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Read Philippians 2:12-16.

Over the last few centuries, the Christian faith has been haunted by the phrase “works-righteousness.” The meaning of this phrase has generally been focused on a religious system of actions or deeds – those works that must be done to count for righteousness. As you can imagine, this “works righteousness” is consider inferior to a “righteousness of faith.” After all, doing works simply because you must isn’t very inspiring or enriching, now is it?

In contrast to this seemingly empty and hypocritical “works righteousness” is the notion of “faith righteousness.” It is a righteousness that is given to us by God and his Spirit. It is a righteousness that we cannot obtain on our own. Now as you can imagine, anything that would seem to interfere with that external gift of righteousness is avoided lest it become a process for manipulating God’s grace. This is why some are concerned that baptism or the Lord’s Supper could be a form of works righteousness. They are concerned that these physical acts are an attempt to put a claim on God and his grace.

Our problem is not a choice between Works Righteousness vs. Faith Righteousness. That is a false choice. Even Martin Luther, who coined these terms, allowed that both types of righteousness were proper and had their place. He was not opposed to one over the other. But here we are almost five centuries past Luther and we seem to operate on polar extremes when it comes to this issue.

  1. On one extreme we have an attitude that “getting saved and staying saved” is all up to us. I remember teaching a Bible class on 1 John. I cited 1 John 5:13 – “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” My attempts to encourage and inspire confidence in the class were thwarted by a woman who replied, “I wouldn’t ever want us to get too confident about having eternal life. After all, we are supposed to work out our own salvation.” Her perspective left one believing this to mean that we are on our own when it comes to achieving salvation.
  2. On the other extreme we have an attitude that “being saved” is all up to God and we have absolutely no involvement in the process; furthermore we must be careful not to appear as though we are doing anything physical or tangible to hijack God’s work. But extreme positions always lead to extreme action – or in this case inaction. I agree with Fred Craddock who commented that the worry over slipping into works-righteousness “has driven some [Christians] straight to the hammock as the only place where a doctrine of grace can be kept safe.”

I want to suggest that these polar extremes are not helpful and that Paul, in his letter to the Philippian church, is recommending that faith and works are not only compatible, but also vital.
Paul has already commented on the “mind of Christ.” Having the attitude and mindset of Jesus Christ is so very important. He did not avoid humbling himself and bearing shame for the sake of others and out of obedience to God. God exalted Christ. But the example of Christ and action of God demonstrates that this mindset and attitude is more than just mental – it results in action and behavior.

So, Paul follows on the heels of this hymn to call us to “work out our salvation.” This phrase is very confusing to modern English. “Work it out” can mean figure it out. Someone with a problem can be dismissed by another who says “well, just work it out.” It might also be a non-specific promise that we will figure something out. “Don’t know how, but we’ll work it out. It will all work out in the end.” But that’s not what this text is saying. Salvation is not the goal of the work. Salvation is something that God has already begun in us.

If there’s still any doubt, let verse 13 clear up the confusion ... for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

So, having the attitude of Christ is not just a matter of thoughts and beliefs. It also involves deeds and behavior. Of course we could just as accurately rephrase this and say that having the attitude of Christ is not just a matter of deeds and behavior, it also involves thoughts and beliefs. Both are true. There is a harmony here that is so important ...

People who have the attitude and behavior of Christ are going to stand out. We are meant to be a contrast to the warped and depraved cultures around us. But this isn’t a reactive stance to the world. We are not to simply do the opposite of the world or reject new fads and technologies because they are worldly. We are to be a contrast in all cultures and ages. How do we do this?

  1. We are authentic. Paul wanted the Philippians to work out, or live out, their salvation whether he was there or not. Living out the attitude of Christ demands internal and external authenticity.

  2. We are encouraging. It is difficult to live out our salvation if we are complaining and arguing. It’s not just that this type of behavior is antithetical to life in Christ, but we wouldn’t be stars in a dark sky, we wouldn’t stand out at all. The background of our culture is to complain and argue. Encouragement, cheerfulness, sincere optimism and reasonable hope are a stark contrast to the paranoia, cynicism, bickering, and in-fighting that seems to be contagious in our culture. (Jeff Long is the new athletic director at the University of Arkansas. Harry King reported the following about Long in his article yesterday. First, he isn’t interested in hearing about past scandals in the athletic department that have already been settled. He’s not interested in complaining and arguing. Second, he has given all his staff this encouragement: “I detest the 'woe is me' attitude, the 'Here’s all the reasons why we can’t be successful.' I don’t want to hear that. Let’s focus on all the reasons why we can be successful.”)

Shining like stars means standing out. A people who are a contrast. Holding out the word of Life – Living out our salvation (putting it into action) is evangelism. It is sharing the gospel.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 3 February 2008

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