07 February 2006

I . . . yet not I

by Phil Johnson

Philippians 2:12-13 says, "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."

That passage highlights two truths about our sanctification, and they are symmetrical principles that must be carefully kept in balance. The first truth emphasizes human responsibility: It is our bounden duty to work out our own salvation.

The other side of the truth emphasizes divine sovereignty: God is the one who is working in us to make us willing and able to do His good pleasure.

Both truths are essential, and both must be given due emphasis in our thinking about sanctification. If you stress either side too much—especially if you ignore or exclude the other side—you will lose equilibrium and fall into error.

If you overstress the human side of the work of sanctification, you'll invariably succumb to some degree of pietism—the notion that holiness is a purely human work. This is manifest in various forms of legalism and asceticism, like the religion of the Pharisees, the monasticism of medieval Christianity, or the strict Ordnung of the Amish.

If you eminate the human side of the equation, however, you fall into the error of quietism—the view that sanctification doesn't occur until we give up striving for it. Quietism is a totally passive approach to sanctification; it is an attempt to become holy by abandoning all effort and simply "trusting" God to remove the temptation to sin.

The Keswick-style approach to "the deeper life" is a classic variety of quietism. Early in my Christian life I was enchanted with Keswick doctrine and the promise of a "deeper life" that was spiritually easy. But I now believe the quietistic view of sanctification hamstrung and impeded my spiritual growth for all the years that I was in thrall to this doctrine.

The turning point came several years ago when I read B. B. Warfield's Studies in Perfectionism (vol. 2)—especially Warfield's careful and thorough critique of Charles G. Trumbull (who had always been my very favorite author in the deeper-life genre). Warfield's landmark work finally helped me to understand more clearly what Scripture teaches about the doctrine of sanctification, personal holiness, and the illusory goals of every kind of perfectionism. (J. C. Ryle's Holiness, which I read soon after, was equally important in helping me get a better grasp on what Scripture says about sanctification.)

In the days to come (probably ranging rather sporadically over the coming month), I want to devote several posts to this subject. In the meantime, if you want to read an excellent short summary of B. B. Warfield's Studies in Perfectionism, see this review by my friend Jim Elliff.

Phil's signature


Kim said...

First of all, I love that word "bounden." Phil, sometimes your extensive vocabulary puts all the home school moms to shame.

I received the complete work of B.B. Warfield for Christmas, and I started with Studies in Perfectionism. I should not have attempted it at in a room where there was noise, becaue it is not easy reading at all.

I look forward to your posts on this.

puritanicoal said...

I was really hit with the truth about sin in reading James 1. Realizing that sin is conceived out of my own lusts, helped me realize that it is a problem that I play a major role in fighting. I can't turn to "the devil made me do it," or some charismatic idea of "spiritual warfare." It is my own.

Thanks for the recommendation of Trumbull.

SJ Camp said...

Thank you Phil...

This is one of my verses on this great theme of sanctification. Jim Elliff, also being a friend, writes a magnificent review of Warfield's tome - thank you for sharing it with us.

Seeing this is black history month, a country slave preacher during the Civil War when speaking of the fruit of sanctification as giving evidence of one's genuine regeneration said, "if you is, what you was, then you ain't."

Grace and peace,

DJP said...

Andrew Murray played with my head as a young Christian. A problem I came to see was that he would move me in the wrong direction. As a Religious Scientist (my BC life, of course), my goal was to be absorbed into the divine I AM. Murray more or less wanted me to do the same, but in the name of Christ.

And Kim -- if you find any Warfield that can be read in a noisy room -- shoot me the title!


Gordon said...

Good post. I love the balance between our role and God's responsibility in sanctification.

stauf46 said...

There is an appendix at the end of Ian Murray's "Pentecost Today?" on Philippians 2:12-13. Great stuff. I can't remember the author of this study, and I can't look it up because I loaned my book to someone. Just read the whole book, if you haven't!

Now there is another blog thread - the evils of lending out your books!

Kim said...


I have had success reading Bible Doctrines by Warfield in a room with the television on. However, it was a science fiction show, which I find utterly boring, so I think that was why I could read it.

Jeremy Weaver said...

Also worth reading in that set is, 'Studies in Tertullian and Augustine'.

Jim Crigler said...

Hmm ... It appears Phil may finally be starting to string my harp. Even if not, this is gonna be fun (and practical), if everyone will relax and wait for Phil to make his case.

Friar Rick said...

