The last semester before graduation, a distinguished scholar visits a group of “straight-A” students. He is impressed with their performance so far, and he has every confidence in their professor’s ability to lead them successfully to graduation.
With this in mind, he gives a speech including the following words:
I am grateful every time I think about you. I have spoken with your professor, rejoicing in the good study habits you have demonstrated from the first day of your education until now. Your professor himself is a distinguished scholar, and I have every confidence that he who began teaching you in your first class four years ago, will successfully bring you to the completion of this course you are now taking. In three short months, you will finish the race, and you will be graduates.
This scholar is confident that these students will succeed,
and will ultimately receive their diplomas.
But why is he confident?
Is he confident because this professor successfully brings
all students to graduation, without exception?
Of course not.
He is confident for two reasons:
- He knows the professor is perfectly capable of teaching the necessary material.
- He sees the track-record of these particular students. They have already demonstrated excellent study habits. So he has no reason to expect failure now.
That does mean he has excellent reasons to be confident in their ultimate success.
That does not mean these students can throw all caution to the wind, stop studying, engage in parties for the remainder of the semester, and still gain their diplomas.
So it is with the confidence St. Paul displays on behalf of the faithful Christians in Philippi:
I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:3-6)
St. Paul is confident for two reasons:
- Paul knows that God is perfectly capable of saving faithful Christians,
conforming them to the likeness of Christ.
- Paul sees the track-record of these particular Christians. They have already demonstrated their “fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now”,
so Paul has no reason to expect failure at this point.
That does mean that Paul has excellent reasons for expecting the final salvation of these people.
That does not mean it would be safe for them to throw all caution to the wind. If they want to see heaven, they need to continue persevering in the faith, demonstrating the same faithfulness in the future, that they have already shown in the past.
Some people outside the Church have made much of the word “complete” in the passage of Scripture above. Calvinist Protestants will inform you that this word in Greek is ἐπιτελέω, and that it means “to perfect”, “to complete”, “to accomplish” and “to bring to an end”. As their argument goes, Philippians 1:6 is an ironclad promise that God will definitely bring all true Christians to salvation, regardless of whether they cooperate with Him or not.
But when people argue this way, they forget two important things:
- Paul’s confidence is based both on God’s ability, and also on the track-record of faithfulness which the Philippian Christians already demonstrated. God’s abilities will not change. But will the faithfulness of the Philippians change? That is up to them.
- Philippians is not the only place in Scripture where St. Paul uses this particular Greek word. In the book of 2 Corinthians, he uses the same word ἐπιτελέω in reference to the final perfection and salvation of Christians. Except in this case, the passage is not focused on God’s actions. Rather, Paul focuses on the actions which Christians must themselves practice, if they want to be finally saved:
“Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord.
Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.”
“I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.”
Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting (ἐπιτελέω) holiness in the fear of God. (2 Corinthians 6:17-7:1)
Like Philippians 1:6, our final perfection, sanctification, and salvation in heaven is in view. And in this case, we are told what we must do.
If we want to make it across the finish line, if we want to be conformed to the image of Christ, then let us cleanse ourselves, as Scripture has said. It is our responsibility.
Of course, we cannot take credit for our spiritual success.
God is still the one who ultimately does the good work in us.
St. John Chrysostom, in his commentary on Philippians 1:6, does a good job explaining how God and man work together in this context:
See how he teaches them to be modest. Having just given them a superb testimonial, in order that they should not feel down and out as human beings are so apt to feel, he immediately teaches them to refer both the past and the future—everything—to Christ, who will bring to completion what he has begun in them. He does not take away anything from their achievement, for he has said, “I rejoice because of your fellowship,” obviously pointing to their own very high level of accountability. But he does not imply that the achievement was theirs alone. Rather it was primarily God’s work in them. (St. John Chrysostom, Homily on Philippians)
As St. Augustine said in reference to the Philippians 1:6 passage:
When we will the deed, He cooperates with us.
(St. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will)
We cannot be saved without God’s work in us.
And God will not save us without our cooperation.
This is the mystery of synergy.