planter because of grace (Galatians 1:13-15). So too, Paul calls the Philippians to obedience and good works empowered by God’s grace and not merely their own efforts.

Thus, we return to our initial question: Do I need to get busy working on becoming Christ-like, or should I pray and ask God to do a work in my heart?

The biblical answer is: yes.

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