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Monday, July 7, 2014 | Comments (10)

by John MacArthur

The Christian life is anything but a passive pursuit. The New Testament commands believers to “be all the more diligent” (2 Peter 1:10), to take “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5), to “strive to enter through the narrow door” (Luke 13:24), to “run” that we may obtain the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24), and to “work out” our salvation (Philippians 2:12). Our spiritual growth clearly involves human exertion. But what, then, are we to make of God’s sovereignty over our growth?   

In recent years, that question has fueled intense theological debate on the driving force behind sanctification. Is spiritual growth produced by the believer or is it sovereignly performed by God?

In Philippians 2:12–13, Paul lays it out as a paradoxical truth:

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. (emphasis added)

Who is responsible for our sanctification? The answer is more complex than some make it out to be.

Paul sees sanctification as a two-sided coin. He focuses first on the believer’s role in sanctification. Some misguided interpreters completely misread this exhortation as if it said, “work for your salvation,” “work at your salvation,” or “work up your salvation.” But both in the immediate context of this letter and the broader context of the New Testament, none of those interpretations is correct. Paul is not speaking of attaining salvation by human effort or goodness, but of living out the life God has graciously granted.

Alive by Faith

To the Ephesians Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).

Faith alone has always been the way of salvation. Noah was a righteous man by faith (Genesis 6:9; Hebrews 11:7). Abraham was saved by God’s grace working through his personal faith: “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). The Mosaic law did not alter the way of salvation. It was only by faith that Moses and all Old Testament saints were saved (Hebrews 11:23–38). All those believing men and women “gained approval through their faith” (Hebrews 11:39), by which God granted them His righteousness—salvation—in advance on account of the future death of His Son.

Working Out What God Worked In

So, salvation is from God alone, yet in Philippians 2:12, Paul focuses on the responsibility of believers to live lives that are consistent with that divine gift.

Strabo was an ancient Roman scholar who lived about sixty years before Christ. He recorded an account concerning some Roman-owned mines in Spain. He uses the very same verb that Paul does in Philippians 2:12, katergazomai, when referring to the Romans as working out the mines. Strabo’s point was that the Romans were extracting from within the mines all their richness and value.

That’s a fitting expression of what katergazomai (work out) means in Philippians 2:12. I am to mine out of my life what God has richly deposited there in salvation. I am to produce such precious nuggets of godly character from what He planted when He saved me.

Working by the Spirit

Everything in life requires energy. It takes energy to walk and to work. It takes energy to think and to meditate. It takes energy to obey and to worship God. Where does the believer get the energy to grow as a Christian, to live a life that is holy, fruitful, and pleasing to the Lord? Philippians 2:13 makes it clear that God is the necessary source of that sanctifying energy we are commanded to expend. In the words of Galatians 5:25, since “we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.”

So who is responsible for your growth as a Christian? God is responsible for supplying everything you need for life and godliness, and you are responsible for actively using that power to grow in sanctification for His glory. The paradox is found in the believer being both fully responsible, and yet fully dependent on God’s supply. We may not fully comprehend the paradox, but we can exercise faith that it is resolved in the infinite wisdom of God and respond in obedience to His commands.

Paul’s words suggest five truths that believers must understand to sustain the pursuit of working out their salvation. We’ll examine each of them in the days ahead.

(Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Philippians.)


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#1  Posted by Steven Y Frankel  |  Monday, July 7, 2014 at 4:42 AM

I alone am responsible for my growth. God supplied all that I needed, prior to my arrival on this Earth to cause me to seek His face. The heavens declare His glory. Day and night they pour forth speech.

#9  Posted by James Read  |  Sunday, July 13, 2014 at 4:31 PM

Steven, I alone am responsible for my growth? So not true.

If that was true then eph 2:8-9 would be a lie. It's all about God alone less any man should boost. God even softens the heart to whom he wills and to do according to his purpose for his good pleasure, to whom he wills to call, he calls, and to whom he wills to pass by he passes by... we bring nothing (except sin). It never has nor ever will be a little bit of me and a little bit of God and together we....not. It's all about what he has done for us we contributed 0. That's what grace is all about something we could never achieve add to or take away from or modify any way through self effort to change anything that's already free, it's grace and that not of ourselves less someone can say they did something but by know means can he.

#10  Posted by Cameron Buettel  |  Monday, July 14, 2014 at 11:31 AM

James and Steven, be careful that your conversation does not obscure what the article teaches or end up arguing against a position that no one is taking. The answer does not lie in choosing either man or God. Nor does the answer lie in a blending of the two ("a little bit of me and a little bit of God"). We are solely dependent on God's sovereign regenerative work in our lives in order to grow in sanctification. We are also solely responsible for failing to act in obedience. Both are true and both live together in Scripture and are fully resolved in the infinite mind of God.

It is interesting that in John 5:40 Jesus holds the religious Jews fully responsible for their refusal to come to Him and inherit eternal life. He lies the blame entirely at their feet. And yet only 50 verses later (John 6:44) Jesus tells them that they are unable to come to Him unless God draws them in by His power. So which one is true - John 5:40 or John 6:44? Our minds may struggle to get around the seeming tension in the question but we all know that both verses are true and fully harmonize in God's transcendent understanding.