Phil, this is an excellent topic and I am glad you are taking it on. In my personal life, I swung from a legalistic (pietistic) view to the other extreme of quietism, and I think that is the natural reaction to someone coming out of a legalistic movement.

For me, it was study of the very passage which you quoted which helped me to a better understanding and balance. I remember teaching through Philippians and phrasing the balance you pointed out between human responsibility and divine sovereignty in this way: "Sanctification is first and foremost God's work in us, but we are active participants in that work, not passive." God works in us and through us, not in spite of us or apart from us.

Good stuff.

donsands said...

Holiness, by J. C. Ryle! What a magnifcient work. I refer to this book a lot.
Also a nice little gem of a book by Dominic Smart, which I received from Alistair Begg's TFL ministry is excellent for this teaching of balancing out our being sanctified.

"But by the grace of God, I am what I am: and His grace which was bestowed on me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly then they all: yet not I but the grace of God in me." 1 Cor 15:10

Rich said...

Anyone here wrestle with the plural nature of these verses? God works in you (plural) and you (plural) work out your (plural) salvation. In fact, 2:1-18 is all plural in form.

Granted there has to be personal applications of all of this. Without a doubt, the individual must live out the command personally in the whole of the body. But it does not seem that Paul argues here for a working of God in us as individuals (none of these pronouns are singular) but rather that God is working in the body (in “you all” i.e. the Philippians) to accomplish his will.

It seems to fit seamlessly with why we can't grumble or complain - because God is orchestrating the events within the body to accomplish his will. To grumble and complain about circumstances is not neutral then; it is to say that God is not doing right in those events - he is the conductor.

In summary, the plural pronouns of vs 13 seems to place the emphasis on God’s working to be within the church (specifically 2:13), not individual lives.


Chris Pixley said...


Good eye. What you bring up is a theme that is rather consistent throughout the NT. It seems to me that we have often done a poor job of emphasizing the corporate nature of Christianity (this of course fits well with James Spurgeon's recent (and, I might add, excellent) posts), choosing to focus instead on the individuality of our Christian lives. Given the narcissism of our culture, this should come as no surprise! We are, after all, hard-wired to think about ourselves. Ironically, the larger context of Philippians 2 is a call to do just the opposite--to consider others as more important than ourselves. For an interesting read on this theme, I commend to you chapter 15 in Piper's Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. The chapter is entitled "Brothers, Save the Saints" and exhorts us to recognize that "eternal security [read: perseverance]...is a community project" (p. 110). While you are right to point out that there is individual application to be found in this text, such application is not to be understood as independent from the corporate body.

Castusfumus said...

This subject needs to be continually before us to keep us from falling off the tracks.

The doctrine of God's Sovereign grace never presented any problem to me until I became a young Sunday School teacher/exegete and found that our church leadership was armenian. I was dumbfounded. Teaching through Romans will do that!!

Friar Rick said...

Rich, wow. (slaps forehead) Of course!

Thanks for giving me more ammo.

donsands said...

It does seem that Paul had in mind the local church at Philippi.

" 'Our will does nothing thereunto withoutgrace; but grace is inactive without our will (Bernard)'
Man is, in different senses, entirely active and entirely passive: God produces all and we acting all. It is not that God does some, and we the rest. God does all, and we do all. ...God makes a new heart, and we are commanded to make us a new heart; not merely because we must use the means in order to the effect, but the effect itself is our act and our duty (Ezk. 11:19; 18:31; 36:26) (Edwards)"
From A. R. Fausset.

Bill said...

You get bonus points for using the word "bounden".

Rick Potter said...

This may be a bit off topic for this particular post, but since we are discussing the particulars of “bounden” and plurality, I was speculating on this particular verse: “Now if I do what I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but it is the sin that lives in me.”

I am trying to rectify in my thinking a particular objective: What are the differences concerning Adam (in his first estate) and myself (as a born again believer). More particular so, how is it that when Adam sinned, his spiritual nature died and when I sin – my spiritual nature continues to live. If I may be permitted, let me offer a quote that started this whole process of thinking in me. I am quoting from “Understanding Christian Theology” (General Editors Charles R. Swindoll and Roy B. Zuck) page 864 pertaining to Regeneration and more especially 1 John 3:9.

“Actually there are no words in the Greek New Testament to represent phrases such as “practices,” “keeps on,” or “continues.” Those words are based on an understanding of the Greek tense that is now widely in dispute among Greek scholars. I. Howard Marshal says this “involves translators in stressing the present continuous form of the verb in a way which they do not do elsewhere in the New Testament.” C. H. Dodd noted that ‘it is legitimate to doubt whether the reader could be expected to grasp so subtle a doctrine simply upon the basis of a precise distinction of tenses without further guidance.”

