Fear and Trembling – Seeking Passionate Prayer in Spiritual Warfare

A sermon on Philippians 2:12-30 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 5 December 2021


Sometimes in life we are offered a simple choice of one between two. You can have one or the other, but you can’t have both. For example, the first cricket test between Australia and England starts on Wednesday. A coin will be tossed and the English captain will call either heads or tails. The captain who wins the toss will have to choose to either bat first or bowl. The outcome of the whole game sometimes hinges on those two decisions.

But life is rarely so simple. We are not often confronted with an either/or choice, with only two alternatives and only one of them is possible. Life is usually a lot more complicated. Go to any restaurant or café and you will be offered more than just two choices, and you can have both main course and dessert. You can even have an entrée too and you could have more than one entrée if your appetite was big enough.

We are often not limited to just one choice. Look at me. I am many things, and I can do many things at the same time. I’m a son, a brother, a husband, and a father to three different children all at the same time. I am breathing, blinking, standing, speaking, and making some kind of sense, all at the same time. I can pat my head and rub my tummy simultaneously. I am a member of the Corowa RSL club and play bowls for the Corowa Civic club at the same time. I can trust in God and get double vaccinated without experiencing any mental conflict.

Some people can’t. They are trapped by either/or thinking. They feel like if they aren’t in charge then they aren’t in control and just a slave to other people’s wishes. Or they feel like if they aren’t the most successful person in their social group, if they aren’t winning, then they must be losing. Or if someone tries to give them advice on how to do something better, then that person must think that they are hopeless and useless. It’s classic either/or thinking. I mean, just because you are doing something well doesn’t mean you can’t do it even better.

Many things in life are not either/or but both/and. You can eat both meat and vegetables. You can eat both main course and dessert. You can like both classical music and classic 80s rock and Ed Sheeran. Or two out of three. You can both pray for the Prime Minister and not vote for him.

Take the question, Who is responsible for our salvation? And in answering that you often get a lot of either/or thinking. You’ll get the answer, God is responsible for our salvation. And people will complain that if God saves me, if he chooses me, then my choice doesn’t matter. In that case, he could save me against my will. “Where is my freedom?” they want to know. “I can choose the colour of shirt I wear. I can choose what town I live in. Then why can’t I choose what God to believe in? If God is responsible for my salvation, then where is my responsibility? Am I just a machine, a robot to do what I have been programmed to do?”

So people will answer then we must be responsible for our own salvation? Otherwise we are under someone else’s control and our choice means nothing. And you’ll get other people complaining, how can we possibly save ourselves? Can a drowning man swim to shore? Can a car bogged up to its side mirrors just drive out of the mud? Can a blind man see just by looking? Can a deaf person hear by trying their best? Can the dead lift themselves by their bootstraps and rise to life? It’s classic either/or thinking. If someone else is winning then I must be losing. If someone else is in charge then I must be a slave. If someone else is choosing then I have no choice at all. If God is responsible then I can’t be.

And it completely ignores what Paul says in Philippians chapter 2, verses 12 and 13:

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 it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

Who is responsible for our salvation? It is not either/or it is both/and and it is one because of the other.

Verse 12 begins with the word “therefore”. Paul based his appeal to his friends in Philippi on what he had just been talking about. And what had he just been talking about? Paul had been talking about his friends attitude. He wrote

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.

Who didn’t lock himself away in heaven. Who didn’t cling to the privilege he enjoyed with his clenched fists. But gave himself, taking our human flesh, becoming a servant, being obedient to his Father’s will to the point of the cross. And for this he was raised to life and exalted to the right hand of the Father. He is Lord and one day every knee will bow to him.

Therefore, because of this, on the basis of these facts, said Paul,

continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.

You see, we are responsible for our salvation. Paul expected his friends in Philippi to work. To grasp this amazing example of the life of Jesus with their mind and make the choice that they want to follow him, that Jesus is who they want to be, that Jesus is what they want to be like. And to put that choice into action in all the small, daily decisions of life. Actively wanting to copy the attitude of Jesus and to make that attitude visible in outward behaviour. So that people look at you and think to themselves, “There’s something different about her. There’s something different about him.”

