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Last Words: It is God Who Works in You

November 6, 2015 Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen Series: Last Words

Topic: Topical Scripture: Philippians 2:12–2:16

Synopsis: Pastor Cam finds that his “final sermon” will actually take 3 weeks to preach. So this is the first of three in a series called “Last Words”. These final words are found in Philippians 2:12-16: “It Is God Who Works in You.” Why are these words important? How do they relate to Pastor Cam’s retirement and the future? And what does it mean to “work out your own salvation?”


As the time of my retirement and departure from ECC and Abu Dhabi has been drawing near, I have been thinking about what I wanted to say in my final message. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that what I wanted to say was not going to fit in one final message. In fact, by the time I finished thinking about, I had three sermons’ worth of last words. So that is what I am going to do in these last 3 Fridays together.

I was thinking of calling this series “Famous Last Words” – but somehow that doesn’t have quite the right nuance to it. So instead it’s just “Last Words, Parts 1, 2 and 3.

The “last words” I want to share with you and which I want you to take away from this morning’s message are found in Philippians 2:13: It is God who works in you.

To give the context, I want to read all of Philippians 2:12-13:

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, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

There is a constant temptation in the Christian life. It is the temptation to stop growing. To abandon the path of forward progress. Two things can lead to this. One is when the way forward seems to difficult and full of struggle. The other is when we become enamored with the past and the grip of nostalgia. We try to bottle something precious and to live our spiritual lives looking over our shoulders at the “good old days.” As I depart from ECC and my role here as pastor, I want to urge you not to succumb to either temptation.

Let’s take another look at this Scripture: Verse 12 reads, Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling…

Paul is writing to the church in Philippi. It was a church that was very close to his heart. He had a very close relationship with the people in the church, as he makes clear in this letter. They in turn loved Paul. They fondly remembered his time with them, and they longed for him to visit again. I would like to think of this verse in the context of the years that I have spent in the ministry here at ECC. You have been very dear to us: a very special and unique congregation and gathering of God’s people and we love you deeply. And we have sensed that affection has been returned, and you have taken Esther Ruth and I to your hearts, and showered us with much love and affection. With that context in mind, let me paraphrase the verse this way: Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed - not only during our time here at ECC, but now much more as we leave – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling…

Maybe you found the Lord here at ECC during my time as pastor – maybe through a message or messages I have preached. Maybe you have gone through a special period of spiritual growth during my time as pastor here. Maybe you’ve been equipped and become involved in new areas of service and ministry. Here are my “final words”: Don’t allow my departure from ECC and Abu Dhabi to interrupt that process. Whatever you discovered under my ministry, just as you obeyed while I was here, now keep on obeying, keep on growing, keep on keeping on. Don’t stop growing just because I am leaving. Paul didn’t want the Philippians sitting around sighing, “Oh, if only Paul were here.” And I don’t want any of you sitting around saying, “Oh, if only Pastor Cam were still here.” Not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence…

Paul uses an interesting phrase in the second part of this verse. Continue to work out your salvation… The KJV says “work out your own salvation” – expressing the emphasis of the original text. This phrase has led to lots of discussion. What is Paul saying? Is he saying that God can’t save you, but that you have to “work out your own salvation” if you want to be saved? How do we reconcile this verse with other Scriptures which clearly proclaim that we are saved by faith, and not by our own efforts?

Two clarifications will help us understand what Paul is saying. First of all, we need to understand that the term “salvation” is used in different ways in different contexts in Scripture. Sometimes it simply means to be saved from some problem or dilemma in life. Other times it may refer to being saved from the penalty of sin, what theologians call “justification”. Other times the Scripture speaks of our being saved from the power of sin in our daily lives, something the theologians refer to as “sanctification.” All of these can be referred to in the Scripture as “salvation” and we have to discern from the context of the passage what is meant in each case. In the passage before us, I believe Paul is talking about our sanctification. He is talking about our spiritual growth, of our learning to live under the control of the Spirit of God, of fighting free from the power of sin to dominate our daily lives and actions. After all, he began the verse by urging us to “keep on obeying”.

The second clarification comes by clarifying this phrase “work out your own salvation”. At first reading, it sounds like something we have to do by ourselves without help. DIY, Do it yourself! Well, in one sense, that is what Paul is saying. But the help he says they don’t need is his own (Paul’s) help. Remember – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence. Whether I am there or not, go on working out your own salvation. You don’t need to depend on me. Why don’t they need to depend on Paul’s help? Because they have an even greater source of help! Look at verse 13: For it is God who works in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

This is the perspective I want all of you to keep as I depart from my role as pastor of ECC. Keep on keeping on, keep on obeying. Because God is the one who is at work in you to help you continue to grow spiritually. If you have his help, you have all you need. After all, he will produce in you the “willingness” or the “want to” as well as the actual ability to do what he wants you to do. We believe that God is bringing strong new leaders and pastors for ECC. I have great confidence in the men God has chosen. But that is not where my real confidence lies. My real confidence lies in the fact that it is “God who works in you.” He’s the one who has been working in us for the past 25 years. Anything of true and lasting value that has happened during these years has happened because God did it. And God is not leaving ECC! He is staying right here, and he is the one, the only one you need to go on to maturity in your spiritual life.

