Up until this point the apostle Paul has been focusing the Philippians on the priority of the gospel. He’s thanked God for their “partnership in the gospel” (1:5), he holds them dear to his heart because they share with him in God’s grace for the “defense and confirmation of the gospel” (1:7), he praises the Lord that his imprisonment has had the effect to “advance the gospel” (1:12), he realizes that God has placed him in prison for the “defense of the gospel” (1:16) and finally he charges them to live a life that is “worthy of the gospel.” (1:27)
If we were to have received this letter in our own mailbox, not having read it before in the Bible, we would be struck by how fixated Paul is on the gospel. He knows these people well. He’s spent time with them, even lived among them for a while. Yet his emphasis is not on their relationship but on their common mission in the proclamation of the gospel.
We must understand the truth about the message of the gospel of Christ. The gospel is the power of God for salvation, and because of that it changes everything. These Philippians had their lives turned upside down for the good. They got connected with God, and God made them different, not just a little different, radically, unalterably different.
For us it is the same. We don’t come to God’s party already good. We can’t even get into the party because we aren’t good enough. But the gospel is our invitation, and it’s because of the gospel, and only because of the gospel, that we have hope.
It’s because of the gospel that people change. Without the gospel it’s like this verse from Jeremiah, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?” (Jer. 13:23) No, they can’t, and neither can anyone else. But you see that’s where we get stuck. We have been so conditioned to think that being a Christian is about being good. We can get caught in this very subtle lie from Satan that goes like this, “Now that I’m saved, I can take it from here and be good.”
A relationship with God was never based on being good. It’s always been based on God choosing to have a relationship with us. So now we see that where we are at in our study of Philippians, Paul turns a corner. He starts to focus on what kind of effect the gospel should have on these believers. Instead of highlighting the mission of Jesus to proclaim the good news, he starts teaching them about how they should think and how they should act. But don’t miss this, Paul keeps this mindset reset connected to the gospel. Living a life that is good in the sight of God flows from the message of salvation and the grace of the gift of God. We will see how God’s ongoing grace makes the difference and that Paul continues to hold on to the message of salvation, even as he now shifts to growth in Christ.
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.
Based on their past obedience to Christ, Paul coaches them to stay engaged in the process of resetting their mindset. Jesus’ way of thinking is the standard that he calls them to. It’s what Paul is aiming at for them and for every Christ-follower. It’s a process that takes some work, and Paul tells them to work it out.
What exactly does that mean to work it out? It’s easy to get that wrong, so let’s be very precise. First of all, we know the process is started by the Lord. We also know that it is brought to completion by the Lord. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6) So don’t misunderstand what Paul is telling the Philippians. He’s not telling them that salvation is a result of their good works.
In fact, not only is salvation not a result of their good works or our good works, we don’t even, in ourselves, have the desire to do what God wants. God not only saves us from our sinful disobedience, He also is the one who gives us the desire to do what is right. Even if it were possible to work to earn God’s pleasure, it would have to at least start with wanting to please God, and we don’t even have that. All we have is the desire to do what we want when we want to do it.
To work out our salvation, therefore, is not to try and earn His pleasure. There is no fear of losing our relationship with the Lord if we don’t work hard enough to please Him. Instead, we work, and it can be hard work, because we want to please Him. In fact, nothing gives us more pleasure than to please our Heavenly Father. So this brings us to our first mindset reset.
Work out your salvation, don’t work for it.
Because many people are don’t understand the difference between working for our salvation and working out our salvation, and there is a huge difference between, we need to take a quick look at the three stages of salvation. In these three stages of salvation listen for who does the work.
The first stage is that we have been saved. “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.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) It’s pretty clear from this verse that God is the one who does all the work for this first stage. This is why we say you can’t earn your way into God’s good graces. You can’t do anything to earn salvation.
The second stage is that we are being saved. “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:1-2) Notice that Paul says that these believers are being saved. We all know that just because someone has trusted Christ as their Lord and Savior that sin doesn’t get up and take a vacation. So we are being saved from the power of that sin has over our lives. This work is done by God and us. We work together. But it is very important that we understand clearly how to work out our salvation, otherwise we just end up trying to earn favor with God all over again. We will talk about that in just a minute.
The third stage is that we will be saved. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” (Romans 5:9) At the end of the world when Jesus returns there will be a day of judgment. Those who do not personally know the Lord will face the wrath of God. His punishment for their sins will be severe. Yet for those who have trusted Christ, there will be a new era of life which will never end. Our work at this point will stop, and God’s work will continue.
So we see that salvation, or being saved, has a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning starts with us receiving a gift pure and simple. The end is when Christ returns to gather all who belong to Him to Himself at the end of this world. The middle stage is what Paul goes on to talk about in our scripture today. It is the process of being set free from the mindset of disobedience to God which we were all born with. Paul says that we are being saved in two ways: our desire to do the will of God and the actual doing of it. If we have been saved by Christ, we will see growth in these two areas as we are being saved from the sinful mindset.
