Sermon, January 5, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
Happy New Year, everyone! I hope we’ve all enjoyed the holidays that we’ve celebrated over the last few weeks and have come down from that and are ready to face a new year with anticipation and excitement.
As we pick up this new year, we are returning to Philippians again, here in chapter two. You’ll remember that we ended up working through the Christ hymn of verses 5-11 during Advent, and it was such a perfect thing to do during that specific season, focusing on the person and work of Christ at the same time that we were celebrating his incarnation and, as we looked at in that last Sunday before Christmas, what it will look like when he comes again, the second and final advent of Christ.
So let’s continue on and look at the text that follows immediately after that beautiful doctrinal, Christological statement. Where does Paul go next? Listen, this is God’s Holy, inspired Word:
12 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, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
The Word of the Lord.
Well, everyone, we’ve got another one of those “therefores,” don’t we? And like always, we have to see what the therefore is there for. That’s not a word that we use in our everyday speaking so much. When we mean “therefore” in our speech, we would most often likely say, “because of this” or “because of that….” And of course if you heard someone say that, the question in your mind would immediately be “because of what?,” because that phrase makes no sense without whatever just came before in the conversation—we have to know what the “this” is. All that is to say, as we approach the text for today, we of course need to remember that both this text and the Christ hymn that came before are part of a larger context in the entire letter to the Philippians.
If we can remember all the way back to December, we remember that the Christ hymn is where it is because it is Paul, in the preceding verses is using the truth about Christ as the ultimate example of humility. Christ is the ultimate picture of humility. And why does Paul give them that picture? Because he told them just before to deal with each other with great humility. And why does he do that? Because just before that he said humility is the path to unity in the church. And before that, he told them why unity was essential—because there is opposition coming and they are going to suffer. And why did he tell them they are going to suffer? Because that is what happens when they do the first thing he tells them to do. The first imperative statement in the letter, way back in chapter 1:27, where he says, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Remember that? I looked back, I know it was a while ago, it was actually November 3 that I preached on that passage. But all of this, for context, has been a working out, an extension of that command to the Philippians.
We’ve gone into a lot of detail about each phrase that has followed, but in short, starting back in chapter 1 verse 27, Paul has said, “Remember who you belong to and live like citizens of heaven (that’s the imperative, his main point)—when you do, the world is going to push back, so you’re going to have to stay united, and to stay united you’re going to need to be humble, but look at this example of being humble you have, it’s Jesus.” That’s 1:27-2:11 in a nutshell.
Then we come to our text today, and this “therefore” stretches all the way back to the beginning of this big section and Paul returns, with a little bit different phrasing, to the imperative that he started with. He restates that instruction and says, “work out your own salvation.” That is a direct parallel, a return to the instruction, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel.” We summarized that first one as “live like you’re a citizen of heaven,” and the one in today’s text could be, “live like the saved person you are.” Work out what it looks like living as a saved person, one who has salvation. Live like a heaven citizen, live like a saved person. See the clear parallel?
On a larger doctrinal level, by looking at that parallel, and taking the entire passage together, we’re proving why context is so important. I’ll be honest, believing what I do—that I am not the cause of my own salvation, I don’t contribute anything to it, my works don’t in any way save me—since I believe that, I choke a little when I see a phrase that might on its face sound like it contradicts that. Work out your own salvation. Wow, those five words by themselves sure make it sound like I have to do something to get my salvation. Work out your own salvation. People have used that phrase to justify a works-based salvation for a long time, but that can’t possibly be what Paul means here.
If we’re not careful with passages and read them in context we can come up with some pretty strange, and even contradictory doctrines. With the right cherry-picking of Scripture, you can get it to say just about anything. Last week, somehow I came across a Youtube channel that was really quite funny, and the video that led me there was a trailer that they had edited for the movie “Elf,” which I imagine quite a few of you have seen. It’s a really funny movie that we had just watched because we watch it at some point around Christmas every year. But the trailer that the makers of this Youtube channel had done was edit a trailer with clips from the movie, with the right music, the right words on the screen, the right dressing, to make “Elf” look like a suspenseful thriller kind of movie. It was hilarious, and brilliant! And they’ve done this with many movies, editing trailers for movies that make them look like something completely other than what they are. It gave me pause, because I immediately thought about how scripture needs to be treated. If you can cherry-pick scenes from a silly comedy, and arrange them in such a way to make it look like a horror film, look at the power of context!
