That's A Good Question
Larry Ray Hafley
"Send all questions to the writer of this column."
From Nigeria: "Will you reconcile Rom. 4:5 with Phil. 2:12?"
Rom. 4:5 says, "But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." Phil. 2:12 says, "Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." These texts are in two different contexts. Essentially they do not need to be harmonized or reconciled for they are not contradictory.
"Worketh" Versus "Worketh Not"
In Rom. 4, Paul is reviewing what "the Scriptures saith." Was Abraham justified by works; that is, was Abraham justified by perfect obedience to law? No, he was not (Rom. 4:3). Whom did David say would be blessed? Did David say the blessed are those who never sin? No, David described the blessed man as the forgiven man (Rom. 4:6-8). God makes one righteous by faith, not by works (Rom. 4:11). Justification is by the system of faith. It is not "through the law," or by works of perfect obedience.
In Rom. 4:4, 5, Paul is not saying, "But to him that obeyeth not, his faith is counted for righteousness." Rather, he is stating a fact. He is not making an argument. He is enunciating a simple truth. The one who sins, the one who depends upon God for forgiveness, that is the one that "worketh not." If the one who has sinned believes on God, "his faith is counted for righteousness." His works cannot avail, for he has sinned. If he had never sinned, his works would obtain the reward of justification. God would owe it to him to declare him righteous in His sight. Only to one who never sinned would God owe salvation. So, the one who "worketh" is the one who never has sinned. The one who "wvorketh not" is the transgressor who must rely on God for righteousness. If he is forgiven, it is a matter of grace, not debt. His faith is the means by which God declares him righteous.
Whatever terms or conditions God sets forth can never alter the fact that forgiveness is a matter of grace. Again, the man who "worketh" is the man who never sins. The man who "worketh not" is the sinner who cannot depend upon perfect obedience for righteousness.
In Phil. 2, Paul encourages those who have obtained "the righteousness which is of God by faith" to continue in their salvation which is maintained by obedient faith (cf. Phil. 1:6, 7; 2:12; 3:9). Paul does not say, "Work out your own means of being made righteous." This would contradict Romans 4:4, 5. Consider Abraham. He was not justified by works. He was justified by faith. His faith was a working, obedient faith (Jas. 2:21-24; Rom. 4:12). Abraham did not keep a law perfectly. He sinned. When he did, his forgiveness became a matter of grace and faith, not of debt and works. His faith, which was counted unto him for righteousness, was a faith which was obedient (cf. Gen. 12:1-4; Heb. 11:8; Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:4, 5).
Note The Romans
The Romans illustrate this point. They were sinners. They were not justified by works. They were justified by grace, faith, and the blood of Christ (Rom. 3:24; 5:1; 5:9). Still, their response to God's system of justification had to be an obedient one (Rom. 1:5; 6:17; 18; 16:26). Then, "your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world" (Rom. 1:8). "For your obedience is come abroad unto all men" (Rom. 16:19). The obedience of this passage is parallel to the works of Phil. 2:12. Under the system of justification by grace without works, one must be obedient, working out his own salvation with reverence and awe (Eph. 2:8-10; Phil. 2:12).
Truth Magazine XXI: 38, p. 594