Work Out Your Salvation: The Process of Sanctification

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, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)

What is the process of spiritual growth—sanctification? Paul speaks to this congregation and challenges them to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. Now it must be noticed that Paul does not say to “work for” your salvation but to “work out” your salvation. Scripture everywhere teaches that we are saved not by our works but by grace through faith in Christ. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “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.”

We are not saved by our works. In fact, Paul argues that even our faith is a gift from God, and therefore, there is no room for man’s boasting. Salvation is a work of God. However, salvation is not simply a work that happens when we are born again. It is a work that continues till we are made into the full image of Christ. It will end at death or at the rapture, whichever happens first. Romans 8:29-30 says,

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

Paul here describes the process of salvation. It begins before time when God foreknew some in a saving relationship. The word “foreknew” does not mean to know some facts about a person but to know in an intimate saving relationship. Christ said in the last days many would say, “Lord, Lord,” but he would reply, “Depart from me, you workers of iniquity I never ‘knew you’” (Matt 7:23). Similarly, God said to Jeremiah, “before you were born, I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5). He knew Jeremiah in a saving relationship. He selected him not based on any merit of his own but based on grace—unmerited favor.

The next part of salvation is predestination. What is predestination? In this text it is God choosing those he knew in a saving relationship to be conformed to the image of his Son—to look like Christ. At some point, God effectually calls them as they hear the gospel and respond in faith. He then justifies them—declaring them righteous, then he will glorify them which is the completion of salvation. One day all believers will fully resemble Christ.

This is what Paul is talking about when he says “work out your salvation.” He is saying to work out this process of being made into the image of Christ. We often call this “sanctification”—the daily process of growing into the very image of Christ.

What is this process? How can we daily pursue growth into the image of Christ?

Throughout history many have held different views on this process. Some have said that this process happens solely by a work of God without the participation of man. What we must do is “Let go and let God.” We must rely on grace and give up working and striving to be holy. Sometimes these preachers will preach simply, “Grace! Grace! Grace!” to the exclusion of any discipline of our own. However, Paul said, “train yourself to be godly” or “exercise yourself to godliness” (1 Tim 4:7).

On the opposite side, others will preach “Work! Work! Work! Discipline yourself!” to the exclusion of reliance on God at all. These types of ministries often become legalistic, relying totally on works of the flesh. Listen to what Paul said to the Galatians: “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Galatians 3:3).

What is the proper way to progress in holiness—to work out our salvation? Here in Philippians 2:12-13 Paul teaches a paradox. We must work and God works. We must work alongside God in the process of our sanctification. Paul says, “God works in us to will and do of his good pleasure.” He gives us the very desires to grow in Christ and he works in us to do it. This is why, when we get to heaven, there will be no room for boasting. Why? Because God did it all. However, both realities are true. We must work and God is working. Listen to what Paul said about this reality in his own life:

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (1 Corinthians 15:9-10)

Paul said he worked harder than everybody else but not him, the grace of God within him. He said that God’s grace was not without effect in him. The reality is that God’s grace works in each one of us to grow spiritually, but for some it is without effect. Some instead resist the work of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 7:51). We must work with God in the process of sanctification—responding to his conviction, allowing him to empower us to accomplish his will for our lives.

It should be noted that when Paul calls this church to work out its salvation, he is probably specifically referring to the problems going on in the church. At the end of chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2, he challenges them to be one in spirit—to be unified (1:27, 2:2). In chapter 4, some divisions were threatening the church’s unity (v.2). Paul calls for them to be unified by developing the mind of Christ (2:5) and working out their salvation together (2:12).

As we study this text, we will learn steps to work out our salvation—our sanctification.

Big Question: What is necessary for a believer and a congregation to work out their salvation—their sanctification?

