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Intro: One of the most prevalent debates in religious history has centered on the relationship between the power of God and the responsibility of believers in salvation. Is our salvation and spiritual growth essentially a matter of passive faith or of active obedience? Does God do it with us or without us? That debate is still active today.
There are many who emphasize God’s role to the extent of virtually eliminating the believer’s involvement in his own salvation or sanctification. A common modern maxim is, “Let go and let God.” Another is, “I can’t; God can.” This view tends to be mystical and subjective, focusing on personal feelings and experiences. Some teach that trying to strive against sin or to discipline oneself is futile, counterproductive, and even unspiritual.
On the other hand, there are some who stress self-effort to the virtual exclusion of dependence on divine power. While actively promoting moral purity, Bible study and obedience to law, the view their salvation as something they have earned. Through their efforts they make themselves “good enough” to go to heaven. Jesus faced this approach often among the Pharisees of His day.
What does the Bible teach? Is it all God’s doing, all the believer’s doing, or a combination of both? Scripture makes it clear that it involves both God’s power and human response.
I. Philippians 2:12-13 – Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now 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 do for His good pleasure. Paul presents the appropriate resolution. He is content to speak of both God’s work and man’s efforts and makes no effort to rationally harmonize the two. Salvation comes through both man’s response and God’s power. Before we consider this passage specifically, consider this divine-human synergy as viewed elsewhere in scripture, both in the OT and NT.
A. Crossing the Red Sea: Moses’ cry to the people as the Pharaoh pursued them. .Exodus 14:13-14 – 13 And Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever.14 The LORD will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace.” God would save them through His power alone.
1. But were the Israelites to do nothing (let go, let God)? Notice vs. 15-16: 15 And the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to Me? Tell the children of Israel to go forward.16 But lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it. And the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea. The people were not to merely keep silent and be passive, but to participate actively in their own salvation. They had to choose to go forward at God’s command. His purpose for them was to be accomplished through them.
B. The Conquest of Jericho in Joshua 6. God promised Israel (and Joshua) that He would give them the city. Joshua 6:1, 2 – God says, “I have given Jericho into your hand, and its king, and the mighty men of valor.”The words are past tense (“I have given”). When God said this to Joshua the city was still standing and well secured against attack. How could it belong to Israel? It simply means that God had made the city available to them – if they did something.
1. What followed the promise were the specific commands on marching around the city, and the shouting and blowing the trumpets (v.3-5) There was something for them to do.
2. The Israelites could not make a walled city fall by marching around it and shouting. (I suspect they knew that). They could not destroy the walls without God’s power. They had to trust in God to do it and God alone did it. Notice that on the 7th day after carefully following God’s instructions to that point, Joshua said in vs. 16 – “shout for Jehovah has given you the city.” There is that phrase again, but the city is still standing. Joshua was a believer, a man of great faith. They were coming to the final act. The marching was done, the trumpets had sounded. “It was all over but the shouting“. And the walls were still standing.
3. Notice vs. 20 – When they followed the final instruction, the walls fell. God gave them the city. But it says at the end of vs. 20 – “they took the city“ – I thought God gave it to them? He did, conditionally. They had to do what God said. The victory was the result of God’s sovereign work and the people’s faithful response.
C. 2 Peter 1:3-10: This dual emphasis is also found in the teaching of the New Testament. In his second letter, Peter, reminds believers that God’s divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. (2 Peter 1:3-4)
1. Based on the divine provision, Peter then charges believers in v. 5-11 – For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, 6 knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with godliness, 7 godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 The person who lacks these things is blind and shortsighted, and has forgotten the cleansing from his past sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, make every effort to confirm your calling and election, because if you do these things you will never stumble. 11 For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly supplied to you. (HCSB) They were to supplement their faith with goodness, knowledge, self-control, love, etc. “For in this way” you will enter into the eternal kingdom that has been supplied to you.
D. Paul described his own salvation in this fashion: 1 Cor. 15:10 –But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. In this inspired statement, the apostle makes it clear that God’s divine grace and power undergird the obedience of believers.
E. James admonished, James 4:7-10 – 7 Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up. Believers’ sanctification and ultimate salvation requires diligent effort. Yet it is empowered by God, through the work of His Spirit in the believer. James had said earlier, “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:17).To not do what one knows should be done is sin: “To one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).
II. “Work Out Your Own Salvation”(Phil 2:12) – The main verb in this section is found in verse 12: “Work out” – Notice that Paul does not tell us to work toward our salvation, or even to work for our salvation, but to work out our salvation. This is a compound word in the Greek (katergazomai -kat-er-gad’-zom-ahee) that signifies the energy needed to finish a task or to cause to be finished. (energeo [en-erg-eh’-o] is the root, used by Paul later in vs. 13.) Salvation is described is the Bible as both a present reality (we are the saved); and as a future attainment (we will be saved – here our salvation must be “worked out”, or brought to a completion. There is a sense in which we cause our salvation to be completed. Paul uses the same word to say that generosity causes thanksgiving (2 Cor. 9:11); James uses it to say that trials cause (produce) patience (James 1:3). How do we do this?
A. The Context: – Verse 12 begins with “Therefore” or “So then”. We need to look back at what the apostle has written previously.
1. Phil. 1:27 – “let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ” – This is a call to be unified, “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel”. They were called to endure suffering and to “of the same mind,” have “the same love,” and to be “in full accord and of one mind” (2:2).
