Following the magnificent hymn on the humility of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11) Paul exhorts the believers in Philippi to “work out” their own salvation with fear and trembling (vs. 12). That always confused me because I was taught that salvation was a gift of God that asked nothing but that I believe. Didn’t the great reformers of the church teach that justification was sola fide, by faith alone? But here Paul tells us to “work [it] out.” I now know that the answer to the conundrum is that by “to work out,” Paul means, “to put into action.” It is one thing to know the truth but something quite different to put it into action.
Until truth takes action it remains little more than something to discuss. I may “believe” that there is a fire in the kitchen but that “belief” is meaningless until it moves me to get up and call 911. In the biblical world, “faith” becomes faith when it becomes a conviction, that is, it moves a person to take the necessary action. What Paul is telling the Philippian church is that they are to “work out,” that is, “put into action,” what they believe. And the example they are to follow is Jesus who put heaven aside and became one of us. They are to “humble” themselves as Jesus did. They are to carry out their Christian commitment “with fear and trembling,” that is, in reverence toward God.
Most of us want our profession of faith to be authentic. How many times have we said something like, “I really tried but I blew it again.” We do our best to work it out just like Paul told the Philippians. The desire to carry out in life what we understand to be the will of God for us is itself a gift of God. He is the one who stirs up in us the longing for a more productive and holy life. Unfortunately the harder we try the more we fail. It doesn’t seem to be working out.
But here comes the good news; in addition to the desire God also supplies “the power to do what pleases him” (NLT). God never intended us to live the Christian life in our own strength. Spiritual life calls for the presence and activity of the Spirit. We can’t expect to do what only God’s Spirit, working in and through us, can do. Why is this so hard to understand? The answer is that until the believer finds himself in heaven his old nature continues its battle to be in charge Thank God that He enables us to do what he calls on us to do. Enough of our miserable attempts to fulfill spiritual goals by human effort. No wonder we call it salvation, because it saves us – saves us from ourselves, from our innate and self-centered desire to prove to God that we can handle things on our own.