I frequently remind you of the truth of Acts 17:28—that Christians live, and move, and have our being in God and no other.We live in His strength and not our own.It is His divine power that has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3).
So . . . where does human effort fit in?Or should we, as some say, regard human effort as a “work of the flesh” and therefore sinful?
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 to act according to his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)
Caution: you are entering a spiritual “spin zone” for legalists! Legalists misinterpret and misuse this text of sacred Scripture.They want to create an atmosphere of fear for their followers in order to keep them in line. Legalists darkly warn those who will listen that if they sin, God will reject them and they will lose their salvation.
This is simply not the teaching of Scripture! The Greek word that the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to use, from which we get“fear” in the Philippians passage above, is phobos.Phobosis more literally translated as “reverence,” “awe,” or “respect”—not a slavish fear or panic that paralyzes a person.The right emotions of reverence, awe, and respect are to be gleaned from this text,not doubt and fear regarding our eternal security!
Paul used the very same wordto describe the wonderful reception that Titus received from the Christians at Corinth:
His affection for you is all the greater when he remembers that you were all obedient, receiving him with fear and trembling. (2 Corinthians 7:15)
Paul even used phobosto describe himself when he came to the Corinthian church, reflecting on the awesome, almighty nature of the calling Jesus placed in his life, taking him from the persecutor of the church to the pastor of the church.
I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. (1 Corinthians 2:3)
To “work out” our salvation, then, means to do all we can (effort), with the proper sense of reverence and awe for the strength of the Almighty,which is how we live a life of obedience and faithfulness before the face of God.We are to actively pursue the things of God in that ongoing process that is often called progressive sanctification.Notice that the phrase is “progressive” sanctification—not perfect obedience!The Christian progresses in the direction of godliness by grace, through faith, straining with human effort . . . but that Christian believer will not be perfected until he or she is received into glory.
In working out our salvation we go to the source of our salvation (the Lord Jesus Christ) and through the many means of grace (Bible intake, prayer, worship, communion of the saints, etc.) God renews our minds, enlarges our hearts, and bends our wills so that our efforts, worked out in His strength,are in line with His will for our lives.In his seminary and graduate school handbook, The Daring Goal: What to Expect When We Accept Christ as Our Life, Richard Foster put it this way:
Through the Holy Spirit’s guidance and strength, I will order my life according to an overall pattern that conforms to the way of Christ.Over time this process will develop deeply ingrained habits in me so that, at the moment of crisis, inner resources to act in a Christlike manner are available.
Our efforts in His strength will, over time, develop deeply ingrained habits that will lead us toward holiness.And that is the only place where significance and success kiss.Let the psalmist close out today’s meditation:
Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling.(Psalm 2:11)
This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN