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Author:Rev. Mendel Retief
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 Free Reformed Churches of Australia - FRCA
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
 Kelmscott, Western Australia
Title:Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
Text:Philippians 2:12,13 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mendel Retief, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Work out your own salvation with fear

Ps. 30: 1 – 3

Ps. 30: 4 – 7

Ps. 15: 1 – 3

Ps. 19: 3 – 6

Ps. 103: 1, 7


Scripture reading:       Phil. 1: 27 – 2: 18

Text:                              Phil. 2: 12, 13


Beloved congregation, saints in Christ Jesus,


Our whole salvation is, from beginning to end, God’s work.

It started with His gracious election even before the creation of the world.

Out of His own good pleasure He decided to save us, and thus our salvation started with His free choice.

But He did not only take the initiative in our salvation.  He also sent His own Son to procure our salvation.  And He sent His Spirit to join us powerfully and effectively to His Son, so that all His elect shall surely be saved.


We were totally unworthy, and yet He chose us.

He called us, He gave us faith, and He made us alive in Christ.  

And He is also the One who will preserve us to the very end.

Yes, our salvation is His work from beginning to end.

We cannot add anything to it.

It is all His work alone.


But God’s sovereign work of grace in saving us does not make us passive.   We confess in the Canons of Dort, chapter III/IV, art. 12 that when God makes us spiritually alive and gives us a new will to obey Him, our will “so renewed is not only acted upon and moved by God but, acted upon by God, the will itself also acts.   Therefore man himself is rightly said to believe and repent through the grace received”.


God’s work of salvation for us and in us does not leave us passive, but makes us alive unto Him, so that we eagerly and purposefully start to do His good pleasure.

And because it is God who works this in us, both to will and to do His good pleasure, for that very reason we are commanded to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.


I proclaim this gospel to you with the theme:

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling


We will note…

1.      What it means to work out our own salvation

2.      The manner in which we are to work out our salvation

3.      That we have to work, because God works in us

In the first place we note…

What it means to work out our own salvation


This morning we read the passage from chapter 1: 27 through to chapter 2: 18.

This whole passage forms a close-knit unity.

It starts in chapter 1: 27 with the exhortation:


            “Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ…”


That form, as it were, the heading above the whole passage: Let your conduct be worthy of the gospel.


Now, we know what it means to live a life worthy of the gospel.  

It is to repent of our sins and to live a new life of holiness in obedience to God.

There is no other life worthy of the gospel than that which is described and defined for us in the law of God.

Christ Himself did not introduce any different law, or a different style of living.   There is no other or better righteousness than that which God has revealed to us in His law.   A life worthy of the gospel is a life in obedience to God’s commandments.


Here in this passage the apostle is now focusing in on the second part of the law: love for our neighbour.   More specifically, he focuses in on the brotherly love which should function within the congregation.  

And we already noted the reason why he does this.  

There was some disunity in the congregation.   Some members were driven, or were in danger of being driven, by selfish ambitions seeking their own honour, instead of serving one another in humble love.

Such behaviour is not worthy of the gospel.


There is also another reason why the apostle chooses to focus in on the unity, or the lack of unity, among them.   They are together in a spiritual war and surrounded by adversaries.   He already alluded to their adversaries and their suffering and their conflict, at the end of chapter 1.   He will also mention the attack of false teachers in chapter 3.  

And thus he encourages them to be united in the truth of the gospel, in order that they may “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel”.


And so, with these exhortations, he exhorted them to live a life worthy of the gospel.

And our text this morning comes under the same heading: a life worthy of the gospel.

With these exhortations in mind he draws a conclusion, saying:


Therefore, my beloved…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…”


The various exhortations to live a life worthy of the gospel are now concluded by this one: work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.


That is the context and framework of our text.


Now, to our ears it may sound strange that he comes to this concluding exhortation: with increased obedience work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.


They need to obey all the more now in his absence, because he is no longer there with them to watch out for their souls.   In his absence they are now all the more vulnerable and exposed to the attacks of various adversaries, and therefore all the more in need of careful obedience.   While he is not there to watch out for their souls, they are all the more in need to do this themselves; to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.


But, what does it mean to work out our own salvation?


We have to note that the apostle does not say: earn your own salvation.

To work out our own salvation has nothing to do with earning our salvation.

We are not in any way able to earn our own salvation.

As Reformed believers we know this very well.


Work out your own salvation – the Greek word which is here translated “work out” frequently appears in the New Testament, and usually it is simply translated “work” or “do”.  The word means “to effect something by labour”, and thus it is also translated: accomplish, achieve, bring about, etc.

The apostle is simply saying: work hard to procure your salvation.   Work, with fear and trembling, to obtain your salvation.  


