As You Have Always Obeyed
“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.”
Paul just got done telling them about the mind of Christ. The mind of Christ is humble. The greatest aspect of our Lord’s character is humility. The Lord’s humility was expressed during his lifetime on earth in many ways. But Paul here exalts in the Lord’s humility in a song of praise that spans the limits of eternity. He sings of the Lord’s humility from eternity to eternity. He best expressed Jesus’ humility in this way: in his leaving his glory in the heavenly realm to come to the confines of our world; in denying himself his privileges as God; in taking the form of a human being; in becoming a servant; and in his obedience unto death— even death on a cross. In this way, the Lord Jesus revealed his own mind, the mind of humility, the very mind Paul urges the Philippians to have when he says: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” Or as the ESV puts it: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”
The humility of Jesus! Such remarkable humility beyond human imaginings! Humility expressed in self denial, in servantship; humility expressed in obedience— Even obedience unto death? Who on earth is expected to have this kind of humility and to express it in their daily lives— whether in servantship or in self denial, whether in obedience or in any other expression of humility? Paul says that the Philippian Christians were expected to have this kind of humility! Paul also implies that you and I are expected to have this same kind of humility if we consider ourselves to be believers, if we confess Christ Jesus as our Lord and aspire to his image. For he tells us: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” (5)
This is what Paul says we should have among ourselves— the same attitude of humility as that of Christ Jesus. He wants us to have the mind of Christ, which— he says— is also ours in Christ Jesus. (ESV) What this means is that the mind of Christ is not something that can be imitated. You cannot imitate the mind of Christ. When the word of God says that our attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, it does not mean that we should imitate the humility of Christ as much as we are able to, with whatever strength we have. And if and when we fail, then we ought to try again and again until we succeed in imitating it, even little by little. No one can imitate the Lord Jesus in his incredible divine humility— no one! It is something beyond our ability as fallen human beings, even beyond our ability as born again Christians. The mind of Christ, his attitude, cannot be imitated! But the mind of Christ can be imparted to us. That is, it can only be given us (imputed upon us) through the work of the Holy Spirit into our hearts and lives. This is done when we submit to him in obedience to the will of God. For example, God wills us to be humble. But we cannot be humble by our own strength. But if we are willing to obey the Lord’s will to be humble, the Holy Spirit works in our hearts to impart to us the Mind of Christ— the humility of Christ.
Paul is absolutely certain that this church of the Philippians is of the mind of Christ. Here in this chapter he gives examples of lives of people who have lived by the attitude of Christ Jesus, and have served the Lord side by side with Paul in the church. In verses 19-30 he tells us of two amazing Christians, Timothy and Epaphroditus, whose lives as Paul puts it: shone “like stars in the universe.” Paul was sure that not only Timothy and Epaphroditus were exemplary Christians who had the mind of Christ, and reflected the Lord’s humility, but that the Philippian believers themselves were of the same mind as well. His words to them in verses 12-18 tell us why he was so confident in the maturity of their attitude even though they suffered from some internal problems and difficulties that needed resolving— such as issues of some disunity among them.
Read verses 12-13. “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.” Let me say a few things about some of the words in these verses before we get into a more general explanation of what Paul is saying here.
I want you to notice the word “Therefore” and where it comes in the passage. Paul had just sang a song of praise about Jesus and his glorious humility. But he did not end his song with Jesus’ obedience unto death on a cross. He rather ended his song in Jesus’ exaltation to the highest heaven. What does all that mean? It means that Jesus’ humility expressed through his obedience did not end in defeat. Rather it ended in victory. When Jesus humbled himself and obeyed God, God exalted him to the highest place. Here then is where the word “therefore” comes in. Since the Lord Jesus is exalted, and his victory is sealed forever, and since they were his children, called to the same purpose, Paul tells them “therefore— for this reason” continue to work out your salvation towards that purpose. So I want to you to notice in these verses here (12-13) that this word “therefore” here, is directly related to the Lord’s victory in the previous verses, as well as to the Lord’s purpose in their own lives as he relates it in verse 13.
