Work out your salvation with fear and trembling
by Jack Wald | April 22nd, 2018

Philippians 2:12-13

How would you explain to someone what it means to be saved? I looked it up on the internet and found this:

When we talk about following Jesus, we often talk about “being saved.” Just
what does that mean, and if it is important, how do we become saved? All
humans sin, for it is our nature to sin. We have to be responsible for our
sin, and take the consequences for our sin. The ultimate consequence for sin
is to receive the punishment that we deserve, which is to be punished
eternally with Satan in Hell. Therefore, to be saved means that we are saved
from the punishment that we deserve. If we are “saved,” that means the same
thing as if we say we have “received salvation.”

And I also found this:

To be saved means turning away from a life that is without God, that is focused solely upon ourselves. It means giving up the obsession with our needs, our wants, our pleasures, our comforts, our importance, our egos, and our power. If my world is nothing but me, then no one else, including God, is likely to get in. Being saved from also means being saved from destructive patterns of life — things that destroy us instead of build us up. Some of those common destructive elements (which Christians call sin) are alcohol, drugs, sexual misuse and abuse, intolerance, lust for power, pursuit of money at the expense of others, and so forth. Involvement in such patterns usually comes from a need to fill a void in life, to cover a feeling of inadequacy.

What do you think? Does this explain what it means to be saved?

How would you explain to someone what a meal is? You could say:

A meal is peeling carrots cutting them up into small pieces, chopping onions, peppers, and potatoes. Then you cook them, adding just the right amount of salt, pepper, and other spices. You cook up some rice. You cook a chicken and put that on a plate, making sure the chicken, rice, and vegetables are all ready at the same time. You set the table with knives, forks, and spoons. You put out glasses and napkins, bring out the food to put on the table, and then have everyone sit down.

What’s missing in this explanation of what a meal is? Eating food. That’s what’s missing.

What is missing in the explanations of what it means to be saved? They talk about sin and consequences of sin. They talk about punishment for sin. They talk about giving up our obsession with our needs, wants, pleasures, comforts, importance, egos, and power. They talk about being saved from destructive patterns of life (alcohol, drugs, sexual misuse and abuse, lust for power, pursuit of money at the expense of others).

What they don’t talk about is our relationship with God. Hold on to that thought.

In the text from Philippians 2 for this morning Paul tells us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

Some Christians get nervous when they read this because it sounds as if Paul is telling us we have to work to attain our salvation, but we hold to salvation as a free gift that is not attained by our work, by our efforts. Salvation is something God does for us.

But this is not what Paul is thinking when he tells us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Let me walk us through these two verses and help to make what Paul means more clear.

Therefore, my dear friends,

Once again Paul expresses his deep affection for the members of the church in Philippi.
What Paul writes in this letter comes out of his very personal and warm affection for them.

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed

Who have they obeyed? Paul? No. It is clear that Paul is talking about their obedience to Christ. As is clear in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, “faith in Christ is ultimately expressed as obedience to Christ, not in the sense of following the rules, but of coming totally under his lordship, of being devoted completely to him.” (Fee)

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence

Paul speaks to them from a distance. He is in a prison cell in Rome, they are 1,284 kilometers away in Philippi, a travel distance of six weeks to three months depending on the conditions. They lived obedient lives when Paul was with them, now in his absence he encourages them to be even more obedient so that it cannot be said they are obedient only when he is with them.

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,

In working out our salvation Paul is not telling us how to be saved. He does tell us how to be saved elsewhere.

When Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi, they were miraculously released from their chains and the prison doors opened. The jailer was terrified and asked them, (Acts 16:30–31)
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”

Paul wrote to the church in Rome (Romans 10:9)
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

In Philippians 2:12 Paul is not writing about how we come to be saved, he is writing about how to live when we are saved. And the context of this is how to live within the community of the church in Philippi. He writes about your (plural) salvation.

