One of my friends mentioned this verse again last Sunday. It’s Philippians 2:12: “Therefore, just 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 both to will and to work for His good pleasure”.
I remember being a little confused the first time I came across this verse: “what’s that doing in the Bible? I didn’t think we believed in salvation by works!”. Of course, that’s not what it’s saying. The command is to work out your salvation, not to work for it. Salvation is already achieved by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and gained by faith, not works. But the fact that we are being saved should have consequences. If we are followers of Jesus, that ought to find expression in a life lived in accordance with His character, and that’s where “work out your salvation” comes in.
The context of the verse is immediately following the famous passage in Philippians 2 about Christ’s humility and exaltation, and the point of that passage is that we ought to have the same mindset, not exalting ourselves over one another in selfishness or conceit, but considering one another as better than ourselves. Being united in the Spirit, with one goal and purpose, looking to each other’s interests. Being humble.
And out of this beautiful expression of Christ’s example of humility and reminder of His current exaltation above every name that can be given, we are instructed to work out our salvation.
There are several related aspects to this instruction. The whole verse makes it clear that working out your salvation is connected with obedience. But obedience to what? A surface reading of the verse might imply that Paul is instructing them to keep on obeying what he, Paul, had told them when he was present even now he was absent. However, this doesn’t really fit the wider context of Christ’s humility and obedience. His was obedience to His Father, an obedience of love, not of fear, that resulted in salvation for us all. Paul deliberately and unequivocally sets up Jesus as our Example in this; our obedience, like His, is not to a human teacher, not even the Apostle Paul, but to God the Father.
But we do have to obey. It isn’t an optional extra. The Gospel is “Jesus is Lord, what are you going to do about it?” at least as much as it’s “Come to Jesus and be set free from all the crap and junk in your life”. His commands, that we are required to obey, are not onerous or harsh or death-bringing, but simply to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourself. Who wouldn’t want to obey that?
The second aspect is that working out our salvation is a process. We don’t usually get there all in one jump, though if the Lord chooses to do a great work all at one time it is to be gratefully received, not rejected because it doesn’t fit our happy pattern. It’s an ongoing process: “continue to work out your salvation”. What “loving God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength” looks like today may involve different challenges than I was facing yesterday. What “loving my neighbour as myself” will look like tomorrow may involve anything from having the courage to call a friend out on their double-mindedness to giving financially to someone in need to forgiving someone who hurt me. It’s all the same obedience, but the outworking is different in different situations of life.
Related to this (and this is what struck me on Sunday) the command is to “work out your salvation”. Not someone else’s. There are things which, because of my particular personal character weaknesses, I cannot do without them becoming sin. I’m not meaning the things which are universally condemned in Scripture like making created things into gods or practicing witchcraft or committing adultery, but the greyer areas. Matters of individual conscience, like the drinking of alcohol, participation in things like gambling and lotteries, whether or not you tithe strictly, most of the rules we place around the whole procedure of dating, how we discipline our children, and so on and so forth.
If your conscience bugs you about something, then for you it is sin. I personally could not carry a gun without it violating my conscience, because by carrying it I am saying that I am prepared to use it, even to kill with it if necessary, and I don’t believe I have the right to take the members of Christ (ie my own body) in my own authority and use them to take the life of another person for whom He gave His. For me, it is sin.
But I have several friends who not only actively hunt, but have concealed carry licences. Evidently, for them, it isn’t.
The danger is for me to try to absolutise my own conscience’s foibles. Because carrying a gun is sin for me, because it violates my conscience, it must be sin all the time for everybody, and it ought to violate your conscience as well.
We’ve all seen the lists of sins that have been preached against in times past. It’s sinful for a woman to wear trousers. It’s sinful for a man to have long hair. It’s sinful to drink a glass of wine with your meal. It’s sinful to dance, play bingo, smoke or chew tobacco, fail to give at least an exact 10% of your income to the church, etc. And it’s probably sinful to expose your kids to the “evil secular humanistic public school system”, to vote for a Democrat or to fail to place your hand on your heart during the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner. And this is just a random sampling of the list. We can all add to it from our own experiences.
But the point is that I’m supposed to be working out my salvation, not yours. If your conscience allows you to carry a firearm, that’s between you and the Lord and nothing I need to get miffed about. I can challenge you, if that’s appropriate, because you might not have considered all the implications of what you’re doing, but if at the end of the day your conscience is unfazed by what sets mine to jangling, it’s none of my business. As Paul said in Romans 14: “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own Master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for God is able to make him stand”.
I don’t get to hold you hostage to the dictates of my conscience. But at the same time, it’s not loving you as myself to parade my participation in things that violate your conscience right in front of you, lest you are encouraged to join in in defiance of what you believe to be right.
It’s not that right and wrong are situational or relative. There’s one moral law: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. But how the one moral law plays out in the individual complexities of our lives’ is not always going to look quite the same. The one thing that unifies its diversity of expression is that it’s all supposed to look like Jesus.