Another thing I want you to consider the words “always obeyed” and the words “work out your salvation” in verse 12. This word “obedience” which he is talking about here is very much related to the working out of their salvation. You might even say that they would certainly continue working out their salvation if they only continued in their obedience. It would read like this: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed— continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling— according to his good purpose.”
Another thing that we need to pay attention to before we get into understanding these verses is the actual meaning of the words “Work out your salvation” because they are a little bit confusing to some. No one can actually work out his or her salvation. In other words no one can save himself by human effort. So clearly, Paul is not saying that one ought to work out one’s own salvation. We know perfectly well that salvation is by grace through faith alone. Then what exactly does it mean to work out one’s salvation? But let me make it clear to you what working out your salvation means. In Php 1:6 Paul said something momentous about the way God works in the lives of his people. He said: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” So it is God himself who begins a good work in us. And that good work is the work of his grace, the work of taking us out of darkness and bringing us into his light. It is the work of saving our souls from the power of sin and death. It is the good work of giving us new life that we might live for his glory. It is the good work of transforming us from useless and wretched sinners into the glorious children of God forever growing in the likeness of his Son Jesus. It is God who begins the work of salvation in us. And it is God who carries out the work of salvation in us. And it is God who continues his work of salvation in us day after day after day. It is God who will be working his good work of salvation in us tomorrow and the day after, until that day when God brings that good work which he first began in us to completion, when all is done, and his good purpose— that purpose for which he has created and called us to has been fulfilled.
So the words, “continue to work out your salvation” is the work that God has begun in us, which God himself is doing in us (individually and as a church community) through his grace and by his Spirit, from day to day to bring about— what? Look at verse 13? To bring about what he tells us in verse 13 to be “his good purpose.” All God’s work in us and otherwise, is for His own good pleasure and good purpose. The question is, “what then is our role in the good work of salvation which God is working in our lives whether individually or collectively as a church community?”
If we look at verse 13, we realize that our role is nothing! “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Paul mentions two things in this verse that accomplish God’s good pleasure and purpose. It is the will and the act. That is, the desire to fulfill God’s purpose, as well as the action itself that fulfills God’s purpose. It is amazing however to see that Paul leaves no room for us to take any merit in neither. For, he says, it is God himself who works in us to will and to act when it comes to fulfilling God’s good purpose in our lives and in our church community. This is the truth then. We of ourselves have no desire to fulfill God’s purpose in our lives. I say this not to condemn us, nor to judge us, but to humble us to face some spiritual truths that might help us better see the blessing of God in our lives. I say this to bring about a conviction of heart that might help us better know the mercies of our God through genuine repentance and forgiveness. If you think carefully about the condition of your heart, you will see very clearly that seldom you have a desire to fulfill God’s purpose in your life. Often you do not even think about God’s purpose in your life. If I were to ask you today what is God’s purpose in your life, I wonder if you would have an answer for me, mostly because you haven’t given it much thought. Even if you think about it now, I wonder if you would give it the proper amount of thought to fathom God’s purpose in this life that you live. More than that, we do not know what is God’s purpose for our own church community either. We gather to worship and we gather to pray but we rarely have a vision of what God wants to accomplish through us. It is a heartbreak that we often don’t know what God’s purpose is. We ought to know, but we don’t! So Paul tells us very plainly what our role is mostly in the work of salvation which God is working in our lives. He tells us that it God who works in you to will. It is God who work in you to desire to fulfill God’s good purpose in your life and ministry. When we have a desire to fulfill God’s purpose in our lives, it is God working out his salvation— his purpose in our heart. Paul also says that it is God who works in us not only to will but also to act according to his good purpose! Like the desire then, we also have a hard time acting upon the will of God, to fulfill his purpose in our lives. But God himself, as he helps us through his own workings to will— to desire— to fulfill his purpose, so he also helps us through his own working to act upon this desire to fulfill his good purpose in our lives and ministry. So, to begin with, we can say that working out our salvation is indeed God himself working in us to will and to act according to his good purpose.
