The Power of Grace in the Sanctification of Believers

I recently found more than a few comments to this blog awaiting approval (or not), most of which were from the same gentleman who took offense at what he judged my antinomian tendencies. Antinomianism, according to Webster is ‘ the doctrine or belief that the Gospel frees Christians from required obedience to any law, whether scriptural, civil, or moral, and that salvation is attained solely through faith and the gift of divine grace.’

According to this delightful fellow, I apparently have some company in the ranks of very well known evangelicals who have also been accused of being antinomian heretics due to their focus on grace and it’s power. In fact, I had first met this fellow when I commented on another blog devoted to declaring the heresy of one of the aforementioned well known evangelicals. I had suggested that he might have misread the preacher/teacher in question and had apparently invited the long string of comments on this blog informing me of my heretical tendencies and near complete lack of knowledge concerning God’s sovereignty in the salvation of men. Most interesting was his use of what is perhaps the most significant passage in all of scripture concerning the believer’s sanctification, to prove his point:

“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 ESV)

In his anti-antinomian fervor my ‘mentor’ didn’t actually discuss the passage in it’s context and focused primarily on the phrase  “work out your own salvation”, as if the ‘heretics’ against which he railed completely ignored it. My friend’s ramblings aside, this might be a good moment to take a closer look at these verses and ask a few questions that might help us obtain a clearer picture of the teaching that Paul is providing his listeners:

In these two verses, what are the Paul’s instructions to the believer?

First of all, the ‘therefore’ refers back to Christ’s humble obedience to the Fafher’s will, even to the point of death on a cross. We are instructed to likewise attain humble obedience (therefore) and given the ‘how’. We are instructed by Paul to work ‘out our salvation”. The believer already has both salvation and the assurance of it for all eternity, because he/she has believed and trusted in the Son for the forgiveness of sin. (See John 3:16-18) And indeed, ‘work out’ is the expression used in several major translations, and the phrase that at times gives us trouble if we ignore what immediately follows in the text. A closer look at the original Greek will give us a fuller understanding of what Paul was saying:

What does it mean to ‘work out’ the salvation which we already posses?

I offer for your consideration the following perspectives:

Greek scholar Kenneth Wuest translates verse 12:

“Wherefore, my beloved ones, as you always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, carry to its ultimate conclusion [likeness to the Lord Jesus] your own salvation with a wholesome, serious caution and trembling.” (Eerdmans)

Scottish minister and Professor of Divinity at Glagcow Univrsity William Barclay:

“So then, my beloved, just as at all times you obeyed not only as in my presence, but much more, as things now are, in my absence, carry to its perfect conclusion the work of your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God, who, that he may carry out his own good pleasure, brings to effect in you both the initial willing and the effective action.” (Westminster Press)

The New Living Translation NLT:

“Dearest friends, you were always so careful to follow my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away you must be even more careful to put into action God’s saving work in your lives, obeying God with deep reverence and fear.” (NLT – Tyndale House)

The Amplified Bible:

“Therefore my dear ones, as you have always obeyed [my suggestions], so now, not only [with the enthusiasm you would show] in my presence but much more because I am absent, work out (cultivate, carry out to the goal, and fully complete) your own salvation with reverence and awe and trembling (self-distrust, with serious caution, tenderness of conscience, watchfulness against temptation, timidly shrinking from whatever might offend God and discredit the name of Christ). (Amplified Bible – Lockman)

Noteworthy theologian Martyn-Lloyd Jones  offers this:

“So that is the essential meaning of salvation, and what Paul’s appeal tells them to do is to work out that salvation. And working out means perfecting, bringing to pass, leading to a full result, or finishing something which has already been commenced.”

It does not mean that we are to labor, solely by our own human efforts, to be pleasing to God, for scripture tells us that all of our righteousness is like a filthy rag, still tainted by sin (Isaiah 64, see also Psalm 14 & Romans 3).

It does mean that we are to yield to ‘God who works in us’, and do so humbly (with fear and trembling); knowing that is is GOD at work by the power of His indwelling Spirit.

How exactly does God work within us?

John Owen provides us an excellent answer to this question:

God works in converted men a will to that which is spiritually good; which is to be understood, not of the formation of the natural faculty of the will; or of the preservation of it, and its natural liberty; or of the general motion of it to natural objects; nor of his influence on it in a providential way; but of the making of it good, and causing a willingness in it to that which is spiritually good. Men have no will naturally to come to Christ, or to have him to reign over them; they have no desire, nor hungerings and thirstings after his righteousness and salvation; wherever there are any such inclinations and desires, they are wrought in men by God; who works upon the stubborn and inflexible will, and, without any force to it, makes the soul willing to be saved by Christ, and submit to his righteousness, and do his will; he sweetly and powerfully draws it with the cords of love to himself, and to his Son, and so influences it by his grace and spirit, and which he continues, that it freely wills everything spiritually good, and for the glory of God: and he works in them also to “do”; for there is sometimes in believers a will, when there wants a power of doing.”

God works within the believer to give him/her the two things most necessary for the task of ‘working out’ our salvation; the desire and the power to do that which pleases Him. The ‘working out’ or our salvation is simply God working in us, resulting in our sanctification.

Why does God so work in the life of every believer?

I believe God works in believers’ lives for the same reason He determined to have a remnant out of lost and dying humanity as a people for Himself:

“He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”  (Ephesians 1:5-6 ESV)

All that God does in the life of of the believer is first and foremost “according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace”, not for our personal satisfaction (our best life now).

Perhaps my ‘mentor’ will return to read this post and discover that to focus on God’s grace does not make one an ‘antinomian heretic’, but instead leads to a Christian life in which good works are empowered more  by God’s grace than sin tainted human effort.

I freely admit that I don’t know how pure my ‘working out’ is on any given day. I’m a sinner saved by grace challenged to simply walk in humble submission and obedience to God as I read and study His word and yield to His working in me.


2 responses to “The Power of Grace in the Sanctification of Believers

  1. This is actually very sanctifying for me to read and encouraging I must despite the turbulent context in which this issue was brought up. It was just right in terms of the timing as I’m dealing with people and their sanctification in my ministry.


    • It’s a blessing to hear that, brother. I pray for those who are raising the ‘antinomian heretic’ flag where they feel too much ‘grace’ is preached. they are not at all unlike those who accused Paul.


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