PHILIPPIANS II. 12, 13.
"Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure." - PHILIP. II. 12, 13.
THERE be two great evils in judgment and practice, which in all ages of the Church have, upon the right and left hand, made many to pervert the straight ways of the Lord. One is, a pleading for and practicing of a carnal liberty from gospel duties and commands, upon a woful mistake of the nature of gospel privileges, and of the dispensation of the grace of God therein, This is a turning of the grace of God into wantonness. Another extreme is, a turning of gospel commands into legal, and a pleading so for obedience thereunto; self-ability (abstract from the influences of grace) to perform that obedience, and a proper merit resulting from that performance, that confidence in the flesh is proclaimed, and the grace of God made a cypher. What influence the former hath had in the raising and maintaining of the heresies of the Antinomians, Familists, Quakers, &c., none but strangers in our Israel can be ignorant. And what influence the other extreme hath had in raising the Arminian, Popish, and Socinian heresies, all that are acquainted with the case of the church of God, both abroad and at home, do know but too sadly. Yea, how great an influence the darkness and confusion in the minds of many of the Lord's people concerning the due harmony of the sovereign influence of the grace of God, with the natural liberty of the will concurring; the due acknowledgment of the necessity of that influence, and the obligation to the practice of duties, notwithstanding of the want of it, hath upon their spiritual condition, every one who hath an ear to hear, and a heart to understand, and grace to search his own heart, doth in some measure know.
Therefore, though it be not so wholly suitable to the nature of this exercise, to prosecute debates with the adversaries of truth; yet because of the advantage that those on either extreme do pretend to have hence for their error, and the real advantage which this place doth give to refute the one and the other, I shall therefore, ere I come to the practical improvement of them, glance a little at both. In which handling, I shall divide the text, give the literal meaning, clear it from their objections, point out the things here held out, with their influence on out practice in religion.
These words come in among the gracious exhortations which the Holy Ghost giveth by Paul's pen unto these believing Philippians. In the beginning of the twelfth verse, the apostle, having praised their former obedience, whereof he was a witness whilst among them, and expressed his charitable confidence of their continuance and increase in that obedience, even in his absence, as an insinuatory preface unto
what he was to say; he then setteth down a most weighty exhortation, and backeth it with an encouraging argument, in verse 13th. In the exhortation are three things: 1. The act itself in the duty enjoined, "work out." 2. The subject-matter where-about this act is to be exercised, "your own salvation.'' 3. The qualification of this act about this subject, "with fear and trembling."
As to the first, there needs little to be said of it, it being so very clear. It is not simple working, but a diligence in working called for, and continuance in that diligence, until the perfect end of the work be attained. This is the force of the original word.
The second - the subject-matter where-about this act is to be exercised - "your own salvation." We shall not stand upon the various acceptations of this word in scripture, as sometimes signifying the means of salvation, (Heb. ii. 3; 1 Pet. i. ix); sometimes the saving effect of those means upon the called (2 Tim. i. 9); sometimes the accomplishment of this begun salvation in heaven. We take it not here as importing both beginning, progress, and perfection of salvation; for he is speaking to those in whom the work was already begun, as in chap. i. verse 6. But the evidence of the scope bindeth us to aver, that here the apostle presseth them to a diligent advancing, and a constant progress in the work and course of their salvation, the way of truth and holiness, wherein already they were engaged. This salvation is called "their own," not that the doctrine of it was of their own devising and framing; or that their walking up unto that doctrine by faith and obedience, was of their own strength (in that sense, salvation is only of the Lord, and Christ is the inventor of the doctrine, and the author and finisher of the work of salvation); but that it was theirs by a gifted right and possession. They were the parties to whom the doctrine of salvation was imparted, in whom it was begun, and on whom it was to be accomplished.
