Philippians 2:12-18: The Hope in Helplessness
If you had a trillion dollars in your bank account and had the power to do absolutely anything you wanted, what would you do? How would you use that power? There was a man who held that kind of power 2000 years ago, who owned every square inch of the universe. Yet how did he use his power? He stooped down on his knees with a towel around his waist and made himself the servant of all. He obeyed the Father through grueling suffering, even to the point of death on a cross. In doing so, Jesus became our Savior. This is relatively easy to accept. However, what’s not so easy to accept is Paul’s central message in this passage. Not only is Jesus our savior, but he is also our great example to follow after. Have you ever really thought about the implications of this? Anyone who claims Jesus as their Lord and Savior must also follow after him by wrapping a towel around their waste, getting on their knees and serving others, and obeying the Father even to the point of death on the cross if he calls them to it. If you think about the sobering reality of this, you might say, “How in the world am I supposed to do this?! How is it even possible to follow in Jesus’ footsteps?”
After reflecting on Christ’s great humility and glory in Philippians 2:1-11, Paul gives the Philippians this fascinating command. He says to “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.” Now when Paul says to “work out your own salvation” he is not speaking of earning your “salvation by works.” After all, he deals with this issue in other letters repeatedly saying that salvation is by faith in Christ alone, through his righteousness alone (Gal. 2:21, Rom. 4:5, etc.) Paul is not speaking about the nature of saving faith in this passage, but rather our faithful response to what Christ has done for us. Often in Scripture salvation is portrayed as a process – something we already have through Christ, but also something that is currently being worked out in us as the Spirit transforms us more into the image of Christ. We have been saved, we are being saved, and we are awaiting the final salvation to come when we will finally be made perfect and united with Christ forever.
Nevertheless, Paul’s imperative command to “work out your own salvation” still stands. The Christian who assumes we need not do anything because Christ already saved us misses the point. God has saved us in Christ through faith alone, and now we are called to live out that salvation. An apple seed was never meant to simply remain a seed. Its purpose is to eventually sprout and grow into a tree that bears fruit. This salvation wrought by the Spirit inside us is like a seed that naturally longs to make us into what we were created for – to be transformed into the image of Christ, looking more and more like him in all we do.
This fascinating verse shows us a glimpse into the mysterious work of salvation. Is it God’s work or ours? Paul portrays it as a mixture of both. He commands us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling; that is, with reverence and humility, recognizing that the way is narrow that leads to eternal life and few find it, that whoever would follow after Christ must deny himself, take up his cross and follow him, that the love of money will lead many astray, that it is easier for the rich to go through the eye of needle than to enter the kingdom of Heaven, and knowing that those who desire to live a godly life in Christ will be persecuted. This is a very hard road to walk, the life of a Christian; in fact, it is impossible. Peter recognizes this and cries out, “Lord, who then can be saved?!” Jesus says, with man, this road is impossible, but with God, all things are possible (Matt. 19:26). Paul reassures us in the second half of the verse with this: “for it is God who works in you to will and to work for his good pleasure.” While this road may be tough, the one who steps out in faith will discover that it’s not ultimately you doing this work of salvation, but God who is miraculously working in you, sustaining you, changing your will to treasure the things of God over the things of the world, enabling you to love and serve your enemies, and moving you to forsake a life of comfort, safety and pleasure for the sake of the Gospel, all for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. Our chief work in salvation is this: to believe on Christ to do this impossible work within us. It is his grace alone, working through you that enables you to do things you never thought possible.
Think back to when you were first saved, when you first trusted Christ. Regardless of your story, every true believer must come to a point in their life when they throw up their hands and say, “God I can’t do this! I’m a broken sinner, utterly helpless to change, and I need your forgiveness. God, if you don’t do something, I’m totally lost!” This moment of salvation is when you first learned how to throw up your hands. It’s when you first learned to completely trust God to do the impossible; that is, to save you from yourself and give you a new heart. This was the first miracle in your life, and every step of faith since then, when you helplessly cast yourself on God to do what only he can do is a repetition of this first miracle. We were justified by faith alone and we are also sanctified by faith alone, through his grace working in us. The first step of our work in salvation is to throw up our hands and say, “God, only if you intervene can I be set free from my addictions and sin. Only you can change my heart! For I am helpless without you.” This state of utter dependence on God is how the miracle begins. We are called to strive on toward the goal of salvation, but doing so wholly trusting in God to do this impossible work in our lives, as we learn to live by the Spirit. The irony of the Christian life is that only when you are weak, this is when you are strong. For it is when you are weak, that you are forced to cast yourself on God’s Spirit to act out this miracle of salvation in you.