Written by Paul J. Bucknell on February, 05, 2022
Philippians 2:12-13 The Purpose and Means of Christian Discipleship
Christian discipleship remains an integral part of God’s purposes for our lives, but many Christians have no idea how God causes His people to grow. This exposition of Philippians 2:12-13 more fully describes God’s means to sanctify His people. These verses, built upon Philippians 1:6, describe the fantastic way God builds His people up. Numerous examples and study questions flesh out this principle.
After summarizing the significant points in Philippians 1:6, we will exposit Philippians 2:12-13, to understand God’s means of growing His people. We will focus on “to will and to work” in verse 13.
A Brief Look at Philippians 1:6
“For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6).
Our initial belief in Christ gives us new spiritual life. We become conscious of our new relationship with God as our Father. It’s amazing, just like a seed pushes up its first sprouts. Our incredible new relationship with our Creator God, though beginning with a tiny grain of faith, promises much hope of growth and development—eternal life.
In the Book of Philippians, the apostle provides tremendous insight into the Christian life. The powerful teaching of Philippians 1:6 broadens our overview of faith by affirming God’s purpose to perfect the saving work He initiated. From the beginning to the end of our discipleship progression, it’s all His work!
Philippians 2:12-13 helps us better understand the process of perfecting.
1) The Context (Philippians 2:12)
“12 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; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13 NASB).
Although my primary purpose is to highlight how God grows His people, I will briefly mention some points from verse 12 first, the immediate context.
“My beloved” (2:12)
Paul addresses all believers. It’s imperative to assume that Paul is not only speaking to pastors/missionaries or highly gifted Christians like Himself. Even this term, highly-gifted, is shortsighted. Every believer is perfectly-gifted and placed to carry out all of God’s appointed good works in their individual lives (Eph 2:10). Here, Paul addresses all the Philippian Christians—“my beloved, just as you have obeyed….” What God started, He carries on in all believers not only for the Philippian church but for all genuine believers–that includes you!
One of the big life questions is, “What is the purpose of man?” We see this answered in a general way here, do we not? Observe God’s work in your life, welcome it, obey Him, and live for His good pleasure. Modern man has become revoltingly self-focused, feeling rather divine when saying, “I feel like…,” assuming he should follow those godless feelings! Those words have brought much trouble.
Obedience is always expected; it becomes a pathway through our confused feelings and provides breakthroughs in key problem areas of our spiritual lives. Don’t think, obey!
“Not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence” (2:12)
People often act one way in front of highly respected people like the apostle, but Paul says that our lives are lived out in the presence of God—so whether he (Paul) is there or not doesn’t matter. We live in light of God’s presence. This God-fearing attitude plays an important part of the spiritual perfecting process.
“Fear and trembling” (2:12)
These two words remind us of what our lives are like when through faith we live in the presence of God. We can’t fool Him as we fool others. He holds us accountable. Fear identifies how we submit our will to His, while trembling describes how seriously we take His will, knowing the consequences of our disobedience. This is the reason Solomon rightly states that “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 1:7).
“Work out your salvation” (2:12)
We should never separate our initial belief in Christ for salvation from our ongoing spiritual life. We are not working for our salvation—that would be salvation by works. However, God’s work begun in us will continue to express itself, and therefore Paul exhorts them to work it out.
“Work out your salvation” isn’t focusing on earning or obtaining salvation but assumes it, teaching that our salvation is destined to produce or display itself in one or more ways. Paul often mentions these good works in Titus (“good deeds” 5 times used) and elsewhere.
God constantly works to perfect all His people—that includes you! Doesn’t this knowledge excite you about what God has done in your life and what He plans to do? We suddenly have loads of questions about how this relates to keeping pure, getting married, having children, how we conduct our jobs, make decisions, pray, use our finances, etc.
The Lord perfects His work in every genuine believer. I say genuine because some religious Christians, though professing Christ, lack that initial faith. They have the outward form but not the heart. I hope God’s Spirit prompts you to know God through Christ. Perhaps say a prayer, “Hey, I’ve been playing a religious Christian all my life. God, I want you to do that saving work in me—that forgiving, helping, loving work. I need and want you!”
Having provided some immediate general context, let us answer those practical questions on how we live out our Christian lives. These words of Paul excite me; I hope they give you great faith, hope, and direction!
