Sermon Notes

Philippians 2:12-13 January 10, 1999
Working Out What God Has Worked In

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Making New Year’s resolutions has been part of our culture for some time. Yet we all know how hard it is to effect change. We may make promises from one year to the next, yet with no real difference in our lives. We laugh at the failed attempts because we know all too well how hard change can be.

John Norcross is a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton who has published three studies on New Year's resolutions and co-authored a book on the topic. Norcross found that, based on national surveys, a majority of American adults - between 50% and 55% - still made New Year's resolutions 10 years ago. Today, that number is down to between 40% and 45%. The two biggest reasons are lack of interest and disillusionment. In light of that downward trend, Norcross says "I am saddened that fewer people are intensely trying to change their behavior."
Research indicates there are four main reasons why people don't make resolutions: 27% say they have no behavior that needs changing; 23% say they have tried and failed; 19% say they just don't make resolutions; and 7% say they lack willpower.

While the tradition of New Year’s resolutions may be on its way out, the need for change is very much with us. Yet as reality often sets in and we recognize that change is hard or our over inflated self worth takes control causing us to refuse to admit the need for change - God’s Word remains resolute in commanding us to change. Much of Scripture is written in the imperative, calling us to obey. Each of us face various struggles, areas in which we must change. Some face addictive behaviors, those repetitive sins which seems to overwhelm us with their habitual regularity. Others struggle with thoughts we know are far from pleasing to God. Perhaps self-control and anger plague you, but whatever the area of struggle, we all know that we need to change.

Faced with the daunting challenge of obedience and the recognition that change is hard, let us look at Philippians 2:12-13 to see the importance of change as well as the power to change.

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed--not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence--continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

When it comes to change there are often two extremes into which Christians fall: Quietism and Pietism.

Quietism teaches that the believer is passive and is characterized by the saying, "let go and let God." The mysticism and subjectivism of quietism was originally popular among the Quakers and then became part of the Perfectionist movement. They believed you could come to a post-conversion crisis experience in which you momentarily became so totally surrendered that you never sinned again — what some call sinless perfection.

So it was thought that sanctification, growth in holiness, does not involve any effort on our part, except surrender. Effort, it was thought, was a hindrance to the process of sanctification, so self must get out of the way. Such phrases are used as die to self, crucify self, put self on the altar.

Pietism on the other hand teaches that it is a diligent effort toward personal piety. You are active, aggressive and working in all your power to live the sanctified life. Pietism has its roots in 18th century Germany as a reaction to the lifeless and detached theology of the Church at that time. So there was a strong emphasis on Bible study, holy living, practical Christianity, spiritual exercise and self-discipline. They took the opposite view of the Quietist. They said that if there was a belief that did not lead to works, it was not a worthwhile belief. If passivity was the hallmark of Quietism, activity was key to Pietism.

The problem arises that when you believe that all your spiritual progress is based upon your ability to dedicate yourself, discipline yourself, and move yourself in the right direction, then you're going to experience two things:
When you succeed, you'll be proud! "Look what I have accomplished, I am righteous!" When you fail, you'll have despair. If you are the only resource, where do you go when you fail? If you fail and you have no place to turn, the chances are you're going to give up.

Both sides are problematic. When you read verse 12, it looks like Paul is a Pietist. When you read verse 13, it looks like he's a Quietist. These verses must be taken together, not separately. How does change come about in our life, God or us? God commands us to change and God causes us to change.


Change demands the right response - obedience

People look for a variety of fix-its to their problems. Some will spend large amounts of money on therapists or consult psychics to find the right solution. Americans spend $50 million a year on subliminal message tapes designed to help them do everything from improve their self-image to stop smoking. But there's so hidden message in the National Research Council's verdict on such techniques. The Council's report concludes that subliminal messages simply don't work. They don't deliver the life-transforming power they promise.

Paul is matter-a-fact with advice: obey. It is not stated as an option. It is not excused as an impossibility or set aside as no longer important since Christ’s obedience to the Law is imputed to us. That one who professes faith in Christ would then live in persistent and habitual disobedience was not thought to be a sign of immaturity; rather it is absurdity. Those who belong to the obedient Savior can never take obedience lightly. The logic of the gospel makes it impossible for a true Christian to live as though Christ’s obedience means nothing.

