Grace For The Journey
I frequently remind you of the truth of Acts 17:28 – that Christians live, and move, and have their being in God and no other. We live in His strength and not our own. It is His divine power that has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3).
So . . . where does human effort fit in? Or should we, as some say, regard human effort as a “work of the flesh” and therefore sinful?
The Bible says in Philippians 2:12-13, “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 according to his good purpose.”
This text is often misused to instill fear into people, warning them that it means that they can lose their salvation. What does it mean to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling?” Paul can hardly be encouraging believers to live in a continuous condition of nervousness and anxiety. That would contradict his many other exhortations to peace of mind, courage, and confidence in the God who is the “author and finisher our salvation.” The Greek word translated “fear” in this context can equally mean “reverence” or “respect.” Paul uses the same phrase in (2 Corinthians 7:15) where he refers to Titus as being encouraged by the Corinthians’ reception of him “with fear and trembling,” that is, with great humility and respect for his position as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul himself came to the Corinthian church in “weakness and fear, and with much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3), mindful of the great and awesome nature of the work in which he was engaged.
The sense in which we are to work out our salvation in fear and trembling is twofold. First, the Greek verb rendered “work out” means “to continually work to bring something to completion or fruition.” We do this by actively pursuing obedience in the process of sanctification, which Paul explains further in Philippians chapter three. He describes himself as “reaching forward” and “pressing on” toward the goal of Christlikeness (Philippians 3:13-14). The “trembling” he experiences is the attitude Christians are to have in pursuing this goal – a healthy fear of offending God through disobedience and an awe and respect for His majesty and holiness. “Trembling” can also refer to a shaking due to weakness, but this is a weakness of higher purpose, one which brings us to a state of dependency on God. Obedience and submission to the God we revere and respect is our “reasonable service” (Romans 12:1-2) and brings great joy. Psalm 2:11 sums it up perfectly: “Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling.” We work out our salvation by going to the very source of our salvation – the Word of God – wherein we renew our hearts and minds (Romans 12:1-2), coming into His presence with a spirit of reverence and awe.
The Amplified Bible sums up Philippians 2:13 best: “[Not in your own strength] for it is God Who is all the while effectually at work in you [energizing and creating in you the power and desire], both to will and to work for His good pleasure and satisfaction and delight.”
“For it is God which works in you” – Every holy purpose, pious resolution, good word, and good work, must come from Him; we must be workers together with Him, that we receive not His grace in vain; because He works in us, therefore work with Him, and work out our own salvation.
“To will and to do” – The power to will and the power to act must necessarily come from God, who is the author both of the soul and body, and of all its powers and energies, but the act of volition and the act of working come from us. God gives power to will, we will through that power; God gives power to act, and we acts through that power. Without the power to will, we can will nothing; without the power to work, we can do nothing. God neither wills for us, nor works in our stead, but He furnishes us with power to do both; we are therefore accountable to God for these powers.
Because God works in us the power to will and the power to do, the apostle exhorts them to work out their own salvation. We cannot do God’s work, we cannot produce in ourselves a power to will and to do; and God will not do our work, He will not work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
Though men have grievously puzzled themselves with questions relative to the will and power of the human being; yet no case can be plainer than that which the apostle lays down here: the power to will and do comes from God; the use of that power belongs to man. He that has not got this power can neither will nor work; he that has this power can do both. But it does not necessarily follow that he who has these powers will use them; the possession of the powers does not necessarily imply the use of those powers, because a man might have them, and not use or abuse them; therefore the apostle exhorts: Work out your own salvation.
Caution: you are entering a spiritual “spin zone” for legalists! Legalists misinterpret and misuse this text of sacred Scripture. They want to create an atmosphere of fear for their followers in order to keep them in line. Legalists darkly warn those who will listen that if they sin, God will reject them and they will lose their salvation.
This is simply not what these verses in Philippians are teaching! The Greek word that the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to use, from which we get “fear” in the Philippians passage above, is “phobos.” “Phobosis” is literally translated as “reverence,” “awe,” or “respect” – not a slavish fear or panic that paralyzes a person. The right emotions of reverence, awe, and respect are to be gleaned from this text, not doubt, dread, or fear regarding our eternal security!
Paul used the very same word to describe the wonderful reception that Titus received from the Christians at Corinth:
“His affection for you is all the greater when he remembers that you were all obedient, receiving him with fear and trembling.” (2 Corinthians 7:15)
Paul even used “phobosto” to describe himself when he came to the Corinthian church, reflecting on the awesome, almighty nature of the calling Jesus placed in his life, taking him from the persecutor of the church to the pastor of the church.
In 1 Corinthians he says, “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.”
To “work out” our salvation (Philippians 2:13), then, means to do all we can (effort), with the proper sense of reverence and awe for the strength of the Almighty, which is how we live a life of obedience and faithfulness before the face of God. We are to actively pursue the things of God in that ongoing process that is often called progressive sanctification. Notice that the phrase is “progressive” sanctification – not perfect obedience! The Christian progresses in the direction of godliness by grace, through faith, straining with human effort . . . but that Christian believer will not be perfected until he or she is received into glory.
In working out our salvation we go to the source of our salvation (the Lord Jesus Christ) and through the many means of grace (Bible study and memorization, prayer, worship, fellowship with the saints, etc.) God renews our minds, enlarges our hearts, and bends our wills so that our efforts, worked out in His strength, are in line with His will for our lives.
In his seminary and graduate school handbook, The Daring Goal: What to Expect When We Accept Christ as Our Life, Richard Foster put it this way:
“Through the Holy Spirit’s guidance and strength, I will order my life according to an overall pattern that conforms to the way of Christ. Over time this process will develop deeply ingrained habits in me so that, at the moment of crisis, inner resources to act in a Christ-like manner are available.”
Our efforts in His strength will, over time, develop deeply ingrained habits that will lead us toward holiness. And that is the only place where significance and success kiss. Let the psalmist close out today’s thoughts: “Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling.” (Psalm 2:11)
This is God’s Word For Today … This Is Grace For The Journey
Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!
Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”
Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”