The third thing is, the qualification of this commanded exercise, "with fear and trembling." This, enemies to the certainty and assurance of faith, and to the perseverance of the faithful, draw to their advantage. In opposition to which mistake, I shall only give the meaning of this word, and confirm it from the analogy of faith, and the context, omitting what the deluded Quakers may allege hence for their energumenical shakings, as unworthy of any regard. All agree, that by fear and trembling one and the same thing is signified. This qualification of duty is several times used, sometimes in cases different from this, as in 1 Corinthians ii. 3; Ephesians, vi. 5; sometimes in cases that are as it were parallel with this, as Psalm ii. 11; Rom. xi. 20. All which do clear us in this, that it is only humility, sense of our own weakness and infirmity, which is here called for; and if you will, include in it the filial fear of God; which do no way plead for doubting and diffidence as to the issue, which is the thing their adversaries plead for. For the security of saints, and the certainty of their perseverance, is not founded upon any thing in themselves, but upon the veracity of the promiser, the always effectual intercession of Christ, and the indwelling of the Spirit. So that a holy fear of falling because of sinful weakness, can no ways shake these foundations.
But that we may further clear the nature of the fear called for, omitting many distinctions used by divines in this case, we shall only name this: Fear is either of the issue - hell; or of the means leading to it - sin; both either absolute or conditional. Absolute fear of hell is despair; diametrically opposite to faith, and forbidden by all these commands in scripture, requiring faith and trusting in the Lord, as a part of our worship. Conditional fear of hell; that is, "I fear hell, if I walk in the ways leading unto it," is a sanctified mean of God's appointment for escaping it, by eschewing of those ways that lead unto it. Absolute fear about the means; that is, that I be given up wholly to a final neglect of the means of grace, and to a total revolting from God, in the practice of sin without repentance, is all one with despair; and is forbidden by the whole tenour of the covenant of grace. Conditional fear about the means, that is, "I fear, if I watch not, and do not lean unto Christ's strength, I may fall into sin," is also a sanctified mean for escaping of sin, and so of the fear of hell. And this is all one with Calvin's distinction upon this place. "There is a fear," saith he, "which begets carefulness in duty with humility (which is here required); and a fear which begets anxious doubting in whatever required." Hence it is observable in experience, and evident in spiritual reason, that the more there be in any, of this holy conditional fear, and the more fruitful it be in its native effects of humility, diligence, self-denial, and trusting in their Lord's strength, the more clear is the man's assurance of salvation. And this sense of the words, is much confirmed by the subsequent words. For what an absurd consequence would the adversaries make of it! "God works both to will and to do: therefore, do you your duty doubtingly, without any assurance of the end."
This leads us to the second, wherein we have, 1. The causal particle for knitting these words, as an encouraging argument with the former. 2. Who it is that is the author of this encouragement; - God. 3. Wherein his help consisteth; efficaciously working both to will and to do: efficaciously as the original imports. 4. The fountain from whence this help flows - -his free will, "good pleasure." Not that which simply denotes his sovereignty in doing or not doing as he pleaseth, (which would not so agree with the scope); but that kindly favour which he bears to his own in Jesus Christ, which though he manifest it sovereignly in some sort, yet is it always with a respect to their good.
Concerning almost all of these, the enemies of truth do move debates. But not to be tedious in these matters, especially in an exercise of this nature, I shall only hint at some few things, which may clear the truth, and remove any objection the adversaries do propound against them. As, 1. That such commands as are here do not infer any thing but obligation to duty; and no ways any ability to perform them, or any merit in performance. 2. That the determining influence of the grace of God upon the will is consistent with its natural liberty. 3. How that the acknowledging of this influence doth take away any ground of being called co-workers with God in the business of our salvation, in the Popish and Arminian sense, and yet giveth no ground to the libertine extreme. 4. How that this assorting of the whole into grace is an argument to diligence.
First, That this command to "work out" doth not import self-ability to obey, nor any merit to result from obedience, is so clear from the connection of the argument with the command, that I would not so much as have started it, if the natural corruption of men's hearts were not so extravagant as it is, and that adversaries do make use of it, and the learned, in commenting upon the place, do remove it.
