Philippians 2:12&13 “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 act according to his good purpose.”
I have a couple of things by way of introduction:
i] What a crucially important pair of verses. We read a passage like this and we quietly sigh, “Wow!”, or whatever ejaculation of delight and anticipation you might give vent to. What massive truths in these words, and full of application to our daily life. I am also privileged to comb my library to see what men of God have written and preached upon these verses for the last three hundred years, and then my further response is an awesome “Bois bach!” this time, but then, more seriously, I experience something of a deep sense of thanksgiving for the people of God whom I belong to.
“We come unto our fathers’ God:
Their rock is our salvation:
The eternal arms, their dear abode,
We make our habitation.” (Thomas H. Gill, 1819-1906).
Two of the leading Puritan divines, Richard Sibbes and Thomas Watson, have running expositions of these very words. Charles Haddon Spurgeon has a couple of mighty sermons on this text. Benjamin B. Warfield has a sermon on it. Then our respected contemporaries, Sinclair Ferguson, James Montgomery Boice, Don Carson, and Alec Motyer have their fine observations. All of these writings, ancient and modern, are in print today. Each of those men, living and dead, is fascinated by these words. But it is Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ reaction to them that particularly caught my eye. This is what he said:
“I feel it’s a good and right thing that we should grapple with these great statements that have occupied the attention and thought of the Church so much during her long history. I freely confess that for myself I approach a statement like this with what I’d call a ‘sanctified sense of excited anticipation.’ There are few things, surely, in this life which can be and which ought to be so thrilling to Christian people as to exercise their minds on some of these mighty and resounding statements. Isn’t it, I wonder, the final criticism, not only of our age in general, but of the Christian Church in particular, that she seems to have lost her taste for these things? Isn’t it a tragedy that we have become disinclined to face the theological problems, and that we’ve come to regard the business of preaching as something merely to soothe and encourage us . . .? Our fathers, when they came to two verses like this, would have been agog with excitement; they’d have looked forward to discussing it, and they’d have revelled in these things.” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Life of Joy,” Hodder, London, 1988, p.161). Don’t words like that put you on the edge of your seat? Clearly this is a tremendously important text and we must make sure that we understand it. One other thing to say by way of introduction:
ii] Our text again begins with the word ‘therefore’, just like verse 9. So we ask, what is it there for? What has Paul been talking about? It is this: Christ obeying God even to death of the cross. Thus Jesus has become the model for our self-sacrificing obedience. He humbled himself, and so how much more must we humble ourselves? But it is more than that. There is more edge to it and urgency than an exhortation to obedience. God surveyed his Son’s life and said, “Exalt him! Give him the highest place! His is the greatest name! Present to him universal submission – let every knee bow to him!” ‘Therefore’ . . . we have to make the same response to Christ. He must become all things, everywhere and every moment of the day to us.
Paul has said that every knee must bow to Christ. He is going to have the last word; he will be utterly vindicated; in the end no opposition against him can prevail. People can patronise us without being aware they are doing so, can’t they? For example, they tell us how pleased they are that our church going and our religion helps us: “If it gives you a feeling of significance I am happy for you,” they say, but they add that they themselves don’t need our particular brand of religion. They are telling us, “don’t bring Jesus into this relationship.” What do we say to them? Don Carson tells us that he would say something like this to them: “You are a friend, and I wouldn’t want to lose your friendship. But I have to insist that the Jesus I talk about is not some sort of personalised therapy. The Jesus I am talking about made you. You owe him. And one day you’ll have to give an account of your life to him. Every knee will bow to him sooner or later, whether in joy or in shame and fear. Not to see this is already a mark of horrible lostness from which only he can enable you to escape.” (“Basics for Believers, An Exposition of Philippians”, D.A.Carson, Baker Books 1996, p.49). So this Lord Jesus is not a nice safe religion for me. He is not domesticated like a pussy cat: he is the Lion of the tribe of Judah. He will not be easily marginalized in your own important life, and he can’t be psychologically privatised. He is not merely a private personal choice. He intrudes into your life because he claims that he created you. He made everything. He keeps you alive. Your breath is in his hands. He has rights over you. He is one with God; he is the Judge of all the earth and so your judge, and yet this Jesus became the Lamb of God and shed his blood that sinners like you might be forgiven their rotten lives. He is inviting you to come in faith to him for mercy. He pleads with you to come. All that is part of this apostolic ‘therefore’: live in the light of the suffering and exaltation of the Son of God – all of us are going to bow before Christ on the last day and give an account to him. See to it that that affects your dealings with your friends and neighbours.
