Working Out Our Salvation
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: Philippians 2:12–2:18
“A LIFE WORTHY OF THE GOSPELWORKING OUT OUR SALVATION”
[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, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 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, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
[2:]1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
Often our reading of the Scriptures will take us to lofty heights, where the curtain of heaven is parted sufficiently for us to catch a glimpse of the glory of the eternal. Even when we pause to meditate on such passages, our delight in them is tempered by the realization that they are yet future and not yet within our grasp. Always our feet are brought back down to earth, motivated by what we see as our destiny but longing for that which is yet to be.
In the passage immediately preceding this one, the Apostle Paul has left for us that amazing description of our Lord Jesus’ condescension. We are reminded of his leaving heaven’s glory in order to become a man, living among us, and dying a humiliating death for the sins of His people. The theological term is “kenosis,” the “self-emptying” act of Christ. And while it eclipses our finite reasoning to fully grasp its significance, we are granted by God the ability to believe its reality and entrust ourselves to its personal implications.
But lest we forget, that passage begins with the charge to “Have this mind among yourselves” (Philippians 2:5). In other words, just as Jesus humbled Himself on our behalf, so we are to humble ourselves for the sake of one another. As you and I know, that’s a lot more difficult to do than to read.
Mark Twain once said, “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” Imagine following Jesus’ example. I can’t help but think of Jesus’ younger siblings, and wonder how often Mary and Joseph must have said to them, “Why can’t you be like your Brother?” As Christians, we often ask that same question of ourselves.
Of course, we will never be “just like” Jesus, although the Scriptures tell us that we are progressively being “conformed to (His)...“image” (Romans 8:29). I am convinced, however, that there is a link between that truth and what Paul says in the passage before us with regard to “work(ing) out (our)...salvation.”
There are three things that the apostle wants us to see from this passage in terms of our maturing in Christ...namely, there is a purpose to achieve, a power to receive, and a promise to believe. Let’s take them one at a time.
In the first place, we are told that...
There is a purpose to be achieved (verses 12 and 14-16a).
Paul begins with “Therefore,” which has reference to what has just been said in the preceding verses. Just as Jesus became “obedient to the point of death,” so the Philippians are reminded of their necessity to continue walking in obedience to the Lord in all respects.
Obedience is how saved people live out their salvation. That is their calling...that is their purpose.
By addressing his readers as “my beloved,” the writer is expressing his deep personal affection for them. This is yet another reminder of his initial visit to Philippi and the manner in which he helped plant the church in that city. A decade had passed and his heart had not grown cold toward them in the least It seems safe to say that a number of Paul’s initial converts, including maybe even Lydia and the jailer who had turned from suicide to the Savior, would have been among those who heard this letter being read for the first time. Along with the others, their hearts would have ached for him, knowing that he had written it while being incarcerated in Rome.
In verse 12, he fondly recalled their obedience to the Lord when he was among them, and even more for their remaining steadfast in his “absence.” Earlier, in chapter 1 and verse 26, he had told them that he anticipated coming to them once he was released from his confinement. In the mean time, he exhorts them to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
It is pointed out by every preacher and teacher of the Gospel—and it bears mentioning again—that Paul does not say “work for your salvation,” but rather “work out your salvation.” There is no “salvation” or “deliverance from sin” that comes from “work” or “human effort.” The exhortation found here is that Christians are to be “working from” salvation. It is based upon blessings already granted to the believing sinner by the Lord. As we shall see in verse 13, our “work(ing) out” comes from God’s “working in” us.
It was Augustine who wrote, “We will, but God works the will in us. We work, therefore, but God works the working in us.” Nevertheless, human responsibility is emphasized in this verse. The term “work out” (“κατεργαζομαι”) means “to bring to completion,” “to carry to the goal,” and “to work through to the finish.” In terms related to this passage, we might say “put into practice what God has equipped and enabled you to do.”