1. The prime import of all commands to duty, is a revelation of God's will of obedience; and as they hold forth what his will is about duty, so they infer an obligation to performance. 2. That the Lord being holy and just, requireth nothing but what is or was in the power of the person commanded to obey, either in his own person or in his representative. 3. That gospel commands, in their prime import, are of the same nature with legal; and consequently, men are punished for disobedience of the one as well as of the other, because, legally considered, they were in their representatives endued with power to obey. 4. Yet gospel commands, as given by the Lord to his own covenanted people, are sanctified means for working and procuring of obedience. Not that they are a moral mean, to stir up the godly to exert any strength in themselves in performing acts of obedience; but, 1. Because they discover the Lord's will, and their obligation to obedience thereto: 2d, Because from this accidentally is discovered their inability to yield obedience as in themselves, which produces self-denial. 3d, From this floweth, by the Lord's blessing, acts of faith upon the fullness and sufficiency of their Surety, wherein stands their stability and strength for all things, (Philip. iv. 13). Yea, we may say, that in all gospel commands, as tendered to those in Christ, there is included a promise of grace to obey; and in this they are distinguished from legal commands. But the simple reading of these words, and the considering of the connection of the argument with the command, is enough to silence such cavillers, if the verdict of the Holy Ghost pronounced against their error were enough to silence them: the words that follow, containing the fullest expressions of the entire help of God's grace, which a godly man stands in need of, both for willing and doing; and consequently, of the weakness of a regenerate man, as in himself considered.
The second thing to be cleared is, How the determining influence of the grace of God upon the will (here asserted) consisteth with its natural liberty, This is a depth wherein many learned heads and unholy hearts have drowned; and, indeed, it is a very great one. It shall suffice us to lay down the positive truth, that there is no inconsistency betwixt the two; which may thus be cleared:
1. All creatures being necessarily dependent, both in their being and operation, upon the First Cause, man's will being a creature, it cannot, either in sound reason or divinity, be asserted that it is independent from this general concourse or influence wherein stands the very being and working of every creature.
2. This holy Creator and Preserver of all things having necessarily before him, as his end in creation and providence, his own glory, hath by his wise decrees determined so the actings of all his creatures, as may best subserve his infinitely wise designs. So that man's will must again fall under a determination because of such decrees.
3. And as the will of man is thus necessarily liable to a double determination, as it is a creature, so in its being made such a creature, a subordinated faculty, to be led and determined by the understanding, it again falleth under a restriction of that unlimited liberty pleaded for; for being in itself a blind faculty (or a rational appetite, as some define it), it cannot move towards any thing but what the understanding holdeth out as good, either true or apparent. Hence may be seen somewhat of the manner of the Lord's influence upon the will of man; for it is evident that the illuminating influence of grace upon the understanding is perfective of its natural capacity of discerning, both in via contemplanda, which is the theoretical judgment, and in via agenda hic et nunc, which is the practical, both in its first and absolute judgment concerning things good or bad, and in its comparative judgment concerning things better or worse; - from which determinations of the understanding, follows such a commanding of the will to choose or refuse, that it cannot but elicit the one of these acts, and that most freely.
4. Hence it follows that the natural liberty of the will doth not consist in an absolute indifferency to act thus or otherwise, good or bad, but in the special towardness, cheerfulness, and liberty of its acting; for the only necessity inconsistent with this, is that of force and coaction. And indeed, the asserting of the will's liberty, as adversaries do, doth not only loose this proud faculty from its due dependence on the concurrence and decrees of its Maker, but lifteth it up unto a higher pitch of liberty than can lawfully be ascribed to God himself, who cannot will what is ill; and to angels and glorified saints, who are graciously determined to will only what is good.
III. How that the ascribing of this unto God doth deny our being workers together with God, in the Popish sense, and yet is opposite unto the Libertine extreme.
