Isn’t the gospel an invitation for us to come to Jesus to receive his gracious, priceless, yet free gift of salvation? Yes:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)
Isn’t the gospel an invitation for us to come to Jesus to be relieved of our souls’ burdens and receive his incomparable rest? Yes:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Then how do we reconcile these wonderful, comforting statements of gospel passivity with the following exhortations to rigorous, uncomfortable gospel action?
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24–25)
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you. (Colossians 3:5)
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)
Let us therefore strive to enter [God’s] rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience [as Moses’s generation]. (Hebrews 4:11)
Strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord [and] see to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God. (Hebrews 12:14–15)
Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called. (1 Timothy 6:12)
How can the passive receiving of God’s “inexpressible gift” of grace (2 Corinthians 9:15), which Jesus purchased fully for us through his atoning work (Romans 3:23–24; Ephesians 2:8–9; Galatians 6:14), in order to liberate us from our own hopeless works so that by faith we can rest in Christ (Matthew 11:28–30; Romans 11:6; Galatians 3:2–3), demand our active “straining” and “press[ing] on to make it [our] own” (Philippians 3:12–14)?
If salvation is God’s gracious free gift to us and is “not a result of [our] works,” why do we need to “work out [our] salvation”? Is this just the Bible speaking out both sides of its mouth?
No. We are simply encountering a genius of staggering proportions — the paradoxical design of our redemption. If we examine it carefully, we will see the peculiar, self-authenticating, revelatory glory of God in this plan of salvation, a plan which humans would not think to invent (and never have in any man-made religion).
Let me just highlight one aspect of this glory. Though we are saved by God’s unconditional, electing grace (Ephesians 1:4; 2:5), through the free gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8), the works our faith produces prove that our faith is real (James 2:18). Faith is the free gift of election; works are evidence of that election.
That’s why on one hand Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father . . . draws him” (John 6:44) — the free gift of election — and on the other hand he says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15) — the evidence of election. He ties both together when he says, “My sheep hear my voice (election), and I know them, and they follow me (evidence)” (John 10:27).
The genius of God’s design here is seen in some of Jesus’s parables. He says that when the gospel net is cast into the sea of the world, it “gather[s] fish of every kind” (Matthew 13:47), some righteous and some evil. The visible church is always a mixed catch, or always has weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24–30), or always has goats among the sheep (Matthew 25:31–46). What distinguishes the elect from the others is their God-given faith demonstrated by their God-dependent works (James 2:14–26; 1 John 3:10). Faith works through love (Galatians 5:6).
Words are cheap. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
Make Your Election Sure
There is so much more glory to seen in this brilliant, paradoxical design of God’s free gift of saving grace manifesting itself through our will and works (Philippians 2:13)! We could explore how it displays God’s wisdom and power in ways completely unanticipated by proud human beings (1 Corinthians 1:27–31; 2:8), or how it bears public witness to the reality and gospel of Jesus (John 13:35), or how it strengthens our God-gifted faith, increases our joy in God, and sanctifies us (James 1:2–4; Hebrews 12:11). But those are for other articles.
There is no contradiction in the gospel invitations to passively receive God’s free gift of salvation and in the gospel exhortations that we press on to make this gift our own. Our works are not decisive in our salvation. They are evidence of God’s saving work in us.
And that is why we must “be all the more diligent to confirm [our] calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10) by working out our salvation with fear and trembling.