It is a way of life that is remarkable for its lack of complaining or arguing. Maybe not perfect, but consistently good in the way that no major flaw stands out. A person who stands out among their peers as someone who could be trusted, as someone who could be believed, as someone they could turn to in a moment of distress. Children of God, shining like stars with the grace and mercy and love of their Father in a world dark with fear and hate and selfishness. It’s not something that comes naturally. It’s not something that comes easy or everyone would be doing it. It’s something that we need to work. Something that we do consciously, deliberately, straining with effort against the flow of worldliness.

We are fully one hundred per cent responsible for working out our salvation, for our attitude, for our values, for our decisions, for our actions, for our words. You can decide not to decide. You can simply absorb the values of the culture around you. You can just do what everyone else is doing. But that does not make you one bit less responsible.

Jesus said,

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

The road to destruction is wide. It has to be wide to fit all the people who are on it. My advice to you is to learn the lesson that Jesus was trying to give. Find the little gate and do whatever you need to do to stick to the narrow road that leads to life, the gate and the road that is Jesus himself, because the consequences of not doing it are both disastrous and permanent.

That’s why we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Not because following Jesus is uncertain and terrifying. But because not following Jesus is.

We are responsible for our salvation. Our choices and actions matter and they have lasting consequences. And God is responsible too. Paul writes that

it is God who works in you.

Obviously, his point is that God is at work. God created everything out of nothing and he sustains the universe by the word of his mouth. He causes the sun to rise, the rain to fall, the crops to grow, and the rivers to flow. And God has done everything for our salvation. The Father sent his Son. The Son came in our flesh. He carried our load. He bore our weakness. He died for our sins and rose to life for our life.

But God is not just at work around us and outside of us but inside of us and within us. He has given us his Holy Spirit who opens our eyes to the truth and fills our heart with his love and reassures us of his care and comforts us in our loss. God is as responsible for our salvation as the lifesaver is for rescuing the drowning man, as the rural fire fighter is for saving homes. Fire fighters get medals for what they do. They don’t get medals because the house saved itself, but because they risked their life to save what wouldn’t have been saved without them.

God is responsible because he is our creator and refused to sidestep his responsibility. He was not guilty of our sin, our crimes against him and against nature and against ourselves. But in order to pursue his purposes for creation, he took responsibility and rescued us. Took us out of the ocean of our transgressions in which we were drowning and set our feet upon dry land.

But please notice that God’s responsibility does not make us one bit less responsible. Notice the little word “for”, meaning “because”. We work. We work out our salvation. And God works. He works in us. And we work because God works. Paul wrote,

continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

You see, God’s responsibility for our salvation does not remove our responsibility for our salvation. Instead, it establishes it. For his Spirit works in us in two key ways,

to will and to act according to God’s good pleasure.

And God can do this because he is both our creator and our saviour. God made us for blessing. He made us for good. He made us for life. He made us for light. The life of sin is turning our back on that, choosing darkness and death and curse. We wilfully close our eyes to what is good. We refuse to listen to what is good for us. In saving us, God turns on the light in our darkness so that we can see. He opens our ears so that we can hear. He restores our conscience so that we love what is good and want to do it. He mends what we have broken. He makes good what we have made bad. In salvation he restores what he created so that it fulfils his purpose.

This is grace. God chooses first. He chose to do whatever it took for our salvation. And that doesn’t take away our choice but makes our choice possible. If you were dying of thirst and I had water, you wouldn’t have any unless I offered it to you. But I can’t drink it for you, because that would do you no good. You must take it and you must drink it, and offering it to you doesn’t take away that choice from you. Instead, it makes it possible.

Like Jesus’ story about the gate and the road. You didn’t build the gate and the road to life. It was laid down for you in the life and death and new life of Jesus. And when God chose to build that gate and provide that road to life, he didn’t take away your choice. Instead, he made it possible. It is not either/or, it is both/and. God is responsible for your salvation. And that means you are too. Enter the gate that everyone else is walking past. Put your faith in Jesus and trust in him. Walk that road in following in Jesus’ footsteps. Know what is good and choose to do it.

Continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God who is at work in you to will and to act according to his good pleasure.