In Order to Be Sanctified, We Must Focus on Our Model—Jesus Christ

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, (Philippians 2:12)

What is the first step in the process of sanctification? It is focusing on our model—Jesus Christ. The word “Therefore” in Philippians 2:12 means “because of this” and points the reader back to Paul’s previous comments. In Philippians 2:6-11, Paul gave Jesus Christ’s incarnation, death, and exaltation as a model for the church to follow in developing unity. Christ did not grasp onto his rights as God but became a man. In his incarnation he did not come as a wealthy king but a poor servant. His descent continued as he was obedient unto death—even death on a cross.

Paul says if we are going to work out our salvation—our sanctification—we must follow the model of Christ. He is the person we must seek to study and to emulate. The writer of Hebrews said this:

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:2-3)

The author says that we must fix our eyes on Jesus. The word “fix” means to focus on something to the exclusion of everything else. It essentially means to be single-minded. A person who has a fixed look on Christ is seeking to know and please Christ in everything he does. He wants to do God’s will in his career, marriage, hobbies, entertainment, etc. Paul said, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of the Lord” (1 Cor 10:31). We must have an unwavering focus on Christ in order to grow in our sanctification. Surely, we focus on him through time in the Word, prayer, serving, etc.

We must know our model in order to be sanctified. I cannot but think of Peter trying to walk on water in Matthew 14:22-33. As long as his focus was fixed on Christ, he could walk on the water. However, when he started to focus on the wind and the waves, he began to sink. It is the same with us. We cannot grow in Christ if we are focused on anything other than him. Sometimes the trick of Satan is to get us focused on our sin, failures, or even the devil himself to stop our spiritual growth. However, the more we focus on our struggles the more we fail. Similarly, the more someone focuses on demons, conspiracy theories, or the world, the more they become consumed with them. This is the opposite of how to be sanctified. We are not to focus on sin or the world. We are to focus on Christ in order to be sanctified.

Christ said this: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). If we make our home in Christ, if we make him our focus, then all good fruits will grow out of that relationship. Love, joy, peace, self-control all come from an abiding relationship—an abiding focus on Christ.

Listen to what Paul said in Philippians 3:10-12:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.

Paul said he wanted to know Christ. He wanted to know his power and have fellowship with his sufferings. For Paul, following Christ did not mean skipping the cross to go to glory—it meant being like Christ even in suffering. Paul said he pressed or ran after this since it was the reason that Christ took hold of him. Christ took hold of him for a relationship and for Paul to be made into Christ’s very image. Therefore, Paul challenged the Philippians to pursue the same path he took—an endless pursuit of Christ as his goal (Phil 3:15-17). In order to be sanctified, like Paul, we must focus on Christ. He must be our ambition and focus.

Application Question: How do we keep a fixed eye on Christ in order to grow into his image?

In Order to Be Sanctified, We Must Know the Love of God

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, (Philippians 2:12)

The next step in the process of sanctification is to know the love of God. Paul says, “dear friends.” This can also be translated “beloved.” The implication of Paul calling them “beloved,” as he commands them to work out their salvation, is that they needed to hear and understand that God loved them.

Love is a tremendous motivation for spiritual growth. Paul said this: “For Christ’s love compels us…” (2 Cor 5:14). What motivated the great apostle to suffer, serve, and preach the gospel? Love—the love of Christ compelled him. In fact, he thought it was so important for the church to understand this love that he prayed for them to grasp it. Ephesians 3:17b-19 says this:

and I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

He prayed for them to know Christ’s love so that they may be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” To be “filled” means to be controlled and empowered by God (cf. Eph 5:18). Similarly, if the Philippians could know how much God loved them, it would propel them in their spiritual growth—into working out their salvation.

I believe it is for this reason that Satan constantly works against believers knowing the love of God. With Eve, he said, “Is it true that you cannot eat of every tree in the garden?” He wanted her to think God was a tyrant—that he was keeping the best from her. By doubting the love of God, she would be encouraged to sin. It was the same with Job. Satan, by bringing trials, was trying to get Job to curse God. Even his own wife said, “Why don’t you just curse God and die?” Satan wanted Job to doubt the love of God because that would encourage him to sin and curse God. However, Job’s reply to his trials was, “Even if God slay me I will still trust him” (Job 13:5).