All God’s work, whatever God’s work may be, whether in our lives or in the church, or anywhere else, is done for God’s own good purpose, for all things must serve God’s purpose in the end. God has begun a good work in us, and he will bring it to completion. And he himself works in us to fulfill that. And we can humbly say that or role is mostly nothing, since God himself is the one working out the major work of salvation in our lives. We can only bask in that grace and marvel at the abundance of his blessings. But when we say that our role in working out our salvation in order to fulfill God’s purpose is nothing, it does not mean that we have no responsibility before God and nothing whatsoever to do! This is where Paul’s exhortation in verses 12 becomes very interesting. Listen again to what Paul says in verse 12. He says: “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.” He says: “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”. These are great words that tell us what we ought to do in the work of salvation that God is doing in our lives. We have seen what only God can do. But in these words we also see what we can do.
Let me reiterate to a certain extent here once again what this “working out your salvation” that Paul is talking about here is in reference to. It symbolizes the very work if God in their own lives as it affects them personally as individual Christians, and collectively as a Christian community. What does that mean? It means that God began a good work in their lives the moment they believed the gospel. The moment the gospel began to transform their lives, God set a plan in motion to accomplish and to fulfill his very good work not only in their own personal lives, but also in their lives together as a church community. God has a plan and a purpose for each of our lives as a Christian which he begins at the moment of our faith and which he will finish in his good time. God also brings us together as a community to work out his own plan through us as a church community. Both plans, the plan he has for my life, as well as the plan and purpose he has for my church community through me, are vital plans. You and I alone are precious. And God loves you and me and works in you and me. But you should not think for a moment that you can do away with the church community which God has led you to or which God has birthed you in. God works in our lives to fulfillment as our lives and purpose relate directly to the church community. The early church community fully understood the preciousness of the one member as well as the importance of the unity of the church community together in serving God’s purpose. No one claimed that they were independent and aloof and detached from the church community. Like a tree with many branches, like a body with many parts, they worked together to fulfill God’s purpose. Anyway, “carrying out your salvation” is indeed fulfilling— working at— the plan God has for you, as you also relate to the church community.
As much as Paul was talking to each of the Philippian Christians individually to work out their “own” salvation with trembling and fear, he was also talking to them collectively as a church too. We cannot ignore that! Individually, you must “work out your salvation” humbly before your God, with the same attitude as your Lord Jesus— in humility— with trembling and with fear. And you must also “work out your salvation” together as a church community— in trembling and in fear— again in humility— following in Jesus’ example, so that you might fulfill God’s good purpose for your life as well as for your church community. We must remember that we are the body of Christ of which Jesus is the Head. All that we are and do are to be for his good purpose. What is God’s plan for your life? We know that whatever God’s plan is for your life and mine, it certainly is destined to fulfill God’s good purpose and for his good pleasure. What is God’s plan for the church community here? The answer is the same! Whatever God’s plan for the church community here, it is designed and destined to fulfill God’s good purpose and for his good pleasure.
Now we must look at verse 12 again and read it. “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.” And we will look at the words “As you have always obeyed.” These Christians had a glorious virtue as children of God. They were not like other churches Paul had to rebuke and discipline. They had some division problems. They had some people within the church who needed to reconcile. But this is what they were. They have proved themselves to be obedient and had always obeyed. Now they need to continue their obedience. In this sense then, this is what their responsibility was before God. This is what they could do! This salvation they were called to work out is deeply intertwined with their continued obedience. Now we are beginning to see the picture of their virtue as having the mind of Christ, as Paul attests to them as having.
They can continue working out their salvation through their continued obedience. Their working out their salvation, and their obedience are absolutely linked. These Christians started out their Christian walk with obedience. They should now continue with obedience. And Paul tells them the way they can work out their salvation in their lives. This is their responsibility. It began with obedience. It must continue with obedience. But it must also be done and carried out continuously with the right attitude. The way of obedience can only be done, as Paul instructs them, or better yet, as Paul reminds them, with “trembling and fear”. That is the attitude one should have before God as he or she obeys the gospel and gospel way of life, and continues to obey the gospel and the gospel way of life.
