NOTE – This Bible study was held at Mt. Freedom Baptist Church, Mountain Rest, SC – Wednesday July 29, 2020
It’s such a blessing to have the opportunity to join with you as we delve into God’s Word together. What a joy it is to be together in the house of the LORD, and what a privilege it is to have the freedom to hold in our hands the very Word of God – a freedom and blessing that many of our brothers and sisters around the world simply don’t have. I’m also really excited about the passage (actually just one verse) that we’ll be looking at today. Philippians is my very favorite book in the Bible. I’m not sure you could really say that I have what you would call a “life verse,” but if I did it would be a passage from Philippians…
12Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. 13Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, 14I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.Philippians 3:12-14 – NKJV
Let’s just remind ourselves of the overall context and theme of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Paul wrote this letter during his imprisonment in Rome. Recall that he had been arrested in Jerusalem upon return from his third missionary journey. After he was passed around for years to various Roman and Jewish judges, he finally exercised his right as a Roman citizen to appeal his case to Caesar. Upon arrival at Rome he was placed under house arrest to await his hearing before Caesar. This letter to the Philippians was written right after that hearing as Paul awaited the verdict.
The focus of this letter is on unity within the body of Christ, and on joy at our salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and His miraculous resurrection. So let’s continue now with our study of Philippians 2:12.
Philippians 2:12 – Working Salvation Through
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,Philippians 2:12 – ESV
We can take several lessons from this very familiar verse:
- The importance of humility and obedience in salvation
- The interaction of grace, faith, and works in salvation
- The personal nature of salvation
- The role of repentance in salvation
The Importance of Humility and Obedience in Salvation
Whenever we study God’s Word, it is always vitally important that we understand the broader context of any passage we are considering. Our pastor in California liked to say that we always need to read a passage with 20/20 vision – looking at the twenty verses before and the twenty verses after it. Establishing the context gives us a handle by which we can better grasp the meaning of the passage of interest. This is especially true with passages that begin with “therefore” as this one does. Before delving further into the verse, we need to find out what the “therefore” is there for.
Recall that throughout the letter so far, Paul has been emphasizing unity, obedience to God, and humble service to others. He summed that up in the first half of Philippians 2, pointing out the model Jesus gave us of obedience and humility – “…he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8b)
Jesus spoke of this in His Sermon on the Mount.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.Matthew 5:5 – ESV
We know that being meek is not the same thing as being weak. Meekness is the conscious choice to use any strength we have been given for the betterment of others before ourselves. Jesus didn’t just talk about that in His teachings. He led by example, as Paul pointed out to the Philippians. Jesus made the conscious choice not to wield His Almighty power for His own benefit, but cloaked it until a later time for the benefit of those He had come to save. Recall Jesus’ response on the night He was betrayed, when Peter attempted with his sword to prevent Jesus from capture.
51And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 52Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”Matthew 26:51-54 – ESV
This lesson is as applicable to Christian believers today as it was when Paul wrote this letter nearly 2000 years ago. We who have been sealed by God’s Spirit have been born anew by His grace as entirely new creations. It is incumbent upon us therefore to live before the rest of humanity in the meekness, humility, and obedience that Jesus modeled for us on the cross. Furthermore, we are called to forsake everything serving others in the Name of Jesus. Some of us will even be called to give our very lives just as He did in the ministry of His Gospel.
Believers’ meekness, humility, and genuine brotherly love in Christian service have never been more important in our lifetimes than they are right now. It’s a sorry fact that many of the angry, rebellious people we see on our streets right now are more familiar with God’s Word than some professing Christians! There is a whole generation out there who were raised in godly homes, and taught the Truth of the Gospel from an early age, but have never come to a true saving faith in Jesus’ Gospel. They are well familiar with Jesus’ teachings.
37And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38This is the great and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”Matthew 22:37-40 – ESV
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.Matthew 5:43-45a – ESV
The angry people on the street whom we watch on the tube in dismay are also watching Christians to see how we will respond to their despicable behavior. There is nothing more certain to drive them away from hearing the Truth, than hypocrisy, pride, and disobedience to our LORD’s calling.
CAVEAT – Please don’t misunderstand me. We should certainly not stand idly by while raging mobs attack helpless bystanders or first responders. We should be outraged when someone drives their vehicle into the front of a church full of congregants at a worship service and sets the place on fire. There is certainly a proper place for Christians to exhibit righteous anger, and to stand up for what we believe even as we strive to reflect the love of Christ. Jesus Himself modeled such righteous anger when he drove the merchants and money changers out of the temple in Jerusalem.
