Let’s look at a specific example: Philippians 2:12-13 “Work out your own salvation…for God is at work in you….” Some (e.g., D. M. Baillie) have labeled this the “paradox of grace.” I have used that term myself. I’m okay with that. As I explained in Part 1, I find certain paradoxes inevitable signs of mystery. But is it a sheer contradiction? I hope not. One of theology’s tasks is to show that, even though we cannot plumb the depths of God’s agency and ours in salvation, thus reducing mystery to something completely comprehensible to the finite intellect, there is no need to embrace sheer contradiction.
Philippians 2:12-13 is not a contradiction once we see and acknowledge that our “work” is not the same as God’s “work” in salvation (including sanctification). Two different Greek words are translated “work” in these two verses. There’s our first clue that no contradiction is involved. However, knowing their meanings doesn’t automatically resolve the apparent tension. Theology steps in, however, to say that God’s work surrounds and underlies, enables, our “work” which is simply to allow God to do his work in us.
I use a homely illustration. Every summer here in central Texas I struggle to keep bushes alive. I turn on the outdoor faucet to which a hose is attached and drag the hundred foot hose around the house to a thirsty bush. I aim the spray nozzle at the bush and press the trigger. Nothing comes out. I go back to make sure the faucet is actually turned on. It is. Pressurized water is there in the hose. Then I realize there’s got to be a kink somewhere in that long hose that’s keeping the water from flowing. I track the length of the hose, find the kink(s) and straighten them out.
The water represents God’s grace; the kink(s) represents a wrong attitude or habit or desire that blocks up the flow of God’s grace in my life. My task is to remove those with the Spirit’s help.
The analogy breaks down, of course, in that, in my spiritual life, removing the “kinks” is just as much God’s work as mine, but I have to want it and permit it. The “energy” (one of the Greek words translated “work”) is all God’s. All I contribute is heartfelt desire, prayer and submission. That’s also “work” insofar as it’s not easy; it’s not what comes naturally.
Philippians 2:12-13 may express a paradox, but it doesn’t express a sheer contradiction. It would only be a contradiction if it said that salvation is exclusively God’s work and exclusively mine. It doesn’t say that. It implies a cooperation—a synergy. At least that’s the best way to interpret it.
This post is an excerpt from a blog post by Roger E. Olson. See http://evangelicalarminians.org/roger-olson-a-sermon-grace-works-philippians-212-13.