12 Therefore, 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, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
Dear Friends in Christ,
I’d like to begin my sermon this morning by introducing you to 2 sailors who are very much alike. They have similar boats. They sail on the same body of water. They have the same destination. But for all they have in common, they have 2 entirely different approaches to sailing. The 1st sailor is lazy and lethargic. He thinks: “Why should I do all the work? I’ll just raise the sail, let the wind blow, prop my feet up on the deck and go along for the ride.” He does none of the work. The other sailor, however, does all of the work. He doesn’t rely upon anything outside of himself to keep the boat afloat and heading in the right direction. He doesn’t even raise the sail. Instead, he’s always manning the oars and paddling like there’s no tomorrow.
The philosophy of the 1st is, “I’ll let the boat do the work.” The philosophy of the 2nd is, “I’ll do the work of the boat.” Two sailors. Two philosophies. Both mistaken. Both off course. And both found in every church.
You see, each of us in the church has been given a boat, though we don’t call it that. But it’s a vessel upon which we are being transported to our heavenly destination. That vessel is God’s grace. And when some discover God’s grace they say, “Oh good, now I don’t have to do anything. I’ll just sit back, take it easy, and relax.” Others, however, say, “God’s grace is nice, but is it really enough. Let’s not carry this grace thing too far. Yeah, he gives me the boat, but I’m the one who has to keep it afloat.”
So while the 1st one takes out a pillow to rest, the 2nd one takes out a paddle to work. And what’s so sad is that neither one of them makes much progress. And both of them could definitely benefit from the passage that we’re looking at this morning in Phil. 2 where Paul speaks of 2 types of Christians: one who says, “I’ll let God do the work and I’ll do nothing;” while the other one says, “I’d better do God’s work for him.” The 1st one is lethargic; the 2ndone is legalistic. The 1st suffers from fruitlessness; the other from faithlessness. And both suffer from joylessness.
So Paul has a word for each of these 2 types of Christians and that word is WORK. The 1stone needs to work out while the other needs to let God work in. Let’s take a look at each one of these examples and see if you might be able to relate to either or both of them in your spiritual walk.
To the lazy, lethargic Christian, Paul says in v. 12 that he needs to work out his salvation with fear and trembling. Now Christians are often hyper-sensitive when it comes to the word “work” or “works.” And well we should be because God has revealed to us in the Bible a grace that needs no work. In Eph. 2:8-9, for example, Paul reminds us: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God– not because of works, lest any man should boast.” Elsewhere Paul writes in Rom. 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” So those passages remind us that we don’t work for our salvation. Rather, we trust the finished work that Christ has already done.
But why, then, does Paul tell us in our text to work – to work out our salvation with fear and trembling? And why does James say in his epistle that faith without works is dead? Well, the answer to those questions can be found in a simple clarification of the 2 prepositions, out andfor. Paul is urging us here to work out our salvation, not to work for our salvation.
Let me give you an illustration to help you understand this more clearly. It has to do with all you moms here today. When you were pregnant and eventually gave birth, how much work did you do and how much work did your baby do? Did that baby work for its ultimate arrival in this world? No! You had the morning sickness, you had the swollen feet, you shed the blood, you bore the pain. You did all the work. And the baby, by virtue of your work, was given life, a name, and a place in the family.
But once it was born, then the baby began to work – to work out what it means to be a human being. It learned to crawl, to walk, to talk, to eat solid food, and so on. And really, it spends the rest of its life working out what it means to be human. Why? So that it can have a place in the family? No, it already has that. Rather, it works out its humanity because that’s what humans do.
In a very similar way, you and I were given the gift of life, spiritual life, new life in Christ, at our Baptism. Along with that we were given a name and a place in the family. We went from being creatures of our Creator to being children of our Heavenly Father. Now did we do anything to earn that? Did we work for that? No! It was a gift. But ever since we became God’s child, we’ve been called to work out our salvation, that is, to show forth in our lives what it means to be a Christian – learning to walk by faith and not by sight; learning to pray to Someone we’ve never seen; learning to trust God’s Word instead of our own faulty instincts. Learning to follow His will rather than our will. And as we diligently work out our salvation in our everyday lives, people should be able to notice something different about us, a change in us. Temper tantrums and profanity diminish. Selfishness decreases. Bitterness passes more quickly and forgiveness comes more easily.
So my friends, I want to challenge you this morning to take a good inward and outward look at yourself to see whether you’ve been a lazy and lethargic Christian lately. Have you been taking God’s grace for granted? Have you been negligent in doing those things that Christians should not only do but actually want to do? Is it time to heed the words of Paul and start working out your salvation, not in order to be saved, but because you already are saved through trusting in the finished work of Christ? Like one author has put it, “It’s not our job to keep the boat afloat, but at least we can scrub the deck every now and then.”
