Working out your salvation with fear and trembling…

Taken and adapted from a series of sermons in 2008
Written by, Ligon Duncan

work-out-your-salvation

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

The Apostle Paul has focused the whole center section of this book which runs from Philippians 1:27 to Philippians 2:18 with a huge exhortation…

…and the exhortation is “Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” In other words, you are to live a life that fits the gospel. As we shall see whole center section of this letter has to do with that great theme: which is the call to holy living; our grandfathers would have called it: The call to holy conduct; as such it is the call to become more like Christ. In fact, he illustrates that call to be like Christ in Philippians 2:5-11, which is the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus Christ. Look how he begins that in Philippians 2:5 he says “Have this mind in yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus [or, which is yours in Christ Jesus]…” and then he begins to illustrate the mind of Christ, which was a mind of what? Humble obedient service…humble obedient service displayed in His humiliation, even enduring for us the death on the cross…and His exaltation in which He is given the name which is above every name, and sits at the right hand of God the Father on high, ruling the world by His word and spirit. And so Paul paints this picture of Jesus’ humble, obedient service in His humiliation and exaltation.

And then, here in verse 12, he says “Therefore….” So you don’t even need to read verses 12 and 13 to know what he’s about to say. He’s about to tell you to live your life as a Christian in light of the humble obedient service Christ displayed in His humility and exaltation. And that is in fact precisely what the Apostle Paul is going to say in these verses, but he is going to say it in a mind-boggling, shocking way, a way that immediately grips your attention and makes you stand up and scratch your head a little bit…What? Because Paul is going to talk in a way in this passage which is rather unusual for Paul to talk. Paul doesn’t normally say things like he says at the end of Philippians 2:12, and he’s doing this to arrest our attention.

Later, I am going to outline a four-point argument that the Apostle Paul is setting forth here in Philippians 2:12-13. But even though I give you a four-part outline of Paul’s argument in verses 12-13, don’t be distracted by that. I’m doing that because I want us to be as clear as we can in our minds about what Paul is saying and what he’s not saying. But there’s really just one point that Paul is making in this passage, and I’ll say that about seven different ways, if I can, to drive it home. It’s a very simple message, but a very profound message, a very powerful message; an essential message for our growth in grace.

Before we go any further, you need to understand, that this is one of the most important passages in all of the Bible about sanctification. Now, for those of you who grew up on the Bible, for those of you who grew up in any kind of a Christian church — whether it was Congregational or Baptist, or Presbyterian or Anglican, or Independent — you know that sanctification is a technical term that theologians and Bible teachers use to describe what it means to grow in your Christian maturity. It’s shorthand.

And you need to realize that the New Testament describes sanctification using lots of different images and pictures. For instance, the New Testament will talk about sanctification in terms of becoming more Christ-like, emulating Jesus, imitating Jesus, following Jesus, looking more like Jesus. The New Testament will talk about sanctification (becoming more godly) with images like showing the fruit of the Holy Spirit in you. The New Testament will talk about sanctification in terms of having the law written on our heart. It’s not just up on a wall somewhere, but the truth of it has been pressed deep down into our hearts so that it’s in the very middle of us, and the way we live flows out from that heart on which the law has now been written by the Holy Spirit.

The New Testament talks about sanctification in terms of our being reshaped in the very image of God. In Genesis 1, we’re told that God made man, male and female, Adam and Eve, in His image. You remember the great Triune God looking down and saying, ‘In our image We have created him, male and female.’ And so we bore the image of God in our original creation. But because of Adam and Eve’s rebellion, what happened to that image? Was that image lost? No…but that image was marred. Was that image erased from us? No…but that image was effaced. It was scrawled across and misshapen, and caused to not bear the beauty that God had originally intended. And in sanctification what is God doing? He is addressing that marring, and healing it and restoring it to its former glory so that we would be what He intended us to be in the first place: the very image and likeness of God Almighty.

That the New Testament talks about sanctification in lots of different ways, is important for us to understand this if we’re going to understand Philippians 2:12-13.

Now, when God saves us, He does at least three things for us. He does more than that, but He doesn’t do less. He does at least three things for us. He accepts us, and He adopts us, and He changes us. Let me think about that with you for just a few minutes. God does at least three things for us: He accepts us; He adopts us; and, He changes us.

