Do we act in ways that are pleasing to God in our own strength, or do we need help?
That question pertains to all that we do that pleases God, from our first coming to Him and embracing the Savior to our life long walk with Him. the answer can be found in a single verse of Scripture:
For it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. – Phil 2:13
Albert Barnes (1872–1951) offers some great insight into that passage:
“For it is God that worketh in you – This is given as a reason for making an effort to be saved, or for working out our salvation. It is often thought to be the very reverse, and people often feel that if God works “in us to will and to do,” there can be no need of our making an effort, and that there would be no use in it. If God does all the work, say they, why should we not patiently sit still, and wait until He puts forth His power and accomplishes in us what He wills? It is of importance, therefore, to understand what this declaration of the apostle means, in order to see whether this objection is valid, or whether the fact that God “works in us” is to be regarded as a reason why we should make no effort. The word rendered “worketh” – ἐνεργῶν energōn – working – is from a verb meaning to work, to be active to produce effect – and is that from which we have derived the word “energetic.” The meaning is, that God “produces a certain effect in us;” he exerts such an influence over us as to lead to a certain result in our minds – to wit, “to will and to do.” Nothing is said of the mode in which this is done, and probably this cannot be understood by us here; compare Joh_3:8. In regard to the divine agency here referred to, however, certain things, though of a negative character, are clear:
(1) It is not God who acts for us. He leads us to “will and to do.” It is not said that he wills and does for us, and it cannot be. It is man that “wills and does” – though God so influences him that he does it.
(2) he does not compel or force us against our will. He leads us to will as well as to do. The will cannot be forced; and the meaning here must be that God exerts such an influence as to make us willing to obey Him; compare Psa_110:3.
(3) it is not a physical force, but it must be a moral influence. A physical power cannot act on the will. You may chain a man, incarcerate him in the deepest dungeon, starve him, scourge him, apply red-hot pincers to his flesh, or place on him the thumb-screw, but the will is still free. You cannot bend that or control it, or make him believe otherwise than as he chooses to believe. The declaration here, therefore, cannot mean that God compels us, or that we are anything else but free agents still, though He “works in us to will and to do.” It must mean merely that he exerts such an influence as to secure this result.
To will and to do of his good pleasure – Not to will and to do everything, but “His good pleasure.” The extent of the divine agency here referred to, is limited to that, and no man should adduce this passage to prove that God “works” in him to lead him to commit sin. This passage teaches no such doctrine. It refers here to Christians, and means that he works in their hearts that which is agreeable to him, or leads them to “will and to do” that which is in accordance with his own will. The word rendered “good pleasure” – εὐδοκία eudokia – means “delight, good-will, favor;” then “good pleasure, purpose, will;” see Eph_1:5; 2Th_1:11. Here it means that which would be agreeable to him; and the idea is, that he exerts such an influence as to lead people to will and to do that which is in accordance with his will. Paul regarded this fact as a reason why we should work out our salvation with fear and trembling. It is with that view that he urges it, and not with any idea that it will embarrass our efforts, or be a hindrance to us in seeking salvation. The question then is, how this fact can be a motive to us to make an effort? In regard to this we may observe:
(1) That the work of our salvation is such that we need help, and such help as God only can impart. We need it to enable us to overcome our sins; to give us such a view of them as to produce true penitence; to break away from our evil companions; to give up our plans of evil, and to resolve to lead different lives. We need help that our minds may be enlightened; that we may be led in the way of truth; that we may be saved from the danger of error, and that we may not be suffered to fall back into the ways of transgression. Such help we should welcome from any quarter; and any assistance furnished on these points will not interfere with our freedom.
(2) the influence which God exerts on the mind is in the way of help or aid. What He does will not embarrass or hinder us. It will prevent no effort which we make to be saved; it will throw no hindrance or obstacle in the way. When we speak of Gods working “in us to will and to do,” people often seem to suppose that His agency will hinder us, or throw some obstacle in our way, or exert some evil influence on our minds, or make it more difficult for us to work out our salvation than it would be without His agency. But this cannot be. We may be sure that all the influence which God exerts over our minds, will be to aid us in the work of salvation, not to embarrass us; will be to enable us to overcome our spiritual enemies and our sins, and not to put additional weapons into their hands or to confer on them new power. Why should people ever dread the influence of God on their hearts, as if he would hinder their efforts for their own good?
(3) the fact that God works is an encouragement for us to work. When a man is about to set out a peach or an apple tree, it is an encouragement for him to reflect that the agency of God is around him, and that he can cause the tree to produce blossoms, and leaves, and fruit. When he is about to plow and sow his farm, it is an encouragement, not a hindrance, to reflect that God works, and that he can quicken the grain that is sown, and produce an abundant harvest. What encouragement of a higher order can man ask? And what farmer is afraid of the agency of God in the case, or supposes that the fact that God exerts an agency is a reason why he should not plow and plant his field, or set out his orchard? Poor encouragement would a man have in these things if God did not exert any agency in the world, and could not be expected to make the tree grow or to cause the grain to spring up; and equally poor would be all the encouragement in religion without his aid.”