So let us cut to the chase and consider the heart of this verse. In the light of Christ’s obedience to the death of the cross what are his followers being asked to do?
1. WORK OUT YOUR OWN SALVATION.
Notice that Paul does not say, “Work for your salvation.” That is how the Roman Catholic Jerusalem Bible translates it. That isn’t what the apostle writes. It is not “work towards acquiring your salvation”, nor is it “work at your salvation”, nor is it “work up your salvation.” It is none of those things. Every true Christian has been saved through believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. They are all in the state of salvation at this moment. Salvation is God’s gift to them, accomplished by Jesus Christ on Golgotha when he saved them there from enduring what he himself freely and lovingly chose to endure in their place – the wrath of a sin-hating God. All the vast church of God were saved there by him. That salvation which was accomplished by Christ alone became ours when God opened our hearts and gave us a birth from above, applying all the benefits of the triumph of Christ to us. Let me select two of many verses that show this beyond contradiction: I Corinthians 15:1&2, “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved . . .” : Ephesians 2: 8 (a repeat of three verses earlier), “For it is by grace you have been saved . . .” So every single Christian is in a state of salvation from the guilt, and condemnation, and lordship of sin. Every Christian is also looking forward to being freed from the presence of sin. The end of our journey is God, and when we see God we shall be like him. Only then will salvation be perfect and entire.
Paul is writing to the congregation of professing Christians in Philippi who have received salvation. To these saved people he says, “work out your own salvation.” He is not talking about their status of being ransomed, justified, reconciled, forgiven or being clothed in the righteousness of Christ, telling them to work at getting all that. All that is already theirs as a free gift of God; it is all absolutely perfect and nothing needs to be added to it whatsoever. That is accomplished salvation: past-tense-salvation: we have been saved once and for all: that is ‘point salvation’, or punctiliar salvation. What Paul is talking about here is line or linear salvation, progressive salvation, sanctifying salvation, which will not be complete until the day of Christ when we are going to see God and be like him. Paul is urging us here in our text to be promoting that completed full salvation, here and now to be advancing and encouraging that transformation of our lives. “Work at becoming more like the Lord of your salvation.” That is what he is saying.
In other words, full eternal Christlike salvation is not something that is in the atmosphere above and around us – over which we have no control. It is not something that comes upon you when you go into a religious meeting and an atmosphere is created by the music and the lighting and skilful stories and emotional challenges such as going to the front, kneeling and weeping. Rather, experiential salvation is even now taking place in us as we are under God’s Word and listening to this sermon, and our minds and thoughts engage with it. This salvation about which Paul is speaking is going on in our thinking, and our decisions, and our enthusiasms, and our affections, and our choices, and in our very bodies today and every day. It is divine ‘work in progress.’ Every part of us is going to be saved and so we are being told to work that salvation out, in other words, work out the implications of it and advance it. Don’t sit back. Don’t think to yourselves, “Well, it’s all over. I am saved.” Work at it until it is finished at death. While we live this salvation needs to transform all aspects of our lives. Show a new obedience to God in every part of your life. See what our text actually says, “Continue to work out your salvation.”
Let us then break down this working out of our salvation into two of its component elements:
i] Work at applying ourselves to putting to death remaining sin.
