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. (Philippians 2:12-13, NKJV).
Have you ever struggled with assurance of salvation? Have you ever wondered whether or not you are doing enough, holy enough, righteous enough, or good enough to get into Heaven after you die? I've found that even people who long, with all their heart, for this life to be all there is, get concerned about what happens after death the closer they get to end of life. There are few sane souls, indeed, who, when faced with imminent mortality, don't experience dread at the prospect of what happens next.
Rest assured you haven't done enough, and are NOT holy enough, righteous enough or good enough to reach Heaven. You can't get there from here unless you pass the Entrance Exam, and that means ALWAYS having done what you should, when you should have, and NEVER having done what you shouldn't, ever, no matter what the provocation or excuse. Otherwise, you FAIL the Exam. It's either meeting a Holy God's perfect standards, or Hell. No gray areas, no marking on a curve, no extra credit.
And that is PRECISELY why the Gospel of Christ is good news. You cannot do anything to mitigate your own personal failure to meet the Lord's standards. You cannot save yourself, nor once saved, can you keep yourself saved. It is all Christ working in you and through you to perfect you. And He will complete that good work in you if you are His. That is His promise. At the same time, His perfect righteousness has been imputed to you. It is as if, when the Father looks at you clothed in sin, He chooses to see Christ in you, the hope of glory. This is made possible, not as a forensic fiction, but as a transaction made on the Cross which you receive by faith. Christ, the perfect sinless sacrifice, purchased you from the slavery of sin, once forever, and in doing so, made your regeneration possible. You are, literally, a New Creation, with your old nature being shed like a snake skin, and in its place, you have been clothed with His righteousness.
Given that magnificent truth, what is Paul saying in these verses? First, if we were to stop reading at the end of verse 12, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, and proceeded no further, fear and trembling would be an apt description of life in this world, always on the very brink of eternal destruction. Sadly, some people who rely on their own imagined righteousness, live just so, if they pay attention to who and what they really are in the world. Those who believe that it is up to them to please God by their own works, must either be delusional, if they feel confident of their eternal destiny, or in a state of incipient panic, if they are not. Break one Commandment, one time, and you are guilty of all; like that sinner pictured by Jonathan Edwards, suspended over the pit of Hell on a gossamer thread. Or someone suspended in midair by a chain. If one link is broken, descent is inevitable, no matter how many other links in the chain remain intact.
But we mustn't stop there. We can't. We need to understand the whole counsel of God. So it is no accident that in the very next verse, we receive the rest of the truth, for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. In other words, the Apostle is exhorting his audience to obey the exhortations he presented previously in this loving epistle, not just when he was watching, but in the privacy of each and every heart and mind, so that we exercise, and I use that word purposely, that priceless gift we have been given by faith: salvation.
Think of it this way, God has fashioned for us a physical body. It exists. It is the vehicle by which we express our God-given life in the world of time and space. We can either use it to its fullest potential, or we can operate minimalistically, barely moving. The body, as gift, is there in both instances. In the first mode, we make the most of the gift. In the latter, we essentially waste it. But in both cases, we neither earned the gift (you cannot earn a gift, otherwise it would be wages owed, not a gift given), nor, by our use or negligence, do we forfeit it. What we DO lose or gain is reward and satisfaction.
It makes perfect sense. Since we can't work our way into Heaven, once our admittance is assured through sincere faith and reliance on Christ alone, we can choose to make the most of the empowerment and privilege we receive by working out, or exercising, our gift of salvation to its full purpose in the world, or we can choose to be covert Christians, barely discernible as such, living our lives in ways hardly distinguishable from unbelievers.
If we allow God to work in us, both to will and to do for His good pleasure, we simultaneously accomplishing several very good things:
- We display our surrender to His will for us in trusting obedience.
- We acknowledge to the world by our good words and deeds that we are Christ's and He is ours, and that that MEANS something.
- We experience the indescribable satisfaction of serving His Kingdom in His strength for our good and His glory.
- We lay up for ourselves treasure in Heaven, we neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
To take this as a license to sin, or as a means to presume on the grace of God, is not only evil, it's silly. There are degrees of reward in Heaven. The Bible makes that perfectly clear. Why would any well-informed, sane Christian exchange the passing pleasures of a carnal, indistinguishable existence, for the eternal glory of serving God with his whole heart. That choice would indicate that we have a very inaccurate view of our King, the one who promises great reward for even providing someone a mere drink of water in His name.
Paul is not urging us to legalism, but surrender. He is not telling us to strive for Heaven, but to strive to enter His rest. He is not saying grit your teeth and be good enough. He is saying surrender your will to the One who made you and you will be conformed into His goodness, and receive eternal reward.
A simple choice, when you really think about it.