Always loved: what it means to ‘work out’ salvation. A report of Jonathan’s sermon on Philippians 2:1-13


‘This is an amazing passage about the person and work of Jesus, which contains awe-inspiring truth.’ Jonathan was beginning his sermon yesterday on Philippians 2:1-13. ‘Human language,’ he continued, ‘is stretched to the limit to express the glory of our salvation.’

Living together as God’s people

Jonathan told us he would be focussing on verses 12 and 13, but he touched briefly on the earlier part of the chapter, verses 1-11. The description of Jesus coming among us (v5-11) is more than simply a doctrinal statement. St Paul’s emphasis, as he makes clear in verses 1-4 is to teach his readers, and us, how to live in relationship with one another. Paul’s teaching of doctrine about Jesus had a purpose – the truth we find in the doctrine must become a way of life.

Verses 1-4 give a call to unity in the church. Jonathan listed some of the things which can disturb this unity, summed up by Paul as ‘selfish ambition’ and ‘vain conceit.’ (v3) Jonathan’s list included  ‘advancing yourself and your dreams and your goals over and above advancing the kingdom of God,’ ‘the longing to be admired and respected,’ ‘a general concentration and fixation upon ourselves.’ ‘These are things,’ he concluded, ‘which will destroy unity in any church.’

In verses 1-5 Paul gives us the unanswerable example of Jesus – his humility, obedience, and self-renunciation. Jesus came to serve, to seek the Father’s way, to relinquish glory in order to save us. It follows that humility, obedience, and self-renunciation should be the marks of our lives.

Jonathan challenged us to reflect on the implications of this for our relationships in the church. These relationships should be reconfigured in the light of who Jesus is, and the fact that one day ‘every knee will bow’ before Jesus. (v10)

How Christlike are our relationships, how free from self-focus? To what extent do they bear the mark of humility, obedience and selflessness?

‘Work out your salvation

Jonathan then turned to verses 12 and 13.

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 fulfil his good purpose.

Notice that word ‘therefore’, Jonathan said.  What we are being told here is based on what has just been said about the obedience of Jesus – what he has done, and what he will do. The words ‘Jesus is Lord’ can only be said authentically by those who are living as obedient disciples. It’s a contradiction to say ‘No, Lord’ – if we say ‘no’ to him, then we are signifying that at that moment he is not our Lord. Therefore the importance of that word ‘continue’ in v12.

Now, asked Jonathan, what does St Paul mean by ‘working out our salvation?’  Isn’t salvation a free gift of God, by grace, through faith, with even that faith being a gift from God?  I can never make myself perfect. I need to obtain salvation purely through dependence on the Jesus who died and rose for me. Salvation is a gift – the unmerited, sovereign favour of God. Salvation is entirely the work of God.

So what is Paul on about?  The key thing is to notice that these verses are instructions given to people who are in Christ, people who are living in union with Jesus, people who have been saved, who have received salvation.  These people need, Paul implies, to work out what that fact looks like in their lives.

It is not a question of God beginning the process of our salvation, and somehow requiring our help to keep it going, to finish it. Our salvation, from beginning to end, is a gift of God. All we contribute to salvation is the sin we are delivered from.

Paul doesn’t say work for your salvation, or work up your salvation, or work in your salvation. Instead, he says ‘work out your salvation.’

Christmas gifts

Jonathan used the example of Christmas presents – as soon as we unwrap them and hold them in our hands, they are ours, as much ours as they will ever be. But often a gift will need assembled; we’ll need to read the instruction manual to get it to do whatever it is supposed to do.

The Philippians have received a great gift – but they are in the process of working out the implications  of that gift in their lives.

What does ‘working out’ look like?

A Christian might mistakenly assume that since salvation is ‘of God’ from beginning to end, then there’s not much effort involved in following Jesus.  But this is wrong, said Jonathan. We are called to ‘pursue a life of holiness….It will demand your time, it’ll change your relationships, it’ll impact your choices, it will consume your whole being.’

The Greek for ‘work out’ carries the sense ‘don’t stop half-way.’  Don’t settle for anything less than the full benefits offered by the gospel. Take it seriously!  We should be seeing progress in our discipleship – as we are enabled to overcome temptations, to avoid repeating failures. If the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. – Galatians 5:22-23) is not increasingly evident in our lives, then we are not progressing, not working out our salvation.

God works in us

But how is it, Jonathan reflected, that we have any interest in working out our salvation. If we’re honest, half the time we are not particularly interested in working out our salvation?

The amazing thing is that God is at work in us! Even at times when everything in a Christian is going in the opposite direction, God is still at work.

God ‘works in you to will and to act according to his own good purpose.’ (v13) We ‘work out’ what God has ‘worked in.’  Our actions are prompted and enabled, and ‘energised’ (the word used for ‘work’ in verse 13 means ‘energy’ in Greek) by God, though we are still responsible for those actions, responsible for saying ‘Yes!’ to God.  God’s desire to see something in our lives becomes our desire; our action in response to that desire is an expression of the God within us.

Our conquering a temptation or letting go of a habitual sin is evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, evidence of the work within us of the God without whom we could never work out our salvation.

Fear and Trembling

We are to work out our salvation ‘with fear and trembling’ (v12)

What does this ‘fear and trembling’ mean?

It’s not, Jonathan said, the fear and trembling that somehow we might end up in hell. Rather it’s fear and trembling at the wonder of the gift we have been given – the Almighty God is at work in us. Awe and amazement is an appropriate response.

It is not a fearful cowering before a tyrant. Rather, we fear and tremble because we are aware of our own powerlessness when it comes to living holy lives. It’s a fear and trembling which does not lead us to hide from God, but ‘drives us into the arms of God, in the certainty that we can do nothing, and that we are nothing without him.’

‘Finally and most simply,’ Jonathan concluded ‘fear and trembling means knowing that I am always visible, recognising that I am always understood, but rejoicing that I am always loved.’

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