Calvin Fridays: Paul’s Philippian Cry

This is a long one but an important one. Grab some coffee and persevere!

“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.

There are, in any action, two principle departments- the inclination, and the power to carry it into effect. Both of these he ascribes wholly to God; what more remains to us as a ground of glorying?”- John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians, 2:12-16.

I want to interact a little bit with Calvin’s commentary because i think he sheds light on a subject we tend to simply gloss over and explain in a not-entirely helpful way or simply slap the word “mystery” on and call it a day. The subject is sanctification, and the challenge is to see if man really has a work he can claim solely as his own in the process of becoming more like Jesus. I have heard this passage used in such a way as to support the statement, “Look! The Christian life is 100% God and 100% man!” While there may be a measure of truth in this statement, i don’t think this entirely explains what Paul is getting at in his letter, and John Calvin doesn’t seem to think so either. I have also heard people throw their hands up and say, “It’s a mystery! God works but so do I! It is a synthesis of the two, but really God works, but still man does so too; a mystery.” Ok, but John Calvin goes further, and i think the passage allows us to go further as well. In his commentary, Calvin interestingly does not look at the “work out your own salvation” part of verse 12 first, but goes to verse 13, the “for it is God who works in you” part. Is he trying to rewrite scripture? Is he trying to make a CSV (Calvin Standard Version)? Not at all. He explains to us, “Now, although exhortation comes before doctrine, in the connection of the passage, it is in reality after it, in point of arrangement, inasmuch as it is derived from it. I shall begin, accordingly, with doctrine,” (65). Calvin is hitting at the importance of the doctrine (“God works”) and sees this “doctrine” as being the foundation and springboard for the exhortation (“work out your own salvation”). So he begins simply by saying that Paul ascribes all of the working to God. Indeed the “for” in the passage seems to indicate causation. Paul tells Christians to work not simply because God is working in them, but rather calls them to work with the knowledge that it is really God working in them that causes them to work out. Calvin says, “This is the true engine for bringing down all haughtiness-this the sword for putting an end to all pride, when we are taught that we are utterly nothing, and can do nothing, except through the grace of God alone,” (65). This is our starting point. Then do we have a part solely our own? In refuting the sophists of his day, Calvin says, “They toil hard in their schools to reconcile with the grace of God free-will–of such a nature, I mean, as they conceive of–which might be capable of turning itself by its own movement, and might have a peculiar and separate power, by which it might co-operate with the grace of God…In order, therefore, that free-will may harmonize with grace, they divide in such a manner, that God restores in us a free choice, that we may have it in our power to will aright. Thus, they acknowledge to have received from God the power of willing aright, but assign to man a good inclination. Paul, however, declares this to be a work of God, without any reservation. For he does not say our hearts are simply turned or stirred up, or that the infirmity of a good will is helped, but that a good inclination is wholly the work of God,” (65-66). Here Calvin answers the question, “is man freed by God to work of his own accord?” His answer is no. Does man cooperate with God in growing in godliness? Calvin seems to say, “not really.” Man is freed but then is moved by God. Here we have seen that sanctification is caused and enacted by God alone.