In order for us to be sanctified, we must know the love of God. For when we know the love of God—the depth, the height, and the width of it—it will compel us to grow in our spiritual lives.

Application Question: How do we grow in knowing God’s love?

1. We grow to know God’s love through the love of others.

When Paul says “beloved friends,” he was not only speaking of God’s love but his own (v. 12). He loved the saints at Philippi (cf. Phil 1:8). Many times the way God will demonstrate his love to us is through others (cf. 2 Cor 5:20). Therefore, in order to know the love of God, we must be intimate with his saints. Many times they are the channel by which God lavishes his love on us.

2. We grow to know God’s love through prayer.

Paul prayed for the Ephesian church to grasp the love of Christ (Eph 3:17-19). We must pray this for ourselves and for others as well.

3. We grow to know God’s love through loving others.

Paul said this: “God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:8). Paul could feel Christ’s love radiating through him as he loved the Philippians. Many times we have to make ourselves vulnerable by getting involved in people’s lives and messes to know the love of God. While serving others, he pours out his love in us to bless others, and through this experience we come to know God’s love for us more.

I specifically have experienced this when loving people who have hurt me. By forgiving and serving them, God gave me a supernatural love that I couldn’t explain and didn’t make sense to me. I just knew I was experiencing God’s love for them.

4. We grow to know God’s love through spending time with God and obeying him.

Christ said this: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). Jesus promised that he would make his home in people who were obedient to him. This happens at salvation, but it happens as we continue to obey him. He makes his home in us, as we become more intimate with him (cf. Eph 3:16-17).

In order for us to be sanctified, we must know his love. Love is one of the greatest motivations in this world—whether that be love for a sport, a person, or some goal. It motivates us. Knowing how much God loves us is a tremendous motivation to be sanctified. “The kindness of God draws men to repentance” (Rom 2:4). One of the reasons many Christians are stagnant is because they don’t really know Christ’s love. Lord, help us to grasp and know your great love!

Application Question: What are some of the ways that you have experienced God’s love? How has this love or lack of recognizing it affected you?

In Order to Be Sanctified, We Must Grow in Obedience to God

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, (Philippians 2:12)

Here Paul gives the next necessary step in the process of sanctification—we must grow in obedience to God. He says that they had always obeyed, but they must do it “much more” in his absence. They needed to be more obedient to God to work out their salvation.

Obedience to God is not only a necessary practice in sanctification but it is a proof of salvation. A person who professes Christ but does not practice daily obedience to God is deceived about his salvation. Jesus said this: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

Profession alone is not enough. Jesus said that in order to enter the kingdom of God one must be born again (John 3:3). A person that is born again has a new nature—a nature that desires to practice righteousness. Those who are truly part of the kingdom of God hunger and thirst for righteousness as Christ taught in the beatitudes (Matt 5:6). John said this in his epistle: “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10).

The practice of daily righteousness is a proof of salvation, and this is what Paul said about the Philippians. He said they “always obeyed.” This doesn’t mean that they were perfect. Paul even said in his epistle that they were not (cf. Phil 4:2). Therefore, he meant that even when they failed, they repented and continued to practice obedience. However, in order to work out their salvation, they had to obey God “much more” (v. 12).

Interpretation Question: In what ways is obedience necessary to continue to progress in our sanctification?

1. Obedience to God’s Word leads to God’s blessing on our lives and progression in our sanctification.

James 1:25 says, “But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.”

The man who obeys God’s words will be blessed by God. This doesn’t necessarily mean wealth and health, though it doesn’t necessarily exclude those things. It primarily refers to spiritual blessings. God gives them more of the Word of God, more peace, more fruits of the Holy Spirit, etc.