We need to be extremely careful that when we make the choice to take a stand, we are choosing to fight for what’s right, not to protect our own rights. We need to guard against falling into the trap so much of our society has fallen into – believing that our own rights somehow supersede the rights of others. In fact, Jesus teaches us quite the opposite and modeled that deference to others for us through His sacrifice on the cross as Paul points out here in Philippians 2.
Putting others before ourselves runs contrary to our nature. After all, one of the first words that comes from a baby’s mouth is “MINE!” Once we grow up, we learn to hide our selfishness, but under the surface it still persists. Jesus calls us to be genuinely unselfish and place the needs and desires of others before our own. The only way we can obey this calling is by the Spirit of God dwelling within us. When we allow Him to do that work within our hearts, it becomes a powerful testimony of the saving power of Jesus’ Gospel to the watching unsaved world.
The Interaction of Grace, Faith, and Works in Salvation
Philippians 2:12 has become one of the most misunderstood and misused verses in the Bible because of Paul’s call to “work out your own salvation.” This would seem to fly in the face of what Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Ephesus.
8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9not a result of works, so that no one may boast.Ephesians 2:8-9 – ESV
To make sense of this seeming conundrum, we need to take a closer look at the nature of salvation. God’s Word makes it clear that salvation is a process rather than an event. Jesus set this plan of salvation into motion before the creation of the world.
Justification – On the cross, Jesus completed the necessary first part of that process. God – having come to Earth in the flesh of the man Jesus of Nazareth – lived the perfectly sinless life which sinful mankind could not. Thus He was qualified to become the spotless sacrifice required for the remission of sin. On the cross, Jesus took upon Himself the punishment of death due to all mankind for our sin, and gave us all in its place the opportunity to partake in His resurrection. On the third day, Jesus proved that this work of salvation was complete by His resurrection from the dead by the power of His own Spirit. The “Christianese” term for this finished work of salvation is “justification.” By Jesus’ sacrifice, all mankind is justified – made righteous. Jesus has taken our sins upon Himself – despising the shame – and given us in their place His own perfect righteousness. Nothing further is needed to accomplish mankind’s justification. On the cross, Jesus Himself said – “It is finished.”
Conversion/Redemption – Mankind’s justification by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is only the necessary first step on the path to our salvation. If someone wins some sweepstakes, the prize is theirs the moment the drawing is made. But then it is incumbent upon the winner to step up and claim the winnings. When God created man, He determined that He would give each individual person the capacity and the privilege to choose whether or not to love, honor, and obey God. The very first man – Adam – and his wife – Eve – chose to disobey God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In their rebellion against God, mankind introduced death, pain, sorrow, disease, and all of the maladies we collectively call “evil” into the world. By so doing, they condemned all of their descendants to be born into the world with a sinful nature.
In His wisdom, God knew that without the presence of evil, the free will with which He has endowed us would be pointless. Free choice is only free choice if there are more than one option from which to choose. God loved us and trusted us so much that He built the capacity for this choice into us from the beginning. Knowing full-well that the first man would choose to rebel, God determined before He even formed Adam from the dust that Jesus would go to the cross for our justification. Yet although His work of justification is finished, we must each individually choose whether or not to accept God’s offer of eternal life with Him. This aspect of salvation is called “redemption” or “conversion.” It is a necessary work of our own human will required for us to be saved. Paul laid out the simple two-step action we all need to take for our redemption.
…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.Romans 10:9b – ESV
In that blessed moment when new believers accept in our hearts the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, and confess aloud our commitment to follow and obey Jesus as LORD, God seals our redemption by indwelling our hearts with His own Spirit. In that moment, He writes our names forever in the Lamb’s Book of Life from which it will never be expunged!
The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.Revelation 3:5 – ESV
NOTE – This view of the concepts of justification and redemption are what I personally hold true, and align with the Word of God and with orthodox Gospel theology in most “mainstream” Christian denominations. However, it would be disingenuous of me not to point out that other views exist, which also have some Biblical support. For example, the great sixteenth century theologian John Calvin believed and taught that mankind does not have free will, and that our ability to choose whether or not to accept the Gospel unto salvation is just an illusion. This Calvinist doctrine called “Irresistible Grace” teaches that God has foreordained since before the foundation of the world who He will redeem to himself, and who He will cast aside into what Jesus called “the outer darkness” – that is the Lake of Fire spoken of in the book of Revelation. There is some Biblical support for this idea, but for me it doesn’t make sense that God would put so much effort into calling us to repentance, and encouraging us to call upon the Name of Jesus for salvation if we really have no choice in the matter.
