COMMENTARY ON PHILIPPIANS
T E X T
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now 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 do for His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12-13, NKJV)
The nature of salvation has been debated by theologians throughout nearly two millennia. Some consider the Lord to be the primary Worker in salvation from beginning to end. Others see God as providing the salvation initially, but leaving the matter wholly in the hands of man, while remaining personally aloof from the process. Our faith, however, must not rest in human perception, but in Divine declaration. Faith comes by “hearing,” not by understanding. Rather, it is “by faith” that we“understand” (Heb 11:3). This text states the situation precisely. Men are exhorted to involve themselves in the process of salvation. They are also told the Source of effective working. Those choosing to believe this representation of the case will find a great deal of comfort and encouragement for the good fight of faith.
YOU HAVE ALWAYS OBEYED
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence . . . ” (NKJV). Here is an exceedingly rare expression: “always obeyed.” It is not only unusual in our time, it has ALWAYS been uncommon. The character of the Philippians endeared them to the Apostle. From the very “first day” of their exposure to the Gospel until the writing of this Epistle, they had maintained a “fellowship in the Gospel” (1:5). They had, in fact, availed themselves of the grace that is attainable to every believer. They excelled, not because they were unusual people, but because they loved and embraced the truth.
We know this is the case because obedience is a facet of salvation. It is something we are to do, but it is not done in human strength alone. Peter reminds us that our salvation is in strict accordance with the “foreknowledge of God” (1 Pet 1:2). It involves an “eternal purpose” that has never been modified or adjusted to the human circumstance. Part of this great salvation involves the indispensable work of the Holy Spirit. Peter refers to salvation as being accomplished “by the sanctifying work of the Spirit” (NASB). That“sanctifying work” relates to removing us from Satan’s employment, and enrolling us as “laborers together with God” (1 Cor 3:9). It is also like dying to the Law, that we might be married to Christ and produce fruit to God (Rom 7:4). Peter particularly cites the objective of the Spirit’s separating work. He says it is “UNTO OBEDIENCE and sprinkling of the blood of Christ.” The NIV reads, “for obedience to Jesus Christ . . . ”
We know from our text, therefore, that the Philippians had not quenched or grieved the Spirit of God. They did not resist His holy work, but yielded to it in faith. The result: they “always obeyed.” Previously, the Spirit reminded us that Jesus Himself was “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross”(verse 8). In their obedience, therefore, the Philippians fulfilled the admonition of the Spirit: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (verse 5). Christ Jesus was dwelling in their hearts by faith (Eph 3:16-17), and had so divulged Himself to them as to constrain obedience.
The obedience of the Philippian brethren was prompted more by faith than the appearance of a person of faith. They obeyed when Paul was present, and when he was absent. Their faith had knit them to the Lord. They were driven by an awareness of their Savior. No wonder it is written, “The love of Christ constraineth us” (2 Cor 5:14). Those who are consistently obedient live with an acute consciousness of God, and in fellowship with Christ.
Where obedience is partial or lacking, a serious condition exists. There is no room in the Kingdom of God for disobedience. One man’s (Adam) disobedience made all men sinners (Rom 5:19). That is how serious disobedience is. Disobedience is evidence of the dominion of Satan, who works in the “children of disobedience” (Eph 2:2). The wrath of God is promised to such children (Eph 5:6; Col 3:6).
Thus the Philippians manifested the real nature of salvation. Their manner of life confirmed their participation in the purpose of God. It validated their profession, and provided a great light to their generation.
WORK OUT YOUR OWN SALVATION
“ . . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling . . . ”(NKJV). These arresting words are not spoken to recalcitrant and slothful believers, but to those who had “always obeyed.” They do not, therefore, reflect the state of the Philippians, but the nature of salvation. No believer will ever arrive at a point in this world where these words become obsolete or unnecessary. The words “work out your own salvation” are consistent in every major translation.
The words “work out” mean “complete,” or “carry on until it is finished.” The very words contradict whole bodies of theology. They presumeWE are involved in the salvation itself. A parallel can be seen in Israel’s deliverance from Egypt–an inspired view of salvation. God delivered them from Egypt, but they had to work out that salvation in the trip to Canaan. Some of them did not work it out. That very deliverance is cited as an example of our responsibility in 1 Corinthians 10:1-11.
