Some people think of Christianity as just a personal belief system. People are comfortable with this as long as our personal belief system doesn’t effect how we relate to other people. This is especially true in politics. It is o.k. to be religious as long as you don’t bring your religious values into your position. Of course, the problem is that this is impossible. Our personal belief system ALWAYS affects what we do. This is especially true of Christianity. The Christian faith is meant to be intensely practical. It is meant to impact the way we live.
Salvation is extended by a free act of God’s grace. We did not and cannot do anything to earn it. But . . . once we are saved, the new life that Christ plants in us should result in a new way of living. We have said it many times before. The unchanged Christian is a contradiction in terms. If a person is unchanged they are not a Christian. If they are a Christian they are in the process of changing. There will be times of rapid growth and there will be times of apparent standstill but over the course of the years real change will be evident.
In Philippians 2 Paul deals with both sides of this matter. He gives us good theology in the first 11 verses and then begins to apply it in the verses that follow.
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, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Phil. 2:12,13)
Work Out Your Salvation
The Apostle Paul tells the Philippians to “work out their salvation.” Now be careful as you read these words. He is not telling us to work FOR our salvation. It is so important that you hear these words. We are surrounded by people who are working for their salvation. They are trying to earn enough points to get in. They are like the student who is working hard to be accepted to a college, or to gain a scholarship. They are like the salesman who is trying to meet a particular sales quota.
I would venture to say that a majority of people feel that they must produce BEFORE they can be “saved”. They spend their lives fretting over any mistake. Those who feel they “have a good shot at Heaven”, desperately fear that they are going to do something wrong which is going to get them booted out of Heaven at the last minute. But this is not what the Bible teaches. The Bible tells us that we are forgiven and made new not because of the good we have done to counterbalance the bad . . . but because Christ paid for our sin on the cross. We don’t work FOR salvation; but we are to work OUT our salvation. In other words we are to work at godly living BECAUSE we are saved. This seems like semantics . . .but it is not.
So what does Paul mean when he tells the Philippians to “work out your salvation”? There are several things involved in working out our salvation.
- We are to work at making sure that our hope is truly grounded in Christ and not on our own efforts
- We are to work at taking advantage of the ways that God has given us to help us grow. We should read the Bible, pray, worship, serve, give, fast and so forth.
- We should work to make a break with sin. We are not to just sit back passively, but are to work at repentance and renewal.
- We are to work at adopting and applying the positive behaviors that the Bible admonishes. In other words we are to work at love, compassion, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, endurance and others.
- We are to guard against the influence of the world. In other words we will adjust our friendships, our amusements, our use of time in order to combat the real presence of sin in our lives.
Working Out our salvation means that we are to bring our salvation to a practical expression. We are to live on the basis of what is true in our lives and heart.
Do So With Focus and Determination
work out your salvation with fear and trembling
We are told that we are to do this work of developing in our salvation with fear and trembling. This means we should approach this work with “a holy vigilance and circumspection. It means that as I work out my salvation, I should realize the tremendous seriousness of what I am doing.” [The Life of Joy and Peace, Lloyd-Jones p. 178]
Paul reminds us that living out the Christian life is serious business. We all like to have fun in our journey . . . but that doesn’t mean that ours is a trivial pursuit. It is the most serious endeavor that we are about.
We are serious about our developing our faith for several reasons. First, we are serious because we are in a battle. We know that we are fighting a formidable foe in the Devil. We must be serious, because he is serious. Peter tells us “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Pet 5:8). Paul told us to “put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:10-11). The Devil is taking this contest seriously and we had better take it seriously too.
You hear coaches all the time telling their team “never take an opponent lightly”. That is especially true when the opponent is formidable. If you take a good opponent lightly you will be crushed. We dare not take our opponent lightly.
Second, we should be serious because we know our own weakness. We know the way we are. We know that we are prone to be hot and cold. One minute we are all excited about serving the Lord and the next we are indifferent. We know that if we don’t keep after ourselves we will drift away. We know that we are constantly in danger of becoming lukewarm, or compromising the faith. We work at our salvation because we know that if we don’t we will soon begin to drift.
Third, we should be serious in our desire to grow because we respect the Lord’s discipline. Children often do the right things at first because they know if they don’t, there will be consequences to pay. The Bible is clear that because the Lord loves us, He also disciplines us. He is committed to our growth. He will move us toward growth one way or another. And I don’t know about you, but I have discovered that avoiding the Lord’s discipline is always a good idea.
Fourth, we should be serious about the work of discipleship because we know that God is serious our relationship with Him. He took it so seriously that He sent Christ to die so that relationship might be possible. When we treat discipleship as a joke we make light of the Savior’s love.
Finally we should be serious because of the benefit to be gained. I hate to admit it, but the reason to get serious about exercise is because of the benefit that is received. Exercise allows you to have more energy, be more healthy, and be more productive. People get serious about their sports because they want to achieve success. People are serious in their jobs because they want to reach their goals. We get serious about the things we believe will benefit us.