It does not mean that we can or must in any way earn our own salvation.

No, the divine logic of our salvation works differently:  we have to work hard with fear and trembling to obtain our own salvation, because: it is God who works in us both to will and to do His good pleasure.   It is all God’s work in you.   He gives you the will to do what is good in His sight.   And He does not only give you the will to do it, but He also actually does it through you.   Therefore you must do it.

And therefore you must do it with fear and trembling!


How are we to understand this?

To our small human minds this does not make sense, does it?

According to our logic, if God does everything in and through us, we don’t have to do anything.   Or with our logic we can try to come up with a partnership in which God does 95% of the work and we do 5%, or something like that.    But Scripture says: No, it is 100% God’s work alone; and you remain 100% responsible to perform it.   You remain 100% responsible to work at procuring your own salvation, and to do so with fear and trembling!


God’s sovereign grace does not in any way make us passive, nor does it take away anything of our responsibility to do His pleasure.


Our good works is 100% God’s work in and through us, and at the same time we remain 100% responsible to do it with all our might.


Now, the relationship between God’s eternal unchangeable counsel and our responsibility does indeed transcend the capacity of our small human minds.

In the Belgic Confession, art. 13, we confess that nothing happens by chance, and that all things happen only by the direction of God.   This includes everything that happens.   It also includes sin and the works of the devil.   And yet God is not the author of sin, nor is He responsible for any sin.   He is 100% in control of everything that happens, and nothing happens without His direction, and yet both men and angels remain 100% responsible for their own actions.    God controls everything to the smallest detail, and has determined all things beforehand, including all the actions of men, and no one can do anything contrary to His eternal counsel, and yet man remains 100% responsible for his own actions.

It goes beyond our human understanding.  

And therefore we confess in the same article:


“Yet God is not the Author of sins which are committed, nor can He be charged with them.   For His power and goodness are so great and beyond understanding that He ordains and executes His work in the most excellent and just manner, even when devils and wicked men act unjustly.   And as to His actions surpassing human understanding, we will not curiously inquire farther than our capacity allows us.”


There we acknowledge and confess that God is fully in control of all things, including the works of wicked men, but that He is not the author of their evil works, nor can He be charged with them.   Everything happens as He has ordained it in His eternal counsel, but man remains 100% responsible for his own actions.

And we confess that it goes beyond our human understanding, and that we should not curiously inquire further, beyond what is written.


Throughout the centuries there have been people who tried to match this doctrine to our human logic, but the result has always been heresy.   The moment we try to match God’s sovereign control and eternal counsel with human responsibility in a way that makes sense to our human mind, the result is either that we conclude that God is not 100% in control of all things, or that we say man is not 100% responsible for his own actions.   And both conclusions are heresy.


In Scripture God’s sovereign grace is never in tension with human responsibility, and never in any way cancels out our responsibility.  


The opposite is true.   Scripture joins the two together.   We have to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling because it is God who works it all in and through us!


These words of our text are also in full agreement with the words of our Lord Jesus where He said:


            “Strive to enter through the narrow gate…” – Luke 13: 24


There the word “strive” means: strive with all your might.   Make every effort, exert yourself to enter the narrow gate.


It agrees fully with other passages where the apostle for example says:


“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize?   Run in such a way that you may obtain it.” – 1 Cor. 9: 24


In this same epistle to the Philippians the apostle says:


“…I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.”


And again he says:


“I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” – Phil. 3: 12, 14.


To Timothy he wrote:


            “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life…” – 1 Tim. 6: 12


It is a pursuit, a race in which we have to press on, a fight that demands all our strength, a contest that demands everything of us.


There is no such thing as an easygoing Christian.

The Christian faith, and the Christian life, is radical.   It is everything or nothing.

And thus Scripture often spurs us on with these reminders that we are in a race, a contest, a fight – for life and death!   Yes, the most serious race, the greatest contest, the fiercest fight one can imagine.   It is a matter of eternal life and eternal death.

Therefore a holy fear and trembling befits the seriousness of the matter, and characterise the life of a Christian.


Brothers and sisters, how are we then to heed this exhortation in our daily life?   How does it look in practice to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling?

It means that we, controlled by a godly fear, are afraid to offend God in any way, that we flee with fear and trembling from all sin and temptations, and that we seek with great care and caution to do God’s will in all things.


Our text speaks about obeying God.


Verse 12:


“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…”


That means: they have always obeyed the instructions of the Lord when he, Paul, was with them, but now in his absence they need to do so even more carefully, for he is no longer there in their midst to watch for their souls and to warn them.   Thus they are now all the more vulnerable.    Therefore they need to take all the more care for their own souls, now in his absence, that each of them works out his own salvation with fear and trembling.

