My Thoughts . . .
Thursday, December 5, 2019

Paul wrote to the Philippian assembly stating,

“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” (Philippians 2:12).

For some, that passage has been a thorn rather than a crown. Soon one discovers that perfection is a goal that is beyond their reach. It is a heartache without healing. It is an impossible job to complete. That interpretation has created a “fear and trembling,” foreign to Paul’s meaning. The apostle did not command the impossible. He was not inferring that the harder you work, the closer you are to eternal salvation. He was not establishing a standard to create miniature Saviors.

That passage is usually connected to others making it appear that eternal salvation is reserved for those who can outperform others (Matthew 5:48; 2 Timothy 3:17). That interpretation creates a false standard of righteousness (Titus 3:5 a). What human being will be chosen as the one that all others will be measured by? Who was that special person in the Philippian membership? Was it based upon perfect attendance, number of people converted, amount of money contributed, prayers offered, or passages quoted? If there is a model to be copied, wouldn’t it be Jesus? Who has attained his perfection or sacrifice? Only the false Messiahs believe they have (Matthew 24:24; Mark 13:22).

The Philippian congregation wasn’t corrected as much as the Corinthian church was. Yet, there were imperfections (3:17-19; 4:2-3). Perfection eludes all saints and assemblies. We mistakenly believe a congregation is faithful if it immerses “for the remission of sins,” meets each Sunday to partake of communion, places money in the collection plate, has “sound” elders and deacons, the attendance numbers are good, the preacher quotes all the familiar passages, and error is faithfully condemned. That may be man’s ideal perfection, but fails to meet God’s standard. For the perceptive, the gap between the two is enormous. That distance strikes “fear and trembling” in hearts that understand the difference. Those who see that deviation know that their efforts to conquer it will only be rewarded with failure. Their “work” will never be enough. This multiplies their “fear and trembling.”  Paul’s command is a work resulting in impossibility as its reward. The blind swallow it and the sighted are rewarded with discouragement.

Isn’t this what Paul is saying? Is he setting goals that neither the Philippians nor future believers can attain? Why would Paul, with those few words, snatch the hope of eternal life from those who are seeking it? Perhaps those words have been taken out of context! Is Paul telling them that salvation is within their grasp IF the culmination of their work is sinless perfection? Or, is he telling them to continue to be obedient in his absence as they were when he was present? There is a difference. They were not sinless when he was with them, nor are they sinless in his absence. He isn’t demanding perfection. God does demand faith. Faith begins when one feeds upon milk (1 Peter 2:2). Yet, as that faith develops, one grows (Hebrews 5:12-14). Faith produces maturity, not sinlessness. Our sinlessness comes through the cleansing blood of Jesus (Romans 5:9; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; Hebrews 9:12, 14; 13:12; Revelation 1:5).

If we substitute some of the different words that some believe Philippians 2:12 is teaching, it may help in clearing up some or all of the misunderstandings.

1. Work out your own perfection.
2. Work out your own sinlessness.
3. Work out your own Messiahship.

Some equate “obedience” as their Savior rather than Jesus. No one seems to know the percentage needed to guarantee their salvation. If it is less than 100%, it will not save. So, hope springs up within the heart, believing God’s mercy will fill that gap. But, how much filling with God’s grace pour out? If 25% is needed, but the gap is 1% beyond that amount, will God’s mercy be sufficient? What sinning saint knows how much gap God’s grace will grant? If our obedience must reach a specific level to save, who knows what that level is? If it is not known, isn’t that individual’s hope built upon that obscurity? Is the unknown the faith our hope is founded upon? Like one’s obedience, such faith is not up to par.

Was Paul telling the Philippians to live a life of fear and trembling because they would never be capable of reaching their goal of salvation? Who accomplished and maintained 100% perfection in Philippi? Who does it today? Whose “work” today meets that 100% mark, much less maintains it?

Doesn’t the context show us that Philippi’s actions, when Paul was in their midst, should continue even in his absence? If so, were they sinlessly perfect in their works while he was there, or were they like you and me, faithful but not without sin (1 John 1:8, 10)?

By the way, how much sin does the blood of Jesus remove before it loses its cleansing power? Keep in mind that Jesus paid it all!