What will benefit us more than a close relationship with the Lord? Who does not want that “peace that passes all understanding”? Who does not want that sense of the Lord’s strength? Who does not want to reach family and friends with the good news of the gospel? To receive the benefits you need to be diligent in the work.
Do So Consistently
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence . .
Paul acknowledges how hard the people in the church in Phillippi have worked. . . at least while he was with them. He encourages them to be faithful when he is there and when he is not. Today we would say that we should live consistently for Christ whether others are watching or not. Integrity in the faith is something that is revealed in the hidden times more than in the public times.
It is not what we eat but what we digest that makes us strong; not what we gain but what we save that make us rich; not what we read but what we remember that makes us learned; and not what we profess but what we practice that makes us Christians.
— Author unknown
Bill Hybels had a great title for one of his books, “Who You are When No One is Looking”. It is the reminder that who we are when no one is looking is who we really are. We can all maintain a certain image when we are in church. But the real test of faith is when we are outside of the church.
The goal of the Christian is to live consistently. Will Rogers perhaps summed it up well, “Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip.”
Paul would urge contemporary Christians to be consistent in their faith
- when they are in worship
- when they are out with their friends
- when they are alone on a business trip
- when they are flipping through channels at night
- when they are dating
- when they are pursuing their amusements
- when they do something wrong
- when they are aggravated
- when they are in a bookstore far away from home
- when they are on the Internet late at night
Living the Christian life is a full-time pursuit. Paul urges us to pursue a God-honoring life in every aspect of our life.
Remember That God Gets the Credit for He Works In You
for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
After telling us that we are to work hard at bringing our faith into everyday living it would be easy to despair. When we consider our weakness and inconsistency we might feel that we can never succeed. But Paul follows his challenge with these wonderful words: “it is God who works in you to act according to his good purpose.”
We are told that God is the one who will give us the desire and the determination to do what we should be doing. There are some people who don’t like this verse at all. They would say that it sounds like God is violating our free will. Dr. Boice really helps us understand this whole idea of a free will.
You have free will to decide certain things, but you do not have free will to decide all things. You can decide whether you will go to work on Monday morning or pretend you are sick. You can order turkey over roast beef at a restaurant. But you cannot exercise your free will in anything that involves your physical, intellectual or spiritual capabilities. By your own free will you cannot decide that you are going to have a 50 percent higher I.Q. than you do or that you will have a gift of dealing with quantum mechanics. You do not have free will to make a billion dollars. You do not have free will to run the 100-yard dash in eight seconds. [Philippians p. 144-145]
In the same way, we are not able to choose to follow Christ. It is against our nature. When Adam and Eve sinned all their descendants lost their capacity to be holy. And over time we lost our capacity to even truly love God. Paul says there is “no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; no one who seeks God.” (Romans 3 10,11)
The Bible seems to teach that even the faith we exercise is something that God has first planted in us. He is working in so that we will will (desire) and do (practice) according to His good purpose. Do you realize how important and valuable this is? This means several important things
- It means God understands our weakness and is committed to helping us
- It means we are not left to simply work to muster more of our strength but we are invited to tap into His
- It means we don’t have to worry about falling away in the end because God is working on our desires and appetites so that we won’t want to drift away.
- It means that the victories and accomplishments we have in the spiritual realm should be acknowledged as coming from the Lord . . . and we should give Him the glory.
- It means that we CAN live the Christian life.
The passage before us reminds us that the Christian life is a combination of right belief and renewed living. God is not primarily concerned that we know enough to pass a theology exam. Theology (a right understanding of God) is important, but God wants more. He is concerned to make us into new people.
When we come to the Savior we must come realizing that the process of salvation is a process that God begins and God brings to fruition. But it is also a process that requires our work . . . our diligent and persistent work. The two go together.
And if we understand this we will make a conscious effort to build our spiritual life. We need to cooperate with God’s Spirit. We need to build it into our schedule, put it in our budget, nurture it in our heart. Here’s some specific ideas,
- Set a goal of reading through a Christian book every couple of months
- Replace the secular music with Christian music
- Find a Bible reading plan that will give you daily exposure to God’s Word and then use the same time every day for reading and meditating on God’s truth
- Make plans to get involved or start a Bible Study
- Keep a spiritual diary where you record what God is teaching you each day
- Find some Christian friends who will encourage you regularly and hold you accountable
- Memorize Scripture
- Work to make worship an attitude rather than a ritual. Pursue God more than you do a good feeling or new insights.
- Be open to new opportunities to serve
- Get into the conscious habit of giving God credit for the things He does in and through you
Does this sound like work? I won’t kid you, it is work. It is a task you will work on for the rest of your life. At times it will be very difficult. At other times it will be wonderfully delightful. But please know that the stakes are very high. This is not a hobby or an amusement. Our faith in Christ is not something we can separate from our daily living. It is to be our life’s pursuit to grow in the Lord. I know it is overwhelming. But you are not left to do this on your own. The Lord will be with you cheering you on, every step of the way.