How does God perfect us? Is it possible to know? What is my part in it?
2) The Process (Philippians 2:13)
“13 For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).
“For” an explanation (2:13)
The first word “for” in verse 13 refers back to what Paul said in verse 12: “work out your salvation.” Paul now explains what “working out” looks like.
“God who is at work” (2:13)
Paul repeats very similar words to 1:6 here, “…He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6). Paul stated that God began a good work and will perfect it. Here, he provides more insight into this sanctifying process.
God works intimately in every believer. Knowledge of His divine work in us steers our minds to reflect on and desire to have His perfecting work happen in us. He has a plan and the works we need to do, and the promise that He will give us everything we need to accomplish those things. You can confidently say, along with the Apostle Paul, “No matter what I face on earth, nothing need stop me from accomplishing all of the purposes God has for me!”
But we have lots to learn about consistently following God’s leading.
“God” (2:13) — A Caution: Which god?
Many odd ideas of God exist. Some think of him as being impersonal—only a force or power. When you believe this, then other forms of worship make sense. Yoga, a form of Hindu worship, works out the concept of holiness through severe physical discipline, thinking it sets the spirit free.
God, however, is not a mere impersonal force or power but a personal God, our Redeemer and Savior! The Almighty God, who placed and named all the stars, is at work in our lives. He who framed our bodies and lives is doing His marvelous work in and through us. How inspiring!
A Biblical understanding of God also frees us from the entrapments of modern thinking, “I need to make something of my life.” Instead, we should ask, “What are You, Lord, trying to do through my life?” “Why did you make me?” Although these are basic questions, they need to be settled and confirmed as our primary purpose. This verse affirms God’s work in you. When this truth is embraced, we can focus on understanding and prioritizing His work in us, applying these truths in obedience.
“In you” (2:13)
The phrase “in you” reminds us that God works this special way in all believers; but it also identifies that He is not at work in the world in the same way (John 14:17). The world does not understand God’s work in us. It thinks that money and power control everything. We testify with our lives that it is God who directs and guides us, not our security, wealth, or name.
“For His good pleasure” (2:13)
We need to grow in our commitment to live for God, not for ourselves. Religion binds man to think about how the gods or God would serve man’s purposes. Instead, true religion, the Gospel, effectively calls us to accomplish God’s work. Just as Paul says, “For His good pleasure.”
Can you unabashedly claim, “I live for God’s good pleasure?” We set aside the altar of modernism and human worship with its self-focus upon becoming a Christian. In such a religion, people compete with people, systems, all seeking their objectives. Sorry to admit, the ‘world’ happens in our churches, too. We see friction and competing groups even in Philippians, including the following verses (Phil 2:14-15).
All believers, everywhere, are meant to find God’s work pleasurable not burdensome. There is no greater delight than to see God construct his kingdom of glory and love, despite our sin-affected hearts.
Did we not see this amazing work of God in Christ’s work on the cross and His resurrection? God, single-handedly, defeated all His enemies. He gave all power to Christ. Revelation 5 pulls back the curtain so we can peer into heaven and see how all creation delights in observing Christ’s glorious person and work.
People get giddy over significant buildings, works of arts, masterpieces, clever works, but all pale in comparison to the works of God. God’s works, including those in our lives, are eternally pleasurable because they display God’s glory. The earth and all its buildings will be destroyed. God’s kingdom works will precede us into eternity. Which are you praying and striving towards?
The Garden of Eden is where man was to do God’s pleasurably works. “Eden” means pleasure in Hebrew. When man forsook that opportunity because of his self-seeking ways, God in His grace through Christ set up another means to work with God in completing His good pleasure. Likewise, what pleases God greatly fulfills and pleases us—though it might be tough, challenging, and even painful at times.
Now we want to turn and ponder a bit more on this marvelous work of God in us. How do we, as mere mortals, work with God to build His eternal works of praise?
3) Two Expressions (Philippians 2:13)
“For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).
While Paul says in 1:6 that God perfects His work in us, 2:13 gives us an inside picture at how He does this. Both words, “to will” and “to work” are essential; they serve as companions yet provide different insights into God’s work in us.
We place our faith in God and what He wants to do in our lives, not on our preferences. Please do not draw immediate conclusions that God wants you to make any big life changes, though perhaps He does. First, consider that God wants to work right where you are presently—in your current job, with your spouse, with your inferiorities or giftedness. Our present situations form God’s starting place in our lives.