As Paul reminds his readers of the truth of the gospel in verses 6-11, that the content of what we believe, Christ’s incarnation, suffering and death, His resurrection and ascension and coming again, forms the warp and woof of how we are to live our lives as well. Faith in Christ’s work must produce obedience to Christ in our lives. This obedience is not just the following of rules, but is our expression of coming under the Lordship of Christ.

Change demands the right effort - work out your salvation

This is a hard one to swallow. Why would God command us to work out our salvation? If we’ve been weaned on justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, we may be left wondering what Paul intends in verse 12.

First we’ll misunderstand this verse when we read it as good individualistic Americans, privatizing Paul’s corporate imperatives. Don’t forget the context: Paul is warning against an individualized faith which seeks its own good while ignoring everyone else. In Greek the “your” is a reflexive plural: "work it out among yourselves." The context of the chapter won’t allow for introspection, but that we should look out for each other. Rather than fighting with each other, we should be encouraging each other to grow as believers. This command to work is a command to the church to apply the truths Paul elaborated upon in verses 6-11.

Also, the command to work out your salvation must be understood in its proper context.

We often mistakenly conceive of salvation just as that event of justification, God’s declaration that we are righteous because of Christ alone. But Paul’s use often encompasses a wide range of concepts. Salvation is what God did in eternity past in election, what was accomplished on the Cross 2000 years ago, what is now applied to us and what will be brought to fruition in glorification.

The context of Philippians 2 is not the imputation of righteousness in justification, but the maturing of the believer to reflect Christ. Just as we saw in 2:1, based on the work of God’s grace that brought us to profess faith in Christ (that is, justification), there is now to be a present working of God’s grace in us, that we call sanctification.

In sanctification, salvation is not a benefit to be merited, but as a possession to be explored and enjoyed ever more fully. The word Paul uses means to “carry to completion, see it through.” His command is in the present tense - meaning this is an ongoing work.

In school when the teacher hands out a math quiz, she may say, “work out the problem.” That is, you hold in your hand all you need - now unravel it. To the couple just married, they’re encouraged to “work at their marriage.” They possess the marriage, but the benefits demand a lifetime of exploration, enjoyment and discovery.

This does not mean “work for your salvation” or "work toward your salvation” or “work at your salvation” Rather it says, “work out your salvation.”

Change demands the right perspective - fear and trembling

This may come as a shock. This response seems antithetical to the one who knows that God’s grace is certain and His promise a guarantee. The fear and trembling are not the anxiety attacks, the nervous bewilderment so common in our lives when we are uncertain what the future holds. Rather these terms describe a sobriety, a singleness of purpose. This is a call to be serious about the Christian life.

This is the best remedy to the pride, the self assurance, the overly comfortable laziness which plagues most of us. We work out our salvation when there is time, when it is convenient, when we feel like it. Too often we are overly confident and careless. A good measure of distrust of ourselves should cause us to lean more confidently on the mercy of God.

How often do we hear of the need to “fear God”? Christian culture today portrays a God who is too much our friend to ever give us reason to tremble - but that is to our own detriment. When we see the darkness of our own heart, the weakness of our own resolve, the power of temptation to sin, we should be filled with dread at offending God. There should be a fear, not of what He might do to us, but of the hurt we might do to Him.

Knowing that God commands us to change is the first and vital step in change

Recognize that the right response is obedience, that change must come in areas where God is clear in His command. We must have a sense as to what is right and wrong and we do this by knowing God’s Law. Then there must be a commitment to change, but that commitment in this passage takes place in context of others. Working out your salvation is a group effort. Finally, we must apprehend the right view of God. We can not view our obedience to God lightly; in light of His perfection we must never think change is optional.


God works in you
Change requires God

While Paul assumes it’s reasonable to be diligent in our Christian life, that obedience is not optional, he does not assume that we do it by ourselves. Augustine said, "God gives us commands we cannot perform, that we may know what we ought to request from Him." A consciousness of our powerlessness must break us of self assurance and force us to look to Him who has all power.

What follows in verse 13 is the means by which we work out our salvation. The word “for” connects this verse to verse 12 - we are to work out what God has worked in. In verse 12 we feel the weight of the law and in verse 13 we find the help and hope of the Gospel: God is the one who is at work; He indwells, empowers, controls and directs.

About this gracious working of God, John Calvin said: “This is the true artillery for destroying all haughtiness; this is the sword for killing all pride, when we hear that we are utterly nothing and can do nothing except through the grace of God alone."

This puts the brakes on self-congratulatory, self-improvement rhetoric. No more can we say with personal determination that we will do anything, but this forces us to constantly acknowledge that we must change, and that God is the one making us change.

