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” (Phil 2:12-13).
I recently went whitewater rafting down the Arkansas River on a youth adventure trip I led to Colorado. I had no idea how much strategy, skill and practice goes into navigating a raft full of six people safely down the river without capsizing on the rocks or getting swallowed by the rapids. The guide sat in the back and gave rowing commands to the rest of us. If we wanted to succeed in our voyage we needed to obey her commands and paddle together in perfect time and harmony.
In this beloved passage Paul assumes we have a clear grasp of the nature of salvation: we have been saved solely by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. To paraphrase Romans 5, while we were yet sinners drowning in our transgressions and under the judgment of God, Christ died for us and gave us a lifeboat of salvation. Having been pulled out of the rocky, foamy waters of sin and into the rescue boat of God, we are now finding ourself with a new task at hand.
We are now called to obey — “as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence” — our Divine Guide’s commands in order to navigate the challenging waters of Christian discipleship and faith formation we now find ourselves floating down. Thank God we are in this boat with newfound friends and no longer drowning in our sins. But we have some serious rowing ahead of us now if we are to avoid the many dangerous rocks and rapids up ahead. Paul tells us to “work out our salvation.” What does this mean?
Make no mistake. Paul speaks of sweat and toil, concerted effort and nitty gritty determination to reach our destination. We are NOT working for our salvation, as if we are earning it or accomplishing it. God already pulled us into the rescue boat. Salvation is ours. The work we are invited into is the “working out” or “bringing to completion or perfection” the transforming work God has begun in us through the Holy Spirit. As William Barclay puts it,”No Christian should be satisfied with anything less than the total benefits of the gospel.” So God hands us a paddle and we must learn to navigate the waters of transforming discipleship.
The real thrust of this passage is in the significant qualifying phrase: “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.” Now don’t miss this! True, God hands us a paddle and like any rafting guide He begins to give the rowing commands to help us safely steer the boat down stream while avoiding rocks. But He doesn’t then sit back and let us do all the work. God, the master rafting Guide, works with us, or more amazingly, “in us” to accomplish all He desires for us. God desires to bring our paddle strokes into perfect harmony with His so we can most efficiently and effectively navigate life’s waters. With practice and determination we learn to be more in sync with God’s strokes and guide ourselves more smoothly through life’s challenges. When we fail to follow God’s commands and paddle out of rhythm with our guide we risk disaster and ensure self-exhaustion.
The root of the Greek word Paul is using here for “work” is “ergo” from which we get our word “energy” which comes from energeia, meaning “efficiency, activity, operation” coming from energos, “active, working” from en-, “at” + ergon, “work”. When our energy is combined with another’s energy — namely, God’s — then we are experiencing the Greek concept of synergy (syn = together + ergos = work). Few concepts are more mind-blowing and remarkable than “spiritual synergy” — that the God of the universe desires to partner with human beings, “working with” them by the Spirit in bringing us to spiritual maturity. Synergy with God is a beautiful thing!
Finally, we are to cooperate with God in working out our salvation “with fear and trembling.” Many assume Paul has in mind fearing and trembling before God. While we should always approach God with a deep sense of awe and holy reverence (or fear), it seems more fitting for Christ-followers to fear and tremble at our own human limitations and inability to reach our intended goal of spiritual transformation apart from the help of God. In other words, we should not fear God as much as we should fear our human tendency to try to “go it alone”, facing life’s challenges and uncertainties on our own apart from God. In Barclay’s words, “It is not the fear and trembling which drives us to hide from God, but rathe the fear and trembling that drives us to seek God, in the certainty that without his help we cannot effectively face life.” I couldn’t agree more.
So, echoing the words of Paul, let us give thanks to God for pulling us out of the water and into the rescue boat of salvation. But let’s not just lay down lifeless in the boat merely happy to be dry. Let’s put on a life vest, grab a paddle, listen to our Guide’s commands and begin cooperating with the Spirit in navigating the adventurous waters of discipleship. But take heart! God is with us in the boat, giving us the direction and providing the power and energy necessary to reach our ultimate goal of becoming more and more like Christ.