Jesus himself was obedient. He obeyed unto death. His attitude was that of humility. And we ought to do the same. We shouldn’t become proud in our faith, but remain humble and tremble before God. Sometimes we think we are something when we are nothing. We are proud when we think we know more than we do and deserve more than we do. We are proud when obedience becomes difficult because we begin to think highly of ourselves beyond obedience. We are proud when repentance becomes impossible because our hearts become hardened. We are proud when we end up breaking fellowship with God and with others. We are proud when what once was sweet to our hearts has turned bitter. We are proud when we think we have outgrown the fellowship of believers with whom we have a love relationship, when in truth our hearts have stopped loving. We are proud when we have lost our bearings. How did pride find its way into our hearts? The truth is that we began with obedience to the gospel, and now we’ve broken fellowship with the gospel of grace. We no longer tremble nor fear at the thought of the majesty of God. We think we are better than those are around us, that we deserve better. But the truth is that we have broken faith with God who calls us to obedience.
We started with obedience! Once obedience was sweet to our ears and our hearts. It was the most natural thing in the whole world. Obedience to the gospel was the ground on which we came into fellowship with the Lord who brought us life and goodness, who purchased our souls with his blood. But now we despise obedience and think of it as a burden. I say this not to judge our hearts, but to give us a measuring rod by which we can truly see how easy it is to be corrupted by the world around us. Sometimes, we rather obey our own concept of gospel which if we look very closely we realize is no gospel at all. The gospel calls for repentance. But we haven’t truly repented in a long time. The gospel calls us to carry the crosses God lovingly gives us in our life to bear for his sake. But some of us have thrown away every cross God has given us as a cross too heavy and a cross too unnecessary and we’ve even called some of the crosses God has given us to bear un-Christian at times. The gospel calls us to love our enemies. But we haven’t even loves our own spiritual fathers and mothers. The gospel calls us to share the good news with the world. But the truth is that we have put our pleasures ahead of this sacred mission. The gospel calls us to unity but we have been divided for too long and it doesn’t phase us even when the word of God compels us time and again to put aside our differences and unite in the Lord.
Indeed, we started with obedience but we have broken fellowship with obedience because obedience is too difficult. In our generation we have valued human freedom above obedience to the gospel of God’s grace. But Paul reminds us that we started with obedience. Our relationship with God and fellowship with him began with obedience. Our salvation began in obedience to his gospel. His word has called us to obey his command and to live by his word, to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses and to follow him daily. And as long as we continue in our obedience, we are working out our salvation. And we are working it out not in pride or arrogance of heart— not in casual lax attitude of mind, but as he tells us— in trembling and fear. In humility of heart. Just as the Lord Jesus humbled himself and obeyed God unto death, we ought to humble ourselves and continue living lives in obedience to the gospel. Paul mentions that they began with obedience and he wanted them to continue in obedience, especially now that he urges them towards unity. He spoke extensively of unity earlier. And he also mentioned how to achieve it— through humility. He gave the best example he could give, that of Christ Jesus. Jesus humbled himself for our sake. We ought to humble ourselves in obedience so that the Lord might fulfill his good purpose in our lives and in our church as he desires.
There is one more thing to talk about before we close this message. Look at verse 12 one more time. “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.” Consider the words that are bracketed, “— not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence” There will always be those who live two separate lives, one life when people are watching, and another life when they are alone. A public life and a secret life. They are one person to the eyes of the church, and another person to the eyes of the world, and perhaps even still another person when they are alone. But look at the kind of people the Philippian believers were. There is something beautiful and deeply Christian about the person who does what he or she does in the sight of God and not in the sight of men. He or she does what they do for God to see and not for others to see. He or she does what they do because they have learned to live in the presence of God rather than in the presence of mere human beings. These Philippian Christians were as such. Paul was convinced that their obedience was not a show of humility but an act of heart, a genuine act that sprang from their personal relationship with the Lord Jesus, and their love for one another as a church community.