...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.
For $300 you can learn if you have what it takes to pitch like Todd Lincecum of the San Fancisco Giants or Cliff Lee of the Texas Rangers—or if you should keep your day job. October’s Wired magazine showcases 3P Sports, a company taking the science of sports medicine to an entirely different level. Founded by a former Major League Baseball pitching coach, 3P Sports will transform raw footage of your pitching delivery into a 3D computer analysis of everything from your wind-up to the follow-through. 3P Sports will help you see not only what keeps you from delivering the perfect pitch but also what about your mechanics might be deleterious to your body. With an unprecedented precision their service seeks to work out the kinks so you can bring the heat.
We now see what brings a pitch into perfect alignment. Is the same true for bringing our souls into godly alignment? When Paul speaks of working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, we understand him to be exhorting us to move our professed theology into an operative theology—working the knowledge of the gospel into practice of its truth. But does his exhortation provide us only with an ideal to imitate, or is there an implicit process we might follow that would move us along toward that ideal, the fullness of the salvation Jesus came to work into our souls?
There’s nothing formulaic to learning to walk worthily of the gospel, but we’re not left to our own devices to find that stride. Working out our salvation entails just a few things . Let’s sketch the process and use the rivalrous attitude that plagued the Philippian church as an example of how it might look.
Working out our own salvation first means to pause and reflect upon our priorities and practices—to take note of our patterns and how we conduct ourselves in them. Rivalry insists on proving ourselves right or better than others. It seeks to surpass them and it often manifests, either in a delight over their loss or a despair at your own.
Then we have to ask ourselves what beliefs are animating our recurrent choices. Though we may not always be conscious of what drives what we do, we never act without a reason for acting in that way. Our beliefs inform and motivate what we do. Beneath the act of rivalry is a deep, two-pronged desire: to see the other hurt or vanquished and to elevate ourselves out of fear of being considered inferior.
Once we have a preliminary grasp of the beliefs that compel our choices we have to then evaluate the truth of what we’re considering to be true enough to act upon. Sometimes the evaluation will bring us shame at how our mistaken beliefs have led to unfortunate consequences. Sometimes the evaluation will simply reveal the folly of our beliefs and thus serve as a stern warning about what that belief can lead to. As it relates to rivalry, if I’m acting in such a way to cause another pain, then I’m clearly not walking in love as I am called to and flouting the love of God He has shown me in the Son; in that is my shame. If by what Jesus has done I am not only acceptable to God but beloved by Him, then my attempt to establish my worth through rivalry is not only a waste of effort, but entirely futile since it will only deliver a fleeting satisfaction, if any—in that is my folly.
Identifying the shame or the folly of my beliefs is part of this process of working out but it’s certainly not the whole of it. Paul makes clear that behind the entire process is the Lord Himself. It takes His Word and Spirit to awaken us to the disparity between my beliefs and what trust in the gospel is like. It also takes the gracious intervention of God to accomplish two other things.
God must first of all, load my conscience with guilt, as the Puritan John Owen once put it. Owen’s words certainly cut across the grain of modern attempts at behavioral modification, but what he means is far more salutary than just dampening our spirit. What he means by a conscience loaded with guilt is nothing more than the Lord helping us see the true nature of our actions. Like a doctor shows you the lab report, or a parent shows her child what his errant pitch broke, it is the Lord’s work to reveal the depth of our problem and its consequences. He impresses upon our heart both the magnitude and the offensiveness of the error.
At the same time though, the Lord also confirms to us the superiority of trusting in what He promises. God has no ego to prop up by asserting His authority. He gives us those guidelines because in them is an aligned life.
So rivalry offends God and destroys us as it seeks to best another. Whereas trust in the gospel assures us of an irrevocable acceptance by no less than God which a rivalrous spirit at first ignores, and then seduces me into a series of choices that will never yield abiding satisfaction.
A preliminary grasp of the offensiveness and folly of rivalry is for now enough to move us to a new obedience—even if our walk by faith in that obedience is more often like a stumbling in it.
(While the process of working out our own salvation is intensely personal, I hope you’re seeing that just as every budding pitcher needs the external acuity of someone like 3P Sports, so every soul needs a more objective set of eyes to see what’s underneath the surface of our choices.)
Because this world excels at seducing us into sin and our hearts exude willingness to be seduced, doubtless all of you who read this (just as it is with the one who writes this) have something to which the probing analysis of the gospel ought to be applied. There are mechanics in your life not only out of step with your identity in Christ but also deleterious to your existence. What’s in need of such life-giving analysis?