Christ said this:

“Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” (Mark 4:24-25)

Whoever faithfully obeys—using what God teaches them—will be given more. They will grow in Christ. Obedience is necessary for growth. This leads us to the next point.

2. Obedience to God’s Word protects us from stagnation and going backwards in our sanctification.

Listen again to what Christ said:

“Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” (Mark 4:24-25)

“Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away.” When we are unfaithful to God’s Word, God begins to take away what we have. He takes away the knowledge that we have already attained of him. We become forgetful Christians like the Israelites. The Israelites saw the miracles of God in Egypt. They saw the parting of the Red Sea and manna come from heaven, but they still constantly failed God and didn’t believe in him. This was a natural result of lack of obedience—they could not appropriate the knowledge they had.

Many Christians are like the Israelites. They have sat under many sermons, seen the blessings and miracles of God but because their hearing wasn’t mixed with faith—obedience—they continued in the infant stage without progression. They stay in the wilderness—a time of stagnation and discipline in their spiritual life.

In order for the Israelites to leave the wilderness and go into the promised land, they had to practice obedience. This was a necessary component. Whoever has will be given more but he who does not have even what they have will be taken away.

What areas have you been unfaithful in that God is again calling you to obedience? Is it Scripture reading and prayer? Is it serving? Is it getting out of an ungodly relationship? Is it changing your language or entertainment? He who has will be given more, but he who does not have even what he has will be taken away.

Application Question: What areas of obedience is God calling you to practice “more” in order to progress in your sanctification?

In Order to Be Sanctified, We Must Practice Continuous Discipline

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, (Philippians 2:12)

The phrase “work out” is written as a command with a continuing emphasis. “The idea is, ‘Keep on working out to completion, to ultimate fulfillment.’”1 This implies the need for discipline in our spiritual lives. Yes, God gives us grace, but we must be disciplined in order to grow. We must “keep on working it out.” We see this taught throughout the Scriptures. Paul told Timothy, “Discipline yourself unto godliness” (1 Tim 4:7).

I had a professor in seminary that said, “I have never met a godly person that wasn’t a morning person.” What he meant was that he had never met somebody truly godly who hadn’t developed discipline in their lives. This is the kind of discipline seen in Christ who got up early before everyone else and went to the mountain to pray. Mark 1:35 says this about Christ: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”

An implication of “keep on working out your salvation to completion” is that we must have continuous discipline in order to be holy.

Application Question: What types of disciplines must we practice in order to grow in sanctification?

1. Sanctification happens through rigorous study of the Word of God.

Jesus prayed this right before going to the cross: “Sanctify them by your truth, your word is truth” (John 17:17).

In order for us to grow in Christ, we must be people of the Word of God. We must be devoted to the study, memorization, and teaching of it. Peter said this: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (1 Peter 2:2).

The verb “may grow” here is passive—it literally means “it may grow you.”2 When a person is rigorously studying the Word of God, it makes him grow. Scripture says the Word of God is active and alive (Heb 4:12). It equips the man of God for all righteousness (2 Tim 3:17). If you are consistently getting into the Word of God and obeying it, it will make you grow. It will make you look more like Christ. This is a discipline that all believers must develop in their lives so that they may grow up into their salvation.

2. Sanctification happens through rigorous prayer.

Jesus said this to the disciples right before he went to the cross, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak”’ (Mark 14:38).

Jesus had previously told Peter and the other disciples that they would deny him; however, Christ also taught them how not to fall to the temptation—how not to sin. They needed to be disciplined in prayer. This prayer was not a quick arrow prayer but a disciplined time in prayer. He called them to pray for an hour so they would not stumble. He put a time limit on it. This amount of prayer would make them strong enough not to deny him.