God accepts us.

When I say that He accepts us, I mean that He pardons us and forgives us, and He accepts us as righteous — not because we are righteous, but because Jesus is righteous, and His righteousness is imputed to us. And so we are acquitted and declared not guilty, and justified and accepted and pardoned. Our God accepts us. This is what theologians call justification. It’s a very precious truth that God accepts us not because of something in us, not because we deserve to be accepted, not because we’ve done good things, not because we’ve done enough good things to outweigh our bad things; but He accepts us not for anything in us, but for Christ alone. “In Christ alone, our hope is found….” The reason is because God accepts us in Christ alone. And so whenever a person is saved, when God’s work of salvation comes to bear on his or her life, he or she is accepted by God.

God adopts us.

But that’s not all. We are also adopted by God. Our gracious heavenly Father does not only accept us and forgive us and pardon us, He welcomes us into His own family. He makes us to be His children, and He makes us inheritors of His estate and brothers and sisters of His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. And so He welcomes us into His very family. He no longer calls us servant, but friend, and child. He gives to us all the privileges of His own children. He accepts us and He adopts us. These things God does without our contributing anything to them. The Apostle Paul in the whole New Testament is emphatic that we contribute nothing to our being accepted by God. We contribute nothing to our being adopted by God. They are acts of God’s free grace. He does them all by himself.

God changes us.

But that’s not all God does. He not only accepts us and adopts us, He changes us, because the Lord God is desirous that we would not only be pardoned for our sin and welcomed into His family, but that we would begin to look in our character like His children, because the heavenly Father would have us to fellowship with Him forever, and He cannot fellowship with sin. And so He is in the business of eradicating sin. That will never be finished in this life. We will always wrestle with sin until we breathe our final breath, but our God is actively and powerfully and sovereignly at work changing us so that we die to sin and become more and more like Christ, so that we are matured in the faith, so that we grow up…so that we’re not just always drinking the milk that babies would drink, but that we’re growing up to eat strong meat, like adults. And that’s what theologians call sanctification. It’s all part of the salvation that God is accomplishing on our behalf. God accepts us, He adopts us, and He changes us. He is sanctifying us. He is transforming us.

Just to make sure that we are perfectly clear about where we are going with both our terms and our concepts let us ask and answer three basic questions:

“What is justification?”

And a very good working answer, used in principle by most Christian faiths is:

“Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”

“What is adoption?”

And our answer here is reflective of how Paul uses it in Ephesians 1:5: He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will…  So our answer is:

 “Adoption is [again] an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges, of the sons of God.”

“What is sanctification?”

And now the answer is a little different. It is not an act of God’s free grace that happens one time and it is done once for all time, but it is a work of God’s grace. It keeps on going on. God continues to work at it in us. It is

 “…a work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and to live unto righteousness.”

Now, what in the world am I doing, going through all of these things that God does for us in our salvation? Because of something that we’ve perhaps just read in the second half of Philippians 2:12 that could confuse you. You know, you’re happily reading along about the humiliation and exaltation of Christ, and the next thing you know the Apostle Paul is saying to you, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” I want to be crystal clear about what that means, and about what that doesn’t mean. And I want you to understand exactly what the Apostle Paul is exhorting us to do.

So what in the world does he mean by that phrase? Does he mean that we must somehow save ourselves by our works? That we must somehow justify ourselves by our own efforts? That we must provide the basis of God’s accepting us by our doings?

No! Look at the whole context, anywhere from Philippians 1:27 to this point. Is the Apostle Paul telling you how somebody is converted? No. Is he telling you how someone is justified? No. Is he telling you how you are accepted with God? No. What is he talking about? He’s talking about how Christians become more mature. He’s talking about how Christians grow in godliness. He is exhorting people who have already embraced Christ. They’ve already put their faith in Christ, they’re already trusting Christ alone for salvation. Not faith plus works, not mostly Christ and a little bit of our works, but they’re wholly trusting in Jesus Christ for justification. And he is addressing them and he’s saying, now I want you to grow in grace, I want you to be sanctified, I want you to strive for godliness. So the Apostle Paul is not talking about what we do in order to be converted or justified; he is exhorting us to do something to the end that we would be more like Jesus.