2. Phil. 2:3 – They should, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than [themselves]” Then Paul presents the example of Christ on the cross; He humbled Himself –finished the mission (obedient even unto death) and God highly exalted Him. The Philippians are called to be humble, united, and finish their salvation. The essence of living the Christian life is being like Jesus: “The one who says he abides in [Christ] ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 John 2:6).
3. Notice that the immediate context is focused on humility and the unity among Christians as a group. We might also notice that all the verbs in this section are plural, not singular. Christians complete their salvation by being selflessly united. In other words, salvation is not worked out in our lives – it has not been completed in us – until we are of one mind and spirit with our brothers and sisters in Christ. When there is “grumbling or disputing” (2:14) in the church, we need this admonishment to work out our salvation.
B. “…Just as you have always obeyed” (2:12) – Consistent obedience – The Philippians had obeyed God in the pursuit of salvation. Paul tells them to continue to obey God. Being under grace does not change the necessity of obedience to God. Completing our salvation requires a consistent obedience.
1. Obeyed translates a word from which the English word acoustics derives. hupakouo (hoop-ak-oo’-o); to hear under (as a subordinate), i.e. to listen attentively; by implication, to heed or conform to a command or authority; placing oneself under what has been heard, and therefore of submitting and obeying. Implied in this word is the believer’s responsibility to listen attentively to God’s Word so as to obey.
a. In Acts 16, when the apostle preached the gospel in Philippi for the first time, Lydia obeyed the gospel message. She was already a worshiper of God, and as she “was listening, …the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14). Note: this opening of Lydia’s heart was not a mystical or supernatural operation on her heart by God. She was influenced by the Spirit of God through the preaching of the word. Compare Luke’s statement in Acts 17:2-3 – 2 Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.” The word translated “explaining” in vs. is the same word used to describe what God did to Lydia’s heart (opening)
b. The Philippian jailer, who may have been among those to whom the apostle was now writing, after Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house, …he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household” (Acts 16:32-33).
c. The Jews in Berea “received the word with great eagerness,” because they were “examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
d. To preach the gospel is more than merely sharing one’s faith and offering an invitation; it is to call sinners to obey God, “to bring about the obedience of faith… for His name’s sake” (Rom 1:5).
C. “Not in my presence only, but now much more in my absence” – The apostle may be encouraging accountability. The Philippians may have had such a personal connection with Paul that he feared they might obey just to please him, and therefore be tempted to not be obedient if he was absent. The presence of authority usually motivates us act as the authority desires. It is different when we are alone or there is no visible presence. How did we act when the teacher left the room? Parents are away? No policeman is around? The boss isn’t watching? Paul depicts their continuing obedience as even more vital when he was absent.
1. We must not act as “men-pleasers.” Colossians 3:22– – 22 Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eye service, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God.23 And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men,24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. Believers must never be primarily dependent on their preacher, 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.
D. “…with fear and trembling” – Paul connects obedience with a full understanding of the consequences of disobedience. Although God is loving, merciful, and forgiving, He nevertheless holds believers accountable. Knowing that we serve a holy and just God, we must always live with fear and trembling.
1. Fear translates phobos (fob-os) a strong word that means alarm, fright, or terror
2. Trembling is from tromos (trom-os) which refers to shaking and is the word from which the English word tremor derives. Both of those are proper reactions to the awareness of one’s own spiritual weakness and the power of temptation. The Lord seeks such an attitude in His children, as His words in Isa 66:2 indicate: “To this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.”
a. The fear and trembling here are associated with a humble spirit that does not want to displease God. One who strives to do all things right before God.
3. Psalm 111:10 – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. This is not a fear of being doomed to eternal torment, nor a hopeless dread of judgment that leads to despair. It is rather a holy concern to give God the honor He deserves and avoid the chastening of His displeasure. Such fear protects against temptation and sin and gives motivation for obedient, righteous living.
4. John MacArthur writes… To have such godly fear and trembling involves more than merely acknowledging one’s sinfulness and spiritual weakness. It is the solemn, reverential fear that springs from deep adoration and love. It acknowledges that every sin is an offense against holy God and produces a sincere desire not to offend and grieve Him, but to obey, honor, please, and glorify Him in all things.
Conclusion: We have considered v. 12. It seems incredible that anyone who has read and understood this verse could believe that one is saved before and apart from his obedience to the will of God. We have a part in our salvation. Paul wrote elsewhere… “Let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1) How can I cleanse myself? I cannot do enough good things that it We must “work out” our salvation through humble obedience to, and a true sense of accountability and reverential respect for God’s commands.
But we dare not by pass the next verse. In fact, we cannot fully understand this verse, or what it means to work out our salvation apart from v. 13. God is working in us. The Lord willing we will look at Phil 2:13 next Sunday.
- Do you tremble at His word?
- If you are a Christian, are you “working out your salvation” through humble, selfless, and continuing obedience?
- If you are not a Christian, will you obey Him today? Repent and be baptized.
Many shun the command to be baptized in water for fear that by being baptized they are attempting to earn their salvation or be saved by their own works. But the Bible teaches that we have a part to play in our own salvation. Obedience is an integral element of saving faith. After Peter commanded the people at Pentecost to repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins he called on them in Acts 2:40 – “save yourselves from this untoward generation”
The water in the baptistry does not wash away sin… the blood of Jesus does. But that does not make baptism unnecessary. Consider Paul’s statement in Col 2:12-13 – 2 buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13 And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses – The forgiveness (spiritual resurrection) that accompanies baptism is a work, but it is a work of God. Submit to God.