A soft and sheltered Christianity, afraid to be lean and lone, unwilling to face the storms and brave the heights, will end up fat and foul in the cages of conformity.
If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.
—Jesus in Luke 9:23-24—
Key point: The journey to faith in Christ culminates in both an end and a beginning. At conversion, we have arrived at a place where, figuratively speaking, we plant the seed of our faith into the ground of the truth about God, Christ, sin, death, salvation, heaven, and hell. Yet from that point forward, the seed needs to germinate and grow into a sturdy, fruit-producing plant.
As I have studied and reflected in recent weeks on Martin Luther’s journey to salvation and on the Reformation as a whole, I have become impressed with the importance of revering God and having a healthy fear of Him, both on individual and corporate (church) levels. We said this in our last post:
While the Church in the 16th century made the mistake of emphasizing God’s wrath over His love (and didn’t really talk about His wrath in full accordance with biblical teaching), the church today is making the opposite mistake. We do need to talk about God’s love, but in the context of a proper emphasis on His justice and wrath.
The point here is the value of a healthy fear of God. As believers, of course, we no longer need to be afraid of God’s judgment, because we know Christ endured God’s judgment and wrath for our sins on the cross. Even so, we still must love, respect, and revere God, being ever thankful for the salvation He has provided for us in Christ.
Salvation Is a Gift
We need to be crystal clear about one thing before moving ahead. We don’t perform good works for salvation, but from salvation. In a chapel service at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary many years ago, Adrian Rogers put it this way.
The law says, “Do this, and thou shalt live.”
The gospel says, “live, and thou shalt do.”
The law says, “Pay me what thou owest.”
The gospel says, “I freely forgive all.”
The law says, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy soul, with all thy heart, with all thy mind” [Matt. 22:37].
The gospel says, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” [1 John 4:10]
The law says, “Cursed is every one who continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” [Gal. 3:10].
The gospel says, “Blessed is the man whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered” [Ps. 32:1].
The law demands holiness.
The gospel provides holiness.
The law says, “Do!”
The gospel says, “Done!”
The law places the day of rest at the end of the week.
The gospel places the day of rest at the beginning of the week.
The law makes blessing the result of obedience.
The gospel makes obedience the result of blessing.
The law says, “Run!” but it doesn’t give us any legs.
The gospel says, “Fly!” and it give us wings.
Oh, thank God for the gospel! What the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, Christ, dying for sinful flesh, brought to us light and life and immortality in the gospel” [Rom. 8:3; 2 Tim. 1:10].
The contrasts between legalism and grace are very similar. All of these remind us that God gives us salvation as a free gift, and nothing we do or ever could do can earn us a place in heaven.
A Tough Journey
Even so, with salvation secured by Christ and with heaven as his or her eternal destiny, every Christian must grapple with, and we even can say struggle with, the implications of having new life in Christ. Accordingly, the apostle Paul wrote the believers in Phillipi, “Therefore, my beloved, as you 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” (Phil. 2:12).
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
—The apostle Paul to Philippian believers in Philippians 2:12—
How are we to understand this? The context of the verse helps us greatly. Paul wrote what we now know as Philippians 2:12 on the heels of writing his statements in verses 5-11. He told his brothers and sisters in Christ,
5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This was a tall order, indeed! It still is! Just as no one can save save himself, no one can acquire the mind of Christ, or adapt the perspective of Christ, without divine assistance. The believer has to cooperate with God, drawing on the supernatural power Christ makes available to all who are His. Such cooperation—dare I say it?—requires work and sacrifice—not to earn salvation, but to live out the realities now in place in the believer’s life.
This is why Paul began his admonition in verse 12 with the word therefore. It also is why he went on to instruct his readers, including us, to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. The Christian life is a life of joy and numerous other Christlike qualities, but it also is serious business! Living according the mind of Christ goes against every natural inclination we have. The apostle Paul admitted this was true in his own life in Romans 7:7-24. At the same time, he also pointed to supernatural power in Christ to live a life of victory over sin (see 7:24–8:13). It’s vital for us to realize that as long as we are alive physically, the supernatural strength available to us may enable us to live victoriously, but it won’t eliminate the struggle within us between the flesh and the spirit.
Keeping Philippians 2:12 in mind, let’s make five observations.
First, Paul did not say work for your salvation, but work out your salvation. We do not belong to ourselves, but to Christ, and the implications of this truth are manifold. We need to explore these implications and apply them to our lives. This process is a process of “working out.”
Second, the Greek term translated work out means to do something that brings about a result. Here are the instances in which the Greek word is represented in our English translations of the New Testament. We might say that working out our salvation means participating in spiritual workouts—exercises and struggles that foster spiritual maturity and that strengthen our spiritual sensitivities.
Third, we are to work out our salvation “with fear and trembling,” indicating a reverence for God, a respect for the things of God, gratitude for the salvation He has provided, and a desire to please Him with our lives because He’s been so good to us.
Fourth, Philippians 2:12 is just one of many New Testament passages that encourage believers to be attentive to their walks with God and with how they live their lives. The following admonitions and the passages from which they come do not make up an exhaustive list, yet here are some of the postures and actions we take as we “work out” our salvation.
- Be wise (see Matt. 10:16).
- Be ready (see Matt. 24:44; Luke 12:40; 1 Pet. 3:15).
- Present your body as a living sacrifice (see Rom. 12:1).
- Don’t be conformed to the world but…
- …be transformed (see Rom. 12:2).
- Be informed (see Rom. 11:25; 1 Cor. 12:1; 1 Thess. 4:13).
- Take heed (see 1 Cor. 3:10, context 9-15; 1 Cor. 10:12, context vv. 1-13).
- Be faithful (see 1 Cor. 4:2).
- Be strong in the Lord (see Eph. 6:10-17).
- Be watchful (see Eph. 6:17-18).
- Be discerning (see Phil. 1:9).
- Focus on the things of Christ (see Col. 3:1-2).
- Put to death earthly desires (see Col. 3:5-10).
- Be diligent (see 2 Tim. 2:15).
- Be careful (see Titus 3:8; context vv. 1-8).
- Be serious (see 1 Pet. 4:7, context vv. 7-11).
- Be sober and vigilant (see 1 Pet. 5:8).
The Help We Need
Fifth, we have supernatural help in this “working out” process (see Phil. 2:13, context vv. 12-13). On the heels of verse 12, Paul went on to say, “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” I love the way the New Living Translation renders this verse: “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.”
The bottom line? The Christian life isn’t a life of coasting, but of meeting challenges in God’s power and cooperating with Him as we grow in service to Him, in Christlike service to others, and in spiritual maturity.
The Christian life isn’t a life of coasting, but of meeting challenges in God’s power and cooperating with Him as we grow in service to Him, in Christlike service to others, and in spiritual maturity.
The quest also is evident in the lives of the Pilgrims, Christians who came to North America in 1620.
We’ll examine a portion of their experience next time.
Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Adrian Rogers’s quote was loosely based on the King James Version.