Is there anything of greater importance or value than this?
In the negative sense you have been saved from sin’s guilt and God’s wrath.
In the positive sense you are being saved from sin’s power unto eternal glory.
This salvation has come to you as a gift from God through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for your sins.
And you now possess this salvation. But what are you to do with it? How are you to work it out? What does God expect from you? What are the attitudes and actions that God expects from you with respect to this treasured possession you now possess?
Before we dig deeper into this passage we need to explain a few things:
The “so then” in verse 12 is important. It refers back to what we learned regarding the Lord Jesus in His humility and subsequent exaltation. We see how He did what He did “by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” And that obedience is a key theme in our passage. We are called to follow in the example of the Lord Jesus Christ. And, amongst other things, we are to follow Him in His example of obedience. We are to be “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He has been set before us as an example in every way and in this particular way also. He obeyed. We are called to obedience.
The “my beloved” identifies Paul’s audience to be those who have been born again through faith in Jesus Christ. Those who have been “born of the Spirit with life from above into God’s family divine,” as the song puts it. They are those who experienced the inner-working of the Spirit. They were born of the Spirit and indwelt by the Spirit. Philippians 2:12-13 is addressed to believers. It is only those who God has first worked in, with respect to salvation, that can subsequently work out their salvation.
A key phrase in the text is this: “work out your salvation.” And that has caused some confusion. Some misread this and erroneously suppose that we are to somehow work for our salvation. But that would contradict other Scriptures. Ephesians 2:8-9 for example, which says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.” Likewise, Titus 3:4-5, “But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
We’ve stated it this way: “Salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and His finished work on the cross.” It is not by works.
So how are you to understand this call to “work out your salvation?” A key is to understand salvation in its three tenses. The author of Hebrews speaks of salvation this way: “Hence, also, He is able to save forever (or, to the uttermost) those who draw near to God through Him” (Hebrews 7:25).
So, what are the various aspects of this “salvation to the uttermost?” There are three tenses to salvation:
Past tense. Justification. Salvation from the penalty of sin. When a person puts their trust in Jesus for salvation they are “once for all” declared to be righteous on the basis of their relationship to Jesus Christ. His righteousness is imputed to that person. Romans 5:1, “Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Future tense. Glorification. Salvation from the presence of sin. There will come a day—either by your own death or through the rapture—when you are brought into the presence of the Lord Jesus. And a marvelous thing will happen on that day, as Philippians 3:21 puts it: “(He) will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.” As with justification, this is a “moment in time” kind of thing. It will happen all at once.
Present tense. Sanctification. Salvation from the practice of sin. In theological terms we speak of this as “progressive sanctification,” since it incremental. It is a work of the Spirit by which we are practically set apart from sin and unto Christlikeness. Let me highlight a couple of texts having to do with this. 1 Thessalonians 4:3, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” 2 Thessalonians 2:13b, “God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.”
Now our text lies in the realm of this aspect of salvation. The sanctification part. That part that has to do with the Spirit’s work of transforming us from the rebel sinners which we were into the Christlikeness God has called us to. And in this part of salvation there is something we are called upon to do. Now we need to be careful here, because some have come to some wrong conclusions when it comes to the matter of sanctification. And we’ve spent some time in the past considering these matters. Salvation in all three aspects is “by grace.” We are justified by grace, sanctified by grace, and we will be glorified by God’s grace. It all happens by the “unmerited favor” and strengthening on God’s grace. And were it not for God’s grace there would be no salvation in any sense or any tense. We have also considered the working of the Spirit with respect to these matters. All that God calls upon the believer to do is to be done “by the Spirit.” Later in this epistle Paul will address this, saying: “For we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). We put no confidence in the flesh when it comes to justification. We put no confidence in the flesh with respect to sanctification. We put no confidence in the flesh when it comes to glorification.
Having said all that, it is important that we avoid either of two extremes when it comes to our understanding of this matter. It has been said that heresy is truth taken in its extreme. And there are extremes for us to avoid when it comes to sanctification. These two extremes could be labeled “quietism” and “pietism.”