#2  Posted by Nancy Alvarez  |  Monday, July 7, 2014 at 2:16 PM

The best explanation ever on working out my own salvation. Thank you so much, now I will be able to answer that age old question of works vs the Father's Grace when questioned. I so desire to dig for those attributes and to let them shine so others may believe.

#3  Posted by James Read  |  Monday, July 7, 2014 at 3:33 PM


Yes, this makes sense to me. "So who is responsible for your growth as a Christian?...We may not fully comprehend the paradox...It is somewhat difficult to see we are responsible for actively using that power to grow in sanctification for His glory without thinking we are attaining some human effort or goodness living out the life God has graciously granted. I certainly agree not of attaining salvation, that's clear but how can we do these things in our sanctification process and not attain and not as an act of self-righteousness or puffed up for our own behalf but simply attaining in the pursuit of working out our salvation through sanctification.

#4  Posted by James Read  |  Monday, July 7, 2014 at 6:43 PM

Some information I found by John MacArthur.

The Steps of Biblical Sanctification

Thursday, September 13, 2012.

What Is Sanctification (and What It Is Not)? - Grace to You

What Is Sanctification? - Grace to You Sep 10, 2012

Counterfeit Sanctification - Grace to You

#5  Posted by James Read  |  Monday, July 7, 2014 at 7:33 PM

By John MacArthur,

(3) Steps of Biblical Sanctification,

The first is cognition. God’s pattern for spiritual growth starts with understanding what the Bible says and what it means. The meaning of the Scripture is the Scripture—if you don’t know what it means, you don’t have the truth. So the process of spiritual growth starts with understanding what the Bible says.True sanctification begins with renewing your mind. You must know the truth, plain and simple. There’s no premium on ignorance in sanctification...There are no shortcuts in sanctification—a lack of biblical knowledge will always retard your spiritual growth. Apart from the truth of Scripture, there simply is no mechanism to restrain your sinful flesh.

Cognition leads to a second step: conviction. As you grow in your understanding of the Bible, you begin to develop convictions out of that understanding. Those convictions or beliefs determine how you live, or at least how you endeavor to live. As God’s truth takes over your mind, it produces principles that you do not desire to violate. That’s sanctification—it’s the transformation of your heart and your will that compels you to obey God’s Word.When you read the Bible, you’re not just trying to know it academically. You’re studying the Word of God to develop a set of convictions that rule your life, inform your conscience, and guide you toward greater Christlikeness.Biblical truth is established in your mind through cognition—that same truth guides your life through conviction.

The third step in the biblical process of sanctification is affection. Throughout Scripture we see over and over that God’s people truly love His truth. As David says in Psalm 19, the Word of God is “more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.” Take some time in the next few days and read through Psalm 119, keeping track of all the times David says he loves and delights in the Law of the Lord. Loving God’s Word is an inescapable theme throughout the psalms, and it’s an attitude that will be reflected in the process of our sanctification.If you’re truly growing, you come to Scripture eager for the spiritual nourishment it alone provides. Just as Peter wrote, “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow” (1 Peter 2:2). Your affection and hunger for God’s truth will be insatiable, and nothing will keep you from it.But you won’t truly love God’s Word if it’s not already shaping the way you live. And it can’t shape the way you live if you don’t know it. That’s why any methods or patterns for spiritual growth that don’t start with the study of God’s truth cannot lead you to true


#6  Posted by Guymon Hall  |  Tuesday, July 8, 2014 at 10:02 AM

Well said and I look forward to researching this more. Two points on this:

1--I think the last two "steps" (conviction and affection) are very closely tied to one another; in other words, I don't see how someone can develop deeply held convictions about spiritual truth without also holding a deep affection and desire for spiritual truth...just a thought.

2--Passages such as 1 John, John 15, Heb 5-6, etc. are applicable here, in that they stipulate that the cognition, conviction, and affection for God's truth as found in the Scriptures that come to bear in a believer's life are actually fruits of being regenerated unto saving faith in Christ and WILL be present in all true believers. And those passages make it clear that continual, consistent absence or even an active rejection of those fruits are evidence of a lack of having been regenerated unto new life.

Anyway, great comment, James, and thanks for it!

#7  Posted by James Read  |  Tuesday, July 8, 2014 at 6:36 PM


A very interesting observation, and I had to do further research myself. Though evading in this definition J.M. says Here is a plain antithesis. The apostle is comparing those who are influenced by two opposite spirits, the true and the false(conviction & affection) The difference is plain: the one is of God,(affection) and overcomes the spirit of the world; the other(conviction) is of the world, and is obsessed with the things of the world. By J.M. "How can a true work of the Holy Spirit be distinguished from that which is false?"

#8  Posted by Manuel Jr. Reyes  |  Wednesday, July 9, 2014 at 11:07 AM

Our Lord Jesus has said, "apart from Me, you can do nothing". Thus I am nothing on my own. If I did right, it isn't because of me - for I own nothing. I am likened to a spoon for God's use. If I did wrong, it wasn't because of God - it's my fault - God is too perfect. Therefore, whose responsible for my good? My answer is a resounding "It's God- I take no credit."

God bless GTY Ministries!