Every Christian, until he dies, will have to battle with remaining sin. It is called in the New Testament ‘the flesh’, or ‘another law in my members’, or ‘the law of sin and death’, or ‘the sinful nature,’ or ‘sin in me’. Our responsibility is to be continually killing it, or ‘mortifying’ it. How powerful is the flesh? It can eat elephants and spit out the trunks. It got the man who wrote the 23rd Psalm and it can easily get you unless you are fighting against it. We have to weaken it, and starve it to death. This is one of the huge Christian duties that modern evangelical religion and worship ignores. Biblical mortification cannot thrive in certain atmospheres. It’s not spoken about; it’s not acknowledged as a normal Christian duty; it’s not encouraged. Yet how essential it is. Whatever peak religious experiences we might have known there’s so much sin remaining in us. There are areas of our lives that are unsubdued and unchanged. There is sin in our thoughts, and sin in our words, and sin in our relationships, in our homes, and friendships, professional and ecclesiastical. There is so much stress, and self-centredness, and arrogance, and ruthlessness, and self-pity, and sheer egotism. There is an inadequate sense of right and wrong. Our consciences are not as discerning as they should be. We are far too prone to be influenced by what we think, what we like, and what we feel. We have to work away at the mortification of those tendencies in ourselves.
As we look even deeper into our emotional lives there is too much anxiety, and discontent, and so much despondency, and surely in the mastery of our own feelings isn’t there great need for us to put to death our own sin? Again we may go deeper still, into the existence in my life and yours of what the Bible calls, quite simply, ‘lust’, that is, evil desire, covetousness directed towards all kinds of absolutely forbidden and prohibited goals. We all know that however impressive the public facade may be that behind it there are longings for what God forbids. Surely there is a need for mortification. There are those many backslidings in our own lives, moments of declension and spiritual decay. Now today I cannot emphasise strongly enough the importance of each one of us pausing and taking an inventory of our own position, and seeking by the grace of God to work at dealing with unmortified sin in our own lives.
Now we are the ones who have to do it. We have to work out our own salvation. I cannot do it for you. Each Christian is responsible for doing it himself. We don’t do it by our own unaided strength. We do it by the Spirit of God, but we ourselves have to mortify the deeds of the flesh. It is an all-out war in which we are to be utterly intolerant of and merciless towards our sins. We are going to work out our salvation by putting them to death; we are going to kill them. We have to wage war in all those areas of personal defeat. In the light of our text there is no place in the Christian life for the idea that holiness is simply an experience, a moment, a feeling . . . It is rather a titanic struggle between myself and sin, and I have to slay it and utterly destroy it with absolute intolerance. It is a fight to death. Either I must kill sin or sin is going to kill me. And I am saying that the killing never ends. Indwelling sin is like those trick birthday candles. The child blows them out and laughs and thinks that it’s over; she’s made her wish, but the next moment the candle rekindles itself again. Indwelling sin is ever rekindling itself and we are ever quenching its flames. There is no cease-fire; no truce; no surrender; no amnesty – ever! Don’t walk back from this Hitler like Neville Chamberlain once did saying, “I believe we have peace in our time.” There can be no agreement with the Hitler of the flesh. Come and join the fight with us. There’s something good about a fight! So keep working at mortifying remaining sin. We continue to change ourselves, and we never despair and never give up. This is one of the ways our salvation is effectively advanced.
If you ignore that then you are a fatalist. Last month there was the Tory party conference and they had an evening’s entertainment when the foul-mouthed comedian Jim Davidson tried to make them laugh. He went too far, and when some of the shocked Conservatives protested their leader you know what you are going to get with Jim. Jim is Jim.” When John Prescott punched someone who had thrown an egg at him in north Wales in the last General Election campaign his leader smiled and said, “John is John.” This week Jane Clark the widow of the adulterous politician, the late Alan Clark, was asked about the publication of his new diaries and the revelation of other affairs. “Al is Al,” she said. What is all that? It is fatalism. It is the belief that we don’t expect people to change, because people can’t change. Boys will be boys. Take it or leave it. “Take me for what I am.” No! Men are bound on the wild horse of their own lusts and they are unwilling to be loosed. Are adulterers, and drunkards, and men of violence, and foul-mouthed people programmed to live always like that. No! There is this utter reality of the work of God’s redeeming grace that delivers and forgives. There are the changes which God accomplishes in Christians as we work at it with him, and we mortify our anger and lust and cynicism. The Lord met an arrogant self-righteous persecutor named Saul from Tarsus on the road to Damascus and transformed him. The snake became a lamb. If any man is in Christ Jesus he is a new creation. Old things are passed away. All things have become new. Believe it! Know it for yourselves!