With that said though, there is another theological view for which I find absolutely no Biblical support, but which we need to mention because it is a false belief gaining ever-increasing popularity in the world today, so much so that even the pope has apparently embraced it. This is the idea of Universalism – that everyone will live eternally in fellowship with the Creator and that none will be condemned in sin. If the truth be told, this idea is very appealing. None of us would want to see our loved ones (or anyone at all for that matter) die in their sins and suffer eternal torment apart from God. But the “all paths lead to God” idea flies in the face of Jesus’ own teaching.
I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.John 14:6b – ESV
This plain claim of Jesus to be the exclusive means of salvation is either true (as I believe) or it isn’t (as Universalists believe). If Jesus’ claim is true, then the Universalist idea must be false. The two concepts are mutually exclusive.
Sanctification – Our redemption by the grace of God through our declaration of faith in the Truth of Jesus’ Gospel is not the completion of the process of our salvation, but its beginning. Recall Paul’s words of encouragement to the Philippian church earlier in this letter.
3I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 6And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus ChristPhilippians 1:3-6 – ESV
In the moment we choose to redeem our justification by the blood of Jesus on the cross, we invite God’s Spirit to come into our hearts and begin His work of sanctification. Paul speaks of this in his letter to the Roman church.
17But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.Romans 6:17-19 – ESV
The Greek word ἁγιασμός hagiasmos translated as “sanctification” in this passage means consecration or purification. Christian believers are being made holy by the power of God’s Spirit dwelling within us. God is cleansing us from our unrighteousness until He eventually perfects us into the very image of Jesus. This process of sanctification will continue within us until we either die and our spirits return to our LORD or the LORD Jesus Himself returns as He promised He would to bring us all together to the place that He has gone to prepare for us. In the meantime, His Spirit continues to perfect us through our works. In Ephesians 2:8-9 Paul first emphasized that our justification and redemption are by God’s grace through our faith. But Paul goes on in verse 10 to describe the process of our sanctification through our good works.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.Ephesians 2:10 – ESV
This is the working out of our salvation that Paul writes of here in Philippians 2:12. Our good works are not the cause of our salvation, but the result leading to our final perfection into the very image of Christ. Jesus’ half-brother James gave us a thorough explanation of the role of our good works in our salvation.
14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.James 2:14-18 – ESV
The Personal Nature of Salvation
It is not insignificant that Paul says to work out our own salvation here in Philippians 2:12. Our salvation is a personal relationship between ourselves and our LORD Jesus. Of course Jesus has such a relationship with every true believer, but every one of them is One-to-one. It is not a community matter. In truth, our own individual relationship with Jesus is the only one which we can “work out” or even know about. Our calling is to nurture and grow our own salvation, and that is plenty for us without trying to judge and manipulate the hearts of others.
This isn’t to say that we should leave our brothers and sisters in Christ to manage on their own. On the contrary, we are called by the LORD Jesus Himself to disciple those in our fold who are younger in their relationship with the LORD. We genuinely exhibit Christian love in fellowship. We ourselves should also actively seek out godly counsel from those of our brethren who are more seasoned in their relationships with the LORD. Paul spoke of this in his letter to the Hebrews.
23Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.Hebrews 10:23-25 – ESV
But it is up to each of us to apply the lessons gained through such godly counsel to our own salvation, and it is really none of our business how our brethren work out theirs. It is a personal matter between them and the LORD Jesus.
The Role of Repentance in Salvation
As we have seen, God’s work of sanctification within us by the power of His Spirit is ongoing, and will be so until He calls us to Himself or returns to gather His flock. But we also have a role to play in our sanctification. In the moment of our redemption when we confess aloud the LORD Jesus, we are not just calling Him by His rightful title. We are committing ourselves to strive with all we have to follow Jesus’ commandments, and thereby honor the sacrifice He made for us on the cross. This aspect of our salvation is particularly humbling for me personally, because I lived as a believer in the Truth of Jesus’ resurrection for over 25 years before I came to the realization by God’s grace that I needed to repent of my sin in order to truly say that Jesus is my LORD. Jesus Himself warned us about this.
21“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’Matthew 7:21-23 – ESV
This is why as we work out our own salvation, we do so with fear and trembling. Anyone who has ever experienced a very close call in combat, or while driving or flying, can testify that for hours and even days afterward, we may shudder and tremble as we remember the incident and how narrowly we averted disaster. This is more than just our body’s reaction to all the adrenaline that got dumped into our bloodstream in the moment of crisis. The memory of how narrowly we escaped death sticks with us – often for years afterward. So it is with our salvation. It is as if we were walking lost, alone, and blind through a terrifying wilderness, and almost stepped over a cliff into a bottomless chasm, but Jesus reached out at the last moment and pulled us to safety. Remembering how close we came to disaster, it is small wonder that we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling!