"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fear and Trembling?

Many of my dreams carry a theme of frustration. In the dreams I am at a music camp or at college or about to deliver a message at a local church. Something comes up and I realize I need to go find a necessary item: my instrument, my notebooks, or sermon notes. As I backtrack, I hit one new complication or detour after another. The flow of what I thought would happen and when is interrupted. I hit unexpected turns in the road to progress.

While I am sure that the Apostle Paul was deliberate in his approach to his letters, when he wrote to the Philippian church, his message seems to take an unexpected turn. He has declared his deep affection and appreciation for the Phlippians; he has expressed his faith that God will complete in them the work he has started; he has reminded them of all they have in Christ (comfort, compassion, tenderness, and love); he has challenged them to have the same humble, self-abasing attitude as Jesus (who stepped down from the throne of heaven to sacrifice his life for us). He points to the ultimate sovereignty of Christ...every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Then, an unexpected turn of phrase. Seemingly out of the blue (and in apparent contrast to most of what Paul writes about the gospel) he encourages them to "work out their salvation with fear and trembling." It is enough to cause the attentive reader to stop in his tracks. The full verse reads:

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. Philippians 2:12-13

In his typical style, Paul delivers the difficult news in a love sandwich. He addresses them as his dear friends. This, no doubt, reminded them of his earlier terms of endearment and of their history as partners for the gospel of Christ. He asks them to do as they should all the more when he is not there. This makes me think of "company manners" that some families adopt when an admired person visits. When the guest leaves, they resort to the cruder, ruder behavior that is their true norm. He admonishes them not  only to act the same in his absence, but to step it up in terms of their treatment of one another.

Paul does say they are to work out their salvation in fear and trembling; he does not say they are to work for their salvation. This is an extremely important distinction. Elsewhere in his writings he is very strong in his emphasis that salvation cannot be earned, that to attempt to earn salvation is to "fall from grace," and that those who bring such a different gospel are to be accursed. So, this absolutely cannot refer to works salvation. But it can refer to salvation works. That is, true salvation shows. We are to remember that we are saved by grace through the sacrifice of Christ, and we are to kneel, side by side at his throne. He alone is Lord. In his presence the appropriate response is the realization of his holiness and our fallenness--fear and trembling at the thought of being in the very presence of God. This stands in stark contrast to the prideful, self-centered approach the Philippians were taking in in their treament of one another their church.

Context is everything, especially in understanding difficult phrases. Earlier, Paul stated his confidence that God will complete in them the good things he has started. Now he concludes his exhortation by reminding them it is God who works in them, both to will (desire) and to do (act). I am increasingly conviced that the Christian life is not a series of increasingly difficult hurdles we have to clear in our own strength. Rather, it is learning the skill of submission: submission to Christ as Lord of all, submission to the will of the Father (in following the example of Jesus), and in submission to the Spirit who works within us. As we kneel before the throne of God in fear and trembling, we recognize his holiness and our need. Pride evaporates as we recognize who is God and who is not.


1 comment:

  1. I appreciate your emphasis upon the difference between working *for* salvation and working *out* salvation, one which I believe is not talked about enough. A truth about grace to be sure! Keep up the good work! S. Powers