The Philippians Series
28 April 2020
"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 in order to fulfill his good purpose."
In these verses, Paul commends the Christians in Philippi for their genuine faith and obedience towards the works of God while Paul was absent from them. Paul expresses his concern and urges the Christians to continue in their faith by “working out the salvation” that they already have with a view to their corporate testimony to the lost. 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 or a salesman who is trying to meet a particular sales quota. 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.
So what does Paul mean when he tells the Philippians to "work out your salvation"? And how are we to respond to this command?
Working it Out with Diligence
Paul acknowledges how hard the people in the church in Phillippi have worked. When you think about the daily activities in one’s life that require solid diligence, they might include things as simple as getting up and going to work each day. We do it because we have to survive and in order to survive we have to make money. Diligence is important because it is what keeps us moving forward for a specific purpose. Diligence shows commitment, obedience, loyalty, faith, love and spiritual maturity. Anyone who has faithfully and obediently served God has shown great diligence.
But Paul encourages them to be faithful when he is there and when he is not. The church in Phillippi were both diligent in living righteously even while Paul was not with them. Psychology research tells us that when people know they are being observed, parts of the brain associated with social awareness and reward invigorate a part of the brain that controls motor skills, improving their performance at skilled tasks. In essence, the presence of an audience, at least a small one, increased people’s incentive to perform well, and the brain scans validated this by showing the neural mechanism for how it happens.
God is not looking for people who would only live righteously for Him in public to get men’s reward. He is looking for private worshippers because God sees the heart whereas men only sees the outer expression. God is looking for people who would live for Him diligently both in public and in private. Unfortunately, society has painted us an image that we can be whoever we want to be in public as long as no one sees what I do in private. We see Christianity as a label we check, or as a category we fill up in registration forms rather than a revelation that comes out from our relationship with God. That we deem it is enough for people to know that I am a Christian through my social media accounts but in reality we have ditched our belief system a long time ago.
Salvation is God’s to give, but ours to work out. The concept of obedience can be frightening as a new believer discovers how to live and walk by faith. I remember how scary it was for me to stop trusting in my natural abilities and trust in God’s Word. But this is what Paul is referring to when he mentions “fear and trembling.” He isn’t talking about being afraid of God. Rather, he is helping the new believer to know that in the beginning, it will seem scary to walk by faith. However, it is the only way to see our inner salvation manifest on the outside through our character of obedience.
Working it Out with Determination
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 reverence. It means that as I work out my salvation, I should realize the tremendous seriousness of what I am doing. We must be determined to work out our salvation because we know our own weakness. 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. You hear coaches all the time telling their team "never take an opponent lightly". That is especially true when the opponent of our sinful desire is in us. Our carnal flesh always draws us to do what we don’t want to do. That is why we must be determined to endure the temptation, endure the snares of the enemies, to persevere in our relationship with God.
Determination is the virtue that separates the good from the good. There is a common saying that says “success is 1% inspiration, 99% determination.” In order for us to thrive in our relationship with God, we must be determined to do our part. If your exercise routine is easy, that means you’re not doing it right. Working out and exercising is not supposed to be easy. It is supposed to challenge and induce pain on your body’s muscles so that it gets the tearing it needs to become stronger. Your muscles cannot grow without pain. As we determine to thrive in our relationship in spite of the pain, challenges and difficulties, with Him, we release the beautiful attributes of the Gospel to the world. So working out what is on the inside of us happens by faith. Faith is a rest, but it is faith that works, not us.
We will not understand “salvation” if we think it just means that Jesus can give you a happier life. 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. Following Jesus is both serious, sacred and satisfying.
Working it Out with Dependency
We work to do the good deeds God has called us to do, knowing that he is giving us both the motivation and the power to do them. This should give us great encouragement. He leads us to “will and to do.” It is not said that he wills and does for us, and it cannot be that way. It is man that “wills and does” - though God so influences him that he does it.
We are called into a co-laboring relationship with Jesus that it is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me. That greater is He that is in me, than he that is in this world. Paul had to learn to trust in God’s grace, goodness, and love for him when he sinned or failed. Before, as a Pharisee, he would run to the temple to offer a sacrifice for his sins. But now, he had to trust Jesus as his sacrifice for sins, and believe they had been removed forever. He had to have faith that God had forgiven him once and for all and that the peace in his heart didn’t come from what he did for God but in what Jesus did for him. Rather, we cooperate with God, working with Him as He works in and through us. Or to use the language of Paul, we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that God is already at work in us. We are not alone.
You began with a life of obedience to Christ and to the gospel of his grace, and you should continue now with obedience. Without obedience a Christian is not really a Christian. Jesus himself lived a life of obedience, and called his followers to do the same. We remain obedient to the great commision that Jesus has commissioned each and every one of us to do. To love others just as He has loved us. To care for others the way He has cared for us. Paul was telling the Philippian Christians to continue in the way of obedience in walking faithful by having the fear of God in them just when they had first received the gospel.
So how can we be sure that we will produce good fruit? How can we be confident that we will do the good works that God has called us to do? How can we be sure that we’ll actually work out our salvation? Because it is God that gives us the power and ability to do the work for Him. God Himself is at work in us and through us.We strive to let the gospel and salvation in us shine out so that others may see our good works, knowing that God himself is working in us and will provide us with all the strength and power we need to do it. This is how God always works. He calls us to obedience and then he gives us the power to obey.
Testify to the World
To work something out is to prove it to be true. When we work out a math problem, we aren’t fundamentally changing the answer. Two plus two always equals four. When we do the equation, we are simply proving that two plus two equals four. In other words, God has already done the work of salvation on the cross for us. He has saved us, forgiven us, rescued us, put his Holy Spirit in us, and united us to Jesus. That glorious work has already been done, but it is up to us to testify that to the world. God took it so seriously that He sent His Son to die so that relationship might be possible that we might have a testimony.
Don’t ask God for a testimony if you are not willing to go through the test. A test is necessary for us to obtain a testimony. That is why diligence, determination and dependency on God is needed as we go through the tests of this world so that we might obtain a testimony to testify to the world.
This passage reminds us that the Christian life is a combination of right belief and renewed living that allows us to experience joy in our life. God is not primarily concerned that we know enough to pass a theology exam. He is concerned to make us into new people. We should be determined to work out our salvation because God is serious about our relationship with Him so that we can be a testimony to the world.
Just Ordinary People
So there we have it. Two very average people but with a big heart for God and His people. They were just ordinary people but with an extraordinary God that made all the difference. In fact, Paul listed 26 people by name in Romans 16 – people who surrounded him in Rome, and who helped him. Yet out of these people, at least 26 of them, only two came through like Timothy and Epaphroditus. They all loved God; they all loved Paul. Yet only two came through. Paul says, “All the others care only for themselves and not for what matters to Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:21). Maybe their schedules got in the way. They may have been too busy. Maybe they had other concerns. Perhaps they were too ambitious. Perhaps, they were more interested in their own affairs than in what matters to Jesus Christ.
The thing that set Timothy and Epaphroditus apart was not their ability, their charm, their knowledge, or even their talents. It was their heart that was willing to serve. It was their willingness to do the will of God and advance the Gospel through whatever means they have and could.
If your exercise routine is easy, that means you’re not doing it right. Working out our salvation is not meant to be easy, but it is rewarding knowing that the Gospel is advancing through me. A test is necessary for us to obtain a testimony.