There are scarcely any other passages in Scripture which are more fundamental to our salvation than this one is. I know that some preachers will say that about every single text they preach. However, it is really true of this one. The reason that this passage is so very important is that it takes away all glory from man, and gives it to God. All the glory for salvation belongs to the Lord, and none of it belongs to us. This is so important for us to hear, because Adam’s sin was right in line with this. He wanted the glory of God to be for himself. And so, he tried to take God’s place. Adam was a glory thief. And so are we all. We want glory for ourselves. Why else do you think that we get so upset when someone else does well, and we do not? Why else are we upset when our own personal “rights” are violated, but we don’t get upset if someone else’s “rights” are violated? Why else is the doctrine of election such a hateful thing to the natural man? Why else do we want to take credit for the least little thing that we could conceivably contribute to our own salvation? The reason is this: we are glory thieves. We want God’s job. We want God’s status. We want to be God. It is the nature of our sinful state. So, what is the answer? The answer is salvation by grace. Ironically, God exalts the humble, and humbles the exalted. So, we must humble ourselves. We can go nowhere better in Scripture to humble ourselves than this very passage.
Paul has told us in the first part of the chapter that we were dead in sins and trespasses. But then, God made us alive. The very nature of resurrection is such that the person who is dead cannot resurrect himself. This is absolutely crucial to understanding this chapter. It is why Paul has that important parenthesis in verse 5 “by grace you have been saved.” So, what Paul is doing in our three verses here, is elaborating on that parenthesis in verse 5. He is expanding on it, and spelling out its implications for our lives.
What are those implications? Well, to illustrate them, we can go to the history of the Reformation and glean many helpful things. The Roman Catholic Church had a system called penance, in which, if you had committed a sin that needed pardon, you would go to the priest, seek forgiveness, and then the priest would give you something to do that would tell you that you were forgiven. You would say a certain number of rosaries, or, if it was a really bad sin, he would send you on a pilgrimage to Rome or Israel, or something like that. You were not really forgiven unless you did this penance. Of course, penance in this form often became very inconvenient for farmers, who could not go on long pilgrimages. So, the Roman Catholic Church was lenient in this respect, and made a substitute: if the person would pay a small fee (or a large fee in the worst cases), then the pilgrimage would be forgiven. The RCC would then give the person a slip signed by the pope stating that the person was forgiven. That slip of paper was called an indulgence. However, even this system was not quite right. After all, someone still had to go to the pope to get this piece of paper signed. So some took in their minds to go to the pope and get a whole bunch of these papers signed beforehand. Then that person would come back and give them to people, for a small fee, of course. There was one man in particular who loved to do this. His name was John Tetzel. He was selling these right around the time that Martin Luther had come to a correct understanding of forgiveness and the grace of God. So Martin Luther knew the absurdity of the church’s claims. He saw that some people were buying these indulgences, getting so many years out of purgatory, and then going off to do whatever sin they wanted, since it was already sanctioned by the pope. So Luther posted an invitation to debate. The form of this invitation was 95 short arguments, or theses, debating indulgences. These theses spread like wildfire in just a few weeks all over Germany, and the Reformation was born. What were some of Luther’s arguments? Well, indulgences were a form of salvation by works. Luther had rediscovered the truth of the Bible: salvation is not by works. Salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ. And even that faith is a gift from God. So, as Paul says, we cannot boast. We cannot say that we have done enough penance for God to owe us forgiveness. We cannot say that we can buy our way to forgiveness. To say that is to spit on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and call it of no account. Ironically, it also destroys the true place of works in the Christian life, which is as a result of being saved, not in order to be saved. We’ll speak more on that later on.
Paul says that even our faith is a gift from God. Some scholars do not think that the word “this” can possibly refer to “faith.” But there are many instances of this kind of grammar in Greek. What Paul is saying is that we are saved without works. None of works has the least effect on our salvation. Furthermore, we cannot even take credit for our faith. So many Christians will something like this, “God did His part; now it is up to me to have faith.” What Paul says here is that even our faith is a gift from God. We cannot even take credit for our faith. Even that has to come from somewhere else. In other words, our salvation comes to us from outside of us. God works in our hearts, yes. But the impetus comes from outside of us. We are passive. We contribute nothing to being saved. After all, dead people cannot contribute. We cannot just “try a little harder” in order to receive salvation. This whole chapter tells against that. There is no way that can work.
But the question will then become this: if we are passive in our salvation, then doesn’t that mean that we shouldn’t have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling? What about works? Doesn’t the Bible tell us how important works are? Yes, the Bible tells us that we cannot say that we are saved, and yet sit back and do nothing. That would be a misunderstanding of what salvation means. Look closely at verse 10: Paul tells us that we are God’s workmanship. There, we are passive. However, look further at what Paul says: we were made by God for good works. In fact, works are so important that Paul tells us that God prepared them in advance for us to do. We must get the order correct. Salvation comes first. That is by grace through faith alone. No works are involved there. However, God does not leave us in our passive state. He immediately makes our wills active, so that we will do these good works. We can only do them because we are created in Christ Jesus. It is only as we are in Christ that we can do them. In other words, God does not justify us without at the same time sanctifying us. Let me unpack that a bit. Justification is what happens when we are made right with God. God declares us not guilty, because of Jesus Christ. His righteousness becomes ours, and our sins are laid on Him. Our works play no part in justification. However, justification does occur all by itself. It is not the only thing that happens when a believer comes to Jesus. What also happens is a renewal of the person. A new nature is given them. They are created in Christ Jesus. They are given a new heart. This is called sanctification. And sanctification is the process of becoming more holy. It is also by God’s grace that we can do this. But we do these things. That is what Paul is getting at in Philippians 2: work out your salvation in fear and trembling, because it is God who works in you both to will and to do. Therefore, works do play a part in our sanctification. They are the direct result of God’s grace working in us.
So, how do you view your works? Do you think that they ought to “count for something?” As Paul says in Romans, “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” God owes us precisely nothing. We can look at recent events. Take the Virginia Tech shootings, for example. We think of it as a tragedy, and it is. Nothing I am about to say should take away from the fact that it is a tragedy. But tragedies exist in the world today because of sin. So, take those people who were killed. Do they deserve death? What do we deserve? Do we deserve life? Is it our right to have life? No, everything we have is a gift from God. It is not necessarily because of those people’s particular sins that this tragedy happened to them. Jesus Himself tells us that we cannot make that assumption. However, we need to ask ourselves: what do we deserve? We were dead in sins. We all deserve eternal death. And God, out of His sheer grace, has given us eternal life, through the work of Jesus Christ. Let us not forget the fountain of these benefits. They come from the work of Jesus Christ. If you want to say that works play a part in our salvation, then point to the work of Jesus Christ. As the hymn has it, “Our work faileth, Christ’s availeth; he is all our righteousness.” Or, as another hymn has it, “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to They cross I cling.” A proper view of God’s grace should not discourage us from good deeds, but rather encourage us. When we don’t have to earn salvation by them, but we can do them out of gratitude, then works will be put in their proper place, because God’s grace is in its proper place.