The Papists would so divide the work, that they may share the glory between God and man, - the Libertines would make a man a brute or a stone. Against the first, we say, that either it must be at the first of conversion, or in the progress of sanctification. At the first of conversion, the Lord's work is entirely enlivening; and man's influence on the effect is such as a dead man can have upon his own quickening, which in nature is evident can be none at all, (Ephes. ii. 1, 2). And though, in the infusion of the new life, there be indeed gracious habits infused, qualifying the man for gracious actings, yet these habits are not sufficient either to preserve themselves from total decay, or to determine their possessor unto the least gracious operation, without a present actuating influence from the fountain whence they first ran. For we do not maintain the activity, yea, nor immortality of grace, as flowing from its own positive nature, but rather its relative (so to speak); that is, it is no self-sufficient habit, but the continuance of its sufficiency, that flows from the continuance of its dependence on the first fountain; which dependence the Lord, by the well-ordered covenant, hath determined to be incorruptible, - a grace, therefore, immortal. Therefore, in the bringing out of these gracious habits into gracious actings, the actual influence of actuating grace is absolutely needful: "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine, no more can ye, except ye abide in me,"
(John xv. 4). "Without me cwriV emou, or separate from me, and my influence, as the root, ye can do nothing," - which was spoken to branches already in the wine. Here the believer (as Calvin expresseth it in his Institutions), "passivé agit," or, as others, "actus agit," - being acted upon graciously, he acts graciously. How evidently these clear principles exclude all boasting, is evident; but we will not stand on this.
But to guard against the other extreme: We do not say that a godly man is wholly passive in gracious actings; for, 1. He acts with these same natural faculties in all gracious operations, wherein the gracious habits are seated - as judgment and affections. 2. Neither are we wholly to deny, yet very warily to understand and admit it, that as other moral habits are strengthened by repeated acts, so, in the growth of sanctification, the habits of grace do acquire a greater positive strength than at first infusion; and consequently, a man far advanced in holiness hath a greater disposition, easiness, and facility (simply considered) in exerting gracious operations, than another in whom the habits are not so much corroborate by exercise in the Lord's ways. Hence the scripture distinction of Christians into fathers, young men, and children. But though we are to keep at a distance from any thought of the best their being able to do any thing that is good, without actual influence of grace, yet is it consonant to spiritual reason and experience to say, that the influences needful for actuating strong gracious habits unto gracious actions, are simply not so powerful and mighty (sufficient they must always be) as necessarily are in bringing forth decayed languid habits into act, (Psalm li. 10).
The last thing is, How that this argument can have influence upon diligence in obedience. Carnal reason and its carnal patrons do plead, that this is the highway to render men secure and careless in duty. And it cannot indeed be denied, that it may have such an effect, and often hath, on sensual men not having the Spirit. Not to stay upon a debate which, as to its practical use, may afterward be spoken to, we would only say, 1. That the apostle in our text is speaking to godly persons who were already diligent in their work who, being partakers of the divine nature, were capable of being moved with gracious principles. 2. Evangelical arguments are all encouragements and promises, which as they are only the portion of the godly, so, such do find strong influence accompanying such arguments, for the inspiring unto diligence. The adversaries plead only for legal arguments, and such as natural reason teacheth. Yea, what stronger argument can be used to a poor soul ready to faint because of the greatness of its work, than this, "Arise, and be doing; for the Lord will work in you both to will and to do?"
But now, it is high time to come to the observations contained in these words, omitting what may be observed from the connection, since there is such plenty of excellent matter in the words themselves.
OBSERV. 1. The great improvement which the Holy Ghost calleth the saints to lay to heart, and the great duty which a faithful minister layeth upon his flock, is that of their own salvation. This design of the apostle in writing to his flock (such the Philippians were, see chap. iv. verse 1), and the scope of the Holy Ghost in recording it for the Church in all ages, doth make out the truth of this - a truth shining so in its own evidence, and confirmed by the scope of the whole book of God, that it were superfluous to prove it.
