Summary: God graciously works obedience into the lives of his people.
Christians have disagreed and debated, since the earliest days of the church, God’s role versus the believer’s role in growth in godliness. Some Bible verses, considered by themselves, seem to support popular phrases like, “Let go and let God,” or “I can’t; God can.” Jesus did say, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6.44). And Paul observed that “God… saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace…” (2Timothy 1). Galatians 5.18 even insists that “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
Others point out, however, that God does not encourage spiritual passivity, but that we “take hold of eternal life,” “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit,” and to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (1Timothy 6.12; 2Corinthians 7.1; Hebrews 12.1).
So is the Christian life one of complete surrender or committed obedience? Philippians 2.12-13 answers, “Yes.” Christians are to obey God and be zealous for good works; and we are to rest in Jesus, knowing that it is only by the grace of God that we are what we are. The key is that God’s working in us enables our good works, as we will see today.
[Read Philippians 2.12-13. Pray.]
Daryl played little as a child; he spent most of his days searching for food and shelter. He slept in cardboard boxes or abandoned warehouses and lived with hunger. We call them street-children, products of extreme poverty, social failures, and a variety of sinful attitudes and behaviors.
Growing up this way, he learned to steal when possible, sleep where he could, and trust no one. Fighting, running, snatching, looking out for himself – these were how he survived. The wealthy and well-to-do turned their faces from him, both to protect their possessions and to avoid the ugly sights and smells of such poverty. When he found food, he gobbled it down quickly. If there ever was extra, he hoarded it. When he saw something of value, he stole it. He did not live this way to feed a drug habit, or to endear himself to a gang. This was all he knew; it was his life.
One day some well-dressed businessmen cornered him behind a restaurant, blocking any way of escape. They forced him into a waiting limousine, and as the car drove away, they told a fantastic story. He was kidnapped as a baby then abandoned to grow up apart from his true identity. But his father continued to search, and now, after 20 years, he is found. His dad is extremely wealthy and important, and he is the only son. He is rich beyond imagination and will never want again. He is now saved from the miseries of poverty and pain.
Some things in the man’s life change immediately. He lives in a home, sleeps in a bed, showers often, and a cook prepares every food he could desire. But other changes are slow. Table manners are strange to one who never used a fork and knife. Personal hygiene does not come naturally to one who never owned deodorant. He can purchase clothes, but a new wardrobe will require months of shopping and tailoring. In addition to these physical differences, some of the mental or psychological changes will be even harder to effect. The impulse to take and hide what might be sold later will require months to suppress. The habit of ducking from people’s sight will require work to overcome, and it will be years before he no longer fears when he sees a police officer.
This parable has parallels with the Christian life. When God converts a person, he or she begins to change and some aspects of life are very soon different. They may sense a closeness to God, or an assurance of forgiveness. Their Sunday morning schedule will quickly reflect the desire to worship with a community of like-hearted believers, and they will begin to read the Bible and understand it.
But other aspects of attitude and behavior are slow to conform to the new reality. The love of God, the riches of Christ, and the presence of the Spirit must be worked into our hearts and minds before they correct our feelings and behaviors. Bible students call this process, “sanctification,” which our confession of faith defines as “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die to sin and live to righteousness.” Sanctification is the sometimes slow work of growth in godliness, becoming more like Jesus. Or, in the words of our text, “working out salvation with fear and trembling.” One key to this process is obedience, and to help us along that way, Paul gives us four reasons to obey God.