How many of us stumble into frustration, depression, anger, pride, or lust because we are not disciplined in our prayer lives? If we are not going to succumb to temptation, we must find time to pray, a space to pray, and people to pray with. It should be noted that when Christ was preparing for his own temptation, he not only prayed but called a prayer meeting. He said to his disciples, “Pray with me this one hour” (Matt 26:40). We must not only have individual times of prayer but also corporate times of prayer. It will build us up and make us strong to stand against temptation.

3. Sanctification happens through godly fellowship.

Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Being around godly brothers and sisters who are serious about Christ will help us grow. Developing accountability relationships where we confess sin to one another and pray for one another will bring healing and victory in our lives. James said this: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).

Who are your accountability brothers and sisters? Many Christians have fellowship but their fellowship is centered around TV shows, shopping, sports, etc. Let our Christian fellowship be centered around spiritual growth and knowing God more.

In fact, this may be the primary method of spiritual discipline Paul had in mind when addressing the Philippians. Each of the pronouns in Philippians 2:12-13 are plural. The Philippians were to become more like Christ together. They needed one another, and we need one another as well. There are no lone rangers in the Christian life. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” If I will become like Christ, I need the body and the body needs me. Sanctification happens in the context of Christian fellowship. Thus Christians who do not go to church and are not involved in the life of the church are going to struggle with their spiritual progress.

How is the Lord calling you to develop godly fellowship?

4. Sanctification happens through mentorship.

Along with the idea of growth through Christian fellowship is mentorship. Paul was mentoring the Philippians as he challenged them to work out their salvation. Proverbs 13:20 says this: “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.”

The more you get around people who are wiser than you and know God more than you, the wiser you will become. We see this model throughout the Scripture. We see Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Jesus and his disciples, Paul and Timothy, Peter and Mark. It was through mentorship relationships that these people grew up into their salvation and fulfilled God’s calling on their lives.

Someone compared mentorship to walking in the airport. While in an airport, you see people walking to their destination, but you also see others walking to their destination on escalators. The people on escalators get there faster than people who are walking by foot only. Similarly, mentorship is God’s process to help us grow. We never get too old for mentorship because there is always somebody who knows more than us and who has walked with the Lord longer.

How do we develop these mentoring relationships?

Sometimes the mentor approaches us. Elijah approached Elisha. Jesus approached the disciples. However, sometimes the potential mentee should approach the mentor. In Luke 9:57 and 61, we see two people approach Christ and say, “I will follow you wherever you go.” We must seek out mentoring relationships, and we should not be discouraged when we are turned down. I’ve asked several people to mentor me throughout the years and at times, I have been turned down—sometimes simply because they were already too busy. Mentoring helps us grow.

With this said, we must understand that we not only grow by being mentored but by mentoring others. Teachers always learn more than their pupils. This is often true in mentoring relationships as well. We should not see mentoring as a burden, but as a way for us to grow as well.

5. Sanctification happens through serving.

Paul said this to Philemon: “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (Philemon 1:6).

Paul told Philemon to be active in sharing his faith because through sharing he would come to a full understanding of every good thing believers have in Christ. He would come to know God and his blessings more through sharing his faith—serving. If a person is not serving then he, by necessity, will be going backwards and will never come to a full understanding of Christ.

If we are going to grow in Christ we must be disciplined. These disciplines include but are not limited to studying the Word of God, prayer, fellowship, mentorship, and serving. Other disciplines include worship, celebration, solitude, simplicity, secrecy, fasting, etc.

Application Question: What disciplines have you found most helpful in your spiritual life? Are there any ways God is calling you to be more disciplined?

In Order to Be Sanctified, We Must Develop Perseverance

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, (Philippians 2:12)

Again “work out” has the idea of “Keep on working out to completion, to ultimate fulfillment.”3 In the NIV this is represented by the word “continue”—continue to work out your salvation. This means that sanctification doesn’t happen overnight. It is a process that must be worked out till it is fully completed which ultimately won’t happen until we get to heaven. The implication of this is that we must persevere until it is complete.

Application Question: Why is perseverance in working out our salvation important?