“Working out your salvation with fear and trembling” is not a matter of each person choosing to say “Jesus is Lord” and believing from the heart that God raised Jesus from the dead. It is in community that we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

It becomes obvious that Paul is talking about working out our salvation with fear and trembling within the context of community when we read the verses that follow in Paul’s letter. Elliot will preach next week from Philippians 2:14–15
Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.

It is how we relate to each other in community that we see our salvation worked out. Obviously, I as an individual, have to grow in faith and understanding of myself, dealing with sin in my life. But growth in my life is seen in my relationships with others. Jesus did not save us so we could sit out in the forest communing with birds, as pleasant as that might be. Jesus saved us to be in fellowship with others in his family. We come together to church to worship because that is why we were created, to be in a community of followers of Jesus.

Peter wrote about who we are, what our identity is. (1 Peter 2:10)
Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

In Paul’s theology, we are saved one by one, but we are saved to become a “people for God’s name.” We are saved as individuals into a community.

The Christian faith is not me and Jesus, it is we and Jesus.

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,

It is not always clear when someone crosses over the line of knowing about Jesus to knowing Jesus. People can go to church and Bible studies for years and then at some point discover what it means to be in a personal relationship with Jesus.

John Wesley, the 18th century theologian and pastor who founded what became known as the Methodist Church, was active in ministry for ten years before he experienced his evangelical conversion, when he felt his “heart strangely warmed.” He was an Anglican priest, led the “Holy Club,” a society formed for the purpose of study and the pursuit of a devout Christian life, went to the Colonies (later the United States) as a missionary for two years, before coming back to England and his conversion. He did all the things someone serious about faith in Jesus might do but still was missing the relationship with Jesus that is at the heart of being saved.

Last week Elliot taught in Joyful Hour, the class that meets after our morning service on Sundays, about salvation. He asked, “What does it mean to be saved?”

The explanations of what salvation is that I read at the beginning of this sermon are not wrong. The things they talk about are important truths. We need to understand that we are sinful beings. We need to understand that we need to be cleansed from sin and that only Jesus can do that for us. We need to understand that we need the ongoing cleansing from our sinful inclinations as we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in resisting sin. But what happens when I am saved? I cross over from a life in which I am the center of my universe to a life in which I try to make Jesus the center of my universe. I cross over into a relationship with Jesus. I discover that Jesus is not just an historical figure, the founder of the Christian religion. I discover that Jesus is the living Son of God and he knows me and I can know him.

Jesus prayed in his High Priestly prayer in John 17 (John 17:1–3)
“Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. 2 For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. 3 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

“Now this is eternal life: that they know you.” The word “know” is an intimate knowledge. In Genesis 4:1 (ESV) we read:
Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain,

In Matthew 1 Joseph understood that Mary had not been unfaithful to him and he did not divorce her, but Matthew writes that “he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son.” This is the same word. Joseph did not know Mary until she gave birth to a son.

So when Jesus prayed, “Now this is eternal life, that they know you,” he is talking about an intimate knowing, not a religious knowing, not an intellectual knowing, not a cultural knowing, but a deeply personal, intimate knowing.

When we are saved, when we enter into an intimate knowing of the God who pre-existed creation, we have to choose what to do with that gift.

Paul tells us to work out the gift we have been given with fear and trembling. He tells us that because it is a precious gift. What makes the gift precious is made clear in the poem Paul inserted just prior to the text for this morning. (Philippians 2:9–11)
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

The gift of salvation brings us into relationship with the King of kings and the Lord of lords. This is not a gift to take lightly or casually. We are not saved, brought into relationship with Jesus, so we can take advantage of him for our own purposes, so we can keep him in our pocket as a good luck symbol, so we can keep him in the closet to be pulled out when needed.

We are to have proper awe of who it is that has saved us and who it is that is working with us for our good.

An egg and spoon race is a sporting event in which the participants have to balance an egg on a spoon as they race to the finish line. If the egg drops, the participant has to stop, reposition the egg on the spoon and then resume racing. Someone who carefully balances the egg on the spoon may not be as successful as someone who races and stops when the egg falls and then races again.

But how would you run the race if the egg was a Fabergé egg?

