When it comes to working out our salvation, what is God’s role, and what is ours? Salvation may be a gift from God, but it comes with the responsibility to actually do what He calls us to do. Noting that the journey is personal, purposeful, and practical, Alistair Begg helps us think through this paradox. As we strive to do our part, our confidence lies in knowing that God is always at work within us to achieve the goal.
Now, I invite you to take your Bible, and we’re going to have just the briefest of studies in Philippians chapter 2. Some years ago, I had the privilege of speaking at some meetings in Hong Kong with the late George B. Duncan, and he was a masterful teacher. I’d listen to him preaching when I was a small boy, taken to St George’s Tron Church in the center of Glasgow by my parents—and often by my father—of an evening. And I could recall, as a boy, many of his talks to the children, because they were marked by such simplicity and clarity. And so, it was something of a thrill for me in later life, and later in his years, for me to be in his company. And on that occasion that we were together in Hong Kong, I was doing some expositions from 2 Corinthians chapters 3 and 4, and he did a series entitled “Pearls Picked from the Prison Floor.” That is P-E-A-R-L-S. And he did this wonderful, linked-together series of messages, which he said were some of the pearls that Paul had given to the Philippians from his context in the jail there in Rome. And those of you who are alert at all will have noticed that this is the second or third time in recent evenings that we have come back to the book of Philippians, and it’s not because I’m seeking to emulate him. But it is simply because here in the book of Philippians, there are, in certain passages, the instruction—there is the instruction—that is necessary to provide for us as a church family, and this evening is simply that, which brings me to Philippians chapter 2:12–13, where Paul says to the church at Philippi, “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 according to his good purpose.”
Now, one of the questions that almost inevitably comes to the mind of the thinking Christian as they go through the journey of their days might be succinctly put like this: Who’s doing what? Who is doing what? As they begin to make progress in their understanding of Christian living, they are confronted by this paradox, which exists in the experience of following Christ, whereby he calls for our activity, and yet he provides for us the resources. And there is hardly a week passes but that someone will ask me the question which is directly answered from these verses here in Philippians 2. And it is on account of that that I want simply to address them with you this evening.
It is important that you would notice that the twelfth verse begins with the word “therefore,” which ties it to the preceding material, which, of course, is this hymn concerning the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, his incarnation, and his earthly pilgrimage, and his exaltation. And at the very heart of that hymn is this expression of the obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ. His obedience was one which brought him to this earthly veil and which led him to the cross and beyond. And it is this matter of obedience which provides the linkage between the section between 5 through 11 and that which Paul now begins here in verse 12. “Therefore,” he says, “in light of all that you know of the Lord Jesus, and of his obedience, you are my dear friends, and as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence but now much more in my absence—I want you to continue to do just that.”
And at the heart of his exhortation is this essential and obvious truth: for a professing Christian to live in persistent and habitual disobedience was not only for Paul merely a sign of immaturity; it was for Paul an absolute absurdity . And he is very quickly making the point, asking, if you like, the implicit question: How can those who belong to an obedient Savior sit lightly to obedience themselves? How can it possibly be that since we have in Christ an obedient Savior, that we would assume that, somehow or another, disobedience—as a pattern, as a persistent pattern—is somehow tolerable in the progress of Christian living?
Now, in directing the reader’s attention in this way, he is very warm in doing so. Look at the way that it comes to them: he addresses them as his “dear friends,” and certainly the whole of the letter is full of his empathy and his concern for them—and he regarded the Philippian believers as his “joy” and his “crown.” He’s not afraid to exhort them; he’s not afraid to tell them. Indeed, he does so with great clarity, but he wants them to know that in his exhortation he cares for them.
And “my dear friends” is not simply a useful phrase to fill in his sentence; it is not something superficial; it is not something merely emotional. But it is the genuine love that is to be part and parcel of the body of Christ. And he has addressed this in a little section that we dealt with a couple of Sundays ago at the beginning of chapter 2: “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ … any comfort from his love … any fellowship with the Spirit,” and so on. Then he says, “Then make my joy complete by loving each other in this way.” And it would be equally incongruous for him, having exhorted them to this kind of love, if he did not, in this word, manifest that same kind of warmth.