But there is a balancing truth to mortification.
ii] Work at Sustaining and Nourishing All Your Graces.
God has filled the life of the Christian with all the glorious young plants of faith, love, assurance, peace and joy. Maybe at the moment of your conversion God gave some of you those things in great measure, and maybe for days and months you went on in the almost self-sustaining euphoria of that marvellous experience. Yet you have come to realise that they’re not self-perpetuating and self-sustaining. We have to feed those graces, and exercise our faith on the great truths of the gospel, and exercise hope on the glorious promises of God, with our affections set on heaven. We have to sit under the best ministry we can, and listen intently to it, and apply what we hear. We have to read the Scriptures, and books about the Bible, and talk about the work of God with other Christians. If we don’t do things like that then our heaven-given graces will return to the vague weeds of religion and fatalism. They will lose their fruitfulness and fragrance, and so they won’t help us nor anyone else. We have to sustain and nourish our faith so that it grows. Faith isn’t like having a spiritual visitor’s book which records that Jesus Christ once stayed here for the night five years ago. It’s an on-going relationship that doesn’t just depend on memories from that past. Faith grows and becomes stronger by being fed: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” Rom. 10:17). Faith is not an exercise in introspection, but an exercise in Christ-centredness. Trust in him – every day!
You also have to feed your hope. You have to trust the promises of God in his word. Let me give you an example of a simple Christian doing that today. There is a young man called Anthony who is now in the Caring for Life farm in Leeds. The change in his life since he became a Christian has been miraculous, and yet he is dogged by the most dreadful memories. His father had abused him and his sister. He lived in homes and probation hostels, often running away and living on the streets. He also struggles with the effect which Asperger’s Syndrome has had on his daily life. He never remembers a time when bad things were not happening to him. Once, when he was in an agitated state, he did things which might have put him in jail for years, but the district judge was compassionate and put him in the custody of Caring for Life. When he first came to church he thought it was boring, but he came back and soon he believed in Jesus Christ. He says, “Then I started to understand more and more. I still do not understand why God let the bad things happen to me, but I do believe that God loves me – the Bible tells me that. I believe that Jesus died on the cross for sinners, and I believe he loves me. I believe that he forgives us when we ask him. I know Jesus now. One day I am going to see Jesus face to face. I don’t find it easy following Jesus, and I find it hard being a Christian, But I know that God loves me and he will never me go. I know he hears and answers my prayers.” Anthony has become a man of hope, strengthened and sustained by his church, his circle of Christian friends and prayer. He knows where he is going. He knows God loves him. Work at feeding your hope.
Also you have to feed your love. This is the most indispensable of all the graces without which we are nothing. We read I Corinthians 13 and we put our own name there instead of the word ‘love’ and we search ourselves and we cry to God, “Make me patient, kind, not envying, not boasting, not proud, but always protecting, always trusting, and hoping and persevering.” We put ourselves in places of service where our love for people is tested and has a chance to grow. Most of all we must feed it with the great vision of Jesus Christ himself as the embodiment of the love of God. We live at the foot of Calvary, where Christ became nothing and made himself of no reputation. Work at feeding your love.