It is possible that Paul likely had this in mind when he wrote in Colossians 1:24, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” He had earlier alluded to the same thing in this Philippians letter, saying in chapter 1, verse 29, “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.” I want to be careful in saying this, but there is an “unfinished work” of Christ that you and I have been called upon to complete. It involves making known the authenticity of the Gospel through our willingness to “suffer for his sake.” It is a major aspect of “work(ing) out (our) salvation.”
Furthermore, we are to do this “with fear and trembling.” As the Puritans would remind us, we must not lose our “sense of the holy.” Just because God has accomplished the work of salvation for us through the death of His Son, does not mean that we should ever cease living “in awe of God.” In view of the unholy climate of the world that surrounds us, we are to live with seriousness and sobriety.
So, the purpose to be achieved is our “obedience” to God. And this is what Paul describes, beginning in verse 14 and extending into verse 16. Here we are instructed to...
“Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.”
These verses allude to the experience of the ancient Israelites during the days of their wilderness wanderings. Repeatedly, they murmured and complained about what they perceived as God’s lack of provision and Moses’ incapable leadership. Just before they were about to enter the land of promise, Moses would look back over the previous forty years and say of them, “They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation” (Deuteronomy 32:5).
Here Paul is pleading that the Philippians do not follow that negative example. They were to put far away from them all “grumbling” and “disputing.” It is yet another reminder that they were to be “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (cf. Philippians 1:27), “being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind...Do(ing) nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count(ing) others more significant than yourselves...look(ing) not only to his own interests , but also to the interests of others” (cf. Philippians 2:2-4).
That same warning needs to be heeded by the Church in our day. Where “grumbling” and “disputing” are taking place, the impact of the Gospel is being impeded. When we are divided by “personal agendas” and not submitting ourselves to one another in the fear of the Lord, we are behaving no differently from the world. Consequently, our witness to the world is ineffective, and even counterproductive.
The purpose for living in such a selfless way is expressed in verses 15 and 16. It was so they “may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.”
“Blameless” refers to being “above reproach,” giving no reason to question one’s integrity. It deals primarily with outward and observable conduct. “Innocent,” on the other hand refers to being “pure” and “faultless”...“unadulterated,” we might say. It deals more with inward character...sometimes more difficult to see, but always more authentic. The two traits do not stand in contrast, but belong together. What is “outwardly professed” must be “inwardly possessed” if it to be genuine.
As “children of God” living in a distorted and perverted world, Christians are charged not just with presenting a contrast but with making a difference. We are to “shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.” Jesus Christ is “the light of the world” (cf. John 8:12), and as His image-bearers we are to be “reflectors” of His light. Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, so we are to reflect the “light” of Christ. Or, to alter the metaphor, just as the stars illumine in the nighttime sky, we are to stand out in a world of sinful-darkness (cf. Daniel 12:3). Even as the psalmist said, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1)...and we must as well.
And in so doing, we all to “hold...fast to the word of life”...in other words, “the word that brings life.” The verb used here (“επεχω”) can be variously interpreted to mean “to hold onto”—as in clutching, or “to hold up”—as in “raising” or “holding out,” as in extending or offering. All of those words fit this context, but perhaps the last one is most appropriate. The world should be seeing that we belong to Christ because we bear and exhibit His image and character.
So to summarize where we have been thus far, you and I are to “work out (our) salvation” in full dependence upon the Lord, so that by our “blameless and innocent” lives—even when “suffering”—we may be shown to be “children of God” and point others to Him.
If that sounds like an ominous task, it is because it is. But God has not left it up to us to accomplish it by ourselves. There is a purpose to achieve, but in addition...
There is a power to be received (verse 13).
We have alluded to it already, but let’s look at it more closely in verse 13. The apostle has exhorted us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” But now notice, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Verse 12 gives us the human responsibility, and in verse 13 we find the Divine provision that sufficient for the task. First the purpose, and now the power.
The “salvation” to which the apostle refers is the maturation of “the inner spiritual life,” or progressively coming to understand the full experience of our salvation. The key word is “progressively.” As we have noted, this aspect of our salvation—known as “sanctification”—takes time...a lifetime, in fact. That is why Paul can elsewhere refer to those “who are being saved” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18).