Fabergé was the name of a jeweler in St. Petersburg, Imperial Russia. The first Fabergé egg was crafted for Tsar Alexander III, who had decided to give his wife, the Empress Maria Fedorovna, an Easter egg in 1885. Known as the Hen Egg, the very first Fabergé egg is crafted from a foundation of gold. Its opaque white enameled “shell” opens to reveal a matte yellow-gold yolk. This in turn opens to reveal a multicolored gold hen that also opens. The hen contained a minute diamond replica of the imperial crown from which a small ruby pendant was suspended, but these last two elements have been lost.

The Tsar was delighted and requested that the jeweler make a new egg for each Easter. Each egg was to contain an exquisite surprise. After his death, Alexander III’s son continued the tradition. A total of 50 Imperial Easter eggs were made, 43 have survived. Another fifteen Fabergé eggs were made and all but one of those have survived.

Would you like to buy a Fabergé egg? Be prepared to spend between 5 and 30 million dollars US.

In an egg and spoon race with a Fabergé egg balanced on the spoon rather than a boiled egg, how differently would you run the race?

With a boiled egg balanced on the spoon, you might look at someone on the sideline who called out your name. With a Fabergé egg balanced on the spoon, you would never take your eye off the egg. Because the Fabergé egg is so precious your focus would always be on the egg, not on surroundings, not on anyone else, not on anything else.

The writer of Hebrews wrote: (Hebrews 12:1–2)
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

Because it is the King of kings and Lord of lords who has called us to himself, we fix our eyes on Jesus as we run the race with perseverance.

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, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

The gift of salvation is precious because we are brought into an intimate knowing of God, but it is also precious because it is God who empowers us to work out our salvation.

We are not like someone who was drowning at sea and then rescued by a pirate ship where we have to be careful not to do the wrong thing or we will be thrown back into the sea.

We have been rescued, we have been saved by Jesus, and our obedience is not the result of fearing what will happen if we fail to measure up to the standard set before us. Our obedience is not out of fear and trembling over what might happen if we were to do otherwise. Rather, being in an intimate relationship with Christ means that we are filled with the Holy Spirit who helps us so that our obedience is not out of fear but out of a desire to please Jesus who loves us.

Why does God empower us? Why does the Holy Spirit work in us to help us live the life we are called to live? It is God’s good purpose that is being fulfilled. It is for God’s pleasure that he works in us. He delights as we grow in our understanding of how much he loves us. He throws a party to celebrate when we come to our senses and return to him. He is thrilled when we take steps toward maturity in our faith.

There are Christians who study the Bible as a rule book and work hard to do all the things the Bible tells us we are supposed to do. They mean well but this leads to a dull and dreary life.

Annie is reading a book by John Eldredge: The Journey of Desire: Searching for the Life You’ve Always Dreamed of. She sent me this quote:

History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally.

Thus Willard described the Gospels we have today as gospels of sin management. Sin is the bottom line, and we have the cure. Typically, it is a system of knowledge or performance, or a mixture of both. Those in the knowledge camp put the emphasis on getting our doctrine in line. Right belief is seen as the means to life. Desire is irrelevant; content is what matters. But notice this – the Pharisees knew more about the Bible than most of us ever will, and it hardened their hearts. Knowledge just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. If you are familiar with the biblical narrative, you will remember that there were two special trees in Eden, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. We got the wrong tree. We got knowledge, and it hasn’t done us much good.”

The Bible is not primarily a rule book. The Bible is a love story. God is the lover and we are the ones he has been wooing ever since he first made himself known to Abraham. In the New Testament, Jesus is the bridegroom and we are his bride.

Annie sent me another quote, this one by Pedro Arrupe, a Spanish Basque Jesuit who was a priest in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped. He was an extraordinary man. He wrote:
Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

This is how we handle a gift infinitely more precious than a Fabergé egg.

Paul wrote: (Philippians 3:10–14)
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Memorize Bible verses, learn the doctrines of the church, read your Bible, pray, but more than anything else, fall in love with Jesus who first loved you.