Someone who isn’t yet a Christ-follower complained to me about a religious group pressuring and guilting to get him to “sign up” with them. “I’m not going to be pressured into believing.”
I told him that I was sympathetic to this resistance to pressure – I don’t like anyone telling me what to do. As E.B. White said about himself – “I’m naturally not a joiner.” Furthermore, no one can be coerced into believing; he can be bullied into going through the motions, but not into the genuine thing.
But I went on: However, if I see someone walking toward a cliff – what does it matter how much pressure I apply to prevent him from falling off? Shouldn’t I do everything in my power to stop him?
And that imagery gets to the heart of things: believing in Christ isn’t the way to develop a softer side. Christ wasn’t humbled even to death on a cross so that we could be more well adjusted people. To acknowledge…now…that Christ is Lord isn’t just another good thing alongside backing up your computer and separating trash from recyclables.
No, the stakes are high. This is a matter of salvation. We were walking toward a cliff. We needed to be diverted. Rescued. We’re talking deliverance from Satan. Rescued from the wrath of God. Saved from eternal death, that is, hell.
Christians, remember the peril we were in before Christ intervened. The death of Christ AND his exaltation over all creation reminds us we’re dealing with big things…salvation things.
And not only have we been saved, we are being saved. Currently. 1 Corinthians 15: 1, 2: Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you…
We have been…saved. We are currently being…saved. Earlier in the letter to the Philippians, Paul talked about one of these “small s salvations.” Philippians 1: 18c: Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance [salvation], as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death…
The salvation that Paul sees before him isn’t eternal Salvation. Nor is it necessarily freedom from prison or physical life. But the salvation of being brought into (or kept in) the situation where Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.
That’s a good way to categorize these two types of salvation: 1) The one-time Salvation from eternal separation from God. We have been saved. 2) the ongoing salvations that make it possible for us to honor Christ. We are being saved.
And then we could add on one more tense of salvation: We will be saved. Listen to Paul in Romans 13: 11: …you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. A salvation still in front of us. The salvation from the presence of sin, from the pull of the world, from the poverty of our present spiritual experience.
So…all this to say that we are a salvation people. God’s power has been applied to us. I once was lost but now am found. We were dead in our trespasses – – but as our baptism showed – we went down into the grave with Jesus…our sin stayed there…and we were raised with Him unto life. And we are still being saved – we experience the power of God – almost never spectacularly – but God is changing us, changing things around us, providing for us, delivering us out of problems (of our making and otherwise). And we are awaiting a final salvation.
At the heart of Salvation is the crucified and exalted Christ Jesus. He is our salvation. Sin was condemned in his flesh. He is the Resurrection and Life and we’ve been united to Him. From heaven we await a Savior, Christ Jesus. We have been saved through Christ. We are being saved in union with Christ. We will be saved when Christ appears again.
As I said: we’re salvation people.
Which takes us to today’s passage, Philippians 2: 12, 13: 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.
…work out your own salvation – you wish that Paul would have spelled out what he meant by this phrase. We know he doesn’t mean work for your own salvation – that would be futile and go against the rest of Scripture. But what does he mean?
If we read carefully, we’ll understand. First, the obvious: work. Work out. This involves labor. You come to Jesus for rest, for peace, and he gives that to you partly through work. The difference is that now you’re laboring with Jesus, not against Him. Some people come into Christianity, into the Church, with the attitude: what are you going to do for me? How are you going to accommodate my specific needs? That doesn’t fit the spirit of this passage.
Second clue to what Paul means by work out your own salvation lies in the very fact that he doesn’t explain the phrase. Which indicates that this phrase is another way of saying what he has previously said in his letter. Look up to 1:27:
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents….For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had…
Now to vv. 12, 13 again:
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…
So, to work out your salvation is along the lines of your manner of life being worthy of the gospel of Christ… and that entails standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side etc.
So, working out your salvation is something you do alongside the Church; it has much to do with your engagement with the Church.
Third clue to understanding this phrase is found in the word “obey.” As you have always obeyed…work out your own salvation. So, working out your salvation involves obedience. And this makes sense because at the heart of your salvation is your confessing Jesus is Lord. And if your confessing Jesus as Lord is the heart and start of your salvation, your working out this salvation would have to involve obedience.
To summarize what I think he means, notice the first word of this sentence: THEREFORE. Paul has just come through an overview of the career of Christ Jesus: He humbled himself and then God exalted Him above every name, so that every creature will bow the knee to Him and confess that He is Lord.
THEREFORE. WORKING OUT YOUR SALVATION is the fitting response to Christ Jesus the Lord. It’s the thing that makes sense for the Church to do since we are the first stage of all creatures bowing their knee to the Savior. We are a salvation people – people who have been Saved and are being saved and will be saved – now act like a salvation people. Work at this. Figure out what this salvation was for. Learn what to do with this redeemed life. Christ Jesus has died and now been exalted – find out how that should change you.