Years ago, I read the classic Christian book entitled “The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life,” by Hannah Whitall Smith. Those who have read the book will know that its main premise is that familiar phrase which speaks to the need for us to “let go and let God.” Now there is an element of truth in that. The realization that God is sovereignly working in our lives and we need to let Him work matters out. We might even extend upon that truth and support it with other Scriptures, like Philippians 1:6 (“He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus”). So, the quietest might say that there is no need for us to do anything. We can sit back and relax. By the way…have you heard about these new cars that can drive themselves. Tesla has designed a self-driving car. It has sensors and cameras that allow the car to know where it is going. All you have to do is climb in and turn it on and it will take you where you want to go. The only problem is that the technology is not quite perfected. Tragically, about a week ago, a man was driving such a car with the autopilot feature turned on. The car and the driver both failed to see the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. And there was a crash and the driver died. Brethren, the Christian life is not to be lived out on “autopilot.” God has things for you to do. To be sure, they can only be done by God’s grace, by the Spirit, but that doesn’t negate the fact that you have been given certain responsibilities with respect to your salvation. It is hazardous for you to not take your responsibilities with respect to your salvation seriously.
The other error to be avoided is pietism. Another term we might use for this is legalism. This is the religious approach to the Christian life which wrongly overemphasizes that the duty of the Christian is to merely obey certain rules and regulations. Paul confronted this error in his letter to the Colossians, saying, “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourselves to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Colossians 2:20-23). The fundamental error of the pietist is that he wrongly supposes he has it in himself to do that which God requires of him. Religion is no substitute to being filled with the Spirit and walking by the Spirit and doing the things that God calls upon us to do “by the Spirit.” And by way of my earlier example—the car driven by autopilot—the pietist stands on the other extreme. He’s like Fred Flintstone in the old cartoon. He’s got a car devised of giant tree limbs and granite stones. The wheels themselves probably weigh several tons. But he jumps in his animated car and pedals his feet and the car goes. But that could only happen because it was a cartoon. And it is cartoonish to suppose that we can work out our salvation in our wisdom and strength and get anywhere close to where we are supposed to be going.
So, the quietist says you don’t need to do anything, “let go and let God.”
And the pietist says that you need to do everything, it’s all up to you to “get ‘er done.”
Now our passage speaks to balance of understanding that we are to maintain with respect to our sanctification. God has something for you to do—work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” But that which God has given for you to do can only be done because God is at work in you both to will and work for His good pleasure.
Before we leave this point, let’s consider a couple of passages which also illustrate this dynamic. And before we do let’s reconsider what we are talking about. Verse 12 speaks to man’s responsibility with respect to sanctification. Verse 13 speaks to God’s sovereignty in that process. Sometimes we like to camp on either side of this equation. But they are intertwined. Colossians 1:28-29, “And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. And for this purpose, also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” 1 Corinthians 15:10, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace towards me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” Paul labored, yet it wasn’t by His strength—it was the grace and power of God working in him.
So, we are called to work out our salvation, but verse 12 would be an impossibility were it not for verse 13.
Having said all of that, let’s look at the attitudes/actions we need to be careful to maintain when it comes to this matter of sanctification.
- Obedience to the Lord
Obedience = “to hear under.” Has the basic meaning of listening to or of placing oneself under what is heard and therefore submitting and obeying what is heard.
Now the term is used a couple of times in this passage. It is there in verse 8. “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” In the God-man, Jesus Christ, we find the lone example of perfect obedience. He always obeyed, and, in His obedience, He submitted Himself to the Father every step of the way. And in His obedience, He died on a cross, thus fulfilling the Father’s will. And He is an example to us in every possible way, and especially in His obedience.
The term is used again in verse 12. The verse speaks of the obedience that had been demonstrated already by these Philippian believers: “just as you have always obeyed.” Now this obedience came about as a direct result of their salvation. These folks weren’t born to it. They were born sin rebels just as all men are. Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Colossians 1:21 speaks to the natural state of men—“alienated from God, hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds.” But they had trusted in Jesus. And they were forgiven. And they were born again. And they were made to be new creatures in Christ. And they were given a heart to love and serve Jesus. And we should note that there are only two classifications of folks, those who are still in their sins, “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), and those who have been born again and are the children of God. 1 John 3:10 speaks to this: “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.” But a change took place in these folks and that change was made evident in that these previous sin rebels were given a heart to obey. 1 Peter 1:1b-2, “Chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may OBEY Jesus Christ.”
