Work out our Salvation

Typically, people come to God out of a desire to get what God alone can give.  We need and we want God’s love or forgiveness or restoration or strength or peace or eternal life or all of those things.  God graciously gives these things to us because God is abounding in love.  But that is not the end-all of faith.  If faith is merely what we get from God, then God is no more than a vending machine, and faith is no more than a coin we insert.  Faith that is so one-side as to be only taking without giving back is a lifeless faith.

James writes about such an approach to God, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17).

The apostle Paul puts it this way, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).  

This verse is often misunderstood, so we need to be clear about what Paul writes here and what he does not write here.  Paul did not write, “Work for your salvation” as though salvation is something we do not yet have and must work hard to attain.  Instead, Paul writes, “Work out your own salvation.”  Here’s the difference: When you go to the gym, you do not go there to work for muscles (to attain muscles) that do not yet exist in your body; you go to the gym to work out muscles that are within you.  You go there to put your muscles to work to make them stronger.  The truth is that if you didn’t have any muscles, or if your muscles were not properly attached, you could not “work out.”  The reason you can “work out” is that you have muscles to work with. 

The same is true in the spiritual realm.  We cannot work out our salvation if we do not yet have it.  But if we do have it (if we have received it as a gift from God, received through faith), then we should not waste it but put it to use.

Indeed, Paul tells us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  “Fear” in the Bible has far more to do with reverence and respect than with fright.  The point of this verse is not to tell us that we ought to be afraid of losing our salvation.  The point of this verse is that we should treat with reverence and respect the incredible, priceless gift of salvation that we have been given.” 

When my wife and I traveled to Turkey a number of years ago, we needed some local currency, so Debbie went to the ATM machine at the airport to withdraw some money from our bank account.  The ATM instructions were in Turkish rather than English, but we believed Debbie could figure it out anyway.  When she came back to me, she had 50 million lira in her hand.  Immediately, I panicked!  I thought, Here we are in a foreign country, and my wife has sent us into financial ruin.  We don’t have anything close to 50 million lira in our bank account.  We are going to have huge overdraft charges!  

As it turned out, the lira was so depressed at the time that Debbie had actually withdrawn only $40 from our bank account.  But here’s the point: In my panic, I overestimated the value of 50 million lira.  When I held that money in my hands, I thought I was holding a fortune, so I clutched it with fear and trembling, afraid that I would have to protect it with my life.  People, however, tend to greatly underestimate the value of salvation.  Unlike 50 million lira, salvation is the real treasure.  It cost God coming into our world as one of us.  Wow!  That’s priceless.  It cost Jesus taking upon himself all of our sin and laying down his life for us.  Wow!  That’s priceless.  It provides us with forgiveness of all our sins.  Wow!  That’s priceless.  It involves the filling of our soul with the very Spirit of God.  Wow!  That’s priceless.  It includes a future home for us in heaven where we will live forever in the joy and goodness of God’s presence.  Wow!  That’s priceless. 

What are we to do with a treasure so incredibly valuable?  We should hold it dearly with deep respect and reverence.  We should work it out with fear and trembling. 

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