Perseverant Woman Free-Climbing a Vertical Rock Face

God at Work

Author: Ray C. Stedman

So then, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed me—and that not only when I was with you--now, even more in my absence, complete the salvation that God has given you with a proper sense of awe and responsibility. For it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and the power to achieve his purpose. Do all you have to do without grumbling or arguing, so that, you may be blameless and harmless, faultless children of God, living in a warped and diseased age, and shining like lights in a dark world. For you hold up in your hands the very word of life. Thus can you give me something to be proud of in the day of Christ, for I shall know then that I did not spend my energy in vain. Yes, and if it should happen that my life-blood is, so to speak, poured out upon the sacrifice and Offering which your faith means to God, then I can still be very happy, and I can share my happiness with you all.You should be glad about this too, and share this happiness with me." (Philippians 2:12-18 Phillips translation)

The passage which was read to you this morning from the Phillips translation has to do with very practical concerns of the Christian life. I suppose the most disturbing and widespread concept of Christianity today is that it is a religion of rules which are in conflict with the free spirit of man. It is viewed as a dreary grind in which everything we like is either illegal, immoral or fattening.

Now it is true that Christians are continually exhorted in the New Testament to obey. But there are two different meanings of the word "obey". I think when some people read their Bibles they read this word as though it is a grinding system of rules, and God is a kind of tyrant with a whip, ready to lash us back in line if we get off the beaten path. Such people are properly afraid, but to do this will result in a tyranny of the mind, a rigid, bigoted, narrow despotism. It has resulted in that in many cases. 

But scripture emphatically rejects that concept of obedience. Paul says you are not under law but under grace, and when he writes to his dear friends in Philippi he uses the word obedience to sum up the practical application of all he is saying. In verse 12 he writes, "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now." The word here has quite a different meaning from that of slavish observance of rules. It really means an intelligent application of principle, a very different thing. Obedience in this sense is a key to liberty.

You have learned to obey the principle of electricity in order to enjoy its use. You don't have concerns of compulsion or coercion because you have to keep the elements of positive and negative separated. You don't feel offended by that. You know that if you don't you won't be able to enjoy the use of electricity; it won't work for you. It will be dangerous rather than helpful. You have learned to employ the laws of music in order to be free to express it with joy and power, and until you are willing to obey and to apply those laws you will never be much of a musician. You have to learn to apply principles of health in order to enjoy these marvelous instruments, our bodies. You don't have reservations about these things. They are perfectly sensible and rational.

Now this is what Paul is talking about. He begins with that interesting word, "therefore". As you know, one of the primary principles of Bible study is when you see the word therefore, see what it's there for. Paul writes: "Therefore, as you have always obeyed, so now." He is referring back to what he has just said about that marvelous revelation of the mind of Christ, how he left the realms of glory, renounced his rights and humbled himself, becoming man-even to death on a cross. We have that mind, he says, now just make use of it. Having Christ dwelling within us, we therefore possess this mind, and we need by faith to intelligently apply that principle.

That is much different from slavish observance of does and don'ts. In this passage Paul is restating his exhortation to obedience, the ingredients of true obedience, and the effects of it. That is our focus this morning.

First of all he points out the necessity for intelligent obedience. 

vv. 12, 13 "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."

"Work out your own salvation" emphatically does not mean by your own effort, as some have interpreted it. The apostle is saying, now that I am no longer present with you, you don't need to rely on my insights and counsel. Begin to walk without my assistance, for you have God in you, and that is all you need. In other words, stop leaning on me. Start applying these things yourselves. This is a necessary stage in Christian growth. 

Currently I am teaching my oldest daughter how to drive. She has a learner's permit that requires that at all times I must be with her in the front seat of the car. I'm there not only to teach her the principles of operation of the car, how it works, what to push, what to pull, the gimmicks you use to get it to do what you want of it, but also to teach her the principles of traffic safety and how to handle various situations that arise. As we are driving she will sometimes give me a questioning look as a driver pulls out in the road or something develops ahead of us and I'll say do this or that. She is relying on me. But the time will come when I must move out of the front seat and in faith commit her to what she has learned, and she must work out her own salvation with fear and trembling, and I'll be right there with her in that respect!

Now salvation here does not mean settling our eternal destiny as we frequently find it used in the scriptures. A better translation, I believe, would be the word "solution". Work out your own solution, because what Paul has in mind here is working through the problems and trials and difficulties presented in ordinary daily life. He is saying, use your mind and your will to solve your problems yourself, in the confident expectation that in doing so God is also at work in you to make you both will and do of his good pleasure. That is a marvelous statement of the Christian's experience of being led by God. 

