“Working Out Our Salvation”
May 11, 2003
If our Baptist brothers and sisters were to walk into this church this morning, look at a bulletin, and see that the sermon is entitled "Working Out Our Salvation," I would almost be guaranteed to have their full and undivided attention during the sermon, maybe even incite in them the boldness to utter the timeless expression, "See I told you so." So, before anyone here runs off to call the Presbytery's Committee on Ministry to report me for preaching false doctrine, let me assure all of you theologians that this particular theologian has no intention of deviating from our sound Reformed beliefs.
But your right, seeing a sermon entitled, "Working Out Our Salvation," particularly in a Presbyterian Church, does raise a few eyebrows. After all, we in the Presbyterian Church are so attuned to the mantra of “salvation by grace alone” that any such talk, or possibility of talk, that puts the word "work" in the same sentence with the word "salvation" borders on the heretical. And yet, it has been that same mantra of “salvation by grace alone” that has given others the theological ammo necessary to characterize us Presbyterians as "the frozen chosen" or if you prefer "the icy elect" or even "the frosted few".
In some sense, these characterizations, while funny on the one hand, can at times not be too far from the mark, not just for Presbyterians, but for all Christians. There is a sense, I think, that for many people the fact that they are saved has become for them a kind of badge of honor that they proudly wear upon their sleeve, but ultimately over time the meaning of that badge is lost to them.
We live in a day and age, particularly in the American culture, where individualism and individual autonomy is promoted and even revered. You don’t have to look far to find poll after poll showing a high percentage of people who claim they are Christians at 76%, but yet have no inclination whatsoever of attending church, let alone being involved in a church. In one poll, 54% of the 1037 respondents said they were religious, but 45% of those said they would follow their own instincts rather than denominational teachings. The result of this trend is that over the past three decades, the mainline denominations – Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian – have each lost about one-third of its membership, and church attendance is falling just as fast.
In a very real sense, salvation has become for many a goal to be achieved or obtained, an ending to life rather than a beginning of life. But for the Apostle Paul, being a Christian isn’t only about the individual, it’s about being a people. Certainly, individuals are saved, certainly individuals will be saved, but Christianity goes much deeper than simply confessing one’s faith, believing the right things, or even doing the right things. For Paul, being saved means a life-altering transformation as taken place, where individualism no longer has preeminence, but is replaced by a total commitment to Jesus and to the other, a total commitment to the community of faith, a total commitment to the working out, or perhaps better put, to the out working of our salvation.
In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul reminds the Philippians of what they share together. The share the same Christ, the same love, the same Spirit, and the same compassion and sympathy, therefore they are to be in full accord with one another having the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. These are profound words to the Philippians reminding them of their communal identity as Christ’s own, their communal love for Christ, and their communal concern for the other in Christ. And they are profound words for us as well, maybe even more so than to the Philippians.
We come to this particular church from all walks of life, from different origins, and with different histories. We come to this particular church from different economic classes and different social classes. We have different theological and political core beliefs. We see the world through different lenses, with different priorities, with different hopes and dreams, with different concerns and fears. But in spite of all of our differences, there is the one common denominator that unites all of us together – our conviction and confession that Jesus is Lord.
For Paul, it is this conviction, this confession, which effectually changes us from being just individuals who come together to being a people who come together in community. Whatever differences we may have must, for the sake of Christ, become secondary to the new unity we have in Christ, and it is this new unity which becomes for us a call to service, a call to work, not for ourselves, but for Christ and for others, and not for our own salvation, but precisely because we already are saved.
Salvation is not a commodity, which can be bought or sold on the New York Stock Exchange. It’s not a badge of honor for us to sew on our shirtsleeves. It’s not a plaque for us to hang on our walls or a trophy for us to sit on a shelf only to collect dust. Salvation is a gift for sure, but it is more than a gift, it is a new way of being, a new mind set that is both Spirit filled and directly and acutely attuned to God’s will for us in Jesus Christ.
Working out our salvation, isn’t about people working to be saved, or saved people working to remain saved, it is about how saved people live out being saved. If my only concern is whether or not I am in or out, then it is impossible for me to think about others before thinking of myself. If my only mindset in life is to make sure that I remain saved, then my only concern in life will be whether or not I am walking the straight and narrow, constantly afraid that with one false step I could lose it all. But if we see our salvation as a calling, a calling to work out our salvation as God’s people, a calling to bring our salvation to completion in Jesus Christ, then our total mindset changes, and we can faithfully and confidently and completely commit ourselves as God’s people do God’s work in the world, serving Christ, and serving others in humility and in love. Amen.