Working Out Our Salvation

2 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 as 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. (Philippians 2:1-13)

The church is a community of believers, and it’s meant to be that way. It was designed that way by God. A very odd thing happened early in church history. I don’t know exactly where the thinking came from, but it has had negative effects on the church and church life ever since, unbiblical negative effects on the church. In the early days of the church, for example, there was a Syrian monk named Simon. Simon sat at the top of a huge pillar that was fifty feet high, and the reason he did this was to avoid contact with the world. This was a religious man, professing Christ, sitting on a pillar, well above other people, separated from them. Have you heard of stories like that? There was another man, he was an Egyptian hermit named Anthony who lived most of his life in a desert. There were others like him; he lived in this desert place because he knew that most would never venture there. His purpose was that he could avoid people, society, and being part of the world.

What is fascinating about these examples that we find all throughout history is to just consider the question: why do people do that? This avoidance, why go to such an extreme to avoid people? The reason is that these men believed that they were or that they could be more spiritual primarily through this withdrawal from society – withdrawal from other people – or this physical separation from the world. 

This continues today in still very overt ways. People do this; some do. That is, there are still hermits. Even near here there is a group of hermits, separating themselves from people. They believe, like others, that isolationism is a key or even a primary key to spirituality. In less overt ways many people may practice isolationism thinking to be more spiritual. Families and even church people can become very closed, trying to cut the world off. We can do this, we can avoid people, thinking that they are the problem and that they somehow stand in the way of our spiritual maturity. 

There are of course good reasons to be alone. No Christian should say that spending time alone with God is unnecessary. Jesus did this, He spent time alone with His Father. Time alone with God in prayer, in meditation, and we should do the same. Yet, I believe what we see in God’s Word is that we should never think that meditation has achieved its purpose for us unless it results in practical application in how we live among people. Truth leads to action. As one writer has said, “There is no value to a mountaintop experience unless it helps us to live in the valleys.” And I would say that it is in those valleys where there is much work and ministry to be done. Not in isolation, but among other people, in a society, in a culture, and in the world in which we live. 

We may think that we are more spiritual when we are isolated from people. Do you ever think that? Alone with the Bible in your closet, in an office, or wherever, feeling pretty spiritual, just you and God. We may feel that we are more spiritual in isolation, but the testing of that, the proving of that spirituality that we may think we possess will most certainly be made evident as we live among each other and as we deal with varied circumstances and relationships. 

Isolation may be appealing, especially if we think everyone else is the problem to our spirituality, and fail to understand that it is what’s in us, not what’s around us, that keeps us from spiritual growth. This flesh that we’re all wearing in our hearts and minds, that all goes with us wherever we go, whether it’s on a fifty-foot pillar, or a remote desert, or in our own homes, or in our own churches. Everywhere we go we carry with us a heart and flesh that needs to be further changed. Isolationism is not the key to spiritual maturity.

This further changing that needs to take place in all of our lives is a component of our salvation called sanctification. Progressive sanctification is the process of becoming more like Jesus Christ. Sanctification is not about us changing our world, or changing our society, or our families, or our churches; it is about each one of us individually being made more like Jesus Christ. This is what Paul is concerned about in our passage this morning. This change rarely happens in isolation.

In this study through Philippians 2, Paul has taken us on a really interesting journey. He has reminded us about some of the greatest truths about the Lord Jesus Christ. These truths have taken us to understand better the human nature of Christ, His humanity, and the divine nature. In verses 5-11 we read of His sacrificial death, and the certainty of His future reign over all of humanity. From a suffering servant on the one hand, to the passage that tells us that some day every knee will bow. It’s truth that He’s given us from human flesh, to grandeur, to worldwide, universal fame. 

Even here as we consider the work of Christ, His glory on display, we may read passages like that and find ourselves in true worship and praise and adoration and think, “Let’s just stay with that!” That’s a truth you can take in your closet and just stay in isolation with in worship, right? Let’s shut the doors with that thought, block out the stresses of life, turn aside from difficult relationships. Let’s just stay here and meditate and worship and glory in the person of Jesus Christ, and look forward to His coming again. Like Peter when he saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain, he just wanted to stay there and revel in the glory of who Christ was as he saw the glory of Christ in the transfiguration. Do you ever feel that way?

Paul in Philippians 2 has led us, possibly to that point of worship. Yes, every knee will bow in worship, a day when everything will be right. He is great, He is mighty, He is sovereign, He does love us. Let’s go to the desert and just think on that. Stay there, in some desolate place and wait for Him to return. Well, notice what Paul does. He gives us truth, high truth, and begins to show that these verses are not just given to us for our own sake, but were given to us for very practical reasons. The example of Christ as servant was given as an example of humility and obedience for Christian living. High truths leading us to spiritual worship and then immediately following that: practical Christianity.