But we are not automatons, robots which simply respond to the pushing of buttons by the Spirit within. I remember a fellow student in Seminary who got the idea he had to get special orders from God for everything he did. He would actually stand at the top of a stairway and wait for a moving of the Spirit to tell him whether to go down the left or the right side. Fortunately, he got over that. 

That is not the Christian experience. It's true we have another life within: God's life. Christ living within us. But our lives, hearts and wills are involved in this too. It is true that we will never be saved apart from him. But it is likewise true that he will never save us apart from ourselves. We do the living and the choosing and the acting, but we know a secret--that all along it is he who is living, acting and choosing through us. As Paul so wonderfully puts it in the letter to the Galatians: "I am crucified with Christ." That is, my self-centered will which once chose everything in relationship to me , by which I tried to run my life, has been brought to an end in the death of Jesus. I am crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live-that's the key-we don't stop living, we change the basis on which we live. "The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me." I live by the manifestation of Christ's life in me.

That is what we have so beautifully outlined here to the Philippians friends of Paul. He says you are now to do your own choosing and living, and as you do it God is at work in you both to will and to work. It is so important to see that. I think this is the most un-believed verse in the Bible. What we really say is something like this: "Lord, I know you want to work in me, but my own stubborn will is so set on my own ways that you cannot. I desire to have you express yourself through me, but my will prevents it and you can't. Now that is unbelief. God is at work to will and to do. He knows how to do it. Now believe it! The very expression of your will is going to be properly directed by his so that what you will, he wills, unless you know it is wrong. This is also the work of the Holy Spirit in you. 

I remember hearing Dr. Norman Grubb say that in the Christian life everything is right unless I know it is wrong. The legalist says everything' is wrong unless I know it's right. But the Christian says everything's right unless the voice of the Spirit within, coupled with the Word without says it is wrong. So go ahead and live, knowing that Christ lives in us.

The key is the attitude with which we face life. Paul puts it in these words: "with fear and trembling". Ah, there's the rub-we don't like this fear and trembling. All our lives we have been taught that the right way to face life is with confidence, fortitude, self-assured. How many millions of dollars have been made selling books on how to develop that assurance--that positive thinking, that positive attitude which grasps life and says, "I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul." We've been told this is right; it is the formula for success. But because we are reckoning on our own self resources we become self-confident and self-assured. The result is always the same: arrogance and pessimism.

I think one of the most pathetic examples today is Lord Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher. Even in his feebleness he still utters his defiant cry against the lordship of God in human life. But he is admitting with pathetic honesty that he can see nothing but futility and darkness ahead. That is because self-confidence is always wrong. If we think it is right, we are believing a lie. For a while it will seem to work, but the end will be the destruction of our lives. We come apart at the seams. We find we cannot bear the pressure as we come against the hard facts of human existence.

The only alternative is that we face life with fear and trembling, with uncertainty, with feelings of being frightened. You say, well that is the same place that self-confident people end. Surely you're not asking me to do that. This may startle you, but I would like to say with all conviction that this undoubtedly is the normal, intended human reaction to life. God made us this way, so that when we face life with its trials and problems, its adversities and hardships, our immediate reaction is fear and trembling, of uncertainty and doubt. That is as it should be. We fight this because we can't stand the feelings of weakness and uncertainty. All of us feel this way at times, so we try to bolster our ego and self-confidence. 

The truth is it is not wrong to feel afraid, as we think. It is then we need to recognize another power is intended for us to which we can instantly retreat and reckon on, so that we can step out in confidence and courage. Our fear and trembling is designed of God to keep us mindful in every moment of life that we have another power in Christ that we can reckon on. In other words, human life was designed for God. We cannot run it without him, and when we try we are shut up to our own feeble, shallow resources, trying to stimulate self-confidence and self-courage which ultimately breaks upon the rough rocks of life.

Having received Jesus Christ , we have adequate confidence for any situation. As our immediate response of fear and trembling drives us back to him, we can step up to any situation with courage, calmness and confidence because we know God is at work in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. That is the secret that makes it possible for the Christian to accept fear and trembling as a normal and sensible attitude, which casts us back each moment on the one who is perfectly adequate, perfectly competent in every situation.

This discovery in terms of your experience turns adversity into adventure.
This transforms the routine sameness of life. It makes every incident in your experience a continual challenge to see God at work. At your office, at your kitchen sink, your desk at Lockheed, your nursing stand at the hospital, your room in the retirement home, your classroom at school you are being continually exposed to situations which are a challenge to God in you in your circumstances. And this whole process is God's pleasure! That's what the apostle says. 