It is very important for us to learn—and it is a lesson that is hard for many of us to learn—that if we are issuing a challenge or if we are offering a rebuke, we should have earned the right to do so . And that those whom we speak to with forcefulness and with direction will be better able to receive such correction and direction if we can honestly refer to them as our “dear friends.”
The matron of the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, of whom I’ve told you before, told me on one occasion when I went to visit her—and she was invalided for the final ten or fifteen years of her life as the result of a motor-neuron disease; she could not manage any muscular activity at all; her eyelids could open only for the briefest of seconds. And as she laid in that bed in the hospital out there on the Corstorphine Road in Edinburgh, she told me—as a young man—she said, “You know, I never took a junior nurse aside and rebuked her, except with my arm around her shoulder.” And there is such a difference, isn’t there?
The link, then, is this matter of obedience, the warmth is conveyed in the friendship factor, and his wisdom is so perfectly plain as a tutor and as a guide and as a pastor. He doesn’t come to convict them, first of all, but he says, you know, “I know that you have always been obeying. I know you’ve been an obedient group. Now I want you to continue to do just that. I want you to make sure that whether I’m with you or whether I’m gone from you, that you will continue to work out your own salvation with fear and with trembling.”
It’s interesting that Mike should have said what he said, that his concern for the little group that he has left behind is what? That, in his absence, they will not simply maintain the status quo but that their interest in and their obedience to and their affection for will increase and will be deepened, thus proving both to the missionary and to the mission field that the prime mover in all such circumstances is God the Holy Spirit. That while he takes us up and gives us the privilege of using our voices, still it is he who is at work in all these things.
And so, he urges them to be obedient, not only when he is present with them but also when he is absent. It’s the kind of thing that every schoolteacher longs for—the ability to have such control over your class that they are not only very well-behaved when you’re in the room, but when you walk out of the room, they remain equally well-behaved.
Now, in all honesty, how many teachers were able to accomplish that? Only about one in ten, in my experience. I can still remember the mayhem in many of our classrooms as soon as the word went around: “He’s gone! He’s gone!” And what did it prove? It proved that our interest in the subject, that our devotion to his standards, that our concern for his well-being was not core; it was superficial. And that the only way that we would continue to function in that way was when we functioned under his gaze; as soon as you removed his gaze, you found out how interested we were in economic geography—and it wasn’t particularly interested. Now, I’m sure that none of you were like that and that all of the teachers who are here have total control over their classes, and it is the obvious concern of the teacher that you will be going on not only when I’m present but also when I’m gone.
Now, the issue is this matter of salvation. And so, he urges them to continue to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. Now, remember the question is, Who does what? Well, clearly this is something we do. We are to work out our salvation. It is a directive not for those who are outside of Christ, but it is a directive for those who have been born again of the Spirit of God. And in seeking to fulfill this, we recognize that there is a very personal dimension to it. It is our salvation. “Work out your salvation.” Now, surely salvation is a shared experience, but it also has unique dimensions. The journey down which God has called us to walk is purposeful and it is personal. One of the great dangers for us is that we’re so concerned about everybody else’s working out their salvation that we don’t take time to pay attention to our own, and Paul is urging them to make sure that they pay attention.
It is personal, and it is also very practical. The Christian life is intensely practical. And salvation is a present-tense experience. If we are to follow Christ, we must continue to call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. We must continue to receive God’s grace. We must continue to manifest the fruit of the Spirit. We must continue to be filled with the Holy Spirit. We must continue to come before God in prayer. We must continue not to reject the assembling of ourselves for worship, but we must continue to gather for worship, so that, in all of these things, we are doing just exactly what we are called to do.
Now, the very tense of the verb introduces us to this matter of sustained effort. The call is a call to consistency, and we are to “work out” our salvation. That’s very important. We are not working in our salvation; we are not working up our salvation; we are not working for our salvation—and if you were taking notes, you would write that down: “I’m not working for my salvation; I’m not working up my salvation; I’m not working in my salvation. I’m working out my salvation.”
