March 25, 2010
by Patrick Lafferty
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 . . . Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own.
Philippians 2:12–13, 3:12
In every human there are two kinds of beliefs: the things we say we believe and the things we believe. It’s our hope, of course, that our professed belief and our operative belief are in perfect alignment. We pray we “practice what we preach,” or that we “walk the talk.” Many times, though, we come to discover that the disparity between our words and our works couldn’t be larger. We encounter a set of circumstances we did not anticipate, and any confidence we had in our ability to respond to them properly is sucked from us like the air from a collapsed balloon.
Peter demonstrated that kind of deeply deflating moment near the outset of Christ’s passion. When the Lord portends his disciple’s denial, Peter asserts, “Even though they all fall away, I will not . . . If I must die with you I will not deny you” (Mark 14:29, 31). Hours later, having denied Jesus multiple times in rapid succession, Peter “broke down and wept” (v. 72). What he said he believed and what he believed were found to be as far apart as the east is from the west.
Paul understands this kind of disparity, too—if not in the same stark contrast Peter displayed. His ambition is to “gain Christ and be found in Him,” to ”know Him and the power of His resurrection” (Phil. 3:8–10)—that is, to live with complete trust in the sufficiency of Christ. But he recognizes the ground yet to cover between his ambition and his present condition: “Not that I have already obtained it, or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me His own” (v. 12). To live before Christ is to learn to live with perfect trust in Christ—trusting that He is sufficient in every circumstance, every ambition, every relationship.
That manifestation of perfect trust is a matter of pursuit; as Mark reminded us Sunday, Paul uses the vivid language of “pressing on” and “straining forward” to illustrate the pursuit. But Paul also says the pursuit is motivated by an overriding confidence in one thing: that Christ has claimed us as his own. He and we press on to see perfect trust formed in us because Christ Jesus already has made us His own. The fulfillment of our calling to trust Him rests on a confidence in His having called us to Himself.
All sin is a consequence of one simple, devastating belief: that we are not His own, which in turn leads us to believe He is not enough. Peter’s denial expressed his failure to believe that Jesus was ultimately trustworthy. That same failure to believe manifests in us in different ways. Some of us run roughshod over others to find the acceptance that we don’t trust Jesus for, thinking them an impediment to the control or power we think gains us acceptance. Others of us default to accommodating others to find acceptance in their approval. Though the means are different, the objective is the same: to compensate for what we think Jesus is either unwilling or unable to supply us in the way of acceptance.
If “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23), and our foundational sin is not believing we are his, then part of what Paul means by working out your own salvation is practicing trust that Christ Jesus has indeed made you his own. Already guaranteed forgiveness and favor by Christ, we don’t have to sacrifice others to obtain what we think gains us acceptance. We can practice the belief that God will not let us go by refusing to acquiesce to others inordinately. Like a fledgling nudged from the nest, we can learn to spread wings of faith, discovering that God does will and work in us according to His good pleasure.
But that process of moving from a professed to an operative belief is carried out, Paul says, “with fear and trembling.” With all the reverence of a patient before a surgical team, we allow Him to expose the competing beliefs that seemed to serve us all these years but which ended up imprisoning us. Soberly we recognize how dependent we are upon His grace to release our heart’s grip on those beliefs. Then we’re awed that He would be willing to endure our merely professed belief and transform it into something solid.
In what ambition, relationship, or circumstance have you discovered a disparity between what you say you believe and what you believe about Jesus? What resentment or anxiety indicates your refusal to believe you are already and eternally His? What would real rather than rehearsed faith look like in this moment?