Monday, November 24, 2008

Grace: But Shouldn't We Work Out Our Salvation With Fear and Trembling? (part 1)

I don't know about you, but I've had this snippet of Philippians 2:12-13 thrown at me a fair amount. It happens in response to the gospel, you know, the entirely good news of eternal righteousness (right standing with God) that is not conditional on man's performance/obedience but is solely conditional on faith in Jesus' perfect and finished performance/obedience. Often when we bring grace into a conversation, we get an immediate response that begins with 'BUT', and believe me, I've contributed my share of 'buts' and still do on occasion! Some of the passages I want to deal with are ones that were big 'but' passages for me on my journey into grace, a few that I want to deal with I don't at the moment understand well myself; all the more reason to tackle them with my excellent and ambitious Teacher.

So, in this post I want to talk about about a particular 'BUT' passage that people have used to try and bring balance to the gospel. Why oh why do we seem to need a little bad news make the good news more believable??? Anyway, here are the verses:

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, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
(ESV Philippians 2:12-13)

As you may have noticed, I emphasized the words "work" and "fear" in the title of this post. That's because these are the two words that I've generally heard emphasized when hearing these verses taught or preached on. I suppose I must have heard quite a few preachers bring them up over my years growing up in the church (3 mandatory services a week as well as special events like conferences and church camp) and then as an adult in various churches/church events and books or recorded preaching. And like I said, it's come up in conversation as well...

I have a few different issues to talk about, but I guess I'll start with the words themselves. For the word 'work out' (in the Greek this is one word) I'm not going to get into the Greek meaning since I think that this is a fairly reasonable translation. I don't want to get too complicated so I decided to try to understand what 'work out' means exactly in the context of Scripture and the New Covenant. There is definitely a connotation in the Greek of us doing some work, and if you read the verses in it's larger context Paul describes what working out our salvation may look like. Here are the next few verses:

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, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. (ESV Philippians 2:14-16)

I think my first reaction to the idea of working is a sort of panic or fear. I easily can feel that this is in opposition to grace, to the gospel. And there is a kind of work that is in complete opposition to grace, these are called 'dead works' (Hebrews 9:14) But there are questions that can help differentiate between dead works and the good works that characterize a believer's life: What is the source of the work? And, what is the purpose of the work?

Dead works (mentioned in Hebrews) are produced when a person in their flesh (the source of the work) tries to attain righteousness (the purpose of the work)by obedience to any law or rule (as the Jews had done since receiving the Law of Moses). This is seen clearly in Romans 4:1-5 (ESV):

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
"Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin."

And also in Romans 9:30-32:

What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the "stumbling stone."

These passages clearly show that work that originates in the flesh in response to the Law in order to achieve righteousness or justification will not be able to attain justification before God. (And in Galatians 3 we can see that righteousness similarily cannot be maintained through works of the law.)

But it is clear in Philippians and elsewhere that we as believers do work! It is very interesting to see, however, that these good works that our lives demonstrate are always mentioned in a context of grace! That because the source of true good works is Jesus (grace!) and his power that has been given to us as his brothers, beloved sons of God. This is seen right in the passage we've been looking at.

" out your salvation with fear and trembling..." is immediately followed by "...for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work his good pleasure."

Can't we see that God is the source, the one who is constantly energizing our work, who is ever the power that is transforming us and causing us to work out, or live out, our salvation? He wants us to experience the fullness of the provision he has made for us in salvation. And (if you read the next verses) he wants the whole world to see our salvation being worked out so that they are drawn to our light...Jesus!

And that is the purpose of our works under the New Covenant, that men would see our good works and be drawn to the source of the power that has enabled us to live in freedom, not the slavery of Law and sin that so darkens and defeats the rest of the world. The purpose is not to attain or maintain holiness or righteousness because these works are fruits of the righteousness that is found in Christ, who has been given as a free gift to any who would receive him through faith by grace.

Here are a few more verses that help us to see the that the source of true good works is grace (as opposed to being dependent on our self, guilt, fear, or righteousness motivated efforts):

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, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (ESV Ephesian 2:8-10)

We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me. (ESV Colossians 1:28-29)

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (ESV 1 Corinthians 15:10)

To me it is very clear that when we preach grace there is no 'but'. The good works that will lead people to see the Jesus of the Gospel in our lives are an effect of grace, not separate or contrary or even in tension with the true Gospel. They are the natural out-working of the resurrection life of Jesus that has made our spirits alive and also bring life to our natural bodies (Galatians 2:20)so that we can continue to bear the fruit of the Spirit in this earth and so attract more people to our glorious loving God.

