God’s Sovereignty and Our Willpower

Because God is working in us, we can trust him to fuel us for his mission.

“. . . for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13 ESV)

When I was younger, I viewed the low fuel light in my car not as a warning but as a challenge: how far can I make it?

Only once did I miscalculate, ending up stuck in the street with an empty gas tank and my girlfriend sitting shotgun. Our date night had been ruined, but it could have been much worse; we were within walking distance of her dormitory, and in the end, she still married me.

We all know the sinking sensation of reaching the end of ourselves—whether on the road, in our bank accounts, or in managing our busy schedules. Yet the Christian life is fueled by resources that are infinitely renewable.

As we have seen, Paul’s concern in Philippians is that his readers would strive for the faith. In chapter 2, Paul exhorts his readers to obey even in his absence—to “work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling” (v. 12). Now he supplies the reason for such fear: “For it is God who works in you” (emphasis mine). Paul motivates the Philippians not with a threat of judgment but with the astonishing reality that it is God himself at work within them.

Salvation is, above all, a work of God. It is monergistic (from mono, “one,” and ergos, “work”), meaning that it is God’s work alone and no one else’s. God saves with no human help. “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:63a).

Yet divine initiative is no license for human passivity. “God works in you,” the apostle specifies, “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:13). Two parties are engaged in the believer’s sanctification; the believer “works out” (katergazesthe, v. 12), yet God is the one “working” (energōn) such that the believer would also work. This is paradoxical but not contradictory. We are not told the precise manner of God’s work but only its causal relation to ours. The Spirit blows where he will; we can only directly perceive his effects (John 3:8).

God’s work precedes not only our work but our very will behind it. Paul makes no distinction; God effects both “the willing and the doing” (v. 13b literally translated). How? Jonathan Edwards aptly summarized: “Man is, in different senses, entirely active, and entirely passive: God producing all, and we acting all. God is the only proper author, we the only proper actors.” God is sovereign over all things, including the heart and mind (Proverbs 21:1). He hardens some hearts and has mercy on others (Romans 9:18). We only love him because he first loved us (1 John 4:19) and caused us to be born again (1 Peter 1:3).

Far from excusing us from responsibility, God’s sovereignty means we must “be all the more diligent to confirm [our] calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10). And when God indeed changes our hearts, we are free to run in the course set by his commands (Psalm 119:32). This all takes place in accord with God’s “good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13b)—that is, God’s delight in showing us grace.

Finally, we must note that each “you” in verse 13 is plural. Paul is teaching that God works obedience in the hearts not only of individuals but also of the Philippian church. Following our Lord’s commands is not a solo sport. Together, as the body of Christ, God is producing obedience in us, working his good pleasure in us, and using us on his mission.

Knowing that God is at work in us should lead us to reverent awe. To think that the God of the universe would condescend to work in our hearts should astonish us. Returning to our earlier analogy, this knowledge should lead us to apply the gas in our obedience to Christ, knowing that he will continue to supply us with desire and capacity. After all, we have been given all things which pertain to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). God will surely empower us for his mission too. Let us thus be about the work of our gracious Lord who works in us.


Heavenly Father,

I tremble with fear and awe at the thought that you would stoop so low as to work in my sinful heart. I thank you that I have been born again and that each day you are changing my heart more and more. Help me to comply with this work and deepen in my obedience to you, trusting that you will always supply what I lack. Have your way in me this day.

In Jesus’ name,


Prayer Requests:

  1. Pray for a solemn, worshipful recognition of God’s presence working in your heart, your household, and your church community. Ask God to work obedience in you more and more.
  2. Pray that God would effect “willing and working” in you for his mission—that he would give you desires, opportunity, and ability to proclaim Christ to others.
  3. Pray that church plants on the mission field would together deepen in their desire and initiative in serving Christ together as a body.
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