The Circumcision of Christ
The Epistle. Philippians II. 9.
Brethren: God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.
“work out your salvation with fear and trembling“. As much as any other verse in Holy Scripture, this statement from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians could be a source of great confusion. After all, upon a simple reading of the Authorized Version, it would appear that we are being lead to seek the realization of our Salvation through the works that we may perform. However, as we know and as the English Reformers would have verified, we cannot achieve Salvation in this way.
From St. Paul’s letter to Titus (3:5), “Not by works of righteousness which WE have done, but according to HIS mercy he saved us “. So we know that Salvation comes from God alone. But this is not meant to imply that WE don’t have an important part to play in the work of our Salvation. Indeed, our participation is crucial; for without it, our Salvation cannot be complete.
While this might seem to be a contradiction, it is easily understood if you keep in mind two things; the intention of the Reformers, and the intention of St. Paul. In the end they both have the same message; that we cannot, by ourselves, win our Salvation, but at the same time the way in which we live will demonstrate that God’s saving work has been made complete in us.
“work out your salvation“. Here the Greek word that St. Paul uses for the phrase “work out” is very significant; because it doesn’t mean simply “to labor or exert effort”, but rather “to bring to completion”. It’s almost as if Paul is telling us “don’t do anything half-way; you must continue on until the work of Salvation has been formed in you in its entirety”. As Christians, we cannot be satisfied until all the benefits of the Gospel have been realized; and we witness to these benefits in our daily lives.
“For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure“. Here St. Paul uses Greek words for “work” and “do” that imply two very significant ideas. The first definition relates to the “action of God”; the second concerns the “effective action of God”.
To take “action” is to “perform some act or deed”. To be “effective” is to be “adequate to accomplish a purpose; producing the intended or expected result “. It is a given that throughout the course of human history God has taken action (performed some act or deed), and that He continues to do so. The “action of God” is obvious to us through the witness of Holy Scripture, as well as our own lives. But the action that God has taken can never be frustrated or left half-done (Barclay, Phillpians, pg 41). Anything that God does must be fully effective. It must be fully “adequate to accomplish a purpose; producing the intended or expected result “
You cannot have one without the other. Yes, St. Paul has told us “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us “. But St. James has also told us “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone“ (James 2:17). Our Salvation was granted to us by Gods decision to “perform some act or deed”. Our Salvation is gained because His action is “adequate to accomplish a purpose; producing the intended or expected result “. Our Salvation is shown by the Sacrifice of Christ and by the joyful response of His Faithful people.
We are saved by the action of God. We are saved by the effective action of God. Without the action of God, we are empty; we are devoid even of any desire to be saved. This desire is kindled within us only by God’s inspiration.
It is God who provides the spark that stirs our restless souls, and prompts us to seek Him. It is God who awakens our hearts, and begins the process by which we may return to Him. It is the action of God that stimulates our longing for Salvation.
But as the Apostle reminds us today, we must also “work out our salvation with fear and trembling“. Without our cooperation, even God is helpless. Without our cooperation, we make God’s action of none effect. If we fail to change our hearts and lives, if we decline to accept His gift of Salvation, then we deny the effective action of God.
It is our responsibility to direct our hearts, our thoughts and our strength toward the effective action of God. We must answer God’s call to return to Him, and show the world our response to that call through the way in which we live our lives. We must show that the effective action of God has led to the completion of the process of our Salvation. We must show that we have “worked out our salvation with fear and trembling“.
Salvation is of God alone. More specifically, Salvation has been granted to us solely by the action of God. Even more specifically, our Salvation has been granted by the effective action of God; an action that is “adequate to accomplish a purpose; producing the intended or expected result”. The work of our Salvation begins, proceeds, and ends with God; and it is through our response to the saving action of His Holy Sacrifice that we show that God’s work has been brought to completion in us. “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure“.