Or, to say all that a bit more briefly: lean into this salvation, realize you’ve been saved into a community called the Church, learn deeply about salvation’s past, present, and future realities, practice living in awe of Christ Jesus, and then align your habits and priorities with those salvation realities. The sentence suggests that it’d be easy to NOT work out your salvation, to not be productive in your life in Christ.
Paul spells out one rationale by which we WOULDN’T put in the work of bearing spiritual fruit after you’ve tasted God’s salvation: things have changed. For the Philippians the change was that Paul – who had planted this church and been their spiritual father – has gone away. Our leader is gone; no one is pushing us anymore.
It’s easy – without even realizing it – to coast in our Christianity and let other people carry the weight. If you grow up in a Christian home you can get used to your parents kinda taking the helm of your spiritual life. You adopt their faith, their principles and scruples, you buy into (or at least go along with) their choices regarding the pursuit of God and engagement with the Church. And from the outside people can be so impressed with how well behaved and spiritually earnest these kids are. But hold on – their parents are actually doing the hard work and they’re merely drafting their parents.
And then they leave the house, head off to college or start their own household. And then it becomes clear: they had never owned this faith. They had been leaning on their parents and never developed the skill of listening to God, of going to Him with their problems. They had always considered Church as kinda catering to them, instead of learning that these are a people to serve and to whom to be accountable.
Young brothers and sisters: it’ll come time for you to deal with God apart from your parents and your current spiritual leaders. I think of old Jacob, whose grandfather was Abraham and his father Isaac. Legends! Jacob’s name was turned into “Israel.” What does “Israel” mean? He wrestles with God. Jacob himself met God and said (as it were) to Him: This isn’t about my grandpa. I’m going to deal with You. You’re going to deal with me. I will not let you go until You bless me.
It was the most obvious thing about him, discerned even by the way he limped around: here is someone who himself has met with God.
We were at the church in Newton, MA for 16 years. And that church was also a resuscitation. Which means when we arrived there were 7 souls there, and the building and grounds were in disrepair. For the most part, if something was going to get done, I was going to have to do it. So I did the landscaping, my family cleaned the building – I had my hands in everything!
Then people came to the church. Including families. Evangelical Baptist Church, with Colin at the helm, became the backdrop for people’s kids growing up through elementary and middle school and high school. One’s family memories were bound up with the church and its pastor. 16 years: That’s a long time for people to listen to the same voice explaining the Word of God to them. You grow accustomed to that voice. I knew people, knew their tendencies, knew some of their secrets, had seen many of them cry. They knew me, had come to the place where they accepted my shortcomings. 16 years.
At the church we had the practice of memorizing a passage of Scripture every month. One of the older men of the church chose the passage. The month before I left after 16 years among that congregation, guess what passage he chose for us to memorize? Philippians 2: 12-18.
The leader leaves, the mentor moves away, your friends are no longer close by, your situation changes and it feels like all the wind has gone out of your sails. The tendency is to live in the past, to let nostalgia take over. And to give up on the present. To back off. I don’t even know what it would look like to work out salvation without this person around.
But then is the time to buckle down. Now more than ever to take the initiative in working out your salvation. What does it look like to own your faith?
1) To repeat: take initiative. If you are without a mentor, if there’s not a lot of inspiration around you – don’t let that cripple you. Did you notice what Paul said: much more in my absence. Take responsibility for your life in Christ. Read books on theology. Read Christian biographies Watch sermons on YouTube. Make a prayer plan and pray. Teach your children. Have Christians into your home. Don’t whine but take charge. Don’t rely on the faith of your parents or your teachers but own your faith. Don’t go through the motions. Go home and ask yourself: what needs to change.
2) Which takes us to the next point. Be aware. We might have missed this subtle point, but I think this is where the emphasis falls on this passage: not work out your salvation but work out your own salvation. Your own.
Yes, throughout the globe God is saving people, and generally speaking, His salvation takes a uniform look: bringing people to believe His Son, the humble and exalted Christ Jesus.
But also consider this: every congregation, every individual Christian, has a unique experience of their own of God’s past and present salvation. Turn to Acts 16 and you’ll see that the church in Philippi had a unique origin story, including a business woman, an exorcism of a child, an earthquake, a jailer’s conversion. That church was uniquely positioned within in a Roman colony to bear witness to the gospel of Christ Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar. That specific Church had unique challenges where they’d need God’s present help, unique opportunities to demonstrate that God in Christ is the God.
So, part of working out our salvation is keeping our eyes open and being alert to the unique way God has worked in your Church and worked in your life…and then working out from those realities. Some of you have grown up in a Christian home devoted to serving Christ…you’ve grown up around good teaching…to whom much is given much shall be required…use this solidness to bring solidness into the Church that has so much flimsiness.
Somers Baptist Church is the only evangelical Church in Somers. For some reason God preserved this Church, answered prayers over the years, saved…for such a time as this. As this town’s only witness to an inerrant Bible wherein Christ speaks to each of His sheep, we have a unique opportunity.
What does God have for you?