Let’s see now how these two words, “to will and to work” unfold the way God works in us to accomplish His supremely delightful will for His glory and through His strength.
A) “To will” (Philippians 2:13)
“For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).
The phrase “to will” is the first of two descriptions on how God accomplishes His good work in us. It helps to first think in a general way and then in a more specific way.
The general helps us to understand how God generally works in all believers everywhere—God is working toward aligning our hearts to His, seeking our general commitment.
His specific work refers to how God leads us in our individual missions and tasks. For example, only Joshua had to lead the armies to conquer Jericho. Each of us have specific situations where God wants us to live out His will. All husbands are to love their wives with devotion. If you are a husband, you must specifically love your wife, despite any flaws she might have.
The will refers to our desires and reaches deep into our life’s motivation—searching for what we want to happen with our lives.
His General Will
Those born of the Spirit, those genuinely saved, have been sealed with the Spirit of God. They believe and follow Jesus. Possessed by the Spirit of Christ, they want to carry out the works of Christ. This is how He causes us to desire His will. Having Christ’s new life, love becomes our last name. We belong to His family of love and employ our lives to carry out God’s good general purposes. This is in contrast with our former self-seeking lives.
There is always a learning curve, but true discipleship builds on the assumption that this spirit of love animates us and those we disciple. We want and will to love others because He loves them through us. We love because Christ loves them.
We don’t do good works because others will see and admire us. Do you see how shallow that is? That is worldly! On the other hand, we are willing to give, help, pray for others because we long to care for them. What motivates you to do good things? Are you prompted only by others when they call for your help? When you examine our self-seeking lives, you might question if you really know Christ; if so, seek God’s work in you. You want the Spirit of Christ to give you new life.
“To will” pictures for us a knowledge of God and what He wants. Because He wants it, I want it. We are not mere objects, tools, or machines God uses to complete His purpose. No, God works with us as a team to accomplish His work. He implants His will in us (knowledge of what He wants), so His will becomes ours. This highlights the importance of renewing our minds (Romans 12:2).
Let’s not forget we are working on His project. Satan will tempt us by confusing “God’s project” with “our project.” Just step back and reaffirm you are there to work for the Lord.
God desires to fill our lives with excitement, growth, and desire to please Him; this happens when we recognize that He is at work in us. We don’t look at God as if He is against us nor instantly blame Him when things don’t go our way. Instead we should train ourselves to think, “Why is God allowing this?” “Does He want me to meet with someone to share the Gospel?” “I will carefully watch what He is doing here.”
His new life in us beckons us to enter, explore, and enjoy. There are no laws to hold us back when led by His Spirit (Gal 5:23); His law of love are the reins that guide us.
His Specific Will
Having observed some of God’s more profound works within us, we wonder how that works out specifically. We are still focusing on our wills; the discussion on works comes next.
When you hear people talk about “finding God’s will for my life,” they typically refer to this specific will. The bulk of God’s will is found in the general sphere but circumstances particular to the individual believer uniquely equip one to carry out God’s will.
For example: Generally, God wants us committed to love all our neighbors, but specifically, the Lord might want you to pray for or offer help to the neighbor you dislike. Obedience fits in here. The attitude comes before the action (1 Cor 13:1-3).
I am highlighting the tension between His will—to forgive him/her that offended you and your will—“I don’t want to forgive.” We generally commit to love and forgive others but find resistance when applying it to certain specific circumstances.
God might give you specific desires and burdens and wonder why others don’t share a similar burden. You wonder what you are to do. Satan uses a bunch of tactics to confuse you—like fear and intimidation: “You can’t do it.” You are crazy.” “What are people going to think of you?” Generally, you know it’s the evil one when he causes you to question the Spirit’s prompting. God’s thoughts encourage you to do it.
But first, focus on your will to please Him in everything.
Look deeper than your interest, burden, opportunity, dreams, and identify what God might want to accomplish through you for His glory. It will never be inconsistent with His general will.
Impossibility and improbability often throw us off track. Don’t hold onto it so tightly as if you must accomplish it. No, instead, leave your heart and mind open to how God will work it out, with or without you. He might only want you to play a part, such as praying for the workers.
