Ignorant or Enslaved?
“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 ESV
Dear Church Family,
One of the most important issues in Christian teaching is the relationship between salvation and works. Do we, in fact, “contribute” to our salvation by doing good works? This debate showed up in the Reformation, where the “Protestant” church began, but it actually showed up more than a millennium earlier in North Africa. There, a church father named Augustine came into conflict with a monk named Pelagius.
Like Augustine, Pelagius believed in the grace of God. Well…sort of. For Pelagius, God’s grace included two things. First, God “graciously” created us with the ability to obey him. Second, he gave us the commands to follow, so we would not be stumbling around in ignorance. Just to clarify: Pelagius did not believe humans were burdened with anything like a “sinful nature.” We have the ability to obey God’s commands, and so we must do that in order to be saved.
Augustine disagreed. He loved to quote John 15:51: “Without me, you can do nothing.” The New Testament has a very strong emphasis on the effects that sin has had in the world. For Jesus (John 8:34) and for Paul (Romans 8:7-8), the sinful person is enslaved by sin.
One passage Augustine quoted in his debate with Pelagius is Philippians 2:12-13, which is quoted at the top of this letter. This passage displays a wonderful balance between two ideas. The first is that Christians are expected to live out who they are in Christ. In fact, they do so “with fear and trembling.” This fear and trembling is a way of underscoring the fact that it is important in the sight of God to live a holy life. If Paul had ended this teaching at that point, however, “fear and trembling” would be all we have. Thankfully, he did not. The next statement (v. 13) offers an important clarification, and it is the reason Augustine was right and Pelagius was wrong.
Although it may well be true that humans were created sinless and with the ability to not sin, the reality for humans after the fall is quite different. Sinful humans are enslaved to sin, but those who have experienced the redemption of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit have the presence of God in them. According to v. 13, God is creating in us the “will”—the desire and passion—to obey God, and it is creating in us the ability to carry out God’s commands.
Human sinfulness is not the result of ignorance; it is enslavement. Our salvation includes the presence of God who leads us to know, desire, and perform the will of God for his glory—for his “good pleasure.” This is not automatic; we must cultivate our relationship with God, and we still have the ability to resist God’s leading. May you rely on his power today as you live for him.