[It’s been far too long since I’ve posted, though I’ve been writing consistently. I’ve had papers to complete, weddings, appointments, and life happening faster than I expected and time has slipped by. My goal this week is to post every day. First up is my 5-minute message on Philippians 2:12 &13 that I delivered in my preaching class this week.]
One of the most important questions we ask in every area of our life is “How do people change?” Even more importantly, I find myself asking, “How do I change?” This question motivates everything from sermons to self-help books and concerns everything from diets to discipleship. As we look forward to preaching messages, I’m sure each of us hopes for messages that inspire and inform, but I think we all most would like messages that transform our hearers.
I believe that Paul offers some very important instruction on this topic in Philippians 2:12 & 13. The NASB translates these verses as:
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
These 2 long verses boil down to the phrase, “Beloved, work out your salvation.” Paul is telling his audience that their faith has an active component, that is to say, “You’re Christians, act like it!” But if you’ve ever tried to change your behavior simply by will, no doubt you’ve ended up feeling frustrated and worse, unchanged. The key to Paul’s command is in everything that follows:
Work out your salvation how? “With fear and trembling.” This is a loaded phrase that was used in the Old Testament to describe a response to God’s power. One of the New Testament examples of a person coming to Jesus fearing and trembling was the woman who had been bleeding for years. After she grabbed Jesus’ cloak and was healed, Jesus looked around to find out who had done this. In Luke it says, “When the woman realized she had not escaped notice, [emphasis mine] she came trembling before him.” In Mark it says, “But the woman fearing and trembling, aware of what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him” When people came face to face with God and his power, it caused fear and trembling. It was a transformational moment.
The key to remember is that fear of the Lord is the heart of transformation.
It is no accident that Paul urges his audience to work out their salvation after recounting Jesus’ obedience. Paul painted a beautiful picture of Jesus’ humble obedience to set the stage for his command to “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” When we truly see what Jesus did, it inspires a humble response.
This is just as true today as it was then. When we come face-to-face with God, fear and trembling is still the natural response. As I think through my many friends having babies in recent months, there is a moment when the doctor places the baby in your arms for the first time and though you played a role in the process, you know it’s bigger than you are. You come face to face with a creator God and it’s humbling. We can only respond to God when we have a clear vision of who he is, when we see his work in our lives.
Why does Paul tell us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling? Look at what he said in verse 13 again, “For it is God who is at work in you.” Paul wants his audience to work out their faith, but he knows that the work can only come from God. It is only from coming face to face with an all-powerful, yet loving and merciful God that we will be changed. That is why we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Fear of the Lord is the heart of transformation.
The fact that fear of the Lord is the heart of transformation has 2 major implications.
1. We cannot force ourselves to change by focusing on change. If the fear of the Lord is the heart of transformation, we need to be looking at God. We need to encounter Him in all his glory. That encounter changes us. An offshoot of this is that we cannot inspire people to change without pointing them to God. As leaders, this is especially important. The heart of transformation is not my words, not my works, it’s God.
2. The second implication is that we are not slaves to results. We enjoy growth. We celebrate it, but the Gospel message frees us from any illusions that we cause change. God is at work in us and others, so they’re not even our results. If anything, those results lead us back to fear and trembling of God.
The fear of the Lord is the heart of transformation. Like the woman who was healed of her bleeding, all of us sitting here today have not escaped notice. God saw our need for a savior before we did. He saw our sin. He saw our fall. But more importantly than that, he saw us, he saw us and loved us. The powerful, glorious, God of the universe stepped down out of heaven and humbled himself to take on the form of a slave and was obedient to death on a cross…for us…for you. Are you trembling yet?