This is what God wants in human life. He doesn't want to send you off to some far off corner of the world as a missionary of the cross. Some of you may be called to that, but the rest not. He wants you to live your life right where you are. He wants to live in every moment and transform that seemingly empty, boring , meaningless routine into a living, vibrant, continually challenging situation in which God in you will work out the solution to your problems. Believe this, and you will see it!

The second expression of obedience is found in verse 14:

"Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world"

That is trustful obedience. Perhaps some of you remember a character who was once on the radio named Lightning who would always do what he was told, but he kept up a continuing undercurrent of mumbling comment which became quite hilarious. It reminds me of many Christians who claim to reckon on the indwelling God but at the same time mumble and complain. That reveals a basic unbelief. It shows they don't really believe the trials of their life are sent of the Lord, and they don't really believe that he is adequate to meet every situation. They are not really expecting him to work, otherwise they wouldn't be murmuring, grumbling and disputing with one another.

What happens when a Christian behaves in unbelief? As Paul points out, the world around cannot see Christ, so there is no light in their darkness. In other words, if the life your neighbors see in you is explainable only in terms of your human personality and background, what do you have to say to your neighbors that will awaken them to their need of Christ? If the situations you face cause you to react with the same murmuring and discontent and bitterness they have, what's the difference between your quality of life and theirs? They will simply say my life is explained in terms of my personality. I like certain sports and entertainment, and certain kinds of music and you like religion-that's all. Unless there is a quality of life that can be explained only in terms of God there is nothing to challenge the world around. That's the reason the world waits to see God, as Christians stop their mumbling and complaining and disputing.

There must be that quality of life explainable only in terms of God, and then, as Paul says, as we live in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, the light of the gospel will shine into the darkness of where you live. This is what Jesus means when he says, "Let your light shine before men that they may see your good works." Stop your mumbling and complaining and disputing about everything that comes in your life. It is only the obedience of faith that produces that quality of life which cannot be explained only in terms of your human personality.

Now there is a third element, v.v. 16-18:

"...holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured as a libation upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me."

There is a persistent obedience, a life that holds fast the word of life. This is the intelligent application of the principle of the indwelling life of Christ Now the word of life is not a book; it's a Person. It's the Son of God who has come by invitation into the life of a believer. 

Paul is looking forward to the great day when time will be rolled up as the dawn and cast aside, and all the fruit of Christian labor will be made visible-when all the gold, silver and precious stones that result from Christ at work in us will be gathered up and displayed. All of the wood, hay and stubble that results from our work for him will be burned. The steadfast continuing of Christ's work in you is holding fast the word of life, and this is what will result in praise and rejoicing in that day. Regardless of the circumstances or the praise of men or whether there are immediate results, continue, hold fast-don't give up! Then Paul says when I see the results of your faith my heart will swell with pride because I'll know I've not helped you in vain. You got the message.

Then looking on to his impending death he says "even if [my blood] is to be poured as a libation upon the sacrifice of your faith" as a bottle of wine would be poured out upon an offering before it was lighted, as a drink offering-he says, even if that should occur, if I should know that you are holding fast to the indwelling Christ, I will die with gladness and joy in my heart If you hear I have died that way, you too can rejoice and be glad. You see this is the ground of Christian rejoicing-a refreshing, fruitful life, pouring out rivers of living water to others, conditioned upon unrelenting reliance upon the indwelling Lord Jesus. That's the secret. 

We read in Hebrews of our Lord, who "for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" What was the joy that was set before him? It was his glorious expectation that in the lives of men and women who were being blasted and ruined, torn apart and disintegrated by sin, rebellion, self-confidence and self-effort, there would enter that healing life of his that would integrate life and bring focus and perspective, and call it back to all the expected fruitfulness of the Christian life, fulfilled in those who love him. Anticipating what his life would do, he endured the cross. He poured out his blood as a drink offering upon our faith, and is seated on the throne on high. 

As we come to the Lord's table this morning, we celebrate this drink offering poured out for us. He emptied himself that we might have him in us, the source of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control-the fruit of his Spirit. As we come to his table this morning let's remember this is the underlying principle of Christian living, the self-giving love poured out on behalf of another. How beautifully it is exemplified in the life of Paul. It is only possible as we reckon on Christ's life within both to will and to do of his good purpose.

Prayer: Our Father, we thank you for this glimpse in the letter to Phillipi of the glorious secret of the Christian life. We realize it is indeed true that we are laborers together with God and as we are changed and manifest his work within us the world will see the crookedness of life made straight. We ask as we gather at your table, that this may be true in our lives . In Christ's name. Amen.