Or, you might be the leader for a project. We can see this ‘specific will’ at work in the Book of Judges when God chose certain individuals like Gideon to judge the land. But this isn’t only true for leaders, but for all of us. Often, people don’t even know you are praying or silently helping others. The work ‘defer your will to another—like a wife being submissive or deferring to authority—comes from dealing with your will. Your husband probably doesn’t even know how difficult submitting was. God wrestles with your will; the work is almost invisible, but not to God. God said of Sarah.
“For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands” (1 Peter 3:5).
Embrace the willingness (interest, burden) to do the work of God in your heart. The biggest battle is with our will and motivation. If we cannot agree to carry out God’s pleasure, then we will not rightly carry out His work. If we do, it will be for the wrong motive.
Maybe you care for children or teach Sunday School; perhaps you give someone a lift to church. Satan will confuse your will at some point and mock, “What you are wasting your time for?” He is snubbing your will. Remind yourself that you are carrying out God’s purpose to please Him. By pleasing and helping others, I am happy. If you strive to remain fixed on pleasing Him, then the work comes much more quickly.
‘Burn out’ reveals that the will for God’s work has dissipated. We do it but rather unwillingly. We lost the vision. That is why taking breaks is essential. We must remind ourselves of who we are and what we live for.
Let me use the desire to get married as an example. God’s will is for many to marry; that desire is a good desire within us. But sometimes, we need to wait. My oldest daughter didn’t marry until she was older. But that’s okay—right? Your parents might make subtle hints and make you irritated because they don’t understand your situation. Step back. Without the rush of the world and its expectations, see what God has put in your heart. Clarify God’s purposes to yourself and maybe to others like your parents.
“It would delight me if God would bring the right man along to love me. But I want a man who has his heart on You, Lord, purposed to accomplish Your great pleasure. I know, I might never find such a man, and if that pleases you, it will please me. You know my desires and the shortness of time; I give them to you again to fulfill them in your time and for your pleasurable purpose. I want my marriage to please you.”
Do you see how this godly woman sought God’s will? She identified a desire to marry but submitted her will to Christ and God’s purposes. There are many men, but she seeks God’s man to accomplish God’s will. Her patience is the outworking of dealing with her will. Her denials are also part of the process.
Recognize how special it is that God has placed His purposes in you. Accept your position, His purposes, and His ways. Count “impossibilities” as opportunities to watch how He does His work. Entrust Him to do all the hard work, but affirm your will to do your Father’s will, generally or specifically.
B) “To work” (Phil 2:13)
“For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).
The Christian does not need to worry about doing God’s will. God has all the resources necessary. His challenge is to prepare our hearts. He wants to prevent us from the evil one catching in his snares by relying on our judgment, wealth, expertise, etc.
I am amazed at how much time I have spent waiting on the Lord. Some things are almost 50 years in the waiting. Why? It partly reveals how He further shapes my heart. God is at work in me, so that I can rightly work with and for Him.
So what does “to work” imply or teach? God knits close relationships with His people to accomplish His work on earth. Here are a couple of examples.
God used waiting times in prayer to align His apostles’ hearts to His purposes (Acts 1). When God’s Spirit came upon them, they preached God’s Word boldly and told others about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Suppose that one of your passions is to help poor people around you. Your desire to care for the poor matches Christ’s example. Don’t use the world’s methods to fulfill this desire. First, pray and seek to understand how He wants you to show care to the needy. Don’t rush in without Him. Remember you want to do it with and for Him. Ask how He wants to work it out in your life.
The way will often seem impossible. Then He will prompt you to take a first daring step in faith. Be obedient, humble, and trusting. Don’t get so busy with the task that you have no time to meet with the Lord.
His work for His glory!
We are God’s coworkers; it’s our business to accomplish His good works.
Often we think about the big things that God does. But God uses our simple lives to carry out His marvelous work. Let me give you a few examples from daily spiritual lives.
Our Prayer Life
Let’s see how this works out in our prayer lives. You know you should pray but don’t feel like it. Start praying aloud, “God I don’t feel like praying, but you want me to join You in accomplishing Your purposes.” Honestly stating our feelings leads us to talk to God about His purposes. Praying is one of those works of God. “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17). You confirm your will and focus on His work to please Him.