You see, God’s “work” in us is not completed when we turn from sin and trust Christ. In some measure, it has only just begun. Throughout our Christian lives, God’s “enabling grace” is at work within us, taking us step-by-step toward the realization of His preordained plan for His children (cf. Romans 8:29-30). Therefore, we can act because God is perpetually acting in us.
Truth be known, God must work in us before He can work through us. One Puritan writer said of another who had just died, “Heaven was in him before he was in heaven.” And that is right. The work of God on our behalf began long before we knew Him or knew of Him. If you are without Christ this morning, it’s quite possible that not much of this makes sense to you. But perhaps the Lord is beginning to open the eyes of your heart to see its truth. Reading the Bible without knowing its Author can be like reading someone else’s mail. The Bible is for Christians and it reveals to them God’s purpose for their lives, as well as the power He provides to live the kind of lives that are pleasing to Him.
If you are not yet a Christian, then I urge you to recognize that your sin has separated you from God, and that your only hope of having a relationship with Him is to repent and commit yourself to Him. Jesus became our substitute and absorbed the wrath of a holy God on our behalf when He was crucified. He was then raised from the dead by God as proof of our justification. And today He calls on all people to turn from their sin and fully entrust themselves to Him. When you respond to Him in faith, He grants not only forgiveness of sins, but eternal life. What’s more, He gives meaning and purpose to you now, as well as the power to sustain you and to bring your faith to maturity as you stay focused on Him.
In this passage, Paul has said that there is a purpose to be achieved—a saved and obedient life that is able to be brightly displayed and shared with others—and a power to be received—the work of God within us. And there is something else...
There is a promise to be believed (verse 16b-18).
Why is the apostle so insistent on these Philippian believers “work(ing) out...(their) salvation”? Well, let’s resume the reading with the “so that” clause in verse 16: “...so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.”
Paul is not implying that he is fearful that his life of faith and service to the Lord might one day to be shown to have been “in vain.” Instead, he was saying that it was his earnest desire that his “labor” among them would be shown to have been fruitful on the day when Christ would appear. His eyes were firmly set on that “day” and the anticipated reward. That was the promise he and his readers were to hold onto.
The terms that he employs here were taken from the athletic arena. Paul fully expected to be rewarded with a victor’s crown. And the “jewels” on that crown would be none other than the faithful members of the Philippian church for whom he had “run...and labor(ed).” They were his reason to be “proud.” They were his cause for “boasting.”
Paul’s eyes were set upon the future and the coming “day of Christ.” This is the third time that he has made reference to it in this epistle. We saw it in chapter 1, verse 6, and again in verse 10. It was the “day” that Paul awaited with eager expectation. But until that “day” when Jesus would return, there remained work to do...what he had earlier described as “fruitful labor” (cf. Philippians 1:22) for him to do.
Verse 17 begins with a contrast that is lost in many of our English translations. Paul is looking forward and upward to the time of Christ’s appearing, but (‘αλλα”) reminds both himself and his readers that “day” has not yet arrived. So for now, he is able to say, “Even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.”
A literal translation of this unusual and somewhat difficult verse reads, “But if indeed I am poured out on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and rejoice with you all.” The only other place in the New Testament where this verb (“σπενδομαι”) appears is in 2 Timothy 4:6, a passage we will be looking at together this evening. Both here and there, “being poured out as a drink offering” is a metaphorical way of referring to “giving one’s life as a sacrifice.” Here again, then, Paul is looking at the prospect of martyrdom which was constantly before him. He, therefore, thinks of his life as a libation “poured out” in service to God.
In pagan worship a “drink offering”—usually a cup of wine—was poured out on the ground in honor of a deity. It is probably more correct to assume, however, that Paul’s thoughts would have reflected back to the Book of Numbers where a “drink offering” was to accompany certain sacrifices as prescribed by the Lord (cf. Numbers 15:1-10 , et al). It is there described as being “a pleasing aroma to the LORD.” Here in Philippians 2, Paul sees himself as adding to the sacrifices the Philippian believers had made on his behalf in the furtherance of the Gospel, so that in a similar manner, they would be “a pleasing aroma to the LORD.”
