Philippians 2:12-13, “12 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, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
At some point in our Christian walk, we all ask questions like these: “How can I overcome this stubborn, sinful habit?” or “Will I ever change in this particular area?” Asking these questions of ourselves and God can be a positive indication that the life of God has been planted in our soul. In other words, since the Holy Spirit breathed new life into us, by means of the gospel, we long to be more like Christ. But some days we wonder how much progress we are really making. Therefore, it’s imperative that we have a biblical understanding of cooperative sanctification, that is, embracing our responsibility while also relying upon the power of God at work within us. Without a right grasp of progressive sanctification, our longing for godliness may tempt us to gravitate toward one of two extremes.
Two Unbiblical Extremes: Quietism and Pietism
First, there is the “Let Go and Let God” approach (also known as Keswick theology). According to an article written by New Testament professor Andrew Naselli, entitled “Why ‘Let Go and Let God’ Is a Bad Idea,” Keswick theology comes from the early Keswick movement, named after the small town in northwest England which has hosted an annual weeklong meeting on the deeper spiritual life since 1875.
Keswick theology is “one of the most significant strands of second-blessing theology. It assumes that Christians experience two ‘blessings.’ The first is getting ‘saved,’ and the second is getting serious. The change is dramatic: from a defeated life to a victorious life; from a lower life to a higher life; from a shallow life to a deeper life; from a fruitless life to a more abundant life; from being ‘carnal’ to being ‘spiritual’; and from merely having Jesus as your Savior to making Jesus your Master. People experience this second blessing through surrender and faith: ‘Let go and let God.’” This theology is “appealing because Christians struggle with sin and want to be victorious in that struggle now. Keswick theology offers a quick fix, and its shortcut to instant victory appeals to genuine longings for holiness.” Naselli writes, “You can tell that Keswick theology has influenced people when you hear a Christian ‘testimony’ like this: ‘I was saved when I was eight years old, and I surrendered to Christ when I was seventeen.’”
This kind of theology is sometimes put in the category of Quietism. Quietists believe that the will of the Christian is quiet, or passive in sanctification. Concerning Quietism, John MacArthur writes, “Quietism tends to be mystical and subjective, focusing on personal feelings and experiences. A person who is utterly submitted to and dependent on God, they say, will be divinely protected from sin and led into faithful living. Trying to strive against sin or to discipline oneself to produce good works is considered to be not only futile but unspiritual and counterproductive.”
A second extreme is Pietism. Advocates of this approach to spiritual growth are “aggressive in their pursuit of correct doctrine and moral purity. Historically, this movement originated in seventeenth-century Germany as a reaction to the dead orthodoxy of many Protestant churches. To their credit, most pietists place strong emphasis on Bible study, holy living, self-discipline, and practical Christianity….Yet they often stress self-effort to the virtual exclusion of dependence on divine power.”
Pietism, as a movement, emphasized many good things in the area of spiritual disciplines and the mutual encouragement and exhortation of believers. However, it also has its downsides. It often gives birth to legalism, which is a false measurement of spirituality stemming from the dependence on one’s adherence to the law, in place of resting in faith. Pietistic tendencies also tend to feed what I like to call “The New Pharisaism,” which is an over-emphasis on externals, and the addition of extra-biblical rules and regulations to the neglect of the internal issues of the heart. This is also characterized by a hyper-critical spirit toward believers who fail to conform to the Pharisee’s demands.
Both Quietism and Pietism fail for the same reason: They place importance upon only one side of the process of sanctification.
- Quietism places more emphasis upon resting in God by faith.
- Pietism places more emphasis upon the diligent, unrelenting pursuit of holiness.
But growing in Christ requires both personal responsibility and dependence upon God in faith. In this regard, I am personally indebted to Jerry Bridges, who helped me to understand the importance of keeping these two equally-true priorities in tension with one another. In his first book, The Pursuit of Holiness (1978), he emphasized every Christian’s personal responsibility to be diligent in godliness. God expects us to wage war against the remaining sin in our lives and run the Christian race with great effort. We are not to flirt with sin, but fight against it. In a later book, Transformed by Grace (1991), he wrote of the energizing power of God’s grace to transform us into Christlikeness. In that book, he warned believers to beware of the “Performance Treadmill,” the never-ending tendency to base our relationship with God upon our personal, spiritual performance. Then, in 1993, he wrote The Discipline of Grace, which combined personal responsibility and divine empowerment into one. The book’s subtitle says it all: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness. It’s these two truths which the apostle Paul lays, side by side, before us:
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. (Phil. 2:12-13)
Two Essential Truths of Cooperative Sanctification
In order to make progress in holiness toward the goal of being conformed to the image of Christ, we must grasp two essential truths that are always working together in the growing Christian.
First, we are 100% responsible for our spiritual growth (v. 12). Verse 12 begins with the word “therefore,” which links the exhortation that immediately follows to the apostle’s prior emphasis on the lordship of Christ. No one makes Jesus, Lord. He is Lord. The response of saving faith is to recognize this reality and submit to His rightful rule over our lives.
For this reason, he is thankful to be able to commend them for their past obedience. When they heard the gospel, they responded in faith, repentance, and obedience. Now, in the apostle’s absence, they are to continue to make progress in the obedience of faith by working out their own salvation.
Clearly, this Scripture is not telling us to work for our salvation but to work out [or outward] the inward change of heart that the Spirit has wrought. In other words, we are called to make every effort toward the completion of our faith “with fear and trembling;” that is, with a concern for doing what is right. This points to our need to be serious about our Christian walk. The Christian life is not a playground; it is a battlefield. It is a race to run. It is a fight to fight. It is a war in which we are called to be good soldiers. Numerous other Scriptures emphasize our personal responsibility in the pursuit of holiness (Matt. 5:27-30; Eph. 4:17-24; Heb. 12:1-2; James 1:21-22; for example).
Second, we are 100% dependent upon God for our spiritual growth (v. 13). Though we are responsible to discipline ourselves for godliness, it’s also true that we are incapable of making last change. However, the good news is that God “works in [us]” in two ways: both “to will and to work for his good pleasure.” As the Spirit of God works in us, our will is conformed to God’s will; that is, we want to become holy because God created that desire within us. This “sanctified willpower,” so to speak, enables us to work for God’s glory and pleasure. Numerous other Scriptures emphasize God’s work in our sanctification (John 15:5; Gal. 5:16, 22-25; Eph. 2:10; 2 Pet. 1:3, 5; 1 Cor. 15:10; for example).
In the bringing of these two essential truths together, 2 Corinthians 3:18 echoes the message of Philippians:
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Our personal responsibility is to behold the glory of the Lord. We do this as we consistently meditate on Scripture, since the living Word, Jesus, is exalted in the written Word. Consequently, as we do this, the Spirit progressively (from one degree of glory to another) transforms us into the image of the One whom we are beholding. Ignoring either truth will undermine our spiritual progress. So, let us not be spiritual sluggards who put forth little effort to become godly. But let us also not assume that our progress is completely dependent upon us, for ultimately it is the Spirit of God who bears fruit in us for God’s glory.
 Andrew Naselli, “Why ‘Let Go and Let God’ Is a Bad Idea.” Ligonier.org.
 John MacArthur, Philippians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 2001), 152.
 MacArthur, 152-153.