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Working so Hard on Heaven
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There’s an old “St. Peter at the gate” story where it takes a person a thousand points to get into heaven. That sounds like a steep number, and one anxious believer arrives at the front check-in desk hoping to get inside. The angel asks him if he went to church every single weekend of his life. Yes, the man replied, hope surging within him. “That’s one point,” the angel informs him. One point! For a lifetime of worship. Oh dear.

Clutching at straws, the man clears his throat and tells the angel that he steadfastly kept the Ten Commandments for his entire life. That’s one more point. He was faithfully married for 55 years. There’s a third point. He paid tithe for 40 years of earning. One point. He brought vegetarian dishes to church potlucks for many decades. That earns him just half a point. His heart breaking, he does the math. He has 4½ points . . . and has to get to a thousand somehow. He really can’t think of much else to say. At last he moans in despair, “All is lost. I don’t have any chance of getting into heaven except by the grace of God.” Immediately the angel swings the gate open and says with a welcoming smile: “Come on in!”

The late Pastor Adrian Rogers, former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, used to pastor the 24,000-member Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis. He wrote a delightful and outstanding book entitled  Believe in Miracles But Trust in Jesus. He writes, tongue-in-cheek, about his childhood naughtiness. “I have been a Rogers all my life, not because of my behavior but because I was born into the Rogers family.” Then he adds to his confession: “Sometimes even my bad behavior reminded me I was part of the family. My dad knew how to administer corporal punishment. He would say, ‘Adrian, I do this because I love you.’ I think that I must have been his favorite!”

But now, here is an amazing admission considering his own résumé. Again, bear in mind that  this man of God served three terms as the president of one of the world’s largest Protestant denominations. His Love Worth Finding television and radio ministry cut a wide swath of influence. He is the author of several powerful Christian books on salvation and Bible topics. Despite this glittering portfolio of accomplishments, he concedes in humility: “I would not trust the best fifteen minutes I ever lived to get me to heaven.”

Most of us who have lived our lives as Christians would find that a stunning admission. In the world around us, people think of their own good deeds, their accomplishments, their law-abiding lives . . . and they feel like there must be some spiritual credit due. Do all of our good neighborliness, our good deeds, our charities count for nothing?

As we study here in Philippians 2, however, it appears that Pastor Rogers’ very humble sentiment seems to run headlong into a rather pointed Bible. For the past two weeks, we have studied together this marvelous, heart-stopping Bible passage about Jesus descending, humbling Himself to go to Calvary. How He sacrificed all to save us. How He triumphed on the cross and will soon be exalted to the highest throne and receive a crown of all Kingdom authority.

But now, exactly one sentence later, in verse 12, Paul appears to do perhaps the biggest U-turn in history: “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.”

Well, this is certainly a head-scratching moment. I have to admit to you today: I don’t like this theology at all! Does Paul mean what he is saying here? “Work out your OWN salvation? With fear and trembling?” 

Well, that fits into the “works” theology that many people still embrace. It fits the lifestyle of a Buddhist monk on the streets of Bangkok, as they strive to earn merit by their good deeds and moments of charity. But is it possible, that despite the tremendous victory won on our behalf at Calvary, our salvation still depends on working and obeying? If that’s the case, fear and trembling would certainly be in order. 

If this is true, I would be daily shaking like leaf, and so would Adrian Rogers, who doesn’t think even the best fifteen minutes of his life, the most wonderful and obedient nine hundred seconds of his existence, would be enough to “work out his own salvation.”

Do you ever wonder how this same Bible writer, Paul, could write these soul-searching words about work and trembling, and then also write these confident promises from Ephesians 2:8 and 9: “For it is by GRACE you have been saved, through faith – and this NOT from yourselves, it is the gift of God – NOT by works, so that no one can boast.” It’s almost a mystery how the same man could write two such opposite-sounding things. On Sunday he writes: “Your works CANNOT save you; not a chance.” On Monday his mantra has changed to: “Work out your own salvation, mister, with fear and trembling.”

Sometimes it’s helpful to take a deep breath and then prayerfully see how other wise Christians respond to an apparent conundrum like we find here in Philippians chapter two. Here is what the NIV says in its text notes by a team of Bible scholars: “Work it out to the finish; not a reference to the attempt to earn one’s salvation by works, but to the expression of one’s salvation in spiritual growth and development. Salvation is not merely a gift received once for all; it expresses itself in an ongoing process in which the believer is strenuously involved.”

In other words, salvation isn’t a gift which depends on our works, but it is a gift which involves our works. In our Adventist Bible Commentary, volume 7, we find the explanation that the Greek word katergazomai, “work out,” also means “to carry out to completion.” “This does NOT endorse the idea of salvation by works. We are saved by grace, through faith. But this grace leads us to good works. Thus, such works are the outworking of the grace that has effected our salvation.”