Paul then speaks to his desire for these believers—“not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence.” Paul was concerned that they might continue in their obedience to the Lord even in his absence. Now this is an important point from which we can draw some very practical conclusions. The obedience called for, in working out one’s salvation, is a heart level obedience unto the Lord. To be sure, there can be some degree of dichotomy between how we behave in the presence of some sort of authority and how we behave when that authority is not around. This is true for children who are not around their parents. Of employees when the boss is not around. Or believers when they are not at church or around the pastor or church leaders. Ephesians 6:5 speaks to this: “Slaves, be obedient to the those who are masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice.” What is “eyeservice?” It is that kind of service that is only rendered when the master is watching? Now that’s not going to cut it when it comes to “working out your salvation.” What is necessary is a responsiveness to the Lord in obedience both in public and in private. Whether anyone is watching or not. The kind of obedience that only happens when others are watching might work to impress others, but it won’t fool God and will do nothing of value when it comes to the matter of working out your salvation.
Having said that, obedience to the Lord is the one most important thing that you bring when it comes to the “working out your salvation” matter. We might speak of it as maintaining a responsiveness to the Lord. He speaks, and you listen and you obey. God said it this way: “But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). The true blessings God intends for you can only be possessed this way. There are no promises given to those who merely hear the Word of God, the blessings are promised to those who hear and do. James 1:21-25, “Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.”
John MacArthur comments that Paul’s “point is that there is never a time when a true believer is not responsible to obey the Lord. Believers must never be primarily dependent on their pastor, teacher, Christian fellowship, or anyone else for their spiritual strength and growth. Their supreme example is the Lord Jesus Christ, and their true power comes from the Holy Spirit. Believers, gratefully, are never without Christ’s example and never without the Spirit’s power.”
2. Reverence of the Lord
“phobos and tromos”
Fear (phobos) = to flee from or to be startled. In some contexts, it speaks of reverence.
Trembling (tromos) = tremble, gives us our English word “tremor;” quaking with fear or quivering.”
One translation renders the two terms “reverence and awe.” The two terms are used in combination elsewhere of Paul in reference to what is to be the attitude of a slave towards its master (Ephesians 6:5) or the attitude in which he himself preached before the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 2:3).
We all have phobias. Some are afraid of the water. Others are afraid of heights. Some people are afraid of spiders or snakes. A lot of people have a fear of speaking in public. Ask most people what they are afraid of and they probably won’t say that they have a phobia when it comes to thinking about the serious nature of their salvation. They won’t say “my salvation is a priceless gift, I’m afraid of messing things up!”
We have good reason to approach the matter of our salvation with “fear and trembling.” And it is not the fear of losing our salvation or of God abandoning us, for He has promised to never do that. It is a holy dread of displeasing Him.
The roots of this fear and trembling lie in our understanding of who He is and who we are. In the context we understand who He is. The God-man, Jesus Christ, came to earth and took on manhood and servanthood and died for our sins. God exalted Him to the highest place. He’s coming again, and every knee will bow to Him and every tongue will confess Him to be Lord. By grace we understand this reality. All will be brought into submission to Him in His Lordship, but we’ve already confessed Him to be Lord. And we know that He’s coming again. And we are being prepared for that day. And when He comes we will give account to Him. 2 Corinthians 5:9-11a, “Therefore also we have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men.”
We “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” because, as Colossians 3:24 puts it, “It is the Lord Christ whom (we) serve.”
And on the other side of the equation there is fear and trembling because we are aware of our own weakness and vulnerability. We have come to a place where we don’t trust in ourselves. We know that the world, the flesh, and the devil are all set against us. In fighting the good fight of faith, we understand that we are in the “fight of our lives.” These enemies we face are too strong for us. “The Devil, prowls about as a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). The world is at work to conform us to its own anti-God way of thinking and living. The “flesh sets its desire against the Spirit” (Galatians 5:17). These entities are always working to destroy and discourage us. They work against our every move when it comes to the pursuit of holiness. So, we don’t trust ourselves. We know that we don’t have it in us when it comes to “working out our salvation.” We treat the matter with a degree of reverence and awe because we realize what’s at stake. We are guarded in every step. We look to Jesus. We are careful to take up the whole armor of God realizing that without it we could never be strong and brave to face the foe.
By way of practice this “fear and trembling” attitude reveals itself in how we approach our Christian lives.
