“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 God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” (Philippians 2:12 NIV, 13 NLT)
What came to your mind when you read that word? Sit there for a minute. Turn it over in your mind.
When I type “salvation definition” into Google, these are the first results that pop up:
a source or means of being saved from harm, ruin, or loss.
deliverance from sin and its consequences, believed by Christians to be brought about by faith in Christ.
|synonyms:||redemption, deliverance, reclamation|
How do these Google results line up with what first came to your mind? If your thoughts about salvation are similar to these words, I have some beautiful news for you: It is so much bigger-and better-than that!
Pastor John told us on Sunday that our English word “salvation” has Latin roots. The word “salve” is the foundation of this word that we talk about all the time in church. What is salve? It’s an ointment or balm used to promote healing. Hold onto that for a minute.
The word Paul used in the original Greek is soteria. The root of this word is a word that means “Savior”; the primary root is sozo, which means save, make whole, heal.
So… Salvation… If I were going to combine the meanings of the root words in each of these translations, my definition would read something like this:
That which comes from, and is, our Savior’s life that has saved-and now lives in-us; the balm that promotes healing and leads to wholeness.
Is salvation deliverance from sin? Yes. I believe that Scripture teaches us that it is. But what Paul is identifying here is not that definition. The church he was writing to was made up of people who had experienced the salvation moment. That moment that happens when we see the sacrifice of Jesus, believe that His sacrifice offers forgiveness for our sins, and declare that He is the Lord of our lives. The Philippians had experienced this. They knew Jesus and were living out of the relationship they already had with Him. We do ourselves-and everyone else-a disservice when we read this verse with only the salvation moment in mind.
The reason I’m camping out here is that we (the Church) have adapted a smaller, incomplete understanding of what salvation is. In many cases, it’s boiled down to exactly what Google said it is: deliverance from sin. The opposite of damnation. Our “Get Out of Hell Free” card. Friends, if that’s our understanding, we are missing out. And if that’s what we’re offering the world-in those terms-it’s no wonder people see that offer as resistable.
The word salvation is not the only part of this verse that gets misinterpreted… Let’s look at the words that precede “salvation” in this verse:
…work out your salvation…
Sometimes this verse is used to support works-based theology and to say that salvation (the way many have understood it, as our pass to Heaven) must be earned. This interpretation keeps us striving, fearful, and living lives that lack joy, as well as the other fruits that life in the Spirit brings. If you’re living under the oppression of works-based theology, I’m so sorry… I lived that way for years–a victim of spiritual abuse who grew into a striving perfectionist before the real Jesus set me free. If you’re feeling the weight of trying to earn your way into God’s good graces, I invite you to take a deep breath and move toward the One who says to all of us:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (Jesus, Matthew 11:28-30 Message)
Back to Philippians 2:12… This verse wasn’t written to keep its readers in bondage to fear and works. The words translated “work out” actually mean to accomplish, to fashion into existence what wasn’t there before. Pastor John summed it up as “the ongoing process of growing up in our faith.”
Salvation is a process.
Our terminology has messed with us, so much so that even typing those words felt hard. Because that can sound exactly like what I’m trying to dispel here. Salvation, the way that Paul writes about it in our passage this week, is a process. And that, dear Church, is freeing! We don’t have to be fully matured believers on day one. Our sweet Savior, who takes up residence in our hearts, gives us time to grow into the fullness of His life in us. We get to grow up in our faith.
So how do we do that? How do we grow up in our faith? Philippians 2:13 is one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible:
“For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.”
This fashioning into existence what wasn’t there before, this growing up into the life of our Savior, this journey to wholeness–we don’t have to figure it out for ourselves. Not only does our good Father show us the way through His example lived out in the person of Jesus, He (through His Spirit) gives us the desire and the power to grow…
This is where the “fear and trembling” piece comes in for me. This particular kind of fear is not the anxious kind. It’s the mouth-wide-open, Holy ground, awed speechless kind. And that’s how I feel when I read verse 13. How beautiful and beyond comprehension is our God? He knows our weakness, our smallness, our inability to move toward health and wholeness on our own. And rather than ridicule our frailty, He gives us a salve that promotes healing, His very life to bring us to completion in Him, and even the desire and ability to keep going.
But… as beautiful as this is, it’s not the end. This process, this growing up in our faith, is not simply a means to get closer to Jesus. That is a natural result, but it’s not the end.
Pastor John identified that there are ingredients that come together to create growth in us. God gives us the desire and the power to recognize and do them. They are obedience, abandonment, and rejoicing.
The root word of “obedience” in the Greek is “listen”. We are invited to take the posture of an active listener, and to keep listening. To hear well. Before we do anything, we have to stop talking, stop trying to take (or maintain) control, and listen for the voice of the One who leads us.
Abandonment, the way that John spoke about it, is best defined as the act of pouring oneself out. (Phil. 2:17) This is a picture of releasing control, a picture first modeled by our suffering Savior, as He poured out His life for us. We are invited, as we grow up in Him, to do for others what Jesus did for us. We are invited to die to ourselves, to be poured out like a drink offering for somebody other than ourselves.
Sometimes, this feels like drowning. But as Jonathan Martin writes in his book, How to Survive a Shipwreck, “The waters that drown are the waters that save… The bad news is that this shipwreck feels like death, because you really may be dying. The bad news is that old and familiar things you loved and that made you what you were are slowly passing away. The good news is that you’re being born, and this drowning makes possible the moment when all things become new–most of all, you.”
It seems to me we’ve written about this every week for a while now… Our relationship with Jesus is not just for us. The result of His life in us, His love for us is that our lives become about sharing that love with others. It’s not about us. The invitation is not to “health and wealth”. The invitation is to die to ourselves so that we can come up out of the water living for others…
Rejoicing is the last ingredient we heard about on Sunday. This rejoicing is a shared joy, a mature joy that is for others. As we grow up in our faith, this joy in being with one another, is a fruit that is produced. Do you share in the ecstatic joy Paul writes about (vs. 17-18), even while he’s in prison? This joy cannot be produced in a life lived for only itself. It’s the product of a life shared, poured out. It’s sharing in the joy that was set before Jesus when He willingly gave His life for us. (Hebrews 12:2)
True salvation, freedom, and healing are found as we let the Spirit work in us to give us the desire and the power to listen and obey, to abandon our rights to ourselves, and to rejoice in the midst of any and every circumstance. Working out our salvation is the process of growing up into this kind of faith. We are invited into this process. What is our response, dear Church?