Everything pertaining to life and godliness has been supplied to us through “the knowledge of Him” (2 Pet 1:3). Those things are “freely,” or abundantly and without cost, given to us (Rom 8:32). That very circumstance suggests there is something for us to do. God does not give supplies to those who require nothing. Nor, indeed, is Jesus bringing us to glory independently of our own involvement. God saved Noah, but HE had to build the ark. The Lord delivered Goliath into the hands of David, but HE had to sling the
stone. God always calls men into participation.
Working out our own salvation is availing ourselves of the resources provided in Christ. It is engaging in the good fight of faith and laying hold on eternal life (1 Tim 6:12). It is called “work” because it involves intense human effort. We are not working, however, to secure salvation, but for it to be completed in us. We do not have the whole of it yet.
“Fear and trembling” does not suggest slavish fear that drives us away from God. Rather, it describes an alert and cautious spirit in which the individual is aware of the dangers surrounding him. As Israel was in a treacherous wilderness en route to Canaan, so are we in an evil world en route to glory. Look at this frame of spirit as the opposite of cold and lifeless religion–form without power. While in the world, we are also in danger.
It is the awareness of our humanness that brings about the “fear and trembling.” When Paul preached, he did so “in fear and in much trembling”(1 Cor 2:3). He knew his only capability was in the Spirit and through faith. Left to himself, he would soon be dashed upon the rocks of futility. Servants were admonished to serve their masters “with fear and trembling,” knowing their circumstance required a strong faith in God (Eph 6:5).
There are lurking in our members the remnants of the old nature. In a single moment of time, they can bring us into captivity to the law of sin (Rom 7:23). As we set ourselves to work out our own salvation, let us do so with a lively sense of our handicaps as well as our state in Jesus. In that awareness let us not despair, but flee to Christ for refuge. This whole text assumes we need Jesus as much AFTER we are reconciled as we did before.
IT IS GOD WHO WORKS IN YOU
“ . . . for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (NKJV). The Spirit buttresses His exhortation by affirming the Divine working within us. These two verse (12-13) may appear to contradict each other, but they do not. Paul has no trouble affirming the need for human involvement, while also declaring Divine Sovereignty. Blessed is the person who is able to take hold of both affirmations. Happy, indeed, is the individual who can throw himself into working out his own salvation, knowing all the while that it is God Who is working within him.
The truth to be seen here is that God works THROUGH our efforts–and does so effectually. In the end, we cannot give credit to our efforts, but to God. Notwithstanding, we work heartily just as though it all depended upon us. The woman who came through the “press” to touch the hem of Christ’s garment had to expend what little energy she had. But had it not been for the power of Christ, she would never have been able to touch His garment.
The Divine working is said to be in two areas: “to will and to do.” Again, this is too difficult for one in the grip of a stilted theology. The human will is too often considered in separation from the working of God. But our text will have nothing of such an insipid view. When men are “willing,” God has been at work! It is in “the day of His power” that they have become willing (Psa 110:3). This is involved in God drawing people to Jesus (John 6:44). A“willing mind” (2 Cor 8:12) does not exclude the activity of the person–but neither does it forbid the working of God. This is not a matter to debate. God has spoken with crystal clarity, and we do well to believe it. Wherever there is “a contrite and humble spirit” (Isa 57:15), God will “work to will,”helping the individual to reject any inclinations to be reluctant.
This text also shows that willingness must precede the doing of God’s will. It simply cannot be done perfunctorily, and by mere routine. Myriads of professed believers are involved in religious doing that is divorced from their wills. They have no preference or appetite for the things of God, yet involve themselves in religious activities. God will have none of it. Before He works to “do,” He always works to “will!”
By saying God works in us “to do,” the Spirit is emphasizing that Divine demands exceed our natural capabilities. For example, Christ cannot dwell in our hearts unless we are strengthened by His Spirit (Eph 3:16-17). The requirements to fight a good fight, seek the things that are above, and lay hold on eternal life, are impossible without God working in us “to do.” That working is also accomplished “mightily” (Col 1:29) and “effectually” (1 Thess 2:13). There is no known limits to this working. God is still “able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us” (Eph 3:20).
“According to His will” signifies at last two things. First, this type of working is something the Lord desires to do. Second, the working is devoted to the accomplishment of His purpose. Thus we read God is “working in you what is well pleasing in His sight” (Heb 13:20-21). Verse 13 is what makes verse 12 doable! Let all saints throw themselves into the work!