Every child of God wants to be more like Jesus. And, by God’s grace, this actually happens. The name the Bible gives to this process of becoming more Christ-like is “sanctification.” To be sanctified is to become more dedicated to God and separated from sin (Rom. 6:22). It is to live out the deep principles of salvation. In sanctification, believers become more like their Savior.
But how does this happen?
In one of the most important biblical texts on sanctification, Paul says that growing in godliness takes work: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now 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 do for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13). In sanctification, believers work and God works. But what do those two works look like and how do they relate to each other?
As we grapple with these questions, we should not soften the force of the Spirit’s words; any interpretation that minimizes either the work of man or of God in sanctification misses his point.
We Become Like Jesus by Working God’s Will
The main verb in verse 12 is plain: Work out your own salvation. Paul is definitely not saying, “Work at your own salvation,” or “Work up to earning salvation.” Paul is writing to those in whom God had already begun a work of salvation (cf. 1:6). God is not calling the lost to get saved; he’s calling the saved to get working.
What does it look like to work out salvation, to pursue sanctification?
- Sanctification Means Growing in Reverence
Sanctification is a serious work; believers work out their salvation in “fear and trembling.” Believers grow in godliness as they gain a deeper respect for God, a stirring sense of awe over his greatness. Like Joseph, we stubbornly resist offending God in any way (Gen. 39:9).
- Sanctification Means Growing in Obedience
Obedience and faith are not enemies—though this can be confusing. Whenever we put obedience prior to our acceptance by God we pervert the gospel. “By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in [God’s] sight” (Rom. 3:20).
Suppose someone told you, “I am terribly lonely and need a friend. I will do anything you tell me if only you’ll love me.” You would be repulsed. But it’s quite different to hear someone say, “I have a friend who loves me so much, I can’t imagine her asking me to do anything that I wouldn’t gladly do.”
- Sanctification Means Growing in Integrity
Sanctification is not mere compliance when people are watching. Paul urged the Philippians to be more faithful in his absence than in his presence. Paul contrasts “eye service” with sincere, heartfelt reverence to God (Col. 3:22). Someone who only obeys when watched is serving himself; he obeys to gain praise or avoid a penalty. Coerced obedience is a sign of spiritual immaturity.
Bottom line: Growth in godliness is hard work.
We Become More Like Jesus by Trusting in God’s Work
Without minimizing believers’ responsibility to work out their salvation, Paul further describes sanctification as a work of God’s sovereign grace (cf. Phil. 2:1–11). “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (v. 13; cf. 1 Thess. 5:23).
God’s “good pleasure” is to renew his children in true godliness. In the words of the seventeenth century Canons of Dort, he “infuses new qualities into the will… whereupon the will thus renewed is not only [turned on] and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence becomes itself active.” Paul’s message is not, “Work hard because God is working hard too.” God is not merely an example of human work. Instead, God’s gracious work in us more deeply wins us over to God and sways us to do his will.
Have you ever felt discouraged—even disgusted—about your perceived lack of progress in holiness? Have you ever feared that perhaps in the future you will be more sinful, less sanctified than you are now? These thoughts can be paralyzing. And that is exactly what the devil wants. “There’s no hope for you,” he suggests. “You’ll never amount to much of a Christian if you even are one. You’re a slave to sin. You’ve tried to fight it. But it’s no use. You’ll never be like God.”
Who has the heart to engage in work that is sure to fail?
But that is exactly Paul’s point; there is hope in succeeding! Because God is working for and in his children, their work toward sanctification is not futile. God is working in his children both to will and to do for His good pleasure! As Ligon Duncan has said, “Paul’s teaching is not that God accepts you so no change is necessary, but that God accepts you and therefore change is now possible.”
Believers must work to believe the gospel, love God, fight sin, desire eternity, and serve others cheerfully. We work to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word so that we can joyfully obey everything God says. We strive to respect our conscience when it convicts us of wrong or encourages us in well-doing. But all this work is driven by God’s work in us. God actually cares about our sanctification more than we do. God wants us to find our joy in him and to say no to everything that detracts from true happiness. Sometimes that takes a lot of work!
But here is Paul’s invigorating point: God never demands that we work for him harder than he’s working in us.