What does that mean? It means that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, and it says, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” that we actually do forgive our debtors. It means that when we are called to be witnesses, that we actually witness. It means that all of the benefits which have been made available to us are being utilized, and all of the responsibilities and challenges to which we are being called are being assumed. I think we know our Bibles well enough to know that Paul is not thinking here of any good works that we might contribute to our salvation, but rather about how we are to respond to the salvation that is already ours in Christ.
There are all kinds of gifts that you get for Christmas and birthday. And some of them are those gifts that come with sets of instructions. There’s no question that you have the gift, but with the gift comes the rest of your life—either putting the jolly apparatus together, or whatever it is. The gift is definitely yours, but with the gift has come the responsibility to work out what you’re supposed to do with the jolly thing, you know. And you sit alone and you take the instructions and you say, “Well, it’s going to take me some time to figure out what I’m supposed to do with this.”
Well, that’s a little bit like what it means to come to faith in Jesus Christ. We receive salvation as a gift, and then we sit down and we spend the rest of our lives, saying, “What am I supposed to do with this? And how is this supposed to work? And where does that go? And how does this fit with this?” And that is part of the joy and wonder of our salvation. It’s not some kind of immediate, instantaneous, existential experience, whereby everything becomes apparent to us in an instant. No, it’s a joyful discovery! It’s a painful, in some ways, discovery. It’s like being married. When you get married you think, “Hey, that’ll be it, you know—boom, baboom, here we go—done!” No! No “done”! Started, but not done. And then, for the rest of your life, “working out” your marriage, with fear and with trembling. That’s why it’s such a wonderful analogy.
Now, some people, in exegeting this, suggest that this is a corporate thing, that we should understand this in plural terms, since he mentions “friends” in plural, and the terminology is such that they say, “This is not a word to the individual; this is a word to the church.” Now, I don’t have time this evening in the scope of this study to interact with that, but I would just simply say this: there is no question that it speaks to the issue of the church. But how do you have unity in a fellowship unless you have humility in the individual? How do you have worship amongst a group unless you have a worshipping heart in the part of the individual? You cannot—we cannot—grow as a church beyond how we grow individually. We cannot work out the implications of our salvation as a congregation—and in our congregation—unless we are prepared to see what it means to work out our salvation on an individual basis.
So, there is no question that there is a corporate dimension to it, but I think that the emphasis is on the individual. Salvation is a free gift, but it involves the transformation of our lives into the image of Christ, and this is something which is both personal and practical and present in its timescale. Salvation does not take place over our heads. As if, somehow or another, God took care of all of the business for us and every so often he informed us of how well it was going. Some people think of it in those terms, and they get themselves in dreadful difficulty. When we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, it demands of us thinking and willing and feeling and doing and obeying. And the grace of God doesn’t destroy our individual responsibility as Christians. The grace of God doesn’t say, “Now you don’t need to be obedient.” But, rather, the grace of God makes it possible for the obedience to which we have been called to become a reality in our lives.
Now, this may seem straightforward to you; I hope frankly that it is. But there are many circles in which you can move—many Christian circles in which you can move—and the approach of the people in that context is no different from what you find in other dimensions in Christendom: sin like crazy for six days, go to somebody and get it dealt with on the seventh, and then do it all again for the next six days. And where do they get this from? They get this from a warped understanding of the Bible. They get this by answering incorrectly to the question at the beginning of Romans 6: “Shall we [then] continue in sin, that grace may abound?” And they say, “Yes, we shall. Because, after all, all of our sins have been forgiven—past, present, and future—that’s the doctrine of justification,” they say, “and if the justifying grace of God relieves us of the responsibility of all that we have done, are doing, or will do, then surely we can go out and do what we like.” No, not for a moment. Indeed, the individual who does so reveals the fact that they have never understood the nature of saving grace. No! The grace of God does not relieve me of my responsibility to be obedient; the grace of God makes possible my obedience.
Now, that’s the responsibility. Work it out with fear and trembling. Well, who does what? What does God do? Well, here in verse 13, we’re told. “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” According to his good purpose, God is at work within us.
