From the earliest days of the church Christians have been debating the relationship between the power of God and our responsibilities as human beings in living the Christian life. Is the Christian life essentially a matter of passive trust, of getting out of the driver’s seat and letting Jesus take the wheel, or is it active obedience, just applying more discipline and effort to spiritual matters? Is living the Christian life all of God, all up to us, or some combination of both? This isn’t an unusual question when it comes to spiritual truth, because we can ask the same questions about salvation itself.
Is our relationship with God all His doing, or is there some requirement on our part to choose Him and believe the gospel? Scripture makes it clear that being saved involves both God’s power and grace and our response. As Eph. 2:8-9 states, “by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” In John 6:44 Jesus says, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” And yet Acts 16:31 commands us to “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Salvation is not something that we can do for ourselves or make happen, it is something that God accomplishes and God causes in our lives, and yet it only happens through personal faith and repentance.
Living the Christian life is the same way. We can only live the Christian life when God is at work in us, but God working in us means that we do everything we can to live for Him. We are never called to simply let go and let God, to relax and surrender and that’s it, and we are never called to simply try harder or obey more, as if God only helps those who help themselves. We are called to enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ through faith and repentance, and from the strength and grace and love he provides us with as he transforms us, to work out our salvation to the best of our abilities. As Phil. 2:12-13 states, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” God works in us; therefore, we work.
We see a great example of this truth when God brings His people Israel through the Red Sea, out of Egypt, and into the Promised Land. This is the great Old Testament picture of salvation, of God freeing His people from bondage and delivering them from evil. When Pharaoh’s army threatened to wipe out God’s people on the shore of the Red Sea Moses was so confident that he proclaims to the people, “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the LORD which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever. The LORD will fight for you while you keep silent” (Exod. 14:13-14). The very next verse records what God then says to Moses, “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the sons of Israel to go forward. As for you, lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, and the sons of Israel shall go through the midst of the sea on dry land.” God was the one who delivered his people, but he didn’t call them to merely be silent and passive and wait for him to work; he told them to actively participate in his purpose. His purpose for them would only be accomplished through them. God parted the Red Sea, but the people had to walk through it.
So it is with us as we live before God. God working in us precedes and empowers our work in service to Him. God calls us to work out our salvation because we know that He is at work giving us the desire and the ability to live out our salvation. We can never begin to think that we have no cause to worry about how we live before God, but never can we begin to think that it is all up to me, that I can live up to the gospel by myself, or I can blow it with how I live and somehow lose my salvation. God’s work is the cause; our work is the effect. We are not puppets on a string nor are we independent beings who can do whatever we want. We are fully responsible human beings obligated to work out our salvation as God works in us to make it possible. (In addition to his role as senior pastor, Shultz serves on the Missouri Baptist Convention nominating committee.)