So to sum up, to work out our salvation does not mean that Jesus' work is not completely finished, that we must add our work to his work since "... he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." (Philippians 1:6) But to work out our salvation simply means to cooperate with God in the freedom of our sonship as he works in us, as he gives us the desire and the power to manifest the fullness his life and salvation as a light for the whole world to see. And this kind of work proceeds from faith (and needs no coercion, guilt/fear manipulation), it now being our desire to do good because we are good, through being restored to our original design (in God's own image!) when we entered into the new covenant.

I hope this is helpful and actually makes some sense to those who have begun receiving revelation of God's glorious new covenant of grace! Please feel free to ask questions or add your thoughts in the comments. There was a lot more I could have written, but I tried to keep it somewhat short and simple (don't know if I managed this though). I've decided to talk about the 'fear' part, which is fairly straight forward, in a separate post coming up soon.


shane magee said...

"work out" is better rendered as "outwork" - salvation manifests itself in good work. does that help any?

jul said...

Hi Shane, I think this is the first comment you've ever left here! Yes, I think that's helpful. Maybe I came closest then when I said "They are the natural out-working of the resurrection life of Jesus..."

Maybe if I was as smart as you I could have just condensed the whole post down into 13 words...

Hope you're all doing well, I keep checking facebook every now and then to see if there's been a new arrival.

Joel B. said...


Wonderful words here about the 'outwork' of the life of Jesus in and through us. So often, only the first part ("work out your salvation with fear and trembling") is taught, with the emphasis on "work" and "fear," along with a terrible interpretation of it all. It's made to look like life in Christ is a terrifying thing in which God is a slave-driver who keeps us working for Him out of fear.

Hardly ever (except in the 'grace community') is it taught that "it is GOD who works in you to will and to do according to His good pleasure." It's His work in us, as you wonderfully point out here. It's all His grace. Nothing more, nothing less. If we try to make it about "our" works, you're right - they're dead works, and in fact our adding to Jesus' work voids His work altogether.

Looking forward to more on this verse, and other of the difficult passages that you'll be addressing.

dogimo said...

I like big 'BUT's and I can-not lie.

My interpretation of Philippians 2:12-13 is that it is a message of comfort to us on our spiritual journey. We are being told that yes, we will work out our salvation with fear and trembling - as we have! As all of us have. We have all fought our way through thickets of discouragement and "bad news gospel," we have all been torn by the pain that comes from every stage of that journey. From the first realization that something is wrong with what we've been told, to the harsh, critical reactions of our fellow travelers-in-faith as we begin to push back, begin to question, begin to search, to that "BREAK THROUGH" moment of joy and blessed acceptance when we finally realize the gospel of Grace in our lives - alloyed with a certain disbelief in our own joy: "can it really be that simple?" - and then followed by a certain letdown, a certain chagrin when we realize that the struggle is still not over, and probably never will be; that there will continue to be those who assail us with accusations, who decry the surety of our faith and who paint us as loo-loo’s.

But in this verse, we are encouraged that it is God who works within us as we work it out for ourselves. As we withstand the doubters, and as we offer encouragement and direction to others. We are encouraged not to be let down when we find that it is hard work, that it is a struggle and that it can be scary. Because when that first surge of joy hits, many of us feel that it should last forever! We feel almost betrayed, when that first great surge doesn’t carry us through our remaining decades straight to the waiting gates of heaven. Here, Philippians eases us on our way towards heaven by bringing us back to earth. Philippians says, child, you must know this: yea, though God works within you, you will still find fear and stuggle on this path. Don’t dismay.

The fear and trembling of that struggle is not what has saved us - God has saved us! - but we are being told "it is okay, child - it is going to be work / it is going to be hard / you are going to be afraid / but you are already saved."

Matthew Daelon said...

I think the misunderstanding of this verse comes from thinking salvation is I go to heaven and not hell. That is a result of salvation, but salvation is God's life coming into me. I was dead and am alive. God's (Zoƫ) Life is in us and He works in and through us. We are just vessels. Containers of Jesus.

We reflect the glory of the Lord. He is the Life and His Life is our light. We are not that Light. We have the Light inside us.

Bino M. said...

Fantastic post! That's one of the verses being misused/misquoted/misinterpreted a lot in church. You did a great job putting it into the context of the New Covenant truth - grace. Thank you for doing this!