Now, this is a hard-hitting warning for the earnest believer. Notice these follow-up words: “Many are attracted to the Christian way, but are unwilling to meet the conditions by which the reward of the Christian may be theirs.” And we say, “Conditions? Oh dear. Here we go again.” But this is pure Bible! Notice: “If they could gain salvation without effort on their part, they would be more than happy to receive all that the Lord might give them. But the Scriptures teach that each individual must cooperate with the will and power of God.”

Here are a few verses which tell us being a faithful Christian involves our active participation. Luke 13:24: Make every effort to enter through the narrow door. Colossians 3:9: Put off the old man. In the NIV: You have taken off your old self with its practices.

Here’s a bit more. Hebrews 12:1: Lay aside every weight. Run with patience and  perseverance. In James 4:7: Resist the devil. Back in Matthew 24:13: Endure unto the end. That’s a powerful string of Bible directives, isn’t it? And the scholars add one final thought: “Salvation is not of works, but it must be worked out. It springs from the mediation of Christ alone, but it is lived out by personal cooperation. While we cannot be too deeply conscious of our ENTIRE dependence on the merits, the work, and the power of Christ, we must also be aware of our personal obligation to live daily, by God’s grace, a life consistent with the principles of Heaven.”

I know that many of you have read the popular Christian bestseller, The Purpose-Driven Life. And if we were each to do all of the spiritual disciplines that are suggested in its forty chapters, lives would be galvanized and the church transformed. But writer Rick Warren very frankly states that discipleship is a 24/7 commitment.

“This verse, written to believers, is not about how to be saved, but how to grow. It does not say work for’ your salvation, because you can’t add anything to what Jesus already did. During a physical ‘workout,’ you exercise to develop your body, not to get a body. When you ‘work out’ a puzzle, you already have all the pieces – your task is to put them together. Farmers ‘work’ the land, not to get land, but to develop what they already have.”

There’s a lot to think about there—and yes, we could get discouraged. But it helps us to remember that our efforts, our obedience, our “working out” salvation is our response to the gift . . . and not the gift itself. 

We often say that the safest perspective when studying God’s word is to read the entire passage. And here in Philippians chapter two, and this one verse, the wisest thing is to simply read the entire verse. We often skate off into the woods of discouragement by just noticing the first half of this one. But here’s the whole thing: “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.”

That wonderful second half is such a huge, horizon-expanding insight, isn’t it? God works in us and through us to achieve our salvation. Is obedience required? Yes . . . but God will work in us to make us obedient. If we cooperate, that is. Do we need to resist the devil? Absolutely, but only God dwelling in us will make that happen. Again, if we cooperate. Do we have to lay aside weights and move away from temptations? Without a doubt! But  it’s the indwelling power of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit where we will find that victory—through our cooperation with that heavenly power.

Now admittedly, the next line, verse 14, has some tough, jagged edges to it in terms of our daily behavior. “Do everything without complaining or arguing.” In the Clear Word paraphrase by Adventist Bible teacher Jack Blanco: “Don’t think you’re the only one who has all the answers.”

Paul goes on to challenge his new Christian friends to be blameless and pure “Children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation,” people who can “shine like stars in the universe.” It sounds hard—and it is—but not nearly so bad when we know God is at helm, directing the life, determining the speed and the coordinates of our forward progress. WE are simply cooperating.

Let me address this disturbing phrase “fear and trembling.” Are we scared about all this? Does the process of salvation leave us terrified? Do we spend sleepless nights tossing and turning in despair? No, not in the least. But we ARE in awe. Paul is not joking around here in Philippians chapter two. He is sober and serious about the marvelous realization that God is interested in us and that He has made Himself responsible for making us pure, fit vessels for His kingdom. Here’s a note of hope from the NIV Bible scholars: “Not because of doubt or anxiety; rather, the reference is to an active reverence and a singleness of purpose in response to God’s grace.”

In his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis comments about this very passage of Scripture. And he joyously ties these two clauses together: “work out your own salvation” is buttressed by the clincher: “For it is God who works in you.” 

Elsewhere in the same book he writes with brimming but respectful confidence about how the Christian certainly does need to work and pray and study and obey and all the rest. He or she needs to expend effort, to struggle and to try: “But trying [to obey] in a new, way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.”

As a pastor I have performed many weddings. But I can tell you that the most sobering weddings, the “fear and trembling” weddings are those a pastor performs for his own son or daughter. That is the wedding sermon you lie awake at midnight praying over. That is the message that is the culmination of your deepest study and supplication. That moment is both grand and sobering because it is such a high calling. Shall we pray?

Lord, we want to take it very seriously—that You have invited us to participate in the goals of Your kingdom. But thank You first of all that our place there is already promised. Please work IN US as we allow You to have your way in our lives.

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