Well, let’s move on now from the lethargic Christian to the legalistic Christian. In v. 13 of our text Paul says, “It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Unfortunately, some people just don’t get it. They don’t understand the important part that God, in particular the Holy Spirit, plays in helping us to live out our faith and so they feel they have to do all the work. Let’s be very clear then about the definition of legalism. Legalism is not the doing of religious deeds. Doing religious deeds is good – going to church, feeding the poor, comforting the brokenhearted, praying. Such things are pleasing to God. But legalism adds a subtle and sometimes blatant twist to such deeds. Legalism is doing religious deeds for the purpose of earning salvation. It is trusting your acts and your works to save you rather than trusting the completed work of Christ.
And so I ask you, are you a legalistic Christian? Well, you are if you think your good works make God love you more. If you do something nice for someone and think, “Well, I’ve done my good deed for the day. God must really be smiling down on me now!” then you’re guilty of legalism. You are a legalistic Christian if you’re not certain of your salvation, that if you were to die today on your way home from church you would be immediately in heaven with your Lord. If you’re not sure of that, then you’re basing part of your salvation upon what you do instead of basing it entirely upon everything Christ has done for you because if you based it all upon what he did for you, then you would be certain of your salvation.
You are a legalistic Christian if you feel like you’re always walking on thin ice with God and that one wrong move on your part will cause you to break through the ice and fall out of his grace forever. If that describes you, you want some good news? Here it is: God wants to save you more than you want to be saved. And because of that, he has not made salvation difficult to understand or attain. He hasn’t made it like some legal documents we see these days, full of mysterious language and loopholes with a lot of small print at the bottom. No, he’s made salvation pretty cut and dried. In fact, so cut and dried that it can fit into one verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Pretty simple, isn’t it? Believe in Jesus and you will be saved.
Are you a legalistic Christian? You are if you’re tired – tired of trying to please God, weary of doing Christian things; if the joy that you first felt when you came to understand Jesus and all that he’d done for you seems like such a distant memory.
Weary sailor, maybe it’s time for you to lay down the oars and to raise the sail. Maybe it’s time for you to catch the refreshing breeze of the Holy Spirit. Maybe it’s time for you to heed the timeless invitation of our Savior who says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
So, 2 sailors. The lethargic one needs to abound more in living out his salvation while the legalistic one needs to abide more in the saving grace of God. The former needs to paddle a bit more while the latter needs to rest more in the loving and merciful arms of God. What we’re really talking about here, my friends, is balance in the Christian life. Trusting fully, completely, and only in the finished work of Christ to save us, and then living out our faith in the power of the Holy Spirit. Like Paul says in Col. 1:29: “To this end I labor, struggling with all his (Christ’s) energy, which so powerfully works in me.”
I close then with a true story that comes out of the Civil War. It’s about a slave who was forced to work on a plantation which had a harsh and cruel master. The list of chores that the slave had to do each day was long and tedious. Sadly, the master was impossible to please and would often beat the slave. Eventually, due largely to the cruelty of the master, the plantation deteriorated and went into bankruptcy. It was then purchased by a kind man, a gracious owner, a benevolent master. But he not only purchased the property, he also purchased the slave, and then in turn freed him. At the same time though he gave that slave the invitation to stay with him and help him rebuild the plantation, an invitation that the former slave gladly accepted. For weeks he worked for this kind master and one day he came across a list of duties that his former master had given him. He took that list to his current master and said, “Sir, I still do all these duties, only now I don’t have to be told. Now, thanks to you, they are a joy and delight.”
My friends, we were once slaves – slaves to sin, slaves to Satan, slaves to our own inability to save ourselves. But then we were purchased by a kind and benevolent Master who set us free. And then we received an invitation to stay with him and work with him in the rebuilding of this world. And now we work for him – only we do not work out of fear anymore, but out of faith. And thanks to him, our work is pleasant and enjoyable. Let’s pray:
Father, I pray that you would speak to all of us here today through the message we’ve just heard. Show each of us where we are in our Christian life. Have we become lazy? Have we grown lethargic? Have we taken your grace for granted? If so, forgive us and help us to be more active, more energetic in working out and living out our salvation. Or Father, have we ceased to rely on Jesus’ work and chosen instead to rely more on our works? Have we begun to boast and trust in what we’ve done rather than what he’s done? If so, forgive us for that. Help us to depend on you and what you’ve done for us through Christ. And through your Holy Spirit, bring forth in our lives the fruits of faith and work in us that which is pleasing to you. In Jesus’ name.