Here is what he says:

12 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, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)

Paul says, “therefore.” This means “because of this.” Because of the work of Christ, because of His glorious position as Lord. “Because of this,” then, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” He gives us something to do. He moves us to practical Christian living. It’s like, as soon as Peter comes off the mountain with Christ at the transfiguration, seeing Christ in all His glory, he was met with what? With sin, disease, and suffering. Not just to see that and witness it but as one who was to be involved in that suffering. There was work for Peter to do is the point. Paul is telling us the same thing here, “work out your salvation.”

Now, it is worth mentioning, I think, and maybe this is obvious, but Philippians 2:12 has been a really big problem for some Christians. Primarily for those who might fail to consider the context of this passage and wrongly assume that it supports the idea of a works-based salvation. Some may read this and think salvation may be something that is to be earned. That somehow we must work in order to become Christian, in order to earn God’s favor, and go to heaven some day. So we need to be very careful here in our understanding of what God has given us. God is very clear with us that that is not the case. That is not what the passage means. I want to give you some reasons why this passage does not mean that we must gain our salvation through work.

In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul makes it clear that we cannot work for our salvation or work in order to gain salvation.

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

We read similar ideas in Romans and Galatians…

4 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: (Romans 4:4-6)

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:15-16)

This verse, Philippians 2:12, does not teach a works-based salvation. It does not teach that it is earned or that we must work in order to receive it. What it does teach is that because you are saved by faith, because God has already entered your life by the person of Christ, and because you now have the power of the Holy Spirit in you, because of these things you are now to strive to express this salvation by the way you conduct your life.

How can we know this for sure? First, because the Bible does not contradict itself, it is fully inspired and has one author, God Himself. God has not and will not make a mistake by contradicting Himself. 

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

So, when God says in Ephesians 2:8-9 that salvation comes to us by grace through faith and not of our own doing, not of any works at all, and in Galatians 2 that we know that a person is not justified by works, and in Romans 4 that Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness, when we see those things, and we put them together, then we begin to understand that Philippians 2:12 cannot mean that we are justified by works.

So that is the first reason we can believe that this passage does not teach a works-based salvation, because of the many clear passages that teach that salvation is given to us by God, it is a gift through faith, and it is not a result of our sinful works.

Secondly, we can understand that this passage doesn’t mean that we earn our salvation simply by looking at the sentence itself. What is the clear meaning of this passage? You’ll notice that it does not say, “work for your salvation,” or “work toward your salvation,” or even “work at your salvation.” It says “work out your salvation.” And no one can work his salvation out unless God has already given it to him or worked it in him. 

An illustration of this might be: think of your body, your own body. You have a body and you can work out your body. You can lift weights, do yoga, you can do aerobic exercising. You have a body, you have muscles, and you can work it out. If you didn’t have a body you could not work it out.

Paul actually uses this exercise-type illustration in 1 Timothy 4:7-10 to help us understand what it means to strive or to work out our salvation, or as he puts it to “train ourselves for godliness.” It is the same idea here.

7 Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; 8 for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. 9 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. 10 For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. (1 Timothy 4:7-10)

God is the savior, Paul says, for those who believe. There is the “salvation by faith.” But having believed, having received salvation by faith, we then get to participate in our own Christianity by striving and toiling, training ourselves in godliness, because we have our hope set on the living God. In other words, we are to work out our salvation, train in godliness, because our hope is set on the God who saved us. 

On the other hand, if we must work to earn salvation then our hope would have to be set on ourselves, to work enough, right? I don’t know about you, but for me that’s no hope at all. And what hope would we have in ourselves to be completely righteous before a perfectly holy God?

This working out then is life lived in loving obedience to Christ. Or I would ask, what does it look like to “work out our salvation”? It looks like living out the Christian life, in the world, in the culture, around the people that God has put in our paths; living daily in obedience to Him. It is a daily exercising of our faith, working it out much like you might a muscle group in your body. Actively doing this will mean getting off of that fifty-foot pillar or walking out of that barren desert and engaging people and circumstances in a way that is pleasing to Christ, representing Him well in this world by how we live. Next time we will see more clearly that this working out is a working out among people as Paul moves us back to a more practical explanation of this social interaction as we work out our salvation. In this working out, it is not despising people or despising life’s challenges, but learning to live in them and around people in a godly way. “Work it out,” Paul says. “Live it out. Actively live out the Christian life.”

Work out here means to keep on working out to completion, to ultimate fulfillment. I love that there is no stopping point in this life to this working out. It is to ultimate fulfillment, being like Christ. No ceasing from pressing on to godliness, no retirement where we take a break from this, from training in godliness, no breaks, no sabbatical, no vacation, not from this working out our salvation. We do that in everything we do. We keep on going, no matter what.

