Why, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence…
I. A CHRISTIAN MAN HAS HIS WHOLE SALVATION ALREADY ACCOMPLISHED FOR HIM IN CHRIST, AND YET HE HAS TO WORK IT OUT. Notice —
1. The persons to whom these words are addressed. Through applying them to non-Christians they have been perverted to mean: "You cooperate with Christ in the great work of salvation, and you will get grace and pardon." But none save Christians have anything to do with them. They are addressed to those who are already resting on the finished salvation of Jesus Christ. If you have not done so, and are applying them to yourselves, remember that when the Jews came to Christ in a similar spirit, asking Him, "What shall we do?" etc. He said, "This is the work of God that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent." The first lesson is not work but faith, and unless there be faith no work.
2. But if salvation be this, How can we work it out? Salvation has four aspects. It means —
(1) The whole process by which we are delivered from sin, and set safe on the right hand of God.
(2) Deliverance from the guilt, punishment, and condemnation of sin, in which it is a thing past.
(3) The gradual process of deliverance from its power in our own hearts, in which it is a thing present.
(4) The final and perfect deliverance, in which it is a thing future. These all come equally from Christ, and depend upon His work and power, and are all given in the first act of faith. But the attitude in which the Christian stands to the accomplished salvation, and that in which He stands to the progressive salvation are different. He has to take the finished blessing. Yet the salvation which means our being delivered from the evil in our hearts is ours on the condition of continuous faithful reception and daily effort.
3. The two things, then, are not inconsistent. Work as well as believe, and in the daily subjugation of your spirits to His Divine power; in the daily crucifixion of your flesh; in the daily straining after loftier heights of godliness and purer atmospheres of devotion and love, make more thoroughly your own what you possess, work into the substance of your souls what you have.
II. GOD WORKS ALL IN US, AND YET WE HAVE TO WORK. Command implies power; command and power imply duty.
1. Is there any cautious guarding of the words that they may not seem to clash with the other side of truth? No. Paul does not say, "Yet" God worketh in you, or "although," or "remember as a caution." He blends the two together in an altogether different connection, and sees no contradiction or puzzle, but a ground of encouragement — "for" God worketh in you. That expresses more than bringing outward means to bear. It speaks of an inward, real, and efficacious operation. God puts in you the first faint motions of a better will. It is not that God gives men the power and leaves them to use it; that the desire and purpose come from Him, and are left with us as faithful or unfaithful stewards. The whole process, from the first sowing of the seed until its last fruiting in action, is God's altogether.
2. And none the less strongly does He teach by His earnest injunction that human control over the human will and that reality of human agency, which are often thought to be annihilated by the view of God as originating all good. The apostle thought this doctrine did not absorb all our individuality in one great cause, which made men mere tools and puppets. His conclusion is God does all, therefore you work.
3. Each of these truths rests on its own appropriate evidence. My own consciousness tells me that I am free, that I have power, that I am therefore responsible. I know what I mean by the will of God, because I am myself conscious of a will. The power of God is an object of intelligent thought to me because I am conscious of power. On the other hand, that belief in God, which is one of the deep and universal beliefs of men, contains in it the belief in Him as the source of all power, who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will. These two convictions are both given us in the primitive beliefs which belong to us all. These two mighty pillars, on which all morality and all religion repose, have their foundations deep down in our nature, and tower up beyond our sight. They seem to stand opposite each other, but it is only as the piers of some tall arch are opposed. Beneath they repose on one foundation, above they spring together in the completing keystone, and bear the whole steady structure. Wise and good men have toiled to harmonize them in vain. Perhaps the time may come when we shall be lifted high enough to see the binding arch, but here on earth we can only behold the shafts on either side. Any fancied reconciliation only consists in paring down one half of the full-orbed truth to nothing, or admitting it in words, while every principle of the reeonciler's system demands its denial. Each antagonist is strong in his assertions, and weak in his denials.
4. This apparent incompatibility is no reason for rejecting truths, each commended to our acceptance on their own proper grounds. The Bible admits and enforces both. God is all, but thou canst work. Take this belief that God worketh all in you as the ground of your confidence. Take this conviction that thou canst work for the spur and stimulus of your life.
III. THE CHRISTIAN HAS HIS SALVATION SECURED, AND YET HE IS TO FEAR AND TREMBLE. You may say, "Perfect love casteth out fear." So it does: the fear that hath torment. But there is another fear and trembling which is but another shape of confidence and calm hope. Scripture does tell us that the believing man's salvation is certain since he believes. And your faith can be worth nothing unless it have trembling distrust of your own power, which is the companion of all thankful and faithful reception of God's mercy. Let, then, all fear and trembling be yours as a man; let all confidence and calm trust be yours as a child of God. Turn your confidence and your fears alike into prayer.
(A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Wherefore, my beloved, as ye 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.