You should really watch Chariots of Fire. Eric Liddel is a runner who has aspirations to become a Christian minister. His sister, Jenny, wants him to return to his roots in China, to be a missionary. There’s a great scene in the highlands of Scotland where he’s talking with Jenny. He tells her he plans to return to China. But first, he’s going to try to make the Olympic team. He tells her, “God has made me fast…and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
Similarly, God has saved us and given us a specific calling. We feel at home in some service or other. Some of you love teaching children. Some of you sense that God has formed you to be an encourager. Or, you love speaking with unbelievers about the gospel. Or, you’re a natural at conversing with people and making them feel at home. When you help the Church administratively, you “feel God’s pleasure.”
Church, don’t rely on big name churches to do the work of the gospel. Young people, don’t let the older generation bear the load. Everyone, don’t pine for your old church or sniffle that your beloved pastor has left or wait for an inspiring leader to make your faith alive again. God has something for this generation to do. For you to do. Now.
Use your specific testimony of salvation(s) to advance the cause of Christ. Find a way to employ your particular gifts for the Church that God placed you among. Figure out what this Church is for, what you are for, what time it is. Work out your own salvation.
3) Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. That is, take this work seriously.
What are the elements of this seriousness: 1) Give attention to these things. Sustained attention. Don’t get emotionally worked up and then distracted.
2) Details. The Medieval Christians. The Puritans. They were great for hashing out the details of obedience. We should learn this too. I will ponder the way that is blameless (Psalm 101:2)
For instance: We buy into the true idea that the Christian life is a Life Together. We think, I want to be hospitable, regularly have Christians into my home for a meal or coffee. How often? How will you fund this? What will you talk about? Are there books to read that will give tips? What are meals that work well? Big groups or small groups? Where will we sit?
Or: you buy into the idea that you need to know Christ better. Reading is a key. When you sit down to read you grow sleepy. You know this has something to do with your food consumption. Which foods help, which hurt? You get the idea. Approaching the issue of gluttony with fear and trembling.
Fear and trembling: Attention. Details. 3) Willingness to be extreme. Not most of the time, perhaps never, but sometimes, for the sake of obedience, for the sake of working out the implications of your salvation, for the sake of playing your part well in this salvation play, you have to get weird. If your right hand offends you, cut it off. Sometimes you have to do hard, extreme things, things that will have the crowd saying you’re off your rocker, in order to obey.
Benedict was a fifth century Christian who found himself giving into the temptation to lust after a certain woman. One day he was imagining her and burned with lust. I’ll let a biographer take over:
But, suddenly assisted with God’s grace, he came to himself; and seeing many thick briers and thorn bushes to grow hard by, off he cast his apparel, and threw himself into the midst of them, and there wallowed so long that, when he rose up, all his flesh was pitifully torn. So, by the wounds of his body, he cured the wounds of his soul, in that he turned pleasure into pain, and by the outward burning of extreme pain, quenched that fire which, being nourished before with the fuel of carnal cogitations, inwardly burned in his soul: and by this means he overcame the sin…
Now please, talk to me before you go to such measures, but obedience in fear and trembling might sometimes involves taking extreme measures. In the service of fighting lust, you might have to go without a smart phone. In the service of financial self- control, you might should hand over your credit card to your spouse.
Work out your salvation: 1) take initiative; 2) work out your own salvation; 3) with fear and trembling. One final way to work out your salvation is spelled out in v. 13
[Understand that] it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
Be in awe. Paul may or may not be with the Philippians, but in the end that’s not crucial. They need to understand that God Himself is among them. He is working. Working a lot. In fact, when the Church wants to do the right thing, that is God working in their minds, in their spirits. And when they follow through on the good they want to do, that is God bridging that knowing-doing gap.
Why do we believe? Why do we keep believing? Why do we make sacrifices for the sake of Christ? We had a men’s dinner on Tuesday, and that was ultimately in the service of the gospel and the Church, and there was a lot of work going into that.
Even before anybody showed up for that event, we should thank God for the work that went into it. Because that was God working in folks both to want to do the work and then actually to do the work. God is here. God is alive.
Young people – you are growing up in Christendom, and maybe you see no miracles. Maybe there aren’t a bunch of charismatic, exciting people in church. Few fireworks and stirring experiences. But you see your parents reading the Scripture. Giving to the church. Faithfully engaging with the people of the Church, helping people with meals. Going out of their way. You’re growing up in the Presence of God.
That’s why we should take this work of the gospel among the Church seriously, because God is here. Remember, God has highly exalted Christ so that every knee should bow before Him. And so if we have bowed the knee to Christ, that can mean only one thing: God is here.
So, tremble, Church. Don’t be secular, casual, wise in your own eyes. Take off your shoes, you’re on holy ground. Look around at these Christ worshipers. God has done this. God has acted on them. Look at this building – clean, lawn mowed. God is here. Look at this Church, 55 years old. God has saved.
And now…let’s align our habits, our labors, our resources with our salvation, with what God has done, is doing, will do. Let’s be grateful for His work in the past, for leaders who spoke the word of God to us, but then let’s not rest on His past work. Let’s own our faith. Let’s work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.