1. Perseverance in working out our salvation is important because of temptations toward complacent, apathetic Christianity.

In this process of following Christ there will be temptations to give up the pursuit and just become spiritually comfortable and lethargic. The church is full of those who have not “persevered” in the discipline of “working out their salvation.” We see this with one church in particular in the New Testament—the church of Laodicea. Christ said this to the church:

“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. (Revelation 3:14-17)

This church was of no use to God—they were lukewarm. They thought to themselves that they did “not need a thing.” They were content and apathetic in their spiritual life, and therefore, they brought great displeasure to God. The church is full of Christians like this. Practically, they are of no use—fit only to be disciplined by God. This is a temptation for all Christians. We must persevere in our work of being sanctified. We must fight against lethargy.

Paul said this: “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11). We all have this responsibility to persevere in our pursuit of holiness and fight against apathetic, lukewarm Christianity.

2. Perseverance in working out our salvation is important because of temptations to fall away from God all together.

Paul confronts this reality commonly in his teachings. In Colossians, he said this:

But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. (Colossians 1:22-23a)

Paul writes to this church that was being attacked by a Gnostic cult who denied the deity of Christ and thus the gospel and said that they must continue in the faith—in the gospel. The church is constantly confronted with threats that cause many to fall away. Some fall away because of discord or moral failure in the church. Some fall away because of liberal—secular thinking—that challenges the exclusivity of the gospel. Some fall away into cults, and others fall away because of persecution the church encounters. Christ talks about some of these realities in Matthew 24. He says,

“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matthew 24:9-13)

Christ talked about how persecution, false teachers, and increased sin and wickedness in the end times will cause many to not persevere in the faith. They will simply fall away. He says that those who persevere are the ones who are really saved. Perseverance is a proof of genuine salvation (cf. 1 John 2:19). There are many threats to us continuing this process of “working out our salvation,” but we must persevere.

3. Perseverance in working out our salvation is necessary because it is the ground where character is developed.

Listen to what Paul said:

Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5:3-4)

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9)

Paul said we rejoice in suffering because it creates perseverance and perseverance creates character. He said don’t give up in doing good because in due time you will reap a harvest. Yes, I know you’re working hard in studying the Word of God, praying, and serving, yet you don’t feel like you’re growing. Don’t give up and don’t grow weary for the fruit will come. I know it seems like you are going through trial after trial but don’t give up because that is where patience and joy, regardless of circumstances, are grown. We must persevere in working out our salvation until it’s complete. Perseverance in trials, perseverance in doing good and serving others is where character is developed.

Are you a Christian that commonly gives up? You start a small group but don’t finish it. You start serving a ministry but quit. You start certain spiritual disciplines but don’t complete them. You quit a relationship when it gets hard. You leave a church when there is a conflict or a problem. Listen, perseverance is necessary. It’s necessary for spiritual growth. James said this: “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4 NIV 2011).

Perseverance is important in working out our salvation because of tendencies toward apathetic Christianity which plague the church, threats to falling totally away from the faith, and because it is only through perseverance—bearing up under a heavy weight—that we develop character. Are you persevering?

Application Question: In what ways has God been challenging you to not give up—to persevere—in order to grow spiritually? How can we find encouragement when we want to give up?

In Order to Be Sanctified, We Must Develop a Healthy Fear

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, (Philippians 2:12)

Paul says that another aspect of sanctification is developing a healthy fear. The word “fear” means fright, terror, or reverential awe of something. “Trembling” refers to a shaking—it is where we get the English word tremor. 4 There is a fear, a reverential awe needed in the believer’s life in order to continue to work out his salvation.

Interpretation Question: What type of fear and trembling is Paul talking about?

1. In order to work out our salvation, we must revere God.

This means we must see and know the awesomeness of God. When one truly realizes the awesomeness of God, he will not give up intimacy with him for other things. Many pursue school, work, family, or hobbies over God. The problem these people have is that they don’t really stand in awe of God; they don’t have a reverent fear and trembling of him. Consider what David said about God: “Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).

