Scripture text: Philippians 2:12-13
In the history of Christian theology, one of the most heated debates has concerned our salvation. Is it achieved by God’s initiative alone (grace) or do human beings have a contribution to make (good works)? The Protestant Reformation (of which I am an heir) took its stand on the position that we are saved by God’s grace alone, which we appropriate by our trust in God’s love for us.
But I have always felt Philippians 2:12-13 stands to challenge this assertion. Here is what the apostle Paul wrote:
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 God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Revised Standard Version)
The apostle counsels his friends in Philippi to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. It would seem that Paul does not believe that salvation by God’s grace means a free ride for believers. They have a role to play in their salvation. They must exert themselves through their spiritual disciplines and moral endeavor. And they must do so with utmost seriousness. This is the rationale for all the behavioral admonitions we find in his letters.
Yet Paul goes on to say that it is God who is at work in them, both to desire God’s good will and to perform it. The motivation and the power for living a holy life come entirely from God. This is the rationale for the periodic doxologies we find in his letters, like the ones that end chapter 8 in Romans and chapter 11 in that same letter.
When I read Philippians 2:12-13, I feel as if I am reading a logically contradictory statement. If we are to work with fear and trembling, are we not denying that God is the one at work in us? And if we assert that God gives us the desire and the power to do God’s will, are we not denying that we have a role in our salvation?
I want to say: Which is it? It can’t logically be both. Yet Paul assets both as true. And so we are left with a paradox.
In a paradox, we set two statements side by side. The two statements seem to contradict each other, yet we assert both are equally true. We damn logic in service to the truth. For we recognize a truth that does not fit within the constraints of logic.
If one wants a simpler way to summarize Paul’s teaching in these verses, I would do it this way: In your Christian life, work as if everything depends upon you, and pray as if everything depends upon God.
Many of the fundamental convictions of orthodox Christianity prove to be paradoxical. For example, we affirm our belief that God is one and that God is three. The two beliefs seem to cancel each other out. Yet in our doctrine of the Trinity, we assert both are true.
In our Christology, we assert that Jesus Christ is fully divine and yet also fully human. Another paradoxical statement of what we believe the truth is. And in our views on the Bible, we affirm that the Bible is fully the work of human authors and editors, and yet it is inspired by God’s Spirit so we can regard it as God’s written word. And in the Eucharist, when we consume the bread, we are eating bread made from grains of wheat, yet we also believe we are partaking of the body of Christ.
This is what makes Christianity at times such an exasperating faith. Christians seem to delight in paradoxes. In response, many believers and non-believers alike cry: Keep it simple, stupid.
Many times heresies deliver on that demand. They take paradoxical truths and try to reduce them to simplicity by affirming one side of the paradox and denying the other. But in orthodox Christianity, the gospel does not deliver on that demand, for we believe that the truth is much more dense, meaty, and substantial than we would like it to be.
I am not saying we should go around glorying in the fact that our Christian faith affirms what the rest of the world considers irrationality. Instead our attitude should be one of epistemological humility. In affirming our paradoxes, we accept that the full truth cannot be grasped by logic and reason alone. We stand in the presence of mysteries that will not become clear and transparent to us until God’s kingdom comes in its fullness.