The Christian life is usually thought of in three basic stages or occurrences: Justification, sanctification, and glorification. Justification is what Jesus bought for us at the cross, the process whereby we are made righteous before God based on the righteousness of Christ. Glorification is what will happen someday when we go to heaven and become like Jesus in His new, post-resurrection body.
Sanctification happens in between. That means that whether you realize it or not, if you’re a Christ-follower, the Holy Spirit is right now inside of working for your sanctification, and sanctification is about pursuing holiness. It is the Christian experience of constant spiritual development and change where we are molded and formed by the Holy Spirit in us until in character, motivation, and action we more and more resemble Jesus.
That sounds like a lot of hard work.
And when we turn to a passage like Philippians 2:12, that hard work of pursuing holiness seems to be confirmed:
“So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
We might read that verse and attach a “bootstraps” mentality to it – that is, we decide we are going to grit our teeth and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, trying hard to do the right thing. The problem with that is not just that it’s hard; it’s impossible. I can’t count the number of promises I’ve made and broken to God about trying to stop doing this or start doing that. In my own life, and I believe in the lives of many other Christ-followers, we have tried so hard to be godly and failed so many times at doing so that we walk around with our heads hanging low. Our prayers are full of self-abasement and loathing, and all we ever think about is the worms that we are.
Given that, pursuing holiness sounds awful, especially since the verb tenses in verse 12 indicate a sense of working at something continuously and unceasingly until it is accomplished. And perhaps it has been that way for you up to this point. Surely it would be if God simply saved us and then slapped us on the rear end saying, “Good luck! Be good!” But He doesn’t, and that’s why Paul didn’t stop with verse 12 in Philippians 2.
Directly after telling us to continuously work out our own salvation until it’s complete, Paul wrote this:
“For it is God who is working in you, both to will and to act for His good purpose.”
It’s absolutely imperative that we read these two verses together, because only when taken together do we find the good news of pursuing holiness. It’s because taken together, it means that we are not left to ourselves in pursuing holiness; far from it. Instead, it means that we find the power and ability to pursue holiness not in our own fortitude but in the work God is already doing in us.
Think of it like waterskiing. When you’re behind the boat, there are certainly things you must do. You have to keep your legs bent; you have to grip the handle tightly; you have to work to maintain balance. But where does the power to get out the water come from? Certainly not from you – it comes from the boat in front of you. The boat is what lifts you from the water and pulls you all over the lake.
And that is very good news. As we commit our everyday choices of holiness, we are aligning ourselves with the power at work within us. And we can trust that there is indeed real power behind those choices. We aren’t transforming ourselves; we are instead submitting ourselves to God’s work within us.
As we make those choices of holiness today, we should do with confidence. But it’s not confidence that we can make any kind of difference in our own lives, but instead confidence in the God who is already at work within us to make us more like Jesus.