We have to work at feeding our humility. Don Carson remembers interviewing two great American stalwarts of the Christian faith, Carl Henry and Kenneth Kantzer, before several hundred students. They had been professors, writers and lecturers who had kept the faith and contended for the gospel for decades. At the end of the interview, which was videotaped, Don Carson said to them that in his view they weren’t men who’d succumbed to eccentricity in doctrine, nor to empire-building. They had both retained their integrity for half a century, so what was it that had most helped them in this area of Christian graciousness. Both the men were embarrassed by the question and then one of them said, “How on earth can anyone be arrogant when standing beside the cross?” That is Paul’s outlook here. At the cross Christ emptied himself of all the paraphernalia and glory of his own deity. The Lord became a servant; God accepted the anathema of God, and there at Golgotha, supremely, is where our humility is strengthened, and we pour contempt on all our pride. We learn to lose our sensitivity on all the issues concerning our own honour and position. The great God humbled himself, and we learn what humility is. Work at feeding your faith, and feed your hope, and feed your love, and feed your humility.
We have to work at feeding our joy, the great fruit of the Spirit, the sheer exhilaration at the knowledge that God is, that he lives and grips me and the world in his love so that at times we want to dance for joy. Often there is such fun in our homes, such laughter when we meet, such delight in coming together on a Sunday, such a happy spirit in our fraternals. Then Satan comes to attack us. “What’s all this levity?” he says. “Don’t you know how awesome God is, and how serious life is, and how terrible is the fate of the lost.” He tries to make us feel guilty for the joys we know in creation, and family, and friends and most of all in the knowledge that our sins are forgiven and God is our Father. That thought must have troubled Isaac Watts because he wrote a hymn in which he said, “Come ye that love the Lord and let your joys be known.” He went on to say, “Religion never was designed to make our pleasures less.” Of course not, so let’s work at strengthening our joy.
Work at feeding your assurance, or your assurance will go. You must guard it, and sustain it, most of all by a growing understanding of the glorious truths of the grace of God. Why are you a Christian today? Out text tells us that it’s because of God’s ‘good purpose’, in other words, because the Lord had chosen to work saving faith and repentance in us. He has loved you with an everlasting love – a love that never began. He loved you in the beginning. He knew all about you. He had seen the file, but still his good purpose was to forgive your sins, and give you life in Christ, and take you to heaven. Please don’t slip into any form of legalistic thinking. Don’t imagine that God loves you because you have been serving him for twenty years and done many kind things. Don’t find any refuge in Mr Morality’s house. It is built on the sand. Build on this – “chosen in Christ Jesus before the foundation of the world.” If you begin to lost sight of great central gospel teaching that salvation is all of grace then your assurance will go. If you begin to think that your salvation depends on anything in yourself your confidence that you are a Christian will go.
A letter was forwarded to me this week from Daniel Peters, a student at the Free Church College in Edinburgh, from another student named Ruairidh. He was diagnosed with cancer in early 2001 and then this was reconfirmed a year ago. It was a devastating discovery for a young man, and when one of his doctors dared to ask him the question “Well, where is your God now?” he was disturbed. But because he had worked in his heart the truths of biblical assurance he could reply. He says, “The answer I gave was the only answer I knew then. It remains the only answer I know now. I come from the Black Isle, where the northern view is dominated by Ben Wyvis. Easter Ross, being where it is, has a lot of rain and often Ben Wyvis would be shrouded in cloud or mist, blocking it from view. If someone came along to me and said that Ben Wyvis was no longer there because it couldn’t be seen I would laugh and say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Of course it’s still there – it’s just the clouds that are blocking it from view.’ So it is for me with God – I know He’s still there as He always has been and promised to be. It’s just some temporary clouds that are blocking Him from my view.” That confidence is the benefit of strengthening your assurance.
The cancer has continued to spread, and his spleen has now been removed. Last December Ruairidh started weekly chemo but the cancer has now spread throughout all the organs of his body. On August 30 they decided to cease treatment because it was damaging his heart and lungs and wasn’t a success. Chemo had been a great struggle for him. Each time he’s had to go through it he says he feels as if he were walking to his execution. His hair loss was also surprisingly disturbing, especially the reaction of people to it.
But Ruairidh has been working out the assurance of his salvation with fear and trembling. You can see this in an answer he gave to someone who asked him recently what he wanted them to pray for. Listen to his priorities. This is what he said,
“So many things!
