Working Out Our Salvation, or Working For Our Salvation?

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling . . .

Philippians 2:12 (NRSV emphasis added)

This is a verse we can take in a wrong direction, and if we do that, it just might take us in the wrong direction. The idea that we must work for our salvation can have dire consequences in our relationship with God. To give an example, what would it be like for be a young child to wonder each day if she had earned a place at the family dinner table? Does she belong? What does it feel like to constantly wonder if we have earned a spot at God’s table? Do we belong? Is that how love works?

This statement from Paul to the Christians in Philippi is a much more positive statement than “work for your own salvation.” It can help us get to a far more positive place.

The first thing we want to do is read these words in the context of the entire Bible;

  • where we see that life is a gift in the first place. Adam and Eve did not earn their spot in the Garden of Eden. God placed them there out of his desire for relationship.
  • where we see that life continued to be given, not because of the perfection of humanity, but because of God’s desire and promise. The story of Noah and the rainbow come to mind.
  • where we see that the patriarchs were called, not because they had earned it, but according to God’s desire and promise. Jacob being chosen over Esau comes to mind.
  • where we see that the Israelites were rescued from Egypt, not because they earned a rescue, but according to God’s desire and promise.
  • where we see that the Israelites settled in the promised land, not because they earned it, but according to God’s promise.
  • where we see that though God let the consequences fall on his rebellious covenant people, there was always to be a future, not because they deserved it, but according to God’s desire and promise.

We are not even into the New Testament yet, and already we are seeing that people do not earn their place in God’s presence, but rather it is out of God’s desire, God’s promise, God’s love.

Now we get to the New Testament where we see that God came to us in Jesus, and died for the forgiveness of sin, not because we earned it, but because of his desire and promise.

The entire Bible teaches us that salvation, rescue from death and reconciliation with God so that we can live in relationship with God, is not something we work for, but something God works for us. That is one of the great themes of the Bible from beginning to end. Therefore “work out your own salvation” does not mean “work for your own salvation.”

The second thing we want to do is read theses words in context of what Paul is saying to the Christians in Philippi. We can note the “therefore” of “Therefore . . . work out for yourselves,” and we can look back to see what it refers to:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;

Philippians 2:5-12 (NRSV)

Since we are to have the mind of Christ, and since Christ died for our salvation, and since Christ is risen and is now Lord, therefore, figure out what it looks like to have the mind of Christ, figure out what it looks like to be in relationship with Christ as Lord and Saviour. We are saved, not by works, but by the grace of God, so now we can get on with it, living out the being-saved life, the being-rescued life.

To give an illustration, sometime ago I bought my dream bike which I thought I would have for the rest of my life. But then I got married, we started having children, so I did what mature people do and sold it. Fast forward fifteen years and I just happened to come across it in Kijiji. My wife just happened to buy it back for me.

I didn’t earn the privilege of having the bike back, it was a gift. Sandra did not say to me, I will buy you this motorcycle if you always keep the grass cut short, always put out the garbage, do your fair share of the cooking, which I do not do much to the relief of our children, and so on. There were no conditions. I found it, Sandra made sure I had it.

But now that I have that gift, however, I need to work out how life looks with that gift. I have a motorcycle, now I need to ride it. I also need to maintain it, to not hesitate in getting my hands dirty for routine maintenance. Since I have a motorcycle, I now get on with being a motorcyclist. Really it is about leaning into and living out a new identity.

This helps us get at what Paul is saying. Since we are to have the mind of Christ, and since God has given us salvation as a gift, and since Jesus is Lord, we now live as people for whom all that is true. We lean into and live out a new identity. We are not to be afraid to get our hands dirty, making the adjustments necessary along the way, checking where our minds are at. Do we have the mind of Christ when it comes to our attitudes, our goals and aspirations, our relationships, our sexuality, and everything else in life?

That might seem like a big task, but we have God’s help along the way:

. . . for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Philippians 2:13 (NRSV)

As we figure out what it looks like to have the mind of Christ, as we lean into our salvation, our lives will reflect a new reality:

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.

Philippians 2:14-15 (NRSV)

Here is an allusion to the Israelites, who murmured and argued in the wilderness after being rescued from Egypt. Remember that they were rescued, not because they earned it, but because of the desire of God. Having been rescued, instead of murmuring and arguing they should have spent that time in getting to know God, in getting to know what it looked like to be in relationship with God. The same holds true for us today now that we have been rescued.

As we work out our salvation, as we work out what it looks like to have the mind of Christ, we will be different and “shine like stars in the world.”

The early Christians were different, noticeably so, and positively so. It was a beautiful difference. The early Christians did not look like they were straight out of the novel and tv series “A Handmaid’s Tale,” that is, under a very oppressive religious system. Indeed they looked like people who were freed from oppressive systems and ways of thinking. They looked like people who were rescued from the things that plagued society.

Are we noticeably different in our day? Does it look like we have been freed from gossip, lies, hatred, apathy, faithlessness, greed, and the like?

As Christ followers we do not earn our salvation, our rescue from death and sin, our reconciliation to, and relationship with, God. We never could, and in Christ it is accomplished for us as a gift of God, as the working out of his will. Our salvation is what God desires. He wants us at his table.

We have the wonderful opportunity to get on with the life of a rescued-from-sin-and-death-and-now-in-relationship-with-God person. God has offered us a covenant of love, now let’s lean into it. God has given us the motorcycle, now let’s take it for a ride. God has prepared a seat for us at his table, now let’s sit in his presence.

(The full reflection can be seen as part of our “online worship expression” from October 4th.)