Now, this amazing notion is all over the place. I’m not going to have you turn to it, but we were considering this in our studies during the week as a group of pastors, and this is partly what brought it to my mind—this and a question I was asked during the week. But you have this same notion at the beginning of 2 Peter 1, where, in 2 Peter 1:3, Peter reminds his readers that we have “everything [that] we need for life and [for] godliness.” “We got the whole thing,” he says. And then, in verse 5, he says, “Make every effort.” “We got everything we need. Make every effort.”
In 2 Timothy 2:7, Paul gives the exhortation, “Reflect on all of these things.” Does that sound like something we are supposed to do? Exactly. Will it be demanding? Without question. Who does it? We do it. Does anybody do it for you? No one does it for you. If you don’t reflect on the Bible, you’ll never know the Bible. God will not come and teach you the Bible any other way at all. He will not give it to you through dreams; he will not pour it in your ears when you’re asleep at night. He calls you to reflect on all these things. That’s our part. And in the very same verse, it says, “[And] the Lord will give you insight.” We do the reflecting, and God gives to us the insight. He doesn’t give us the insight without the reflecting. The reflecting is our part; the insight is God’s part.
In Galatians 1:28, he sounds out this amazing challenge to the people there—tremendous statement—Colossians 1:28, I should say: “We proclaim him,” he says. This is our task. “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.” That’s what we do. How? How? “We proclaim him, we admonish, we teach everybody with all wisdom, so that everybody may be presented perfect in Christ. So that everyone might grow to maturity. So that everyone might breast the tape successfully.” Verse 29: “To this end I labor, struggling ….” Who’s doing the laboring? Paul. Who’s doing the struggling? Paul. How is he struggling? He tells us: “with all his energy, which so powerfully works [within] me.” I’m doing all the struggling. And how do I get to struggle? Because of the energy he supplies.
People come to me and say, you know, “My Christian life is in shreds. I seem to be struggling so badly.”
I say, “Praise God, and keep going.”
“My Christian life is tough. I am agonizing over things.”
I say, “Isn’t this a wonderful indication of God’s goodness to you! Because were it not for the fact of his energy that was at work within you, you wouldn’t be able to labor, you wouldn’t be able to strive, and you wouldn’t be able to agonize.” So, the very fact of the agony and the laboring and the striving—far from calling in question our Christian faith—is a very wonderful evidence of our Christian faith.
Now, you see, where this falls out… And there’s so many places to which we could go—wonderful illustrations in the Gospels. Jesus comes to the man with the bed; he’s been lying on his bed; he can’t get up out of his bed; nobody can get him off the bed—and Jesus says, “Pick up your bed.” Can you imagine what that sounded like? “Pick up your bed”—and he couldn’t, but he did. Why? Because the word of command is a word of enabling.
Now, let me just wrap it up by pointing this out: if we are going to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, as we must, we do so in awareness of the fact that God has worked salvation into us by his grace, and it is by his grace he continues to work it out in our lives. He is constantly at work within us, so that we even have the will and the power to do what pleases him.
Did you ever think about that? When you’re off on a business trip, men? And you see all those signs saying, “You could come down here and get bombed.” Or “you could go over here and experience this”—and you don’t. Why is that? It’s ’cause you’re working out your own salvation. It’s because you are turning your gaze away; you’re turning your feet in another direction; you are calling down to the desk, and you’re saying, “Take all these stinking channels off my TV!” And they’re saying, “That is only for children, sir.” And you’re saying, “Do as I ask you.” What are you doing there? You are working out your own salvation with fear and with trembling—and how is it that you even have the interest to do so? That’s the mystery! Because it is God who is at work within you both to will and to do of his good pleasure—because everything inside of you is heading in the other direction.