Change is certainly hard activity, necessary activity, but never a self-reliant activity. God wants us to be neither activists nor apathetic. To grow in the likeness of Christ, there must be a blend of rest and activity, not alternating from one to the other, but a blend in which, at one and the same moment, the Christian is both resting confidently in God’s grace and actively pursuing obedience. We must be confident that God will work in us when and were we see areas which call for obedience.

It is not “I must control my tongue!” nor “The Lord must control my tongue.” Rather control comes in knowing what God desires, confessing our weakness and consistently asking God for grace that you would obey.

Change requires God’s willing

Bookstore shelves are lined with self-help treatises, volumes seeking to unwrap the riddle of how change occurs, but always with the myopic focus of willpower. But real change, obedience to God’s Law, repentance from sin can never begin with us. Since we are the problem, why look within?

We forget our position in Adam, that with his sin, we too are declared sinners from the moment of conception. It is as if a man were standing on the edge of a muddy pit with slippery sides. As long as he is on the edge he has free will, he can either stay on the bank or jump in. But if he decides to jump in, then his free will is lost as far as getting out of the pit is concerned. He lost his free will in the fall. Oh, he has free will to walk around on the bottom or to sit down. He has the free will to try to scramble up the side or to accept his plight philosophically. He has the free will to cry for help or to be silent, to be angry or complacent. But he does not have free will to be again on the edge of the embankment. As Adam’s children, his leap into the pit is our leap. That is where God finds each and every one of us.

The bad news is that each of us are in that pit; the sides are slippery and steep. The good news is that there is One who is willing and able to rescue us. For change to occur, to get out of the pit, we, the unwilling must be made to will. How will that ever happen? God works in us to will.

But even if we think we can chose to change, we then lack the power to make real change. Either we cannot bring ourselves to choose what we know to be right, or else, having chosen it, we fail to do it. Sin has corrupted both the power to choose and the power to accomplish.

Change requires God’s doing

God supplies not only the will we need to change, but the power to respond. In order to rip every last shred of self-pride from us, God reminds us of the necessity to change and then tells us the only way we will ever change is by God’s work of grace. God is working from above and within to make you both to will and to do. When we grasp this, obedience ceases being rules that regulate conduct and become another opportunity for God to mold us to be like Christ.

It is here, with these words, that we have the wonderful news that God is at work in us. The will to change, to obey as well as the doing, the obedience itself, all this is from God. All despair is wiped away, all desperation is eradicated. Freedom to live as God commands comes as God empowers.

Have you ever watched a two year old trying to push a grocery cart, his hands barely reaching the bar, his vision blocked by the wire mesh and the accumulation of boxes and bags? As the cart weaves in and out of the aisles it is obvious to you how that cart moves. But what is obvious to you may not be known by the small operator. While he is proud of his efforts in controlling the cart, Dad stands behind. There Dad stands, with hands resting on the bar, guiding every move.

When it comes to change in your life, you know what God demands; you know what is necessary. You must change. New Year's resolutions will come and go. But real change must occur. For real change to occur you must yield to God’s Law, confess, repent from sin and as you look in faith to Christ, as you consider and seek to conform your life to God’s revealed will, change will happen.

The funny thing is it looks like it's us doing it! You do the work for the Lord - the speaking, the music, the serving, the encouraging, the leading and it sure looks like it's you who's living your Christian life ... saying "no" to temptation, loving people, but then, it looked to that little boy like he was pushing that cart too! But, it was really his father. The same with you and me.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that “He is the vine, we are the branches." The grapes look like they're coming from the branch, right? Wrong! They're coming through the branch, from the vine. If you don't believe it, cut off the branch and see how many grapes it produces!

Now, it's like that for us in our life in Jesus Christ. Anything you've become, anything you've done, all those spiritual victories that you've been a part of, they may look like something you did but it wasn't really you doing something for God; it was God doing something through you. Jesus put it bluntly in His vine story. He just said, "Without Me you can do nothing." Nothing that matters, nothing that lasts, nothing that's life-changing.

You see, you can dare to change because it's God’s power, His adequacy doing it anyway! "It is God who works," the verse says. A little boy was able to move what he could never move because of his father's strength. You can move things for the Lord that are way beyond you because of your Heavenly Father's strength. So keep pushing the cart, keep walking, but remember that your cart will stay on course and move a heavy load because of the powerful hands above you.

Sermon Notes