So, that’s a bit of an aside, but in a way it a caution to all of us to test everything we read in scripture against both its immediate context and the entire counsel of scripture, otherwise when we get to difficult passages, we can be easily swayed in wrong directions. Heresies are built squarely on taking scripture out of context.
Thankfully, Paul tells us exactly what he means if we recognize this phrase as an extension or restating of his imperative, and he even rejects specifically a works-based righteousness. Let’s work through this phrase by phrase, because Paul actually says a number of things before he gets to that point:
Therefore, my beloved
Again, Paul reminds us that the Philippians are near and dear to his heart, and in the first chapter he gave us so many reasons why they were beloved by him, and he restates the bulk of that next, he says
As you have always obeyed, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence
He says, like he did in chapter 1, that he has so much joy because of them because they have truly been partners in the gospel! Every time he has visited them, he has seen their faithful obedience, their living out of the gospel. He’s seen it with his own eyes, but even more, he’s heard the same reports from people like Timothy and Epaphroditus when they’ve visited. He is confirming that they have been a strong and faithful church whether he is there teaching them or he isn’t. In between the “therefore” and the instruction, he confirms that this is something that they are already doing. He says all the evidence points to you having been and continuing to be a faithful, obedient church. So in how he phrases this, maybe because they are so beloved by him, he’s buttering them up a little bit before he delivers the instruction, when he continues,
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
Now we get to it. Paul just said that all signs point to them being a strong church. They may not be the biggest, or the richest, or the most influential, but on their zeal for the gospel and their Christian fellowship, they are spot on, he just said so. But he doesn’t say to them “just keep doing what you’re doing!” Even to this group, the ones that appear to have it figured out, he says “keep working on what it means to live like a Christian.” Keep working out your own salvation.
Now that we’ve gotten back to it, there’s that difficult phrase again, the one we could so easily misinterpret. It’s clear if we look at it critically. He says work out your salvation. Not work toward, or work at, he says work out. It’s tricky when we use “out” in a few different ways. He’s not saying figure out your own salvation so that you can get it. He is saying you have salvation already, now work out the application of that in your life. How does the fact that you have salvation (and he says “your own salvation,” further assuming that it’s something they already have), how does that change how your life looks, how does that work its way out in your day-to-day? See again how this is an extension of the first time he said this? So we are applying the salvation that exists, the heaven citizenship, to our daily lives, as individuals and the church.
So that’s big point #1 – It’s that God is telling us here to consciously, continuously, work out what it means to live like a saved person, and a saved people, in our earthly lives.
And the second point is that the stakes for this type of living are extremely high. God tells us how we should do that, with fear and trembling. Fear and trembling? How important is it that we properly understand what the previous phrase means, if we’re to do so with fear and trembling! If working out your own salvation means that you’ve got to do it or else, then the fear and trembling qualifier is horrifying! Figure out your own way how to be saved, oh, and you should be terrified about whether or not you get it right. Yikes!
The fear and trembling here does emphasize the weightiness, the seriousness of the command, but not in that way, not that you’re going to lose your salvation if you don’t get it right. No, Paul is reminding you how big and how powerful, and how great a God you now serve. This is no small thing, this working out process is your whole life, not just a piece, it’s your only real job, for the rest of your life. Fear and tremble at the awesomeness of the Lord, the God you now serve. Remember, this is only one verse after Paul illustrated the power and majesty of Christ, to whom every knee will bow to his lordship. Get that sort of fear and trembling in your mind. The greater the lord you serve is, the more weighty is your responsibility to your service. And since Christ is infinitely great, your service is infinitely weighty—that’s why the fear and trembling.
