Written by Dave Urbanski

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As we got back into Paul’s letter to the Philippians amid the outset of 2022, we looked at a verse Sunday that is often misunderstood.

It’s found in chapter 2, verse 12: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

Many Christians have wondered concerning this verse, “Does that mean we have to work for God’s forgiveness? I thought we couldn’t work our way into heaven.”

As Pastor Scott pointed out, the answer to that question is an unequivocal “no.” The idea of “work out your own salvation” doesn’t mean we have to make an effort to be saved or earn God’s favor. Instead the full passage we examined is about how we live and behave day to day now that we are part of God’s family (after all, Paul wrote his letter to his “beloved” in the Philippian church — those who already have given their lives to Jesus and accepted his gift of salvation).

But let’s look again at the passage, which also includes verse 13: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but 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 work for his good pleasure.”

Pastor Scott equated this passage to engaging in a “spiritual workout” that maximizes the health of our souls — in the same way that a physical workout maximizes our physical health.

But first we must consider a familiar word that opens the passage: “Therefore.” As we’ve studied at other times, we know “therefore” signals that the words which follow it are based on previously discussed principles. And what are they in this case? Earlier in chapter 2, Paul tells us that as believers in Jesus moving forward in our faith, we must have the same mind and put others first — because that’s exactly what Jesus did by coming to earth in the form of a servant and dying for our sins.

And after Paul writes “therefore,” he offers what Pastor Scott noted are six guidelines for living in light of those spiritual truths. They could be summarized as, “How to have a great spiritual workout.”

1. Find a Good Trainer

Why would someone want a trainer for a physical workout? Because it’s hard work! And having someone come alongside you helps you improve — and having an expert next to you will help you strengthen your workout weaknesses. As believers, we know that Jesus is our best trainer, and he wrote our training manual (the Bible), and he’s always with us. Plus, he deeply desires that we ask him how to grow in our faith and grow closer to him! So let’s do that, and ask Jesus to be our trainer.

2. Check your motivation

Paul tells his brothers and sisters that they should be obeying God even more now that he’s absent from them, and that points to an important principal: Doing the right thing, especially when no other humans are watching. It’s about integrity. And it says a lot about where we are spiritually when we’re willing to obey God when there’s no human audience to impress. 

3. Do the work

We already noted this very important principal, but it bears repeating: Working out our own salvation isn’t about working our way into heaven, which is impossible. Instead it’s about the work it takes to live as Christians day to day, which takes effort and intent. One of the interesting points that Pastor Scott brought up is that the Greek word Paul used to describe such a workout implies trying to dig something out of a mine.

Think about that: Miners can dig all day and come up with nothing. It can be tedious, exhausting, and frustrating work. But they have to keep at it, because every now and then, they’ll come up with a gem! A big payoff. And there would be no reward if they didn’t engage in the hard work day to day when it seems like nothing is being accomplished. Living the Christian life can feel like that, too. But we must continue to dig.

4. Your own salvation

God teaches different things to different people. While we’re all headed to the same place (heaven), we’re all on our own pilgrimage, our own journey, our own salvation. That part is personal to each one of us, and that should signal to each one of us to not compare ourselves to other believers. However, in the midst of our personal faith journeys, we all need to come together as one when we gather in church and share our stories — our triumphs and our struggles — and encourage one another.

5. With fear and trembling

In short, we need to take this stuff seriously! Sin has the power to damage and corrupt us. So we need to battle against sin, and that takes effort. It’s a fight, a race, and we need to engage in it every day as we battle our enemies: Satan, the world in general, and our own flesh. It’s not about being “scared of God”; rather it’s about taking seriously the fact that God is more awesome and holy that we can possibly fathom — and to take seriously the work involved to live our lives in light of God’s greatness.

6. Take your supplements

Verse 13 reads, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Here the passage shifts to the idea that at the end of all our human efforts to live in the way the Lord commands as members of his heavenly family, we can take heart that it’s NOT all about what we do! The bottom line is that God is the one working in us, and it’s all about HIM. And the Greek word word for “work” in this case denotes “energy.” And how do we get energy as believers? We rely on God! We work hard, but we rely on the Lord to give us what we need so we can exert the necessary energy. So take your spiritual supplements the Lord provides.

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