All this is to suggest that the apostle and this local body of believers were together in the ministry of the Gospel. Unlike some of the other churches that he helped found and to whom he wrote, the Philippian church did not work at cross-purposes with him. They were not “perfect”—no church is—but they were a source of joy to him...especially as they awaited news of his fate from a far-off house of confinement in Rome. Paul, then, concluded this section with the admonition, “Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.”
Paul was a realist, not a sadist. He derived no pleasure from suffering or by taking delight in “feeling badly.” His “joy in suffering,” was rather predicated on the unshakable foundation of the work of Christ on his behalf...a work that began at the cross and one that would culminate at His return. He understood better than most that “joy” has nothing to do with circumstances, but everything to do with one’s place in Christ.
Gordon Fee has well written,
Neither “plastic joy” nor “trumped up suffering” will do. Suffering for Paul is ultimately a theological matter; it has to do with our relationship with Christ and our unyielding commitment to the gospel in our present, very pagan world—which is neither a “friend to grace” nor sympathetic to our confession that only Jesus is Lord...(Our) joy comes from our relationship with Christ and with one another in Christ, as well as from our eschatological certainty; the suffering must be the direct result of trying to bring others in on the joy, or it deflects from Christ’s suffering. Only so can we also rejoice in one another’s suffering—as evidence that the proper “sacrifices” are being offered up to God.
In one of the first classes I took in beginning my Bible college career, students were assigned to read Charles Ryrie’s book entitled, Balancing the Christian Life. Although I cannot readily recall a great deal of the content of that book, its title is something that I think of quite often.
That is because the Christian life is a “balancing act” of sorts. That is not meant to imply that we do our “part” and God does His. Rather, there is a constant equilibrium that must be maintained between Divine sovereignty and human accountability. When the Apostle Paul wrote “work out your own salvation,” he was actually imploring us to live a “balanced” Christian life. Specifically, he was telling us to...
- Balance purpose and power. It is a well-known Christian axiom that “the will of God will never lead you where the grace of God will not keep you.” Perhaps that is another way of saying that the Lord never exhorts what He does not enable. If the ultimate purpose of our lives is to live for the glory of God, we must recognize the impossibility of such a task apart from His gracious empowerment. “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
- Balance attitude and action. God’s provision of sovereign grace does not remove human responsibility to obey His commands. You and I must avail ourselves of that which God makes available to us. Like some of you, I struggle at times with negativism. I am, by nature, a “glass-half-empty” person...too often believing that if anything can go wrong, it will. I too often remind myself of the man in the Book of Proverbs (22:13 and 26:13) who refuses to act out of fear of potential danger. In contrast to our unbelieving and skeptical friends, you and I can be courageously “blameless and innocent...without blemish...(and) shine as lights” in a world darkened by sin.
- Balance earnestness and elation...in other words, seriousness and joy. Even though Paul lived under the threat of martyrdom everyday, he was still able to maintain joy and enthusiasm in his service for Christ. This wasn’t merely “the power of positive thinking,” but the product of an “inner joy” that found its source in his relationship with and commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is easy to say “amen” to this list, but until we resolve to commit ourselves securing God’s enabling grace to doing it, it will never get done. “Balancing” purpose and power, attitude and action, earnestness and elation is not an overnight occurrence. It is a lifelong process that begins when a person repents of his or her sin and trusts Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. From the human perspective it is a life that moves along a path—one that is often imperceptible when looked at moment-by-moment or day-by-day—that moves from dedication to discipline to dependence to development to destination...a destination at which we will never arrive in this lifetime.
That being said, growth should be able to be measured over the course of time. Remember, God never requires of His people what He does not provide. Therefore, when charged to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” we must not allow that command to be separated from the indelible truth that “It is God who works in you, both to will and work for his good pleasure.”
Let us be reminded that these words—as are nearly all that are found in the New Testament epistles—are addressed to the church...that is, to us corporately and not just individually. For us as a local body, there is a purpose to achieve, a power to receive, and a promise to believe.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews has left for us this fitting word of counsel: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).