Work Out Your Own Salvation
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Philippians

Work Out Your Own Salvation

Philippians 2:12-18

One of the great divisions of Christendom is that between Protestant and Roman Catholic. It is so long past now that it seems to be insuperable; perhaps to mankind it is. But it is well that we realize that the division was not made lightly. It was made over two principles:

  • Sola fide – the principle that we are saved only by faith, through grace.
  • Sola Scriptura – the principle that only the Scripture has the authority to tell the church what Christ commands.

Of the second we shall say nothing this morning, but we shall presume it. The first, however, merits some little discussion when we see this morning’s passage:

(Phil 2:12-18 NIV) Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed--not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence--continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, {13} for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. {14} Do everything without complaining or arguing, {15} so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe {16} as you hold out the word of life--in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing. {17} But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. {18} So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.

Faith and Works

If you place a Roman Catholic and an ardent Fundamentalist in the same room and let things fly, you will eventually notice that both will set up a straw man of their opponents position – and demolish. Interestingly, those who are not theologically inclined might have the better of the argument here. For while the theoretical difficulties between the two positions are indeed grave, the practical aspects are perhaps less in doubt:

  • Faith without works is dead. So says St. James, so say both debaters. One views it as an essential element, the other as a natural outcome of living faith. But both agree: if your faith is real and living, it will produce good works.
  • Reward is to be distinguished from salvation. When reading the Scripture we must be careful of context. If the passage is talking about blessings in heaven, we must not confuse that with salvation. Reward for good works is also a common ground.
  • God provides a task and gift for each Christian. This implies a responsibility to do something with that gift, namely that task. Our Lord makes this clear in the parable of the Talents.
  • Growth in the faith comes, at least in part, by works. If you are not performing the works of the Lord, you are not growing in the faith. But if you are growing in the faith, you cannot help but grow in the works you perform.
  • There is also a sense of works as the completion of faith. That is the sense used here; the good ship Faith is launched by Grace, but fitted out by Works – for whatever purpose God might have.

This is what Paul is talking about here.

Fitting out the faith

The phrase for “work out” in this passage – there is a surprising uniformity in translation here, given the many ways this word is translated elsewhere – carries with it the sense of accomplishing a goal, finishing a task or producing a result. The key concept is this: this verse is not telling you to work your way into heaven. That’s grace; that’s God’s part. It is telling you that you have work to do, and you need to finish God’s work in you – by works.

The word carries with it the meaning of diligence and hard work. It is as if Paul is telling the Philippians – and remember he is talking to mature Christians – that they must finish the job. Since God started the job, it would seem to be a formidable task – indeed, impossible for us. How could we finish what God starts?

But Paul tells us that too! He tells us that “God works” –

  • God works – and therefore we can. If God were not working in us, how could we have the strength, or maintain the will, to accomplish his purposes? But he is working in us, and therefore we obtain his will and purpose – by agreeing with them, we strengthen them in us with his power. We ally ourselves with God, and our power is not added, but multiplied.
  • God works – and therefore we must. If God works within us, he will not remain working long if we sit back and relax. If we call on his aid to do his will, he will not tolerate the shirker.

If we are to do the works of God, we must have both the will and the power of God – and God liberally supplies them both.

Fear and trembling

This is serious stuff. Paul puts it with the words, “fear and trembling.” The double phrasing is intended to emphasize the point. Why fear?

  • If you have no fear of God, you have not correctly discerned his power and his wrath – and therefore do not really know him.
  • Fear is a rather basic motivator; sometimes, when inspiration fails, fear keeps the feet moving.

But – and what an important exception – it is God working within us! This is the great relief of fear, for if He works, then we work beside him, then we have nothing to fear indeed.

A do-it-yourself guide

How, then, are we to do this? Paul provides us with a “style guide:”

Without complaining or arguing

The older word for complaining is murmuring – it’s the one sided form of argument. The other person never gets a chance to speak back. Is that really all that serious?

  • Remember the Israelites in the wilderness? It was for their murmuring that they were cut down by the angel.
  • It is a form of Judgmentalism – passing judgment on others. In this instance, without a fair trial, either.
  • It ruins good works – if you think not, have you ever been the guest of grudging hospitality?

Arguing, on the other hand, is two sided. It also produces two sides where there used to be one. How does God feel about that?

  • First, it is an offense against peace – and God is the God of Peace.
  • Second, we are explicitly commanded[1] to accept the faith of the weaker brother without disputing debatable points – on the grounds that if we do not, we attack and weaken his faith!
  • Finally, does it not cause division in the body of Christ, about which our Lord prayed that we may be one?
Internal workings

We are to be “blameless and pure.” This is a tangible thing; it’s our track record in front of the world. But it comes from purity – knowing right from wrong and deliberately choosing the right.

Being the children of God might seem more direct – and more difficult. For to be a child of God is to be an imitator of God. When our Lord uses this phrase, he connects it to the idea that God treats the evil and the just equally – his sun rises on both. We are to be perfect as God is perfect, loving even our enemies. If purity is abstaining from evil, being a child of God is overcoming evil with good.

This cannot help but stand in stark relief to the world around. There world was much like ours in its corruptness. I suspect, therefore, they got their share of ridicule. I trust they bore it well, and that we will also.

External workings

We are to be “lights.” What does that mean?

  • Lights, our Lord reminds us, are not to be hidden. They are meant to be seen; therefore, our good works should be seen by others – but for the praise of God, not for our praise.
  • Lights are also navigational aids. The easiest way to see this is that we turn the lights on when we’re in the dark. We need to be the lights in the dark for this generation. But even if the world will not accept light for their feet, they can use these lights like navigators use stars – as sure points of reference.

I once sailed at night along the Ohio river. In the areas away from civilization, you could not tell exactly where the banks were, and when the river turned. But one simple light bulb, shining across the water, made the outline of the river clear, and navigation sure.

In the same way we are to be beacons for this generation. We are to hold out the word (not ram it down their throats).

  • What Christ whispers in the quiet we are to tell the world from the rooftops. We should not be shy in proclaiming the Gospel.
  • Indeed, our Lord tells us that the work of God is to believe on his Son – and if we believe, we should confess.
  • Holding out the Word: presenting to men the Christ. If He is lifted up, He will draw all men to himself.

Drink Offering

The last part of this passage can seem puzzling to modern readers – for we are unfamiliar with the “drink offering.” But there are three key points we need to know about this part of the old Jewish law:

  • In the Mosaic Law, the drink offering was never offered by itself – it always accompanied some other offering; fellowship, freewill, offering for unintentional sin, part of the daily sacrifices or harvest thanksgiving. It was an addition to a primary offering.
  • It is particularly associated with the Nazirite vow of separation.
  • It was never allowed on the altar of atonement.

We can take these three points and construct the parallel in Paul’s life.

  • His reference is that he is an addition to their faith and works. He is not bragging about his work; he is rejoicing that he can add to their good works.
  • It is also a mark of separation, for he was separated to the Gospel as an evangelist.
  • His suffering, his sacrifice do not replace the Atonement, nor even add to it. By faith we are saved!
Rejoice!

Finally, this is a statement of joy. Paul is rejoicing in their faith; in the growth of the kingdom, and in their mutual joy. It is a great example of rejoicing in suffering. For suffering, like works, produces the mature Christian. As James tells us:

(James 1:2-4 NIV) Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, {3} because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. {4} Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

Let us take the same attitude about our good works. They too are designed to produce a faith that is mature and complete. It’s time for us to grow up in the faith, leave behind the childish arguments – and work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is indeed God who is working in us, both to strengthen our will and give us strength.


[1] Romans 14

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