The Christian life is often criticized. Sometimes for right reasons and sometimes not. When it’s maligned, the Christian life is mischaracterized as an exercise in self-effort leading to self-aggrandizement. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, we can’t live this life acceptably apart from total reliance on our Lord and Savior.
The Apostle Paul declared this doctrine in his letter to the Philippian church:
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 English Standard Version (ESV)
For months, we’ve consistently appealed to John Calvin’s scripture commentary. His unique idiom is sometimes difficult to render, and even harder to untangle, in the English language. We’ve tried to simplify his compressed and iterative text by rephrasing or reordering his words. We indicate these modifications with ellipses and square brackets. Let’s examine his exposition of this doctrine. First, Calvin contrasts those who apply this principle with those who do not:
…[One makes] progress in the knowledge of both the grace of God and [their] own weakness [when, awakened from negligence, they] diligently seek God’s help; while those that are puffed up with confidence in their own strength, must necessarily be at the same time in a state of intoxicated security.
He differentiates between two types of fear, only one of which leads to a good outcome:
…There are two kinds of fear; the one produces anxiety along with humility; the other hesitation. The former is opposed to fleshly confidence, negligence, [and] arrogance; the latter [is opposed] to assurance of faith.
…For distrust of ourselves leads us to lean more confidently upon the mercy [and grace] of God [alone]. And this is what Paul [implies], for he requires nothing from the Philippians, but that they submit themselves to God with true self-renunciation.
It’s somewhat startling to read this view from the namesake of Calvinism. Further, from the scriptures, Calvin shows us that starting and continuing in self-renunciation is supplied by God:
…For [Paul] does not say that 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…as he promises by Ezekiel, —
“I will cause them to walk in my commandments.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
From this we infer that perseverance, also, is his free gift.
Summarizing the doctrine, Calvin writes:
…Hence [Paul] teaches, that the whole course of our life, if we live aright, is regulated by God, and that, too, from his unmerited goodness.
Therefore, let us acknowledge that we are His workmanship by walking in the works He created for us to do.