Or perhaps you have a deacon’s meeting that you forgot to mention to your wife. But you also have other commitments at home that you have neglected. Your wife has been trying to be patient. You sense you ought to be at that deacon’s meeting but have messed things up at home. This is an impossible situation from man’s point of view. Yes, you could just skip out the door, leaving the crying kids and leaky sink and telling her that you love her and will be back. Or you could stay late at the office and go directly to the meeting to avoid her unhappiness. Or you could remember Philippians 2:13.
“For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).
Pause here and note how “to will and to work” connect. Just going to the deacon’s meeting without facing your problems at home doesn’t accomplish God’s glorious and pleasurable works. (They might be pleasurable to you until you get home!)
God can mysteriously work things out despite our mistakes. Instead, talk to God about it and explore His purposes along with your desires. Do you have a desire to have a loving and warm relationship with your spouse? Do you desire to have a good home but have no clue how—so you avoid things?
Do you see that you need to bring your whole life into God’s presence, confessing your sin and stubbornness, apologizing for the results of not following the Lord, etc.?
Maybe, when contemplating your need to be at the deacon’s meeting, all of the possibilities come to your mind, overwhelming you. Where do you start? Go back and affirm you live for God’s will and pleasure. He will show you how you failed Him in specific ways. Confess these, but realize He still can work through your situation. When you do this (the perfecting of faith), you confess to God that you don’t know how to handle this situation. He often will bring an idea to your mind. You might be uncomfortable with it but follow through. It might be, “Call the pastor and tell him your situation and listen to him.” Or, send an email to the committee apologizing for your inability to attend because God is helping you straighten things out at home. Ask for their prayers. But you can still submit your report or do a 10 minute video for your contribution. Or, the Lord might request you to be frank with your wife. When she sees your sincerity, she can trust God’s work in you. She gains more faith to care for the home problems and sends you to the meeting with her blessing.
God works in powerful ways when we arrange our lives to accomplish His work. If you called the pastor, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear, “Oh, you can’t make it either. That’s okay, I was looking for confirmation about rescheduling, as two others can’t make it either.”
A Summary of Our Faith
God’s purpose: Remember not to focus on your life but on God’s purpose for your life.
Teaching Principle: God desires to work through our will and decisions to accomplish His beautiful and delightful will that brings Him glory.
My Life: Start where you are. Ask if it is God’s will. If you don’t will it, still see if God wants it. Sometimes He is willing but works through others.
Name and Claim Theology, an application
This differs from the man-based “name it and claim it” idea where man rules over God. Those that hold this idea claim that God will do everything they think is important or He will do whatever they desire. Instead, we humble our hearts to exercise His excellent will through our lives in fear and trembling. Like Mary, we say, “Whatever You want to do in my life; be pleased and do it.” We deny self-confidence, which lifts man up as an idol, and instead, are God-confident. It gives us courage, which we increasingly need in our wicked age. Instead of saying, “I can do it,” we say, “What do you want, Lord? How do I do this? Help me do it.”
Let’s not confuse our impulses, wills, or dreams with God’s purposes for our lives. The first is, as Paul says, beastly, an idol, and worthy of being destroyed.
God’s work, however, is remarkable, praiseworthy, exciting, and delightful. Our praise of Him grows with our age as we observe how God, decade after decade, lays down His good works through our lives. We are more convinced than ever that God is at work, “to will and to work His good will.”
Bible Study Questions on Philippians 2:12-13
“12 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; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13).
- Who is Paul speaking to? How do you know?
- Define obedience. What place does it have in the Christian’s life?
- What is the difference between working out one’s salvation from working for salvation (2:12)?
- If God works in us both to will and work for His pleasure, what part do we take, if any (2:13)?
- Why does Paul talk about them having fear and trembling (2:12)? How does that work with a loving God?
- Do you act differently depending on whom you are in front of? Give an example.
- In what two ways does God work in His people (2:13)?
- What is the difference between general and specific willingness?
- In what ways can we identify the way God makes us desirous to work for Him?
- Paul says God works in His people for His pleasurable purposes. What does this practically mean?
- List one or two ways the modern culture infiltrates the church by persuading Christians to live for its goals?
- Is God’s purpose always pleasurable? Why is God’s purpose so described?
- Have you discovered how God works in you to accomplish His good pleasure?
- How do you respond to God’s work in you?
- What is one thing He is at work “to will and to work” in you now?
- When discipling, identify these two ways God works in others to encourage and lead them.
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