So what does Philippians 2:12 mean, then?

It means that we are to pursue godliness because God is at work in us for our godliness. Philippians 2:12 means that we are to pursue godliness, we are to be actively involved in pursuing holiness. We are to desire to be more godly. We are to work to be more like Christ because God is at work in us that we might be more godly, because God is at work in us that we might be more like Christ. So the Apostle Paul is saying in Philippians 2:12 that we are to pursue godliness because God is at work in us for godliness.

Philippians 2:12-13, in other words, is an encouragement to you. It’s not only an exhortation, it’s not only Paul saying to you that you need to live life in light of the humble, obedient service of Christ displayed in His humiliation and exaltation; it’s not only the Apostle Paul exhorting you to work out your sanctification with fear and trembling: it is the Apostle Paul giving you an encouragement that you can and you will make progress in driving sin from your life.

Let us be clear here about what Paul is NOT saying:

  1. Paul’s teaching is not that God accepts you, and therefore no change is necessary in your life.
  2. Paul’s teaching is not God accepts you, and therefore no change is necessary in your life.
  3. Paul is saying God accepts you, and therefore change is now possible in your life.
  4. Paul is not saying that God accepts you, and therefore it doesn’t matter how you live…God accepts you, and so you should never ever worry about the fact that you’re living most of the time like a pagan.
  5. Paul’s message is not God accepts you, therefore who cares how you live.

Paul’s message is God accepts you; therefore change is now possible.

I want to tell you that this is the most encouraging possible news, because every real Christian wrestles with this reality: “Lord, I know that You have accepted me not because of who I am, not because of what I’ve done, not because of what You saw that I would do. I know that You’ve accepted me not because of me, but because of Jesus. I know that You’ve forgiven me. I know You’ve justified me. I know You’ve adopted me. But, Lord, there are sins in me that have a hold on me that make me wonder whether I really love You and trust in You.”

Now let’s take a look at false teachings about sanctification:

And you know, there are a lot of well-meaning teachers that come along and they’re trying to encourage you – I’m not impugning their motives at all – they’re trying to encourage you, and they say, “You know, Christian, you don’t need to worry about that, because God accepts you and so there’s no change necessary in your life.”

My friends, there are two problems with that! The two problems are:

  1. It’s not biblical! I’m going to show you the next time we’re together that the Apostle Paul over and over and over again says two things: God accepts you, and change is an essential part of what He is doing in you in His great work of salvation. So change is not optional in God’s plan. So the first problem with that comforting word to you that God has shown you grace and therefore it doesn’t matter whether you change or not…the first reason that won’t work is it’s not biblical. Over and over…we’re going to go to Romans 6, we’re going to go to Ephesians 2. We’re going to go to II Thessalonians 1, we’re going to go to Numbers 13, we’re going to go to I Peter 4, we’re going to go to Galatians 5. Over and over, the Apostle Paul and Peter will stress to us that change does matter, that God is in the business of transforming how we live, that what we do does matter. It does not contribute to our justification, it does not contribute to our acceptance with God, it does not contribute to our adoption. But it is a part of what God the Holy Spirit is doing in us to make us be more like Christ. It is a part, in short, of our sanctification.
  2. But there’s a second reason why this teaching doesn’t work, and it is that if a Christian really thinks about it, it is not going to satisfy the deep, deep questions of the heart which continue with the Apostle Paul in Romans 7, and say, ‘Lord, how can it be that You have saved me with such a great salvation and that I continue to do what I don’t want to do, and I continue to not do what I so want to do? Lord, help me.’ And I want to tell you that the Apostle Paul’s message to you here is so much more helpful and encouraging than the message that God has shown you grace and therefore it doesn’t matter how you live. It is so much more helpful, it is so much more encouraging, it is so much more practical.