Did you catch that the only reason we have the will to obey God and the follow-through of obedience is because God works that into us. It’s kind of like we’re the dough, and God is kneading into us the will to obey. Who is doing the mindset reset? It is the Lord. Does this mean that we sit back and let God do all the work? No because Paul clearly tells them to work out their salvation. They need to be actively a part of the process of being saved.
How are we supposed to know how to work with God? What’s He supposed to do, and what are we supposed to you? The key is found in those two words Paul uses to describe how we work out our salvation: fear and trembling.
Why fear and trembling? Does Paul want them to be afraid that God will smite them with His wrath? No, this is not the sense that Paul has here. Instead, he wants them to recognize who they are because of the work that God has already done in them. We need to know just how much we need God.
The Bible says that those who have trusted Christ are a chosen and holy people. (1 Peter 2:9) The choosing is both to be a part of God’s people and to act like people who belong to God. Those who belong to God are holy. This means that they are different. They have been separated from the crowd and their mindset is different from the crowd which means that their life is different from the crowd. Now if those who have been chosen and set apart by God start to think that they are more special than anyone else in the crowd, or if they start to think that they are better than the other people who have been set apart from the crowd, they show that their thoughts don’t match up with God’s thoughts. They show that they haven’t yet had a reset of their mindset.
The attitude of fear and trembling is a recognition of God’s gift of grace toward us when we believe and His ongoing grace in our lives as He saves us from our old ways of thinking and living. If we embrace this mindset it will ensure that God’s work of changing us from the inside out will continue. If we should desire anything in this life it should be more of the grace of God. The one thing that will guarantee us not receiving God’s grace is pride. The scripture is crystal clear on this, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)
So the process of working out our salvation is to respond to God’s work in our lives with a mindset that allows His work in us to proceed. How practically are we to do that? Paul goes into specifics. Although written almost 2,000 years ago, Paul’s words are eerily spot-on for the world today.
Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 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. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
It is clear from Paul’s words that grumbling and disputing was a common response of people of his time. This was so pervasive that he tells these young Christ-followers that they will stand out like bright lights at night if they quit their griping. Many times we hear that Christians today act so much like non-Christians that it’s hard to tell the difference. Then people who don’t know the Lord ask why they should place their trust in Christ when it doesn’t seem to make any difference in those who are Christians.
But the difference that God makes in His people is huge according to Paul. He says they are blameless and innocent. He says they are without blemish. In contrast, those who do not know the Lord Paul calls a crooked and twisted generation. They can be recognized because they are caught up in this pattern of grumbling and disputing. In light of our observations about Christian behavior not being very different at times than non-Christian behavior, how are we to understand these extreme differences that Paul says should be there? This brings us to our second mindset reset.
God’s work in us will make a difference if we work with Him.
Once we are saved we then are being saved as we work together with God. I believe that the Lord gives us very practical applications that we can work with. Grumbling and disputing, other translations say complaining and arguing. This is not the way that God wants us to be. It wasn’t the Lord’s example when he walked on the earth. Paul just highlighted in the first few verses of Philippians chapter two the way that Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to death on the cross. He did it just because His Father told Him to.
It’s not like Jesus wanted to die on the cross. He asked the Father even toward the end if there was another way. However, He obeyed His Father. Those who complain at the root have a problem with obedience. If the Lord asks us to do something for Him, then we know that He has already lived out the obedience that He calls us to live. He already did the hard stuff, so He knows what He’s asking us to do from personal experience. Now, not everything the Lord tells us to do will be hard, but if we are to be the kind of children which stand out from the crowd, our obedience to God will be without complaining and arguing.
It takes a mindset that has already determined that it will hold fast to God’s Word above all else. It takes a mindset which has already decided to obey without grumbling and disputing. This is not only our response to the Lord, it also must be our response to those whom God has placed in authority over us such as our parents, our bosses and yes even those in our government. Because we know that the Lord has placed all those in authority over us, our grumbling against them is really a grumbling against Him. So the Lord asks us to be different. If we belong to Him we can do all things without grumbling and disputing. It is possible.
Now let me say that when we listen to Paul’s exhortation to stop grumbling and complaining, we have to realize the difference between consistent behavior and a single example of our behavior. The difference that Jesus makes in Christians who are willing to let God do His work is that their behavior changes from a pattern of complaining to a pattern of thankfulness. Everyone has bad days where we grumble. I’m not saying that’s what we should do, but having a bad day is much different than having a mindset in general where we have stopped a pattern of grumbling and arguing. Realize that Paul was challenging these believers and us also to step up to a different mindset which better reflects who we are because of what Jesus has done in us.