1) that I and everyone else would be able to accept God’s will whatever it is.
2) that if it is his will, I’d be healed.
3) if it isn’t that I would be a good witness and as someone said recently ‘your job now is to die well’. I am not afraid of death (lots of other emotions about it though!) but the process, which is going to be pretty awful, petrifies me. I don’t want to let God or anyone else down.
4) that my non-Christian relations would come to know Jesus as their Lord and Saviour soon.
5) that Audra and I (along with Mum, Dad, Gran, the MacRae’s, and other friends) would have great times
6) that I would be kept in my walk with God.” So there we see Ruairidh is working out the assurance of his own salvation.
So we are all called as those who have been saved by God’s grace to do the same by mortifying our sins and feeding our graces at the word of God, the ordinances of the New Testament – Sunday worship, the privileges of believing fellowship, and the sharing of the great verities of the Christian gospel with one another. We work out our salvation by applying ourselves to those graces.
2. GOD IS WORKING IN YOU.
Paul does not say that God once worked in you when he regenerated and justified you. No, God is still working in you. The Lord once worked for us on Calvary but now he is working in us day by day. Paul uses here for the word ‘working’ the very term he uses elsewhere to describe the work of raising Jesus Christ from the dead. That mighty resurrection power once active in making this universe out of nothing in six days and all very good. That same power is at work in every ordinary Christian. God is keeping him, and God is sanctifying him, and God is remaking him and renewing him day by day. Though our outward man is perishing as we grow older and slower and weaker, yet God is renewing our inward man day by day. We are being renewed according to the image of him that created us day by day. That is Paul’s teaching everywhere in his letters. Sanctification is a work of God and it is an effectual work in every Christian. Are you aware of that? God’s mighty eruptive and intrusive activity in my life was not simply when he convicted me and enabled me to believe but he is still at work. He won’t let go of me, transforming and remaking me. God is working in every one of you who are Christians.
Then see how Paul relates that to his own imperative – “Work out your salvation!” Paul doesn’t for a moment consider the possibility that because God is working we don’t need to work. The whole logic is the very opposite of that. God is working and therefore you too have to work at your salvation. There is the divine energy lovingly focused upon you and working away in your mind and soul and heart and spirit. Now, Paul says, because of that reality then you must work too. Paul would never allow that we work in the gaps where God isn’t working. No. Where God is working you must work, and God is working everywhere, so you must work everywhere. The two things are coterminous. God the Spirit is mortifying and so we are mortifying too. God is working at strengthening our graces and so we work at strengthening them. God is pouring a spirit of prayer upon us and so we are praying. God beseeches us to walk closer with him, and so we beseech ourselves to walk closer with him. God is challenging us, Why are you cast down? So we challenge ourselves, Why are you cast down O my soul and disquieted within me. Hope in God! God is healing the church and we are healing the church. Work because God is working. Work in the realisation that this great task is not impossible because God is working away in our lives. He is making us willing. He is making us eager to do God’s will.
“How can I kill my sins? How can I feed my soul? How can I heal the church of its wounds and rifts, its competitiveness and collisions, its cacophonies and disharmonies, and heal all of them? I can do so because God is working. He is there energising all his people, keeping them fit, and healthy, and growing. There’s a divine work in progress.
So what do we say? “Then in that case we don’t need to work”? No. A divine work is in progress so there will be a human work in progress too. God is keep you healthy and so that is your priority too. You get involved in this because God is so involved in this. His working is the presupposition of your working. He is working at the level of our wills, helping us to make the right choices, and he is working at the level of our actions to make us act in a way that pleases him. God wills and God does in us according to his good pleasure. Far from this being a disincentive to press on, Paul insists that this is an incentive. God is at work in me, and in the whole congregation, so I am not going to fall behind them. You notice how Paul doesn’t even raise the question of how these two activities can be reconciled. He is not conscious of any conflict, and he is not prepared to spend time weighing it up. There are problems of mere logic that would make men say, well, if God is at work I won’t interfere. No, it is a fact that God works continuously, graciously and effectively, and it is a fact that we too are working at being real Christians, and how these two are reconciled is God’s business.