USE. Let it then be the subject of your most serious thoughts; and these two considerations in particular, 1. That it is salvation, a matter of highest concernment. 2. It is your own - a matter of your nearest concernment. The former claimeth evidently a superiority above worldly interests. Oh! how low are they in respect of salvation. It supposeth danger, and the greatest danger: none need salvation, but such as are lost. None can lay it to heart aright, but those who lay to heart their lost condition. "What shall I do to be saved?" the question of every serious soul, importeth both. The latter - your interest in it - calls for a superiority in concernment beyond that of others simply considered. Every one should be careful of another's soul, but more of his own soul's salvation - such suitable concernment therein, as nature's light draweth a man to what most nearly relates to himself. And that is very great, and the greatest.
OBSERV. 2. To be rightly exercised about this matter, much labour and pains is called; this is the strait gate; and that even from such as have been exercised therein diligently, as the Philippians were. This is confirmed, 1. From its importance. It is the one thing needful, and therefore our singular endeavours are called for in pursuing it. 2. From the great and mighty opposition that is made unto a man in this work, from many and strong enemies. Strong impediments in the way of an important design call for much diligence. Force is against us, and subtlety, and continuance in both by our enemies. 3. From the commonness of a mistake in this matter, that it is easy; and from want of diligence therein. "Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able." (Luke xiii. 24).
USE. What shall be said of those who have not yet begun to be exercised in this great matter? Is salvation an indifferent thing? Is it attainable without pains? Whatever diligence hath been used by any in it, continuance and increase therein are called for. Trifling endeavours are reproveable here, as unsuitable to so great and important a business.
OBSERV. 3. In diligence with this great work, much humility and sense of our own infirmity are called for, with fear and trembling. And the grounds of this are evident, if we consider ourselves, and compare ourselves with our enemies - our weakness, with the greatness of the work; or if we reflect on our former experience in verification of this. And they are evident, if comparing both, we look wisely to what is to come. Opposition of enemies constantly increaseth, and the violence of their assaults.
USE. How unreasonable is confidence in ourselves in this great work! How reproveable are proud undertakers in their own strength! This calleth for a constant remembrance of all those humbling considerations, and self-denial in that remembrance. But lest it should degenerate,
OBSERV. 4. Whatever ground of fear there be as from self, yet it is the great encouragement of the saints that the Lord is the helper in this work. The absolute sufficiency of this helper in this work, is evident, from his infinite fullness and sufficiency in himself, which is a great depth. But it may be more evident, by taking some parts of this sufficiency, and comparing it with the wants of the saints, and its perfect suitableness will appear. Infinite power is for the supply of great weakness against strong enemies; infinite wisdom, for the cure of folly in dealing with politic enemies; infinite love, for putting forth such wisdom and power for their good. And unchangeable truth is engaged by promises and oaths, that such power, wisdom, and love, shall never leave them.
USE. How reproveable are they who do not set about this work because of discouragements; and such as carry it on discouragedly!
OBSERV. 5. Entire help is given by this sufficient helper. It is not an empty title. "To will and to do" - this is actual help, and that, entirely suited to our necessity: for there are but two things necessary unto all actions, - will, and power of performance; and both are here.
USE. Learn to acknowledge him, and wait for his help entirely. Both in willing and doing, set about nothing in this work in your own strength, and doubt not of his.
OBSERV. 6. The fountain whence all this floweth is his free will and good pleasure. Of his will he begat us freely, (James i. 18); and freely he doth all.
USE. Look not to any thing of desert in yourself. Bless him for his help vouchsafed. Be not peremptory, but wait patiently, when help seemeth to be delayed. His sovereignty is to be acknowledged.
OBSERV. 7. The consideration of this entire help is a great argument to diligence.
USE. Try what ye find of the force of this, and try yourselves by it.