David said, “Taste and see how good he is. See how awesome our God is.” When we really know how wonderful he is, how can we choose the bitterness of sin over him? How can we choose the created over the Creator? Taste and see how good he is. When one really knows how good he is—when one truly reverences God—it will be a motivation towards holiness. In fact, look at the context in which David wrote this:

The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him. Fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing. Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD (Psalm 34:7-11)

He says there is protection and deliverance for those who revere God (v. 7). He says those who fear him will lack nothing—there are provisions for those who fear him (v. 9). He speaks to those younger than him and says, “Listen, I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (v. 11). The benefits are too good. You must revere God. Give up your games, hobbies, and small ambitions. Make the reverence of the Lord your greatest pursuit. The benefits are glorious.

Do you revere God? Is God truly awesome to you? We must have a reverence of God in order to pursue him and our sanctification.

2. In order to work out our salvation, we must fear God’s discipline.

The writer of Hebrews said this: “the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Hebrews 12:6). He says every child of God is disciplined. God will not allow us to ignore him. He will not allow us to ignore his Word, and he will not allow us to live in sin. When we try, we will be disciplined. It may start off with a gentle rebuke through study of Scripture and/or the preaching of a sermon, but if we do not respond, it will turn into a whipping. Jonah ignored God, and God brought a terrible storm in his life that almost killed him and others associated with him. We must have a healthy fear of God’s discipline.

Consider what Paul said to the Corinthians who were disciplined by God for disrespecting the Lord’s Supper:

That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:30-32)

They were weak, sick, and some even died because of God’s discipline. He then says, “if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment.” He challenges them to survey their lives and their heart motives in order to avoid God’s discipline. Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”—it is the beginning of living a wise life—a holy life. If we are going to grow in Christ, we must fear God’s discipline.

What other fear should believers have?

3. In order to work out our salvation, we must revere God’s Word.

Consider what God said through Isaiah: ‘“This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). God esteems—he thinks highly of the one who trembles and shakes at God’s Word. Sadly, many Christians ignore it; they sleep during the preaching of it. They ignore God’s commands in it and choose to sin instead. God says he looks with esteem on the one who trembles at his Word.

This is necessary for us to grow in our sanctification. If we don’t reverence the Word of God, we won’t read it, study it, or memorize it. We will allow the Bible to collect dust on our shelf. If we don’t fear God’s Word, we will disobey it and dishonor it in our life.

Do you reverence it? If you reverence it, you will pursue understanding of it. If you reverence it, you will obey it because you realize God speaks through it. It is not a pastor or a parent speaking; it is God speaking, and he is worthy to be revered.

If we are going to be sanctified, we must reverence God, fear his discipline, and revere his Word. Christians should minister with a holy fear and trembling of the one they serve. Consider how Paul described his ministry to the Corinthian church: “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3). Paul was a man who lived in a reverential fear of God. One could tell by the way he spoke and served. He served with a constant view of a majestic God—a God who is a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).

Application Question: Do you feel like you have a healthy fear of God and his Word? Why or why not? How do we grow in the fear of God? How do we know if we have an unhealthy fear of God?

In Order to Be Sanctified, We Must Allow God to Work in Us

…for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Philippians 2:13)

After speaking about the believer’s role in working out his salvation, Paul speaks about God’s role. As he focused on the necessity of our labor in sanctification, you can imagine how some felt discouraged over their sins, failures, and lack of discipline. Here Paul comforts them with, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good pleasure.” This is similar to Paul’s encouragement for Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:6-7. He said,

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.

He says “fan into flame the gift of God”—make it strong and maximize it—and then he says “for God has given us power, love, and self-discipline through the Holy Spirit.” He has given us everything needed through his indwelling Spirit to be holy and maximize our gifts. He is working in us; therefore, we must work as well.