I would also add one more clarification to what Paul is saying in this verse. In the past, I have most often thought of this passage as a challenge to us as individual believers on the path to spiritual maturity. And I think this is certainly a legitimate application of Paul’s words. But I think it is important to note that all the 2nd person pronouns, or “you” pronouns here are in the plural. In English “you” can be either singular or plural. But in Greek there are two different forms of the word – one singular and the other plural. In this context, Paul is using all plural forms of the word. So Paul is going beyond simply personal sanctification, but the kind of life transformation that takes place in and characterizes the community of faith. It is true “church growth” – not growth in numbers, although that may come, but growth in “willing and doing God’s good pleasure” and fulfilling the will of God as a congregation.

Let’s go back to the end of verse 12. What does Paul mean by “fear and trembling”? I think he is simply saying that this is a very serious matter. Spiritual growth, sanctification, fulfilling the will of God in our lives, as individuals and as a congregation, is not an optional extra of the Christian life. It is not something to be lightly dismissed or ignored, something to get to if you have time. It should remain the number one priority of the community of faith here at ECC.

As Paul continues to spell out the importance of moving ahead spiritually, I find his next verse rather striking. It takes us by surprise. Do all things without grumbling or disputing…When we talk about Christian witness, this is probably not where I would have started. I might have said something about great moral issues and doctrinal purity. Instead Paul says, “Don’t be complainers and whiners and grumblers…” The word for grumbling in Greek is a “sound word”. The actual word is “gongusmon,” and it is used to reflect the low undercurrent of complaining and arguing; a restless, dissatisfied murmur.

Let me apply this rather bluntly and specifically to the challenges that lie ahead for ECC as a congregation. When I leave and new leadership takes my place: first Pastor Kevin and then Pastor Jeramie, things are going to change. Maybe not all at once, but over time, significant changes will happen. Some of these changes you will like and embrace. Others will seem strange, unfamiliar and even unwelcome. You may find yourself tempted to say, “That’s not the way Pastor Cam did it.” Or, “We never did it that way before.” Or, “That’s not the way we do things at ECC.”

To complicate matters, you will not all see the changes in the same light. Some of the changes that are welcomed by some may be resisted by others. And we don’t all adapt to change at the same pace. If you are familiar with “change theory” you will be familiar with the “bell curve” of change, with the small percentage of “early adapters” and the large percentage who accept change more slowly, and then there is another smaller percentage of “late adapters” and even some “never adapters.”

As we all adapt to change at different pace there will be the temptation to complain, to murmur, to become dissatisfied. Some will think the changes are coming too slowly, some will think the changes are happening too fast, and some will think that things should never change. Wherever you fall on this spectrum, this command remains in force: “Do all things without murmuring and disputing.” Don’t allow change or the pace of change to create divisions and disunity in the Body of Christ. Because disunity will disrupt your calling as a congregation.

What is that calling?

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life…

As children of God, we are called to be different from the world around us. We are to shine as lights in the world, and we do that by being different. And we do not demonstrate that difference if we are grumbling or disputing. As lights in the world, we are called to “hold fast the word of life.” That refers to steadfastness in our faith. But the word translated “holding fast” can also carry the meaning of “holding forth” the word of life to this world that needs it so desperately. And we will not hold it forth effectively if we are disputing and grumbling with one another.

As I conclude my years of ministry here at ECC, this is the first of my “last words”. “It is God who works in you…” And this is my great longing.

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed - not only during our time here at ECC, but now much more as Esther Ruth and I leave – continue to work out your individual and corporate sanctification with fear and trembling for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.…

That you as individuals and as a congregation will do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you (individually and corporately) shine as lights in the world, holding fast to (and holding forth) the word of life…

If you do that I will be able to echo the words of the Apostle Paul:

that in the day of Christ we may be proud that (for these 25 years) we did not run in vain or labor in vain.

Disussion Questions

  1. Read Philippians 2:12-16 together.
  2. How have you previously understand the phrase “work out your own salvation”? How did Pastor Cam’s sermon clarify or change your perception? (2 hints: There are different uses of the word “salvation” in Scripture. In the context, the emphasis on “your own” is not in contrast to God’s help but to whose?)
  3. How does recognizing that the “you” in these verses is plural not singular affect your understanding?
  4. Does Paul’s application of this important teaching to something as “everyday” as “murmuring and disputing” surprise you?
  5. How did Pastor Cam apply this Scripture to his departure and the challenges that lie ahead for ECC? How can we guard against the dangers of division and disputes in the midst of many changes?
  6. How would you summarize Pastor Cam’s prayers for ECC in the months ahead?

More in Last Words

February 12, 2016

Last Words, Part 3: Choose You This Day

November 27, 2015

Last Words: Only God Makes it Grow