Someone may cry out, “then we are puppets!” To that, Calvin answers, “we acknowledge that we have from nature an inclination, but as it is depraved through the corruption of sin, it begins to be good only when it has been renewed by God. Nor do we say that a man does anything good without willing it, but that it is only when his inclination is regulated by the Spirit of God,” (66). Even though sanctification is a work of God, man has an inclination! After it is renewed by the Spirit from depravity to light, though, man does not receive the keys back. The Spirit does not say, well, now that i have taught you to drive, drive! No. Our inclination is governed and controlled, or “regulated” to use Calvin’s words, by the Spirit, Himself. So do we have a part to play in godliness? Yes in the sense that we are often times conscious of the work and also exercising an inclination. Can it be said to be really our own work, though? It doesn’t seem like it. Calvin goes on to say, “For Paul has it in view to ascribe everything to God, and to take everything from us…Hence he teaches, that the whole course of our life, is we live aright, is regulated by God, and that, too, from his unmerited goodness,” (67). In my own life, i become full of conceit and pride when i begin to think of godliness as a work which i do. I also oftentimes simply grow discouraged and “sleepy” if i see godliness as something i accomplish, being overwhelmed by my own sin and lack of godliness. Calvin encourages me with these words; “We know from experience, that all who confide in their own strength, grow insolent through presumption, and at the same time, devoid of care, resign themselves to sleep. The remedy for both evils is, when, distrusting ourselves, we depend entirely on God alone,” (67). This will lead some to say, “Whoa! Won’t this lead to licentiousness and ungodly living?!” If we know we are fully dependent on God, will we still exercise our inclination to grow in godliness? Calvin says, “I do not, indeed, deny that there are many who, on being told that there is in us nothing that is good, indulge themselves the more freely in their vices; but i deny that this is the fault of the doctrine, which on the contrary, when received as it ought to be produces in our hearts a feeling of concern,” (68). When the Christian ponders his total dependence on God, he is not lulled to sloth, but rather he is energized to pursue God with all the more vigor and passion. For in our dependence, we go to God in prayer, to the only One who can change us. “Farther, we must take notice, that, as believers repose with assurance upon the grace of God, so, when they direct their views to their own frailty, they do not by any means resign themselves carelessly to sleep, but are by fear of dangers stirred up to prayer,” (68). In the end, the grace of Jesus, the fact that we are completely and utterly dependent on Him, leads us to trust and pray for more of Him; more of His strength, more of His work, and more of His power to be manifested in our lives.

Now then, what does Paul mean in the rest of the verses? As Calvin turns his attention to the “work out your own salvation” bit, he warns us of Pelagianism and the Roman Catholicism of his day. We must quote him in bulk, here. “Inasmuch, then, as the work is ascribed to God and man in common, they assign the half to each. In short, from the work they derive free-will; from the term salvation they derive the merit of eternal life. I answer, that salvation is taken to mean the entire course of our calling, and that this term includes all things, by which God accomplishes that perfection, to which he has predestinated us by his gracious choice. This no one will deny, that is not obstinate and impudent. We are said to perfect it, when, under the regulation of the Spirit, we aspire after a life of blessedness. It is God that calls us, and offers to us salvation; it our part to embrace by faith what he gives and by obedience act suitably to his calling;…” So we do have a part after all! Well, let’s finish the sentence. He goes on to say, “…but we have neither from ourselves. Hence we act only when he has prepared us for acting,” (69). See, Calvin doesn’t stop here and say, “It’s a mystery!” or “It’s 100% God and 100% man!” No. He sees this as a glory issue! Man either gets glory (albeit partial glory) or none at all. For Calvin, man must get none. He ends with this; “…Paul does not reason here as to how far our ability extends, but simply teaches that God acts in us in such a manner, that he, at the same time, does not allow us to be inactive, but exercises us diligently, after having stirred us up by secret influence,” (69). God acts, God does not allow, God exercises, and God stirs up. It isn’t enough to say that a Christian works with God to accomplish his godliness, 50/50 or 100/100, for God is the causal agent. Perhaps it is better to say that you are not “passive” in your growing in godliness, for surely we must exercise our inclination, we must work, we must strive. It also isn’t enough to throw up our hands and simply cry out “mystery”, for the encouragement of God’s people is at stake. If it is simply a mystery, then let it be. To be sure, sanctification is, in a measure, a mystery, but Paul gives us encouragement beyond that. We must strengthen ourselves as Paul strengthens and teach the full doctrine, not leaving out the most crucial aspect; GOD IS WORKING. He is the cause, He is the beginning, He is the end, and He is doing everything in between. This is the true hope and foundation for the believer. What God has begun, He will finish (Phil. 1:6). At the end of the day, John Calvin’s word is not supreme. We should, however, care deeply for what the Scriptures teach. God’s word shows us that the wonder and beauty of salvation come when we realize that God is faithful to us in Christ, faithful at the start and faithful through it all, and that He alone saves us, from beginning to end. Paul’s Philippian cry is simply that God would get the glory, that man would be put in his place, and that by seeing the grace, mercy, and faithfulness of God, His people might be stirred up to pursue Him relentlessly, living lives of startling godliness and beauty.

“Q. 35. What is sanctification? A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”- Westminster Shorter Catechism, emphasis added.


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