So again point #1, keep working at what it means to live like a saved person, and then point #2, and it is a matter of utmost importance and a massive responsibility. That is the meat of verse 12. It’s a really good thing that there is a verse 13, because verse 12 on its own would feel like an enormous burden. But there is verse 13:
For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Hallelujah! Great news! That stuff that Paul was just talking about, the working out of salvation, and the seriousness of it all, it’s really all about God! God working in you, through you. That’s what it is, not you. One of the biggest sources of reading the Bible the wrong way, the times when it happens the most, is when we try to make a passage about ourselves. Paul knew, and the Spirit knew as he inspired Paul to write it, that our self-centered minds would, after reading that, instantly go to figuring out how to make ourselves better, how to do more good works, how to earn salvation. So, to head that off he reminds us—it’s not about you. It’s about God. It’s always about God.
So point #3 is that it’s not you, it’s God. All of this that Paul is talking about, it’s not about you, it’s about God. As Christians, you are God’s hands and feet in the world. He is working through you to build his church, he is working through you to witness about himself to the world. He is using you, as Paul says it, to accomplish his will, and also to do the work that he pleases. Everything good that you do is him! That’s where the fear and trembling comes back, when we realize the awesomeness of that, that when we work in this world, we are doing the bidding of almighty God. He is using us to accomplish his purposes.
It brings me great joy, and it should you too, whenever I dwell on the fact that God is in control, because he is infinitely wiser than me, his ways are above my ways, his will is way better than mine. So often people struggle with Christianity because they don’t want to let go of the idea of themselves having a free will. We need to get to the point where we can say, I don’t want my will! My will is terrible! Because my will never choose God. That’s the problem with what we refer to as Arminianism, the idea that God gives you an opportunity to be saved and it’s up to you to choose it. Your natural free will will never choose God. It may feel like a choice when you give your life to Christ, but it is, as Paul says here, “God working in you.”
So where does that put us? What are we to do? Are we to sit around and just wait for “God to use me?” Of course not! There is no sitting, it’s all working! God has called us and he wants to do just what he’s been saying here. Work out what it means to be a servant of Christ, and be incredibly serious about it, because God’s got a lot of work to do through you. So what does that work look like? What does living like a saved person look like? It looks like a lot of things, but let’s just look at a few practical applications.
It’s a new year, a time when we often make new resolutions. Joy in the work that Christ has for you to do for him and his church this year. Resolve first to get to know your savior better. Cultivate spiritual disciplines of reading the Word and spending time in prayer. I read somewhere that to read the Bible cover to cover in a year, it actually only takes 9 minutes a day. This book, the Bible, is God speaking to you, it is your path to know him better. Spend time each day in prayer. I promise that if you do those two things, you will get to know your savior better. That is the vertical dimension, your personal relationship with Christ. But on the horizontal, resolve to love not only God but also his church. Loving the church is cultivating real fellowship with the people around you, real Christian fellowship. I can’t tell you exactly what that looks like, might be a good thing to pray about it. And as an extension of loving the church, part of that is loving to bring people into it! We are God’s hands and feet in the world. This truth is not just for the people in this room, it’s for everyone.
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to accomplish his purposes. Here we are the start of 2020. What will this church look like at the end of 2020 if we all resolved this day to daily cultivate a deeper relationship with Christ by bathing ourselves in his Word and prayer each day, cultivated fellowship in ways and depths we’ve never tried, and spread the gospel to everyone around us with a boldness and vulnerability we’ve never offered? Amen.
Heavenly Father, work, work, work, in and through us this day. We know that all the good we’ve ever done is all a work of your Spirit in us, so we ask you to pour it out on us. Give us boldness we’ve never experienced to do big things and pray for big things. We don’t know what those big things are, we don’t know what work you have for us in this congregation for the next year, but we come to you and lay ourselves at your feet. Here we are, send us. You are the giver of all good gifts, the ruler of our entire lives, use us to accomplish all of your purposes. In Jesus’s name, Amen.