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; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for [His] good pleasure.
Philippians 2:12-13 NKJV
I think everyone who chooses to study scripture has a favorite passage or verse which speaks to them in a way that has a very important impact on the way they exhibit their faith as they go about their daily lives. The passage I want to share with you today is one that I particularly like and which has influenced me in the way I choose to relate to fellow believers as well as with an unbelieving world. So bear with me as I share with you my thoughts on this advice Paul gives to the believers in Phillipi.
Paul is writing this letter from Rome where he is being held in prison awaiting trial. He knows that the chances are slim that he will ever see them again so he gives them advice on how to live as believers should. While he was with them, they had only to ask their questions of him to receive an answer but now that he was gone they were at a loss as to what to do. So in this passage we find his advice to them begins with the instruction to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. Unfortunately this phrase has often been misinterpreted to justify some sort of works based salvation, when in fact Paul is telling the Philippians something quite different.
The words “work out” are actually one Greek word “katergazomai” which means to work in order to fashion a result making one fit for something. That is fit as in fitness. In other words, as we would say today, you need to “workout”. Paul is simply telling the believers that in order to grow the first thing they needed to know was to “workout”. Of this passage Charles Ryrie comments that they needed to “learn to stand on their own feet”. So this passage is all about the individual learning how to grow strong in their faith in order to stand up to an unbelieving world.
The word for salvation in this passage is most often used to refer to an individuals personal safety. With that in mind, and seeing that in the context of this passage where Paul is discussing the believers responsibility to exhibit humility just as Jesus did, it seems they are being told that they would need to grow strong in order to withstand the trials that would come their way. Doing this with an attitude of “fear and trembling” refers to an individuals anxiety because of their knowledge that they might lack the strength necessary to do this. Paul addresses that anxiety by telling them that God is in charge of not only providing the strength they will need, but also engineer the circumstances that they will find themselves in.
I personally believe, though, that the most telling advice we are given in this passage is found in the two words “your own”. Paul's advice is that we concentrate our efforts on our personal workout, and not that of others. I spent some time this week as I often do, talking with a friend and catching up on what has been going on in his life lately. It's something we all do when we greet someone we know and ask “what's happening?” or something similar. In a way, with the advent of the Internet and the number of sites you can visit, it's not too hard to figure out what is going on in the body of Christ at any particular moment by just observing the subjects being discussed. I have noticed lately that there seems to be a lot of talk about the rapture, which I believe there should be, but also a lot of opinions given about who will go and when.
Now you might wonder, as I do, that if we all share the same Holy Spirit, why are there differences of opinions on a particular subject? If I don't agree with the conclusion someone else has come to does that mean I am a little slow? Is there something wrong with my “listening” to the Holy Spirit when I ask questions about certain things, and do I only hear what I want to hear? That of course is always possible, yet there is also another side of this coin and it is that there will also always be those who feel they are a little smarter than the average person and have “figured out” something that others have missed. I sometimes look at those individuals and can't help but remember the Gnostics of Paul's time who claimed to have a special knowledge as a result of their desire to look “deeper”.
With that in mind, do you notice the very next piece of advice Paul shares with us?
Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,
Philippians 2:14-15 NKJV
So you think it's just coincidence the subject now becomes how we relate to others in the body? I think Paul knows perfectly well that as believers workout and grow stronger in their faith, some will succumb to the temptation to try to tell others how they should workout their faith as well. When this happens, the result is a body of believers who spend time arguing rather than sharing the gospel. Notice too that Paul says that if we fall into that trap we cause harm. Now your first thought might be the harm is to other believers, and it certainly would be, yet Paul goes on to talk about how we should appear to the world as “lights”. The obvious conclusion is that by arguing and complaining we dim our light to an unbelieving world. The result is that it causes harm by convincing others that we are no different than they are so why bother with this “Christian” thing?
The truth of the matter is that if you look closely at this passage it would seem to me that Paul is telling us to simply look inward when we workout as believers and resist the temptation to look outward at others. If we do that we have the promise that it is God at work in our lives and He will guide us in the way we should go and answer the questions that we might have as we walk in His path. As we learn we can share what we learn with others, but always with the attitude of humility and gentleness that Jesus demonstrated when He walked this earth. It is these attitudes that will attract those who have not yet chosen to believe, not complaining and arguing among ourselves.
The gospel of our Lord, the good news, is that anyone who chooses to believe can be saved. This may appear to many as too simplistic but isn't it the very message preached so long ago?
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name:
John 1:12 NKJV
So they said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household."
Acts 16:31 NKJV
Look in, not out.