Wherefore, my beloved, as ye 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. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Do all things without murmurings and disputings: that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain. (vv. 12-16)
Having thus occupied the hearts of the saints at Philippi with the self-abnegation of our Lord Jesus Christ, the apostle, as guided by the Holy Spirit, goes on, in the balance of this chapter, to apply the truth in a practical way.
First, the verses now before us refer to assembly life and responsibility. Then, from verse 17 to the end of this chapter, three men are brought before us who were seeking to manifest in their lives the devotedness and self-denying concern for others that was seen in Christ as a man on earth.
Verse 12 has often perplexed those who thought they saw clearly from Scripture the simplicity of salvation by grace, apart from works. Here, in seeming contrast to this, the apostle tells the saints to work out their own salvation, and that with fear and trembling, as though possibly there were danger that salvation might be forfeited because of failure in properly working it out.
Notice first, however, that the apostle does not speak of working for salvation, but of working it out, which is a very different thing. One might instance the quaint saying of the little girl who listened to a legal sermon preached upon this text by a minister who was insisting that none could be saved by grace alone, but all must work out their own salvation. Innocently she asked at the close of the service, “Mother, how can you work it out if you haven’t got it in?” If it were individual salvation that is here contemplated, it might be enough to say—it is your own, therefore, manifest it—work it out. But there is really more than this. For, taken in its full connection, it will be seen the passage refers to assembly salvation, rather than to the individual: that is, direction is given to an assembly of Christians (exposed to difficulties from without and from within, passing through a world where all is in opposition to the testimony committed to them), showing them how to go on in fellowship together in spite of the fact that each individual has within him a corrupt nature, which will manifest itself to the detriment of the whole assembly, if given occasion.
We have already noticed that there was some difficulty in the Philippian assembly between two sisters of prominence, Euodia and Syntyche. This might easily become the occasion for distressing quarrels, and even division, if not judged in the presence of the Lord. Similar things might arise from time to time, and would need to be carefully watched against. When the apostle himself was with them, they could refer all such matters to him, and he would, so to speak, work out their salvation from these perplexities. He would advise and guide as needed. Now he is far away, a prisoner for the gospel’s sake, and cannot personally give the help he might desire. He, therefore, directs them in his absence, as obedient children, to work out their own salvation in godly fear, and with exercise of soul, lest they depart from the right path, or miss the mind of God.
Viewed from this standpoint, how salutary are his words for all future generations of Christians! There is no assembly of saints on earth but will probably, sooner or later, have its internal differences, and the advice or command here given applies in just such cases. It is God’s way that assemblies should be put right from within by self-judgment in His presence and submission to His word.
How often do saints take the very opposite method. Questions arise to trouble and perplex, differences of judgment occur, and bickerings and quarrels begin. Instead of coming together in the presence of God for humiliation and guidance, seeking His mind from His own Word and acting accordingly, they apply to this one or that one outside for help—often only to have things worse complicated. Those engaged in the ministry of the Word, traveling from place to place, are perhaps appealed to and requested to adjudicate in matters that often only disturb their spirits, and, after all, cannot really effect the salvation of the assembly from the troubles that have arisen.
It is easy to see how the clerical system arose from such experiences. We see in the early church, men of the stamp of Diotrephes, who loved to have the preeminence, and Nicolaitanes, that is, rulers of the people, who sought to bring the saints into bondage. And, on the other hand, it was very early made manifest that believers generally found it much easier to apply to noted preachers or teachers for help than to be cast directly upon God and His Word themselves. Thus gifted men became a court of appeal, and, eventually, were recognized as “the clergy.” The same principle easily creeps in wherever saints look to men rather than to God and His Word. If it be said that they are too ignorant to know how to settle their differences, yet let it be remembered they have God, and the word of His grace. If there be but humility and waiting upon Him, refusing to move until they find direction in the Book, He can be depended upon to help them work out their own salvation from whatever perplexing circumstances have arisen. He does not cast them upon their own resources but on His Word, on Himself, who works in them the will to do His good pleasure. This does not mean that they should ignore or despise the advice and sound judgment of others—but they are not dependent upon it.
In verses 14—16 we see this working out of assembly salvation practically demonstrated. Murmurings and disputings must be judged in the presence of God. Instead of backbiting and gossiping about matters, let the saints come together before the Lord and deal with them in the light of His revealed Word. Thus they shall be blameless and harmless, the sons of God indeed, without rebuke walking in a manner worthy of the Lord, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation among whom they shine as lights in this dark world. Thus judging what would hinder fellowship within, they are in a suited condition to be a testimony to the power of grace to those without. And, as the apostle has already emphasized for us in chapter 1, nothing so delivers believers from self-occupation as occupation with Christ and the presentation of Christ to those still in their sins. They who are busy holding forth the Word of Life have no time for selfish quarreling among themselves.
In so walking, the saints would give joy to the heart of the apostle, and he could rejoice in the day of Christ: that is, it would be manifest at His judgment seat that his labors in Philippi had not been in vain. The godly order and devoted gospel testimony would together witness to the reality of the work of God in and among them.
Thus we see that “working out our own salvation” is simply submitting to the truth of God after we have been saved, in order that we may glorify Him, whether as individuals or assemblies of saints in the place of testimony. This will be “with fear and trembling” as we realize our liability to err, the faultiness of our understanding, and the holiness of the One whom we are called to serve in this scene.