Every child of God wants to be more like Jesus. And, by God’s grace, this actually happens. The name the Bible gives to this process of becoming more Christ-like is “sanctification.” To be sanctified is to become more dedicated to God and separated from sin (Rom. 6:22). It is to live out the deep principles of salvation. In sanctification, believers become more like Jesus.
But how does this happen?
In one of the most important passages on sanctification, Paul says that growing in godliness takes work: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now 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 do for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13). In sanctification, believers work and God works. But what do those two works look like and how do they relate to each other?
We Become Like Jesus by Working God’s Will
The main verb in verse 12 is plain: Work out your own salvation. Paul is definitely not saying, “Work at your own salvation,” or “Work up to earning salvation.” Paul is writing to those in whom God had already begun a work of salvation (1:6). God is not calling the lost to get saved; he’s calling the saved to get working.
What does it look like to work out salvation?
1. Sanctification means growing in reverence. Believers work out their salvation in “fear and trembling.” Believers grow in godliness as they gain a deeper respect for God, a stirring sense of awe over his greatness.
2. Sanctification means growing in obedience. Whenever we put obedience prior to our acceptance by God we pervert the gospel (Rom. 3:20). True obedience is a reflection of a heart that is freed from sin’s bonds (Rom. 6:17; cf. Acts 6:7).
3. Sanctification means growing in integrity. Sanctification is not mere compliance when people are watching. Paul contrasts “eye service” with sincere, heartfelt fidelity to God (Col. 3:22). Someone who obeys only when watched is serving himself to gain praise or avoid a penalty. Coerced obedience is a sign of spiritual immaturity.
Growth in godliness is hard work.
We Become More Like Jesus by Trusting in God’s Work
Without minimizing believers’ responsibility to work out their salvation, Paul further describes sanctification as a work of God’s sovereign grace (cf. Phil. 2:1–11). “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (v. 13; cf. 1 Thess. 5:23). Paul’s message is not, “Work hard because God is working hard too.” God is not merely an example of human work. Instead, God’s gracious work in us more deeply wins us over to God and sways us to do his will.
Have you ever felt discouraged—even disgusted—about your perceived lack of progress in holiness? These thoughts can be paralyzing. And that is exactly what the devil wants. “There’s no hope for you,” he suggests. “You’re a slave to sin. You’ll never be like God.”
Who Has the Heart to Engage in Work That Is Sure to Fail?
But that is Paul’s point; there is hope in succeeding! Because God is working for and in his children, their work toward sanctification is not futile. As Ligon Duncan has said, “Paul’s teaching is not that God accepts you so no change is necessary, but that God accepts you and therefore change is now possible.”
Believers must trust the gospel, love God, fight sin, desire eternity, and serve others cheerfully. We work to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word so that we can joyfully obey everything God says. Sanctification is hard work.
But all this work is energized by the God who cares about our sanctification more than we do. God never demands that we work for him harder than he’s working in us.
This editorial is condensed from an article first published at CoreChristianity.com.
Rev. William Boekestein
is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI.