GOD CARES FOR US
Written by Doug Ponder on August 18, 2013
Work Out Your Salvation
A I had professor in seminary tells a story from his childhood in a strict religious home. Hanging above the fireplace was a large plaque with the words “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” burned deeply into the wood. He recalls watching the reflection of the flames flicker on its polished surface as he thought about the prospect of working out his salvation. It was as if the very fires of hell were there warning him of the cost of his failure.
Is this really what Paul the apostle meant when he wrote, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12)? Hardly. In fact, he has rather the opposite meaning in mind! Paul does not say “work for your salvation,” but “work out your salvation.” The Greek verb translated “work out” has a wide range of meaning, from “produce” to “complete,” but none of them imply earning something. Instead, Paul is telling them (and us) to “bring to completion” or “put into practice” something that they already have. That’s why Paul says, “Therefore. . . work out your salvation.” In this case, “therefore” refers to what Jesus has already done for us: he became our servant, being born in the likeness of men, that he might taste death and bring life to all who belong to him (Phil. 2:6-11; Heb. 2:9).
Since we are not working (or obeying) to earn salvation, then Paul’s instructions to “work out your salvation” are better taken as “bring [it] to completion.” We are working out that which God works in by the renewing power of his Spirit. God works in us “to will and to work for his Good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13), which means that God gives us the desire and the ability to do what pleases him.
His Good Pleasure, Our Good Fortune
As it turns out, God’s “good pleasure” is also our good fortune. This is another way of saying that what most glorifies God most satisfies us. Indeed, the Scriptures repeatedly say that all of God’s commands are given to us for his glory and our good—which is exactly what God is working in us to produce.
In a way, God’s work in us “to will and to work for his good pleasure” is some of the strongest proof that he cares for us. Perhaps it seems strange to put it that way, but it’s true. Left to ourselves, we’re naturally “crooked and perverse” (Phil. 2:15). But thanks to the work of God, we have been adopted as his children and we are being conformed into the image of Jesus (Rom. 8:29). This process of adoption and transformation actually works to save us from ourselves. Instead of crookedness, perversion, and rebellion, God works in us to give us the desire to work for that which is for his glory and our greatest good.
Receiving God’s Care
As we receive God’s transforming care for us, we must learn to see that obedience is not opposed to grace. God’s grace that forgives us is the same grace transforms us. This means that obedience isn’t dirty word. It’s never wrong to call Christians to obey what God says, so long as you’re not insinuating that their obedience somehow earns God’s forgiveness. Jesus himself says, “If you love me, you will obey my commands” (John 14:15). In that brief statement, Jesus demonstrates that obedience is not optional for those who identity with him. We obey Jesus because he was raised from the dead as the Lord of all.
Secondly, as we receive God’s transforming care for us we must humble ourselves under his appointed authority. The Scriptures, as the very word of God, are authoritative for all persons in all times and places. They are given to us for our correction and instruction (2 Tim. 3:16-17), and by them we are equipped to do what God asks of us. Practically speaking, this means that we should not bristle at the commands of God. When our lives clash with the requirements of Scripture, it is we, not the Bible, who need to change. This response is difficult for many people, especially because we live in a culture where authority of most kinds is despised. But when you consider the alternative (slavery to your own destructive selfishness), it’s completely foolish to refuse to submit to the word of God.
Finally, as we receive God’s transforming care for us, we must remember that it is God himself who will see our transformation through to its completion. “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Remembering that any and every good that we do is ultimately a result of God’s work in our lives (Phil. 2:13) guards us from taking pride in anything that we do or possess. We’re left with only Jesus to boast in, and that’s a very good thing indeed.
Caring for Others
Those who understand the grace they’ve been shown by God’s care for them can’t help becoming more caring themselves. This is why Paul could rejoice in his work among the Philippians, despite the very real possibility of his death (Phil. 2:17-18). Similarly, his protege, Timothy, devoted his life to serving alongside Paul, so that he might assist in caring for others with the grace and truth of the gospel. Finally, Paul reminds us of Epaphroditus, his “brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier” who served so faithfully that he became sick within inches of death. Paul writes, “he nearly died for the work of Christ,” a sacrifice he was willing to make for others because he understood the care of God for him. Like Paul, Epaphroditus wanted others to know the care of God through the Lord Jesus and his Spirit who works in us to transform us and change us for his good pleasure and our good fortune.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.