I remember her trembling voice, her tear-filled eyes, and I can still quote what would come next. Occasionally, I would push my mother to the limit with my bad behavior. In those moments, she would recite Philippians 2:12. I came to dread hearing the words: “You need to ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling!’” She meant well. She was worried for me. I had exasperated her. But what my mom didn’t realize was that she had missed the point of the verse.
Years later, I would discover the very next verse, Philippians 2:13, which unlocked the meaning of verse 12. One famous pastor sometimes says, “Books don’t change lives; sentences do.” That was certainly the case when I finally read and understood Philippians 2:13. Let’s read both verses together.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12–13 ESV – emphasis mine)
Paul urged the church at Philippi to work out what God had worked in. It finally dawned on me years later that Paul didn’t mean I had to work to demonstrate (or worse: earn) my salvation. Rather, I needed to exercise the reality of my salvation. God had worked in my heart both the desire and the ability to produce works which please Him.
One of the members at my church wrote this recently:
“Salvation is a gift of God, not deserved or earned because of anything that we do. Then, true faith will inevitably produce a life lived for God’s glory, out of love and devotion to Him and others. It’s Him that saved us, it’s Him that transforms us, and it will be Him that will complete the work that He began in us. . . . It’s His work from beginning to end.”
This is all certainly true.True faith comes from God, is centered on the Savior, transforms us, and results in the working out of what He worked in: good works.
True Faith Comes from God
I’ll reference several verses to help us get a full understanding of the nature of true faith, but we really could spend our whole time in Ephesians 2:1–10. In verses 1–3, we receive some startling bad news: we are dead in our sins and we have no hope of spiritual life or salvation in ourselves. In verses 4–5, we see the scandalous Good News, that God makes us alive together with Christ and saves us by His grace. In verses 6–7, we are filled with hope that this salvation starts now and lasts forever. In verses 8–9, we see where the faith to believe Christ comes from. In a shocking rejection of our built-in (and culturally celebrated) self-reliance, Paul tells us plainly that our faith comes as a gift from God Himself. “For by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, that no one may boast.” Please tell me you caught that. Your faith did not originate within you. Your heart is dead, remember? You’re in the spiritual casket! God makes you alive by giving you the very faith you need to believe in His Son! And verse 10 tells us the faith He gives will result in good works, according to the pre-existing plan of God.
I know it’s hard to believe that true faith originates from outside yourself and is only given as a gift. But I’m hopeful that you, dear Reader, will understand that your best efforts get you nowhere. What you need is not to try harder. What you need is not mere intellectual ascent. What you actually need is for God to give you the gift of faith so that you can truly trust Christ to make you spiritually alive. You must be born again.
True Faith is Centered on the Savior
True faith comes from God. It is also centered on the Savior. If there’s only one sentence I want you to remember, it’s the next one. It is not the sincerity or the intensity of your faith that saves you; it’s the object of your faith that saves you.
Allow me to use a silly illustration. I’m a chubby guy. I never thought about the blessing of sturdy chairs until one fateful day in 2013. I was preparing to preach at a funeral of a lady I had never met. That can be awkward enough. But it got worse. When I visited the family to discuss the service, we sat around the kitchen table in antique wooden chairs. At one point, I reclined just a bit and the back of the chair snapped in half, sending me almost tumbling to the ground! I was mortified. Now, I think about capable seating nearly every time I sit down. Here’s my point: every time I sit down, I place my faith in that chair to support my weight. Whether I truly, sincerely believe the chair will hold my weight makes no difference. It’s not the intensity or sincerity of my faith that keeps me upright. It’s the object of my faith that does the work: the chair.
When I preached through the book of John, I noticed something in the Greek that didn’t come through in translation. The verb we often translate “to believe” or “to have faith” had a slight wrinkle I was not prepared for. (Hang with me . . . the nerdiness will end shortly). The word in the Greek is pistis. Typically in John’s Gospel, the way the word is used should be translated “believe into.” That’s awkward in English. But the point is that we don’t simply believe Jesus existed or even that He is God. Even demons believe Jesus is real and truly divine (James 2:19). Instead of a mere intellectual exercise, we place our belief INTO Jesus Christ. We trust the Savior to save us. True faith is centered on a person, and it is not you or me. True faith is centered on the One who died the death we deserve on the cross, who was raised to new life, and who rules and reigns in heaven for eternity.
True Faith Transforms Us
True faith comes from God and is centered on Jesus Christ. But true faith doesn’t only save our seat in heaven. It’s not just fire insurance. True faith accomplishes something in the here and now. It changes us!
Paul makes this truth clear with striking language in 2 Corinthians 3:18 – “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Take a second and read that again. As we behold the glory of the Lord, we are transformed little by little.
How can we behold the glory of the Lord? Where do we find it? The answer comes a few verses later in 2 Corinthians 4:6. Check this out! “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” God puts the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in our hearts. Where can we see it? We see it in the FACE of Jesus Christ!
Do you want to be transformed? Look at the face of Jesus Christ.
The unanimous testimony of the Scriptures is that true faith changes everything about us. Look at Deuteronomy 30:6 or Jeremiah 31:33–34 or Ezekiel 36:22–29 or all of Romans 8 or Galatians 5. Examine Romans 12:1–2. See if 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 is true. When God gives you the faith to look upon His Son with an unveiled face, it will transform everything about you.
If you have never gazed on the glory of God in the face of Jesus, stop reading and do it now. Ask the Lord to give you faith to believe into the Son for salvation. It will result in your transformation.
True Faith Results in Good Works
True faith comes from God, is centered on the Savior, and transforms us. It also results in good works. I would urge you to spend some time thinking on James 2:14–26. The main argument of the passage comes from verse 17: “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Faith is demonstrated by works. Remember, we work out what God has worked in.
We instinctively know this is true. How many times have we been frustrated by “Christian” hypocrites? Have you ever thought to yourself, “I can’t believe that guy calls himself a Christian!” We have all been unsettled or frustrated at the conflicting evidence of unrighteous behavior by a person who confesses Christ as Lord. We know the evidence of a man’s faith is his behavior.
It’s like when my toddler son is acting disobedient and disrespectful (sadly, it’s pretty common). I’ll tell him he needs to obey or he will receive a consequence. He often responds, “I want to obey,” but doesn’t actually change his behavior. What does he really want? He doesn’t want to obey. He just wants to avoid punishment. It’s frustrating! I can see right through his profession because the evidence points to a different reality. So it is with us. If we profess to have faith, but nothing changes in our lives, do we really have faith? If we say Jesus is Lord of our lives, but we are not transformed and we do not produce good works, we prove ourselves to be liars.
In Colossians 1:10, Paul urges us to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” If we don’t have true faith (given to us by God, centered on Jesus, that transforms us) we will never be able to bear fruit in every good work. But if we have been transformed by looking on the face of Jesus, our lives will be our witness.
Remember . . .
It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.