“Work Out Your Own Salvation?” (Philippians 2:1-18)

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 27, 2020

“Work Out Your Own Salvation?” (Philippians 2:1-18)

Last Sunday we began a series of four straight weeks with readings from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Last week our theme from chapter 1 was “For Your Progress and Joy in the Faith.” Paul said that he was writing to the Philippians to help them make progress and find joy in the Christian faith. This week, we move into chapter 2, where Paul continues along those same lines. And we’ll begin our message today by looking at the part of our text where Paul tells the Philippians: “Work out your own salvation.”

“Work Out Your Own Salvation?” Huh? Did I hear that right? What’s going on, Paul, have you lost your mind? How can you say, “Work out your own salvation”? I mean, after all, you’re the same Paul who told us in Romans, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” And in Galatians you told us, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse.” Likewise in Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works.” But now here in Philippians, Paul, you’re telling us, “Work out your own salvation”? This does not compute.

Look, if I have to work out my own salvation, I’m pretty sure I’d be toast. My works just won’t work. They’re not good enough. I can’t do enough. Have I loved my neighbor as much as I love myself? No. Do I love God with my whole, heart, soul, mind, and strength? No. I do not keep God’s law well enough to merit my salvation. So how can Paul say, “Work out your own salvation”? And he adds, “with fear and trembling.” Yeah, it would definitely be with fear and trembling if I tried to earn my way into heaven! I would tremble with fear at the prospect of having to work for my salvation. I can’t climb that mountain; I know it.

Well, as always, a little context will help to clear things up. Paul here is not suggesting that we can possibly work our way into salvation. Nothing of the sort. Paul has not lost his mind or lost the gospel. It’s still, as always: You are saved by grace, through faith, apart from works. So don’t be alarmed. Paul knows what he’s talking about.

What then is Paul saying here with his “Work out your own salvation”? Friends, he is not telling you how to work your way into salvation, how to work your way into God’s favor. No, you have salvation, you have God’s grace and favor, purely because of what Christ has done for you. Paul is speaking here to us Christians who are already saved, by grace alone. And he is saying to work out your salvation, that is, to live it out, to live out your faith in a life of love and good works. Not in order to be saved. But because you are already saved. Big difference.

More context. Let’s finish the verse. Yes, Paul does say, “Work out your own salvation.” But what comes next? “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” The “fear and trembling” part is simply a recognition that you are a sinner and that without God’s grace and mercy you would indeed be toast.

But now notice: “Work out your own salvation . . . for it is God who works in you.” That’s the key. God is at work in you, to enable you to work out your salvation. You don’t do this on your own. God is the one doing the work, giving you a new heart and a new mind and new strength, so that you can live out your faith in a life of love and good works. God is at work in you, “both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Brothers and sisters, you aren’t doing this on your own. God has given you his Holy Spirit, so that you can live a sanctified life. This is his will for you. You are new people in Christ. You are baptized Christians. That makes a difference. So now you can and you will live differently.

Oh, not that you will do this perfectly. By no means. We are still sinners, and we live this life with that old Adam hanging around our neck. It’s a battle. It’s a struggle. And the struggle is real. Sometimes we slip and fall. We slip back into the ways of the world, serving our own desires of the flesh: Pride, lust, selfishness. Unkindness, unforgiveness. These are not the fruit of the Spirit. These are the ways of the world. And these are the sins, the very real sins, that dog us our whole life long. Truly, if we are to be saved, it will definitely be by grace. We will always need God’s forgiveness, even as Christians.

But sinners are not all of who we are. We are also saints. We are God’s people, baptized Christians, new creations in Christ. God has given us a heart of flesh in place of our heart of stone. We do know love, and we know how to love, because God has first loved us.

How has God loved us? Paul tells us, right in our text from Philippians 2, right in the verses just before the “Therefore, work out your salvation” part. It’s in the section about the person and work of Christ: “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

This is love, God’s love for us. This is the gospel. It’s all about Jesus. He, the eternal Son of God, came down from heaven for us men and for our salvation. Jesus walked the servant path. He came to do the will of God, to rescue humanity. That meant walking the way of the cross. For it was only by the Son of God, coming as our brother, fulfilling the law in our stead, then dying in our place as the sacrifice for our sins–it is only in this way that our sins are forgiven and we gain right standing with God. It’s all by grace. It’s all a gift. It’s all about Jesus. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

So this then is the basis for what follows, namely, the call to work out our salvation in a holy life. “Therefore”–in other words, because of what Christ has done to save you–“Therefore, work out your salvation,” etc.

Now what does this holy life, this sanctified life, look like? We see descriptions of it throughout our text. Some of the things that Paul includes: “being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” This is talking about our life together as a congregation, being unified, all of us being on the same page. This shared life has to do with how we treat one another: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” This is not how we act according to our old sinful nature. That nature is essentially selfish: “What’s in it for me?” But we are new persons in Christ, and we have a new nature. We have the mind of Christ, who did humble himself and did serve others in love. Now, as Christians, we have that same mindset. Paul even says it: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who,” and then he goes on to describe how Christ came to serve. That’s the mind that is in you now, fellow Christians, because you are baptized and have received the Spirit of Christ. This then is the gospel basis for all of Paul’s appeals and exhortations to us Christians to live a new and different kind of life.

And this different kind of life that we Christians live will stand out in the world around us. Paul writes: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.” A life that is different from the ways of the world, where people fight and quarrel and scream at each other. Instead, a life of forgiveness and peaceableness and kindness. This kind of life will stand out in the world. People will say, “See how they love one another!” And this will attract them to the source of our life, and that source is God. He is the fountain and source of all goodness, and our lives will reflect his goodness.

“Children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.” That’s who you are. That’s what you do. You are God’s children. You reflect his character. You shine as lights in the world. Keep on shining. Don’t hide your light under a bushel, no. And together we are holding fast to the word of life. That word is the gospel. It’s the good news of salvation, free and full, in Christ. Hold on to that word. Never let it go. For Christ will never let you go. He is holding you safe and secure in his nail-scarred hands.

Therefore, beloved, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Published in: on September 26, 2020 at 9:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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