Do we work for our salvation?

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“….Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,  for or it is God who works in you to will and to act on behalf of His good pleasure.…” Phil 2:12b-13a

Work out your salvation

Do you ever feel like you’re on the outside of a certain Bible passage, looking in? Like you can’t unlock what the verses mean, no matter how much you chip away at the word meaning or greater context?  I’ve felt that way for a LONG time, about MANY verses that seem too short and too cryptic.  Recently John Piper explained what is beginning to happen to me.  And it’s a welcome change.  Let me share a recent example and maybe you’ll find some hope for how you, too, can be rewarded with nuggets of gold after some hard-core mining.

A piece of that reward arrived this past Sunday as I was poking around Blue Letter Bible to research the Greek meaning of ‘work out’ in the cited verse.  In that rich soil, God brought forth a new ‘aha!’ moment as He opened up my understanding of Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians.  I’ve always struggled to understand two aspects of his ‘strong suggestion’.

  • what are we working out?  are we actually working toward our salvation?
  • what does working out one’s salvation have to do with what God is doing IN me?

What I have found is that some of the Bible seems to be written in a shorthand form.  A lot of explicit explanation just isn’t there.  Reminds me of poetry, which often stumps me. Or maybe some of these puzzling lines are like the parables Jesus told, meant to keep out those whose only interest in Truth is passing.

But I WANT to know, to understand, to OWN more and more of God’s Word.  So I dig around and soak in the Bible A LOT.  And after 18 1/2 years, things are beginning to ‘pop’.

What got me soaking all those years ago?  I started actually STUDYING the Bible systematically through an in-depth Bible study called Bible Study Fellowship (BSF link here).

I had become a Christian 16 years earlier, but my scripture reading was hit or miss and except for about a year in a British Anglican church, we weren’t around ‘Christians’ who actually believed that the Bible was God’s authoritative Word, alive and full of power.

BSF changed all that.

So now, although we have moved and don’t find ourselves near a BSF class, we continue to read and study our Bible and belong to a church that submits to the authority of the Word.

And I’m beginning to reap my investment of time and energy.  Verses and passages which previously remained closed to me are now opening up.  And it’s exciting!

So what about the WORKING OUT conundrum?  Here’s what I figured out or WORKED OUT from reading the Greek meanings of katergázomai/work out.  When we take something and think it through and see how it applies, then it becomes OURS.  We’re fashioning it to fit into what we already know.  It’s like making room in your house for a new painting.

I was relieved to conclude that NO, we don’t do works to earn our salvation, but we have to renovate our entire understanding of who we are and why we exist in the first place by yielding to God as our Creator, Redeemer and Happy Master.  And the comforting good news is that God does not leave us to do this home renovation on our own!  Look at Philippians 13:a.  It’s God Himself who is at work in us both to DESIRE (will) and WORK to please Him.  What a sweet deal for us.

Knowing God so far, it’s safe to assume that He has many more treasures for me.  If I stay rooted like a tree, near His living and life giving water, then as I draw up cool refreshing nourishment, I will continue to grow.

Tree by a stream

Do you believe Jesus or believe IN Jesus? Just what is it that you believe?

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Words matter. And ubiquity weakens the meaning.

Take for example our use of the verb ‘LOVE’:

  • I love my husband
  • I love chocolate
  • I love to read
  • and my common email/letter closing of ‘love, Maria’

The overuse and cross-categories application of ‘to love’ has so watered down this affectionate inclination that when we are told to love God, it doesn’t seem to be a big deal.

Same with the idea of ‘BELIEVE’:

  • I believe that people are basically good
  • I believe in family
  • I believe in luck
  • I believe in love
  • I believe in being the best I can be
  • I believe that 2 and 2 are 4

The Bible takes the exhortation to believe VERY seriously. It actually seems to be a matter of eternal life or death, what we believe. So how should we think about it? Does it matter how we believe or what we believe in?  After all, the half-brother of Jesus taught us “…even the demons believe (in God) and shudder!” James 2:19b

Maybe a more precise question might be: How do we distinguish saving belief and simple factual belief?  And does that preposition IN make the difference?

Blue Letter Bible is the name of a website/app that provides a wealth of examples in how terms are used. In their discussion of the verb ‘to believe’ (Greek verb # 4100 PISTEUO) they consider contexts both in the Bible and in literature preceding and after NT days.  I found these nuanced meanings helpful:

  • to rely on
  • to place one’s confidence in
  • to embrace with joy
  • to make the foundation of your faith

In view of the richer and deeper concept of ‘to believe’ I now make a point to use one of these fresher substitutes. So in lieu of saying: I believe in Jesus, I substitute I rely on Jesus for all my needs.

I used to think many people were Christians when they said with easy confidence, “Oh I believe in God!”

But as I pointed out above, people believe in all sorts of things on a surface or shallow level, some of which are not even real (think – tooth fairies, conspiracy theories and a government that can fix our problems!)

I ask you then, does it matter what we mean by ‘to believe’?  Actually it does matter.  For what we believe and rely on….

Life and death balance

…..determines where you and I are going to spend eternity.

Here’s one example. When Jesus arrived at Mary and Martha’s house after Lazarus had died, Martha berates her friend by postulating that her brother would not have died had he arrived earlier.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,  and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26

The question then is, does everyone who mouths the words, “I believe in Jesus” receive ‘forever-life’ with God?

Well, I’ll let you decide for yourself by sharing pastor John Piper’s view of belief in Jesus.

“Believing is coming to Jesus to be satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus.”

From his sermon on 10th anniversary of 9/11

So I see belief in Jesus to be a reliance on Him as my constant and never-ending source for every need, desire, joy, anxiety, and problem.  He IS my treasure.  He IS my greatest good.  And His presence is rest and peace.  That is belief.

And what we believe in can actually be what we truly LOVE. I’ll let John Piper have the last word tying the two together:

“So the love of money is virtually the same as faith in money — belief (trust, confidence, assurance) that money will meet your needs and make you happy.”

Question:  What is it that you believe or base your life on?

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