Working out salvation: Philippians
Today’s reading: Philippians 1-4.
“Am I really saved?”
“It is true that we need to make a one time decision to follow Jesus. But a true one time decision is followed by the every day decision to follow Jesus.” ― Mike McKinley, Am I Really a Christian?
The tension between salvation by faith and the necessity of obedient living is one of the major themes in the New Testament. It’s also a keynote in Philippians. Paul wrote it from a Roman prison thirty years after his conversion, so he spoke from a lifetime of experience with discipleship. I’m sure he had seen true faith, pretend faith, those who had grown steadily in discipleship, and those who had fallen away. Therefore he can say with authority, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” He also says, honestly, that he wants, “somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” He “presses on toward the goal to win the prize.” It almost sounds like Paul was unsure of his salvation. Was he?
Paul’s own words declare his confidence that he was bound for heaven. He told the Philippians that for him to live was Christ and to die was gain. He comforted them by saying that God, who had begun the good work of saving them, would be faithful to complete it. Paul declared in 2 Timothy, “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” In Romans 10 he said, “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” He also declared in Ephesians 2, “by grace you have been saved through faith.” Not much uncertainty in those words.
And Paul went on to say that he had given up everything, including the law (works), in order to gain the righteousness that is by faith.
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. Philippians 3:7-9
Then he continued by describing the ongoing process of his discipleship.
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. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:10-14
Paul had already stated the certainty of his salvation, so what was he talking about when he said he wanted to “somehow…attain to the resurrection” and that he intended to press on until he took hold of the prize?
- He was describing sanctification, the growth in holiness that God desires for all believers.
- He was describing the difficulties all believers face in this world that is now under Satan’s control.
- He was describing a desire to be more than saved – to be as much as possible like Christ.
- Though certain of God’s grace, he wanted to know Christ firsthand, by experiencing his suffering and living in his righteousness.
- Though certain of God’s grace, he was humbled by his own sinfulness and the great blessing which God offered him. “So his apparent uncertainty here of reaching the goal is not distrust of God. It is distrust of himself. It emphasizes the need he feels of watchfulness and constant striving, lest ‘having preached to others’ he ‘be found a castaway.’ ” Expositor’s Greek Testament
The Cambridge Bible sums up this tension well: “The mystery lies, as it were, between two apparently parallel lines; the reality of an omnipotent grace, and the reality of the believer’s duty. As this line or that is regarded, in its entire reality, the language of assurance or of contingency is appropriate. But the parallel lines, as they seem now, prove at last to converge in glory.”
The thrust of Protestant teaching on salvation is that believers can have assurance of salvation because of the certainty of God’s grace. However, some who believe still struggle with assurance:
This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it. Westminster Confession of Faith
Also, some persons delude themselves with a false assurance, believing they are saved when they are not. This does not take away from the reality of assurance that God affirms, through the down payment of the Holy Spirit, to those who are truly saved:
Although temporary believers and other unregenerate men, may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favor of God, and (in a) state of salvation, which hope of theirs shall perish; yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed. Philadelphia Confession of Faith, Chapter XVIII, Article 1.
In contrast the Catholic Church has stated that it is presumptuous to believe in assurance of salvation. Pope Gregory, in the seventh century, wrote that:
The greater our sins, the more we must do to make up for them …whether we have done enough to atone for them we cannot know until after death … We can never be sure of success … assurance of salvation, and the feeling of safety engendered by it is dangerous for anybody and would not be desirable even if possible.
This thinking was confirmed by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent:
Whosoever shall affirm, that when the grace of Justification is received, the offence of the penitent sinner is so forgiven, and the sentence of eternal punishment reversed, that there remains no temporal punishment to be endured, before his entrance into the kingdom of Heaven, either in this world or in the future world, in purgatory, let him be accursed. Council of Trent, January 1547.
The Council’s statement implies that since there is punishment to be meted out after justification, the believer’s right standing with God is not established until that punishment, or penance and atonement, has taken place. Therefore Christ’s death and my repentance is not sufficient to ensure my salvation, and since I can never know if I have done enough penance or atonement, I will remain in a state of uncertainty regarding salvation until death.
God knows with certainty whether an individual has received the gift of eternal life by faith in Jesus. Individual’s can test their own salvation by whether their faith meets the tests laid down in scripture (see the references in today’s devotion and especially the letter of I John), and by the witness of the Holy Spirit in their own heart. You and I cannot say with absolute certainty whether another person has eternal life, though the fruit of their life gives strong evidence. Can salvation be lost? I think the question is moot when it comes to other people since we cannot know their present condition with certainty. As for myself, the most important question is not whether I will be saved tomorrow or next year, but whether I am living the life of a born-again disciple of Jesus Christ at this very moment.
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