Our position is that we are to submit our minds to the teaching of this verse with its two great statements, both of which are indubitably true. God is working, that is true, and I have to work. That is also true. How you reconcile them I do not know. I may speculate and theorise, but when I write out my conclusions then that is a piece of philosophy not theology, because there is no theological explanation of how we reconcile the divine sovereignty with our human responsibility. We simply take those two great axioms and apply them both. I believe that God is at work. I believe that every Christian is at work. I believe that all my encouragement as I work, all my hope that it is worthwhile and worth pursuing constantly is this confidence that behind my working there is always the work of God. I know that there are two extremes I must avoid. One is to think that I work for my salvation. The other is to let go and let God. The first is works religion and the other is quietism and both will ruin me. So I work and God works too.
3. WE WORK WITH FEAR AND TREMBLING.
Notice that it is not, “work with dread and doubt.” He is not saying, “Don’t imagine you can be sure that you’re saved.” He is not telling them, “Keep working with your heart in your mouth in case you are not saved.” It is not a kind of craven fear, one of self torment. This phrase “with fear and trembling” is one that Paul uses elsewhere. For example he writes to the Corinthian church and he tells them, “I was among you in weakness, and fear and much trembling.” That was the customary way Paul preached, in fear and trembling. It would be a bad sermon for him if he were not in fear and trembling. I don’t mean that Paul was nervous or frightened of certain people in the congregation to whom he was speaking, or that he had no confidence in his authority to preach. Then what does that phrase mean? It means a humility and a holy reverence, or, if you like, a sanctified vigilance and circumspection. Think of the brain surgeon with his saw and scalpel cutting through a man’s skull and into the brain cells. How careful he is. What a sense of responsibility he has. As we work out our salvation we have to realise the tremendous seriousness of this whole undertaking. Amongst much else it means that as Paul preached there was a very real concern that he wouldn’t do it properly. That he wouldn’t declare the word as he should, that he wouldn’t do it so that God was given great glory. There was this sense of how crucially important was his vocation, to bring the whole word of God to bear on all these people, as in the presence of God, to whom he must answer in that day. Paul was afraid that he wouldn’t measure up to the urgency and requirements of this magnificent calling.
That is what Paul is saying to us here, that as we work out our own salvation we are to be so conscious of the grandeur and magnitude of these issues, and frightened we will become blase, losing our first love for them, becoming lukewarm. Work at advancing your salvation with fear and trembling. It comes back to that great word spoken by Christ himself, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” That is your priority. Above everything else in life this is what you want to do well. The Christian is a serious and sober man. The God we worship is the Father of lights with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. God is light and in him is not darkness at all. If he is in the light, then my daily walk must be in the light. I am living in a world that opposes me and wants to drag me down and away from God.
There are all these preachers, and they have a real concern and fear, and if you ask them why they’re so anxious, is it about a deacons’ meeting, or their salaries, or are they fearful that the people of the community will start to hate them and run them out of town? Oh no, they say, it’s that we will lose our priorities of wholeheartedly serving the Word of the Lord, and the Lord of the Word. And when we come to church our one criterion in judging its value is whether the services spur us on to work out our own salvation with deep seriousness. For us that is our meat and drink. It is life or death. It is the one thing that we do. Paul has said to these Philippians, “To me to live is Christ.” It is an absolutely devastating statement. If that is our commitment then it becomes our consuming passion. There are so many cares that we have, for what we are going to eat and drink, and the clothes we put on and whether we will have enough money and good enough health in the future. But we transfer all those concerns to this one realm of my life with God, and working out my salvation with fear and trembling.