And what exactly does that mean?   What must they do?   He summarises it with one word: obey.

As you have always obeyed in my presence, see that you obey even more carefully, now that I am not there to watch out for your souls.


A life worthy of the gospel is a life in obedience to God.   God saved us with the very purpose that we may glorify Him by a new life of obedience unto Him.


Dear congregation, we are exhorted to bear the fruit of our union with Christ.

It is God who works in and through us, He makes us alive unto Him so that we may live for Him and obey Him and do His pleasure.


That which we are unable to do of ourselves, that we are now commanded to do.   And by His grace we do it.

It is like the paralytic in Mt. 9 who could not walk, but Jesus commands him to walk, and he obeys.

Or, to use an even better illustration: Lazarus in the grave.  

There was the stench of death, for Lazarus has been dead for four days.   A disintegrating corpse cannot obey.   But Jesus commands him: “Lazarus, come out!”, and Lazarus obeys.  


The same applies to the way in which God saves us.   It is His power at work in us; therefore we obey and must obey.


And now the apostle also describes the manner in which we are to do so.   That is: with fear and trembling.


We note that in the second place…

The manner in which we are to work out our salvation


            “…with fear and trembling…”


That means: with deep reverence for God, and a holy fear for offending God.   We are to live with great care and circumspection before His face. 


In many other places the apostle joins such a holy life in the fear of the Lord to the expectation of His coming.    In the expectation of Judgment Day we are to take great care lest we fall and sin.


The same apostle writes to the Corinthians saying:


“…we make it our aim…to be well pleasing to Him.   For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.   Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men…” – 2 Cor. 5: 9 – 11


When he wants to urge Timothy to be faithful in his task and calling, he says:


“I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing…” – 2 Tim. 4: 1


When we live in the expectation of that great day, then we are also controlled by a holy fear and a holy trembling.    Then we count our words when we speak to our neighbour, or when we speak about him, knowing that one day we will have to give account of every idle word we spoke.

In the expectation of Christ’s coming we live carefully and soberly, knowing that God will also judge the secrets of men – Rom. 2: 16


Yes, the fear and the trembling, which the apostle prescribes, is the holy fear and trembling of a small human being before the face of God.  

It is to be small before God and to tremble at His word (Isaiah 66: 2)

It is a holy respect and reverence for God by which we flee from sin.

As Proverbs 14: 27 says:


“The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, to turn one away from the snares of death.”


Or as he says:


“…by the fear of the LORD one departs from evil.” – Prov. 16: 6 (compare also Prov. 23: 17, 18)


Yes, when the apostle commands the Philippians to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, he is speaking about the fear of the Lord.

He draws us, so to speak, to the throne of God, and says: live before His face!  

And he does this to urge us to a serious and constant pursuit of holiness and godliness in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation; that we, for the sake of our very salvation, hold fast to the word of life, and live a life worthy of the gospel.


He urges us to do so with fear and trembling, not in spite of God’s work in us, but because of His work in and though us.

We note that in the last place, that…

We have to work, because God works in us


            “…for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”


You have to do this with fear and trembling, because God is working it in you.


We must not work out our own salvation because it is in our own power to do so, or because we trust ourselves, or because we are confident that we are able to do this.   No, our fear and trembling also includes an acute awareness of our own weakness and inability.   We do not trust ourselves.  Therefore we flee to God in prayer, clinging to His promises, relying fully on His grace alone.  


Yes, it is all His work.

It is He who raised us with Christ to a new life of obedience.  

And He did not only give us the will to obey; it is also He who causes us to perform His will.   He works powerfully in and through us so that we do start to act according to His will and to perform His good pleasure.


Of ourselves we have neither the will nor the power, but He works both.


Now, God’s work of grace also brings a greater responsibility for those who receive it.  

We have to work, for God works in us.

And thus it is also an exhortation not to despise the grace of God.


The apostle says in Hebr. 10: 26:


“…if we sin wilfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgement…”


We may not continue in sin; we may not play with God’s grace.   We are dealing with the grace of God, and for that very reason we should work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that His mercy towards us may not be despised or neglected.

And thus these words of the apostle contain both comfort and warning.

The comfort that it is God who works in us and that our salvation is from beginning to end His work alone.

And at the same time a warning not to be slothful or careless in pursuing the goal of perfection, for His grace brings an even greater responsibility for us to perform what He works in us.

Dear congregation, let us not rationalise the grace of God.  Let us not say: He does everything from beginning to end, therefore we may relax and enjoy ourselves.

No, let us take these words to heart.

Work out your own salvation with godly fear and holy trembling, fleeing from sin, pursuing the good and holy will of God.  Do this, not in spite of His work, but because of His work in you.   Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mendel Retief, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright, Rev. Mendel Retief

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