How are we to do this, or what is an appropriate attitude to have when we do this? Paul says “with fear and trembling.” Fear describes fright and terror as well as a reverential awe. Trembling refers to shaking; it comes from the word for “tremor.” Both of these can be proper reactions to an awareness of our own spiritual and personal weakness and the power of temptation in our lives. 

I believe these words involve a good self-distrust. Distrust of self and a sensitive conscience. Have you ever been involved in what seemed to be a life-dominating sin? Have you ever seemed to be almost controlled by some particular sin? God convicts you, maybe severely so, and you begin to see the ugliness of that sin. You cry out to God, and maybe over time and after much reliance on Him and persistence, maybe even painful spiritual growth, you finally get to a place where you are no longer pressed down by that sin, by the extreme burden of that sin. You feel like you’ve gained some freedom from that. You experience some freedom from what had once seemed to dominate your life. 

And yet from time to time you recall the grasp it had on you, and you remember the damage it caused, and all that was associated with it. You remember how others may have been hurt, you are reminded of its ugliness, and you almost tremble at how you could have been so weak. You’re reminded of your own weakness, and you’re reminded that you are not above other sin, like that one.

You feel your humanity, your weakness, and your vulnerability to sin. So you run to God and become very sober, very determined, very purposeful in godly pursuit. We realize that God is our strength and our fortress and we run to Him for strength. This fear and trembling is a dread of sin and a yearning for what is right before God. Paul uses this phrase in other places like 1 Corinthians 2:3, where he says he preached, “in weakness and with great fear and trembling.” Also in 2 Corinthians 7:15 the same phrase is used to describe the Corinthian believers when they were obedient to Paul’s instruction through Titus. In Ephesians 5:5 Paul told slaves to obey their masters with fear and trembling. In each of these cases fear and trembling is an attitude that represents humility, submission to God or submission to other people that God had placed over them.

It is an attitude of humility in that one thinks little of self regarding an ability to resist temptation, thereby crying out to God for help. Humility before other people in obedience to God. One who is proud will not often live before God or others in a humble state of fear and trembling. It’s not talking about a cowering fear here, or a fear of eternal punishment, but a fear and trembling that rightly represents our lowliness before God and before other people. In verse 12 there is a lot of doing, right ways to think, and attitudes that we are to possess.

We need to get to one other thing today. So far we have seen a great emphasis on our part in spiritual growth. We don’t want to get the feeling that it’s all about us, because that is not the balance that God gives us in His Word. I may be wearing you out with all this talk of exercise, training, and toiling. I hope you are doing okay with that so far.

Let’s read verses 12 and 13 together to get the proper flow. We are now familiar with 12, but look at it alongside verse 13:

12 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, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)

If you are getting worked up over all these works, then here is where we can just sit back and take a deep breath. Who is at work in us as we pursue this working out of our salvation with fear and trembling? God is! It is God in us, His Spirit in us. He is working on our wills, our inner desires, and He is working in how we work.

The phrase “both to will and to work” is best understood as referring not to God’s will and work but to that of the believer. It is the believer’s will that God is working on that leads the believer to effective work. God is working in us, developing in us, leading us to a genuine desire to do God’s will. All of that originates with God and is passed to us through His Holy Spirit.

We are not on our own to live the Christian life. That is the point. The God of all creation is working on our wills. Do you ever feel that? God working on your will? Working on your inner man, to change you? Working in you so that your desires begin to more consistently line up with His desires? He moves us along to want what He wants. It’s not as if we go through this Christian life in drudgery. He is wooing us to be more like Him in our thoughts, our minds, our understanding, so that we want to do all that He wants us to. Once our wills are in a better place to do those things that He’s asked us to do, we work according to that renewed, transformed will. And that, Paul says, for God’s good pleasure.

This unique intertwining of our moving ahead in godliness, our working, training ourselves in righteousness, is all undergirded and fueled by God, who is continually changing our wills, leading us to those works that are pleasing to Him. This is all descriptive of what we call progressive sanctification. Being changed to be more like the Lord Jesus Christ. And these works that God wants us to do, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:10, are works that were created for us to do before the beginning of the world.

So take heart and be comforted that if you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, God is at work in your heart. He is continuing to change your heart. We can get busy with those works of ministry and obedience, as we live out our part in being a light of Christ to a lost world. There is no room for hiding out in a desert, or on a pillar fifty-feet high in the air, or of barricading ourselves in our homes or our churches, but living out the Gospel wherever we are in life. Working out our salvation with fear and trembling. 

12 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, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)