Many hold to such a view of God’s sovereignty that man’s choices and actions end up being null and futile. Others go too far in the other direction that they’re left with a God who at best is involved only when and to whatever degree we allow Him to be.
I believe the Bible clearly rejects both conclusions. Our God reveals Himself to be sovereign over all things (Eph 1:11; Isa 45:5-7), and still He commands us to act and holds us responsible for our choices (Josh 24:15; Acts 17:30).
Yet there is a deeper truth still; we as Christians owe our obedience to Him. It would be a mistake to say that God is doing 50% of the work and we have to do the rest, or that God only works in us when we allow Him. In fact, Paul says the very opposite:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always 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.
— Philippians 2:12-13
It’s clear that Paul wanted the Philippians to know that their obedience and even their desire for obedience both come from God. Every ‘success’ we have in obedience should result in our gratefulness for Him working in us.
An illustration that I often use in my classes might be helpful here. You are walking near to a cliff (as you do) and you stumble and fall, fortunately grasping onto the edge before you fall to your death. You feel your fingers slipping, and start to panic, but suddenly a strong hand grabs hold of you. You look up and before you is the strongest man you’ve ever seen holding on to you. He says,
Don’t worry, I’ve got hold of you and I won’t hold on to you any stronger than you’re holding on to me.
That’s not much of a relief! What good is his strength or his promise to help if he limits them both to our strength? I believe the same is true with God. He is not limiting Himself to our ability to serve Him; in fact He is the strong man pulling us up into obedience!
However, this information should not inspire laziness, but motivate us! What a fuel for our obedience to know that we have the very Living God working in us through His Spirit to obey Him.
This is the promise of the New Covenant that we now experience:
And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
— Ezekiel 36:27
This is Paul’s experience also:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
–1 Corinthians 15:10
God has not forgiven us and then left us to do the rest. He loves us too much.