The word synergy has not played well in Reformed circles. God is seen as the active partner in our lives, and we are the passive ones. But is that Paul's understanding? Could it be that Paul understood us as having a role to play in "working out our own salvation"? Bruce Epperly's reading of Philippians suggests that Paul believed that the partnership/interdependence of God and humanity may have been stronger than some of us have been led to believe. I invite you to explore Philippians in this fourth installment of Bruce's series based on his new study guide.
Philippians – 4 –
Paul’s Spiritual Synergy –
Bruce G. Epperly
“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.” (NRSV)
“Strive for wholeness and beauty in this life and the next with awe and excitement, for God is moving in and through your life, giving you energy and imagination to seek God’s vision.” (my paraphrase)
Paul has been typically interpreted as the apostle of reformed theology. Augustine, Luther, and Calvin celebrated the Christian’s freedom from law and sin. They believed that God’s grace is irresistible in spite of our sinfulness. If God wants to save us, we are saved entirely apart from our works. We can be free in relationship to humans, but are totally passive in relationship to God. God does everything and we do nothing in terms of what really matters – our salvation. Any efforts on our part are “works righteousness,” and an affront to God. Our creativity in things spiritual is a fall from grace.
While Paul is certainly the apostle of grace, Philippians 2:12-13 suggests that Paul’s theology may be closer to the much maligned “heretic” Pelagius than the “orthodox” Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. Despite his strong sense of God’s grace in human life, most especially his own experience, Paul may have a forerunner of the Arminian and Wesleyan theological perspectives as well as contemporary process theology.
Just as theologians have neglected the universalism of Philippians 2:5-11, they have also overlooked Paul’s synergy of grace and freedom, and call and response. Paul clearly states that we have a role in experiencing wholeness and salvation. Nothing could be clearer than Paul’s words, “work out your salvation.” Following God’s path is serious business. While grace transforms lives, we cannot take it for granted, assuming that God will do everything and we can just passively wait for God’s will to come about in our lives and the world.
Paul is equally clear that salvation and wholeness is not initially or primarily our work. He proclaims that “God is at work in you, enabling you to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.” God’s grace is prior, powerful, and transformative. God calls and we respond. Our responses do not limit God’s grace but ratify and expand God’s graceful movements in our lives and the world.
The problem with most theological commentaries on Philippians 2:12-13 is that they see God and us as separate entities, rather than interdependent realities. The divine-human interdependence is clear in Philippians 2:13: “for it is God who is at work in you.” God is not an outside force but the deepest reality of our lives, moving within us to inspire growth and the realization of God’s shalom. Paul is clear that God’s presence is interwoven with our own: “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:25) I take this to mean that God moves through the unconscious and conscious minds, and that we can never fully distinguish between God’s creativity and our own. Grace is prior to our response, a wellspring of possibilities and energies, but grace invites us to activity and responsibility. Grace does not compete, it inspires and energizes.
Paul affirms a divine-human synergy in which our openness to God’s grace in the form of forgiveness, acceptance, and possibility increase our freedom to choose to follow God’s path in our own unique way. God presents us with a vision of what we can do with our freedom, and then inspires us to follow God’s vision as only we can do. Romans 12:2 captures the lively synergy of call and response, vision and action, that is the heart of Christian freedom: “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” God’s will is ethical, spiritual, and inspirational, not coercive or domineering. Rather than creating the events of life, God’s will is often at contrast with our values as well as the realities of disease, trauma, and tsunami. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10) is clearly not about divine control or determinism, but something much more important, God’s vision of shalom and wholeness and our calling to embrace God’s way in our world.
Grace abounds, yes! But, in the spirit of Philippians 2;5-11, grace does not dominate, destroy, or determine. Grace gives birth to partnerships with humankind for the sake of healing the world. When we stand on our feet, taking responsibility for our actions and creating (albeit imperfectly) in positive ways, we are fulfilling rather than challenging God’s sovereignty and vision for the world. We are partners in the synergy of grace.