Now, let me just outline for you again what Paul is asserting. It’s really very simple. Four quick things that he says in verses 12-13:

  1. The first thing that he says is continue to obey. Look at what he says: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence….” So here we see — and it’s not surprising, is it, because he’s just shown you Jesus’ obedience — and then he’s said therefore, and then he says to you what? “Continue to obey.” So he is calling believers to obey. There is no idea in the Apostle Paul’s teaching that obedience is not an essential part of the Christian life. There are many, many well-meaning Christians who don’t believe – or who actively teach – that obedience is not a part of the Christian life. And the Apostle Paul is telling us here, ‘No, no, no! Obedience is vital to the Christian life, so continue to obey.’
  2. Secondly, he says, “Work out your salvation.” And his message is not “save yourself, justify yourself, adopt yourself, get yourself accepted with God by your doing,” because the Apostle Paul has already told us in Romans 4 and Romans 3 and all over the place that that’s not how it works. What he is saying is, ‘Be active in your sanctification in the Christian life. Work out your salvation.’
  3. Third, he says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Now what’s up with that? Is he telling you that he wants you to be depressed and neurotic and jittery in the presence of God all the time? No! What’s the Old Testament image of the godly person? What phrase do we use? “The fear of God. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom….the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge….the godly man fears the Lord.” And so the Apostle Paul is simply telling you there that you are to continue to obey, working out your sanctification in reverent humility of the living God. Why does this make so much sense? Because he’s been talking about Jesus’ being what? Humble. And so as we grow in grace, He wants us to be humble and get humble-er.
  4. Fourth, he says, “…because God is at work in you.” This is what encourages me so much, and there are two things that encourage me. You might have expected him to say ‘Continue to obey, work out your salvation in reverent humility, because if you don’t, you’re in trouble. And let me tell you what: you’re on your own.’ But that’s not what he says. He says do this because God himself is at work in you already, so that you will want to do it, and so that you will do it for His good pleasure in you. That’s incredible.

But do you know what else is encouraging to me about this? It’s that he says this in the present tense. He doesn’t say it in the past tense. He doesn’t say I want you to work out your sanctification in reverent humility, because God has changed you. Now that’s true, because God has changed you. When we become believers, what the Holy Spirit does is He causes us to be born anew. He regenerates us; He gives us a new heart and a new spirit. He causes us to love Christ in a way that we’ve never loved Him before, and to hate sin in ways that we’ve never hated it before.

But the Apostle Paul doesn’t say keep on obeying, keep on pursuing Christian maturity in humble service to others because you’ve already been changed; he says because God is at work in you now to change you. And let me tell you, my friends, that truth keeps me from despair, because one of the great realities that I live with every waking moment is that I know that I am not what I ought to be. And the Apostle Paul is simply saying to you here, ‘Child of God, He’s not finished with you yet. He is at work with you, in you, for you, for His pleasure and glory.’ And I cannot imagine a more comforting and encouraging thing to know in the pursuit of godliness in the Christian life than that my God is not done yet. It keeps me from going over the edge. It keeps me from the brink of despair.

And here’s the main point. The main point is simply this: The sovereignty of God in our salvation and in our sanctification is not permission for us to be passive; But it is a reason for hope. Because the sovereignty of God makes us hopeful that change is possible…not passive, as if no change were necessary.

So we’re not accepted by God because we try hard to live a new life; we’re accepted by God because of what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for us. But having been accepted by God through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, He not only forgives us, He changes our lives.

So the whole passage is about sanctification. It’s not about justification, it’s about sanctification. And that’s very different from our acceptance. You see, this truth is all over the New Testament. It’s the truth that God is at work in us for our growth in godliness; and precisely because He is at work in us, we ourselves are to be pursuing holiness. Let me point you to a few passages that stress this. In Ephesians 2:8-10, we read:  “For by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Now Paul couldn’t have been more clear that your works do not contribute one iota to your acceptance with God. They do not contribute one iota to your being justified. They do not contribute one iota to your being forgiven and pardoned. And then listen to what he says in the next verse — verse 10: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works….”

Now wait a minute. Did Paul have a mental hiccup and forget what he had just said in verses 8 and 9? He started out by saying your works contribute absolutely nothing to your acceptance by God, and then he turns around and says God created you — He renewed you in Christ, He regenerated you, He converted you, He saved you — for good works. Now did Paul forget what he had just said? No. He’s not contradicting himself. Notice where the works are. On which side of our acceptance are they? They are not on the side prior to our acceptance. They’re afterwards. God didn’t save us by our works, He saved us to our works; He didn’t save us through our works, He saved us for our works. In other words, God didn’t change us because our lives changed; our lives changed because God changed us.