The issue of predestination and free will has confused Christians throughout history. From God’s viewpoint, we are predestined because he is timeless and he sees our life, from beginning to end, in its entirety, all at once. For God, time is merely a dimension, like length. It is fully laid out before him. That is why Jesus, even thought he was born in a particular moment in time, is “the first born of all creation” (Col. 1:15) That is how “He was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:2) Time does not progress from one moment to the next like it does for us. He sees it all at once. Of course he knows how we will turn out and who will be his children. So for him, he “foreknew” (Rom. 8:29) our futures. From our viewpoint, however, we don’t know how we will turn out. As a creature walking along this timeline, we can turn left or right. So we have free will.
The difficult passage concerning predestination and free will occurs in Philippians Chapter 2. “Therefore, my beloved, as you have 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.” (Phil. 2:12-13) How can we work out our own salvation if it is God who works in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure? To understand this verse, we must parallel this verse with “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) Working out our own salvation simply means not exerting our own will. We must be dead, crucified with Christ, so we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. “Abide in me, and I in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he is it that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5) When we “willingly” abide in Christ, surrendering all to him, he exerts his will through us, working for his good pleasure. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Heb. 4:7) Only then does God work in us, both the willing and the working for his good pleasure, so we can “Be anxious for nothing.” (Phi. 4:6) This is Psalms 51:10-13 where we must be passive before God can make us active (explained in the blog “Why?”). “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psa. 51:16-17) The greatest challenge for Christians today is to have a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart both towards God and towards each other. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Rom. 12:1) When we offer everything to him by prayer and supplication (Phi. 4:6), including our bodies as a living sacrifice, we will be holy and acceptable to God. That is our spiritual worship.
When we look at the passage in context in Philippians 2, Christ shows us the example of humbling himself. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even the death on a cross.” (Phi. 2:5-8) Though Christ Jesus was in the form of God, was equal to God, he emptied himself, humbling himself by taking a human form and died for us, remaining obedient to God the Father. “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” (Phi. 2:12) by ‘following’ Christ’s example by surrendering our wills. That is why Paul uses the word, ‘Therefore’ and ‘so now,’ to relate back to the previous passage. We need to be emptying ourselves and humbling ourselves by realizing Christ. Paul is telling the saints in Philippi who have ‘always obeyed,’ they should ‘follow’ Christ’s example now. When we empty ourselves, surrendering our will to him, God is able to exert his will through us. “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phi. 2:12) Do you not know it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure? “Do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2 Cor. 13:5) Everything is resolved, including our sinful nature, when we realize Christ is living in us as he is willing and working within us. When we surrender our will to God, we will realize it is God who works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. God wants to express his will through us so when we work, it is him who is working for his good pleasure. This is what happened to Paul in the next chapter of Philippians. He had to “put no confidence in the flesh — though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, blameless.” (Phi. 3:3-5) All those things that we consider so right in our lives, that gives us confidence in the flesh, we have to count loss for the sake of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phi. 3:7-8) Whatever we can do for God, is not as important as the surpassing worth of knowing him. He is transferring our humanity, relying on our own strength, willing and working by our own ability, to his divinity, relying on Christ alone, willing and working by the Spirit who is at work in us. “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” (Col. 1:13) We become dependent on him because we realize we cannot be divine ourselves. As we establish a dependence on Christ, realizing not only what he has done for us on the cross but the working of his Spirit in us today, a relationship of love for him will grow more and more. Our love for him outweighs all that we can do ‘right’ for him. It has to be God who works in us to will and to work for his good pleasure. “Abide in me, and I in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5) Our ‘work’ in the flesh will not withstand God’s test by fire. (1 Cor. 3:12-16) Love will. Christ will.
“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” (Phi. 3:8-9) For the sake of gaining Christ, realize we need to surrender all things to him and count them rubbish. Every moment in our lives when someone looks for us, we should be found in him. This only happens when we love him so intensely that all our hearts, all our souls, all our strength, and all our minds, (Luke 10:27; Mat. 22:37) are focused on him. This can only happen through the Spirit who dwells in us. Then it is not our ‘work’ that gives us our righteousness, it is the righteousness from God that depends on faith. We do not have a righteousness of our own based on the ‘good’ that we do, our righteousness comes from God based on how much Christ is realized in us — how much God wills and works through us. The realization of Christ will lead to his working through us. Today, we do not realize fully the Christ that is in us, but we are trying by surrendering ourselves to him, in hopes “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phi. 3:10-11) In our daily life, we are sharing in his sufferings, humbling ourselves like him in his death so others may have the divine life. “Always carrying in this body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Cor. 4:10) “So death is at work in us, but life in you,” (2 Cor. 4:12) By any means possible, we may also realize Christ’s resurrection power working through us, transforming us so that, “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.” (1 Cor. 15:42-44) “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way.” (Phi. 3:13-15)
Surrendering our wills to God’s will is what we are ‘straining’ for today. We have to forget all that we have known, all our routines, practises, and even ways of thinking, that have somehow become ritualized, to serve a living and active God who is living inside of us. We should have a freshness of love for him, as if it is the first time we are knowing him. We have not “left [our] first love.” (Rev. 2:4) We ourselves cannot do this. Only Christ has done this. Actually we cannot even submit our wills to God’s will. Only Christ is obedient to the Father. “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth.” (Isa. 53:7) Realize it is Christ who is working in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. That is why the first offering by the children of Israel is the burnt offering — every part of the animal, every bit of its being, is completely offered to God as a pleasing aroma to him. (Lev. 1) Christ, the all-powerful God, emptied himself completely by become a man, humbling himself to die on the cross for our sins so we may live. None of us has this level of obedience to God and love for God and man. Christ said, “I can do nothing on my own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and my judgement is just, because I do not seek my own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” (John 5:30; see John 6:38; 8:29; Heb. 10:5-10) Realize now that it is Christ, God himself, who is now working in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. This is how we work out our own salvation. This reality is true for us individually and corporately. Guard against doing things out of routine. This is how “we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5:7) So this passage in Philippians 2 is not a conflict.
Our life on this earth is only a brief moment in time. God sees it all at once because we are finite. The natural body will perish, but our spiritual body is infinite. People who pass away prematurely has simply been “called home” earlier in time. So it is the spiritual part of our beings that needs to be taken care of, while we’re still on this earth in our natural bodies, as we don’t know when our natural bodies will be cut off from us. Yet, how we take care of our spirit now has eternal consequences, whether we live eternally in the enjoyment of Christ or whether we are “tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev. 20:10) If we can wrap our minds around what is infinite as merely a dimension, which is really difficult to do because we are finite, the significance of our brief moment in time takes on extreme importance as it stands above time. Infinity is nothing but God in everything. That is why the largeness of our universe is nothing, a nothingness to God. Yet the smallest of every human being is something, something precious to God. That is why “even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Luke 12:7; Mat. 10:30) To do this is nothing for an infinite God. But that is how precious we are to him. That is why “He is before all, and all things subsist together by him.” (Col.1:17) “He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.” (1 Pet. 1:20 – NIV) That is why, how we live on this earth in so important. That is why we need God. That is why the first commandment is “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exo. 20:2; Deut. 5:7) We need Christ in us as our hope of glory. (Col.1:27)