So, when we think of the salvation of God, when we think of what it is to become a Christian—I’m not talking about simply slipping up our hands, or signing a little note, or having a day somewhere away in our dim recollection of how we felt when somebody said something or something happened; we can thank God for those spiritual milestones—but the real mystery is that, along the corridors of time and through all the changing scenes of life and despite our stumblings and our faults and our failures and our downright disobedience, that we’re still here. Why? Because of what I’ve been doing! You say, “No, that can’t be right.” Yes, it’s absolutely right. And if I were not here, it would be because of what I was doing. But my doing is as a result of his divine energy within me, giving me the will and the power, so that I do not put my head on the pillow at night and say, “My, my, what a good boy am I!” But we’re able to put our heads on the pillow at night and say, “My, my, what a great and mighty God we serve!”
Now, do you see the two dangers? The two errors that are most prevalent—and with this I close. Error number one: the person reads these two verses and says, “If I am to work hard in my relationship to salvation, then, presumably, I contribute my part to it.” No, we contribute nothing to salvation, save the sin from which we need to be saved. So, this is not saying to us, “God starts us off and then by our good endeavors and by our energy and by our working, we finish it up.” No. We couldn’t get it started, we couldn’t keep it going, and we’d never finish it up. So, we magnify him for starting it, and we bless him that he has kept it going, and we trust him that he will finish it up. That’s error number one: that I, then, make a contribution. No, we don’t.
Error number two: “If God works in me, then I don’t need to work hard at following Jesus Christ.” I think that’s the bigger lie; that’s the more usual one. “If God works in me, then I don’t have to work hard at following Jesus Christ.” You got to work like a slave to follow Jesus Christ. It’s got to be the single most significant aspect of your total existence. It will demand your time; it will change your relationships; it will infiltrate your marriage; it will dominate your singleness—if you’re going to be serious. Of course, if you’re not, then you will either stay in some impoverished, babylike condition or you will eventually fade from view, indicating to yourself and all who look on that you never, ever began. You see, the gift of God summons us to work out our salvation in every part of our lives, and we work out our salvation in the confidence that God is always at work within us to achieve the goal.
And what about fear and trembling? There’s no fear and trembling in the late twentieth century. “Oh, don’t mention fear and trembling; you’re trying to gather a crowd, are you not? You’ll not get a crowd of people if you suggest fear and trembling’s involved!” It’s essentially awe—awe. A-W-E. Awe. Let me tell you how it works. You can write this down in your Bible and remember it every single day you live your life and it will help you as much as any other thing. If you are going to work out—if we’re going to work out—our salvation with fear and trembling, this is what it means: It means reminding myself every day that I am living where I am always visible—there is never a moment in the day when any word, deed, thought, motive is invisible to God. Living where I am always visible, knowing that I am always understood—and people say, “I don’t understand this, and I don’t understand that.” God is never, ever, ever misunderstanding what’s going on. There’s never been once when he has misunderstood one thing about us. And rejoicing that I am always loved. Knowing that I am always visible, recognizing that I am always understood, and rejoicing that I am always loved.
See, that’s the great mystery. See, because if you really knew what my heart was like, you would never listen to me preach. And if I ever could see into the depths of your experience, I wouldn’t want to spend time with any of you. See, the great mystery is that he before whom I spend all of my days and before whom every aspect of my life is visible is he who understands and he who loves me just the same.
Father, thank you for such an amazing love. Teach us how to love our children in the same way. Knowing everything we know about them, understanding so much of them, grant that we might always love them, that they might know that we love them unconditionally. Not because of their ability to please us, not because of their success, not because of their achievements, but because we love them. And in doing that, we merely mirror the immensity of your love for us. Thank you that, although we live under your all-seeing gaze and under the wonder of your all-knowing presence, that we are the beneficiaries of your unfailing love. Grant then that we might—in the days that lie ahead—work out our salvation with fear and trembling, doing our part, in the awareness that we might never, ever start were it not for the fact that you work within us, both to give us the will and the power to accomplish that which you call us to do. May all of our lives and all of our days be useful to you in light of the discoveries we continue to make in your Word. For Jesus’ sake, we ask it. Amen.
 Philippians 4:1 (NIV 1984).
 Philippians 2:1 (NIV 1984).
 Philippians 2:2 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 6:12 (KJV).
 Romans 6:1 (KJV).
 Matthew 9:6 (paraphrased).