Our salvation is something far more demanding than simply going to church once a week.
It cannot be a “going through the motions” kind of thing.
Not doing what we consider to be the “bare minimum” of that which is necessary.
J. C. Ryle, “If there is anything which a man ought to do thoroughly, authentically, truly, honestly, and with all of his heart, it is the business of his soul. If there is any work which he ought never to slight, and do in a careless fashion, it is the great work of “working out his own salvation”
3. Dependence on the Lord
“For it is God who is at work in your both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
Verse 13 comes before verse 12 in our Bibles, but the truth and reality of verse 13 precedes verse 12 in our experience. Verse 12 speaks to human responsibility. Verse 13 speaks to divine enablement. But there can be no response by us if God is not working in us to enable.
Note that the verse speaks to two separate things. God empowers both our “doing” (energeo, the verb just used to describe God’s “working”) and the “willing” that lies behind the doing.
God empowers the doing. Ephesians 2:8-10 speaks to God’s working with respect to salvation. And we readily understand the reality that salvation is by grace (i.e. God’s unmerited favor). But we sometimes don’t read all the way through verse 10. Verse 10 speaks to the “sanctification” aspect of salvation. And there are a couple of things that are noteworthy in this verse. We are His “workmanship.” We are God’s “work of art.” We are His beautiful creation. That’s true of us both individually and corporately. This work of salvation is not a human engineered or human achieved kind of thing. It is a work that God is doing start to finish. And to emphasize this “by grace” understanding, Paul notes that the works we’ve been called to are works “which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). So, it is all by grace and His grace is all sufficient.
Look again to Ephesians 3:20. Verse 19 anticipates the finished work of salvation, when we will be “filled up to all the fullness of God.” In this context Paul glorifies God since it is He who is “able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us” (Ephesians 3:20). There is a power that is working within us that enables us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” This power is the power of the Spirit of God. He is ever working in us. We have noted in previous studies that everything God has given to us do as Christians is to be done “by the Spirit.” This is according to what Jesus taught. John 6:63, “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” Matthew 26:41, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Philippians 3:3, “For we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” This needs to be our understanding about such things. All that God has given for us to do can only be done by the Spirit. We pray by the Spirit. We understand and heed the Word by the Spirit. We fellowship by the Spirit. We put off sin by the Spirit. We grow in Christ by the Spirit. It is the Spirit who is at work in us to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.
Now for some this will require a reorientation of things. The church in Galatia got things turned around. They had been born again by the Spirit but then they were misled into believing that they could work out their salvation in their own strength. So, Paul said to them: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:3). Another way of saying that would be “Having been saved through the work of the Spirit are you now attempting to work out your salvation in your own strength. I’ve said it before and it bears repeating—religious doings are no substitute for the inner leading and empowerment of the Spirit. To attempt to do what God has given for us to do in our own strength is like trying to drive a car without turning the ignition. You can sit in the driver’s seat. You can even grab and turn the wheel and press on the gas pedal. It might look like you are driving a car, but that car isn’t going anywhere.
The dynamic needs to be understood according to the reality of Galatians 2:20, “I’ve been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.”
Warren Wiersbe tells of a frustrated Sunday school teacher whose class wasn’t growing as it should. She wore herself out working harder and harder, yet nothing changed. Finally, after recognizing that her ministry was self-motivated and self-activated, things began to change. “I’ve learned to draw constantly on the Lord’s power,” she said, “and things are different!”
We, as believers, are God’s work of art. The One who created the heavens and the earth have created us anew in Christ Jesus and bestowed on us everything pertaining to life and godliness. We are one with the One who died for sins and rose from the dead. Sin has lost its power over us. We’ve been created anew to walk in newness of life. The newborn baby cries and wiggles and looks to its mother for nourishment. The Creator has deemed things so. There was a day when you were still dead in your sins and you showed no signs of life. But then you were born of the Spirit with life from above into God’s family divine. And then there were signs of life. God was at work in you to will and to work. Suddenly there were signs of life, what Jonathan Edwards referred to as “the religious affections.” There was love and obedience and desire for truth and fellowship with God and your fellow Christians. Those affections came from God himself. That “willing” came from Him. And that is where it must come from always. And if the affections are somehow lacking we need to examine ourselves in our relationship to Him. Have we grieved the Spirit? Have we quenched the Spirit? Have we lost the love we had at first? Is there a need to remember and repent and to do the deeds we did at first (Cf. Revelation 2:5)?