“A man who knows his own heart is a man who cannot be light and carefree and flippant. He knows that in his flesh there dwells no good thing. The Christian is one who works out his own salvation with fear and trembling; fear lest he should fail or falter, lest he should not discern the subtlety of the world, the power of sin and his own weakness, and the holiness of God. So he walks with gravity lest he should be unworthy of this great salvation” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Life of Joy,” Hodder, London 1989, p.180).
4. WE DO THIS WHEN NO ONE’S EYES ARE ON US EXCEPT THE LIVING GOD.
“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence . . .” (v.12). They have been a great congregation. When Paul taught them and they could see it, they believed. When he pointed out the implications of being a Christian wife or a Christian husband they obeyed. When he told them about mortification or growing in grace they obeyed. “My dear friends . . . you have always obeyed.” What a complement! That, of course, is the first mark of a Christian. “Jesus said to me Come! and I came.”
But now Paul has moved away. He is over the sea in Rome. “Now much more in my absence, go on obeying,” he writes to them. Why does Paul write that? Is it a slight comment made in passing? Just ponder it for a moment. These people had had the privilege of Paul’s personal ministry with all his experiences, scholarship, intimate knowledge of Jesus Christ, energy and charisma. Then all of a sudden it was there no longer. They felt the loss keenly. They were deprived, and I am sure that for many of them that ministry had been inspirational and foundational to being a Christian and keep going as a disciple. It held the church together, and now he has gone. “Can we go on as followers of Jesus, without him?” they asked themselves. So Paul is concerned as to the degree of dependence there might be on his own personality and presentation. “Don’t let that loss and the transition to another pastor limit or modify you, or reduce your commitment – not for a moment.” Paul is saying, “You must not think of this new life into which you have come in terms of me, as if I were essential to it. You must not feel that the whole thing is going to end because I am in prison and cannot come and preach to you. Neither must you think of it as a human thing; it is not an idea of mine or some theory that I have evolved. It is not as if it were my special and peculiar idea of life and living to which I am therefore essential. Not at all, says Paul” (D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Life of Joy,” Hodder, London, 1989, p.163).
So here is an important truth, that we must never allow changes of circumstance to affect our commitment to working out our own salvation, and that is a terrible possibility in the church of God. There are young Christians who first come across the gospel in a university town and they are used to worshipping with other students. They are sustained by the camaraderie of their fellow students, by the different speakers, the varied programme, and the opportunities to meet regularly and work for the gospel. Then they are transferred into a very different world, less excitement, no students, fewer peer group pressures and support. In a tragic number of instances the whole structure of their discipline collapses. The change of location, and social standing, and new responsibilities in a sphere where there are no fellow believers to spur them on combines to drags them down. But there is another similar problem, and that is that there are many Christians who have the utmost difficulty surviving the loss of a particular ministry. So Paul is saying to them, not just when I am around but now in my absence, be zealous in working out your own salvation. When you are by yourself – go for it! When the props are kicked away – go for it! This dreadfully serious business of your own salvation from sin and death – keep working at it! Keep mortifying indwelling sin, and keep feeding your graces. Make every room of your heart Christ’s room.
This whole word is spoken to those who have received the salvation of God in Jesus Christ. They have come to him. They have made that great initial decision to follow Christ. They have had their first experience of grace. They have taken their first step and come to Christ. But I cannot assume that everyone here in this distinguished congregation has done that, and so let me urge you to consider again the importance of this, your human decision concerning following Jesus Christ. It is rooted certainly in the grace of God, informed and strengthened by the word of God, and enabled by a work of the Spirit, yes of course, all those things, but it is your decision. This is your choice or it is your rejection: the beginning of your journey or your remaining just where you are. Have you taken the first step? Have you come to this decision? Until I have taken it I cannot begin to build the superstructure. The foundation must first be laid, and I am asking whether you have built on that great foundation established by the offering of Jesus Christ? “Come unto me and I will give you rest,” he says. Have you come? “He that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” Have you come to him? “He that is not for me is against me.” Where are you today? Who is on the Lord’s side? Who is working out his salvation with fear and trembling?
20th October 2002 GEOFF THOMAS