Further on the author says “There is no need to add ‘practices,’ ‘keeps on,’ or ‘continues on’ if one simply recognizes the meaning of ‘seed’ in 1 John 3:9 (Greek sperma) and its relation to gennao (“born”). One of the traits God has passed on to those who are born of Him is that they cannot sin. That is, no sin ever committed by a regenerate child of God has come from the new person inside who has been born of God. Instead every sin a regenerate person commits comes from his or her sin nature.”

Now it seems to me that what protects me from falling is faith (alone) in Jesus Christ as shown by 1 John 5:18 – “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not sin, but the One who is born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.” Also other verses such as Jn 17:12; 1Pt 1:5; Jd 24; Rv 3:10. If I am joined to God by the Spirit of Christ, was Adam not so joined?

donsands said...

I believe I am a sinner saved by grace. I am righteous, and a sinner. I have two verses that show me this.
"This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acception, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I AM the chief." 1 Tim 1:16
And at the end of Romans 7, which brings Pauls whole discourse to a close he says, "O wretched man that I a! who shall deliver me from this body of death? I thank God through jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I MYSELF serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin." Rom. 7:24-25
Paul says, "I myself".
I am who I am, body and soul. When I sin, I myself sin. When I act in righteousness, by His grace through faith, I myself des it.
I believe this teaching that we can not sin is very close to heresy. Gnosicism is very similiar to this teaching.
These Scripture verses are jam-packed with so much to study. I would encourage you to read these verses and meditate upon them.
That's how i came to my conclusion.
Also Luther's commentary on Romans is excellent, and James Boice's.

Rick Potter said...

Thank you for your comment. I am in full agreement with you that both Luther’s commentaries and that of James Montgomery Boice’s commentaries are invaluable. That is why it struck me so odd that the quote’s from “Understanding Christian Theology” was so far from those. Boice is one of my favorite commentators. And I also understand your comment about Gnostic teachings. I know this is not an easy study and it may be that I am enquiring too deeply about something I shouldn’t be. If that is so I am sure God will lead me to an understanding of that through his word.
I would make one comment on something you said:

“ So then with the mind I MYSELF serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin." Rom. 7:24-25 Paul says, "I myself". I am who I am, body and soul. When I sin, I myself sin. When I act in righteousness, by His grace through faith, I myself des it.”

Part of this is exactly what I am trying to figure out. I understand that because I have been made righteous “in Christ” - with my mind I serve the law of God. From all of my study I have come to see that “mind” here refers to my soul/spirit (for the dichotomist) or for the soul and spirit (for the trichotomist). So, when I am “being” righteous I am being Spirit led. However, when Paul says:
HCSB – Romans 7:20-25
20 Now if I do what I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but it is the sin that lives in me. 21 So I discover this principle: when I want to do good, evil is with me. 22 For in my inner self I joyfully agree with God’s law. 23 But I see a different law in the parts of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and taking me prisoner to the law of sin in the parts of my body. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I myself am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh, to the law of sin.

….what I need to figure out is what he means by such words as “inner self” in verse 22. In verse 23 he intimates that the law of the parts of his body (which I am assuming here to mean the flesh) takes captive the law of his “mind” (which I see as soul/spirit). And what does he mean when he says “I am no longer the one doing it, but it is the sin that lives in me”? Am I wrong in thinking that the “I” must point to the soul/spiritual part of him while the “sin” points to the flesh.

I am currently reading a great book by John Piper entitled “The Justification of God”. In it he argues that Romans 1-8 should be seen as leading up to Romans 9. In it he specifically says it is vital to understand the first 5 verses of Romans 9 against the backdrop of 1-8 as Paul is showing why God’s word has not fallen concerning the promise to Israel. This is shedding some more light for me.

Thanks again for your comments.


donsands said...

I'm encouraged by your thoughts to go and study some more.

The Lord loves to open our understanding to these deep teachings of His holy Word.

The Word cuts deeper than a razor blade, and it lifts us higher than the sky. The battle on this earth, is a battle of truth vs.Satan and all his lies, which he brings through false disciples, and other ways as well.
We need to be encouraged to study the Bible, and meditate upon it, especially the deep things of God, as we grow in His grace and knowledge, so that we become more and more conformed into His image, so that we can be salt and light for the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord and Friend.
Keep on.