J Lyth sums up God’s work this way…
SECRETLY — “in you.”
MEDIATELY — by His Word.
MIGHTILY — by His Spirit.
GRACIOUSLY — Of His good pleasure.
EFFECTUALLY — to will and to do.
James Hastings, “This virtually is what St. Paul says here: Work out your own salvation, for now the great impossibility has become possible; God is working in you; this is no hopeless task to which I am calling you, no fruitless beating of the air, no idle effort of the leopard to change his spots or the Ethiopian to wash himself white. The Lord is working in you, and He is mighty to save. Whatever impulse you feel, whatever goodwill to this work, look upon it as a token of His presence and of His readiness to help you in it; that is God working in you both to will it and to do it, for He has no feeling but one of goodwill to you.”
“For His good pleasure”
It’s a matter of worship. Why do we exist? Why are we here? For what purpose were we created? According to the catechism the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. It is here where we find ourselves in harmony with God’s divine purpose. And that He should do all that He has done to rescue us from our rebellion and make worshippers out of us speaks to His goodness, love and power.
The great Christian writer, A. W. Tozer, devotes a chapter to this subject in his book Whatever Happened to Worship. The chapter is entitled “Born to Worship God,” and it’s so good I almost decided to read his chapter to you today instead of preaching. In this chapter, he told a story. He said that he was waiting one day on a bench in front of City Hall when a stranger approached him. The man looked at him and smiled, but he seemed a little bewildered. Tozer said, “Do we know each other?” The man replied, “No, I don’t think so. I think I am in some kind of a jam.”
He went on: “Something has happened to me. I think I tripped and fell somewhere in the city and bumped my head. I cannot remember anything for sure. When I woke up I had been robbed. My wallet and all of my cards and papers were gone. I have no identification—and I do not know who I am.”
Tozer was just about to take the man to the police station when another man nearby let out a sudden shout and rushed over to the man and called him by name. “Where have you been and what have you been doing?”
The lost man looked at him strangely and said, “Do we know each other?”
“What? You don’t know me? We came to Toronto together three days ago. Don’t you know that we are members of the Philharmonic and that you are first violinist? We have filled our engagement without you and we have been searching everywhere for you!”
“Ah,” said the man, “so that’s who I am and that is why I am here!”
Tozer went on to say that the poor man in the story is emblematic of the human race. Many years ago, our forefather Adam had a fall and received a terrible bump. And ever since then, men and women on this planet have been walking around in a fog, not knowing who they are and why they are here. That’s why there is so much confusion in life, so much despair, so many addictions, so much entertainment, amusement, and diversions. But to be healthy and whole in life, we must have a clear sense of who we are and why we are here.
And with respect to our salvation that is who we are and why we are here. We are His born-again children. We are here being prepared for that great reunion that will take place when then blood-bought bride of Christ is brought into His glorious presence. In the meantime, we need to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, wholly dependent on all of the resources He has graced us with.
William Temple defined worship this way…
Quickening the conscience by the holiness of God
Feeding the mind with the truth of God
Purging the imagination by the beauty of God
Opening the heart to the love of God
Devoting the will to the purpose of God.
And these are amongst the things that God does as He works in us to will and to work for His good pleasure.
William Hendriksen explains the working out process with several analogies writing that “The toaster cannot produce toast unless it is “connected,” so that its nichrome wire is heated by the electricity from the electric power house. The electric iron is useless unless the plug of the iron has been pushed into the wall outlet. There will be no light in the room at night unless electricity flows through the tungsten wire within the light-bulb, each end of this wire being in contact with wires coming from the source of electric energy. The garden-rose cannot gladden human hearts with its beauty and fragrance unless it derives its strength from the sun. Best of all, “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in me” (John 15:4). So here also. Only then can and do the Philippians work out their own salvation when they remain in living contact with their God…By means of his Spirit working in the hearts of his people, applying to these hearts the means of grace and all the experiences of life, God is the great and constant, the effective Worker, the Energizer, operating in the lives of the Philippians, bringing about in them both to will and to work.
Work out your salvation…
In Obedience to the Lord
In Reverence of the Lord
In Dependence on the Lord