Salvation Under Lockdown
Robert Wurtz II
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12, 13 NKJV)
Our passage is part of a letter written to the church at Philippi. Verses 12-13 follow a directive from Paul that each of the saints within the church should humble themselves unto the mind of Christ. This humility motif found in Philippians 2:1-11 provided the church with teachings essential to its survival. Paul was making sure they were prepared to function in his absence.
For nearly twenty-five years I have encountered and ministered to Christians who were no longer able to go to church and interact with their former pastor and fellow saints. In many cases, they could not see to read or hear to listen to sermons or Bible recordings. In relation to our present circumstance of Global quarantine, I realized long ago that Christians can go on serving the Lord when deprived from church meetings so long as they have a strong personal relationship with God.
I have written and spoken many times on the importance of scripture memorization, learning good solid hymns, and other means of grace that can continue on ministering to us and edifying us long after all of our standard means are gone. We won’t always have the luxury of our faculties or the ability to go to a church building for a meeting. It’s a very unpopular thing to say, but we need to be able to continue serving the Lord no matter what our situation is. Even if we don’t have access to a Bible or to other fellow saints, we need to be able to continue to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.
I am terribly afraid that in the last hundred years we have created a Christian that is completely dependent upon the local church. Most Christians, I dare say, express their faith primarily by “going to church.” Ten years ago to challenge the notion of church meetings as being essential you would be labeled as a heretic in most circles. But here we are. We are likely to have gone through at least 6 to 8 weeks of “no church services“ by the time this Coronavirus lockdown has ended. In recent history, if a saint missed 6 to 8 weeks of church services they would be thought of (most likely) as a backslider. Let that sink in. Their phone would be ringing off the hook and people would be wondering what happened to them.
Sometimes when we are ministering, and we know God is speaking, people think it is just “us” talking and giving our opinion. Preachers and teachers can be the worst about it. Why not keep yourself open to the possibility that it could actually happen as described? Dismissiveness is a terrible and dangerous sin when it is God trying to speak. Such was the case when Paul told the shipmaster not to leave port on his journey to Rome. Once they were in a crisis Paul told them simply, “Men, you should have listened to me, and not have sailed from Crete and incurred this disaster and loss” (Acts 27:21 NKJV italics added).
It is far too late to go back and change anything now regarding how we approach expressing our faith as Christians in the past, but let this present lockdown be a great lesson because it can surely and will likely happen again.
Dependence on God and Not on Man
Lest the people become dependent upon him, Paul tells the saints, Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. Paul reveals the fact that they who were of the church at Philippi were in the habit of obeying the Gospel (especially while he was present). He wants to know that they will obey in his absence. Otherwise, their whole Christian walk would be little more than eye-service. Even the world has the saying, “Out of sight — out of mind.” Paul wanted a genuine church. He was careful to make sure they didn’t merely obey when Paul or some other person that expected them to obey was around.
Eye-service is nothing more than a performance. It’s like an actor acting on the stage only when the audience is present. Paul states, (…) not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence. This is the remedy for the kind of man-pleasing that the enemy works on us to so. As the saints, we should say and do the right things no matter where we are or who we are with. Paul uses a similar expression when he reminds the Ephesians that they are to work, not with eye-service as men-pleasers but with singleness of heart as unto Christ. We are to do the will of God from the heart. (Ephesians 6:5-6)
We read on in our passage, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. Paul is in prison and cannot possibly superintend the spiritual lives of these beloved people. Paul could not repent and believe for them and he could not receive for them. He reminds them that he cannot keep on believing and obeying God for them either. Our salvation is our responsibility. Keep in mind that Paul probably didn’t have access to any scripture verses or hymnals or cell phones or any other tools that would augment his spiritual life.
Christ is our savior and He provides us with the grace we need to live for Him. We need a personal relationship with him that transcends every experience that we may face. In a figure, God may send rain upon the farmers’ field as an expression of His goodness — but the farmer still has to plow the field, sow the seed, and reap the harvest. God does His part of salvation and man must work his side of it out.
“I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4 NKJV).
These are the things that we do when we can “work” because the time will come when “no man can work.” Even the Lord Jesus experienced such times. Right now, Saints all over the world are drawing from the personal relationship with God that they developed when things were going well. How are they doing now? How will they be doing in another month or two?
Paul brings the seriousness of the topic to our minds when he adds the phrase — with fear and trembling. These words together arrest our attention to the seriousness at hand. Even though Philippians is much about rejoicing; Paul blends into that emphasis the reverential fear of God. To Paul, the fear of God and the joy of the Lord coexist without contradiction.
Our everlasting souls are our most precious thing. We ought to consider seriously Paul’s words. Even as Peter admonished us, that we ought to gird up the loins of our minds and be sober hoping unto the end for the grace that is in Christ. (I Peter 1:13) We should pass the time of our sojourn in fear. (I Peter 1:17) That is not to say that we should be in terror as if God would come down and crush us. God loves us and He is determined to have us. (GW North) Yet we must be diligent to make our calling and election sure.
For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. It was never about Paul, it was never about any servant of God; it is God who is working in us. May we ever be careful and faithful to work out what He is ever faithful working in (Oswald Chambers). God moves upon us with His will to do things that are close to His heart. He works in us to will His will and then empowers us to perform that will. This means that our dependency is not on men or even mentors. God has enabled us and requires us to live for Him in faithful obedience even if all of our mentors and church buildings were removed from our lives. Our primary and essential relationship is with God, not people or things.
If the church at Philippi would do what Paul was telling them in Philippians 2 they could expect to go on growing the knowledge of Christ no matter what they faced. They could expect to accomplish His will in their city. When individuals work out their own salvation with fear and trembling they are not as the Corinthians who could not receive spiritual things because of their carnality; they live their lives in the Spirit and are prepared at all times and in all circumstances to do God’s will. How much stronger will the churches be when everyone simply follows this directive; “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling?”
We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. But we know that men like Paul were able to maintain their spirituality from a jail cell and with no means of propping themselves up other than their own personal relationship with God. We can do likewise.