Why, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence…
This sentence falls from Paul as easy and natural as his breath. It is a casual remark, true, but not combating any specific error; a simple exhortation to earnestness, with the assurance of Divine cooperation. But what Paul said in this casual way has been caught up by opposing schools, turned to a use he never dreamed of, crowded with a meaning he did not intend, made the rallying cry of theological champions, and a very body of divinity. Arminian and Calvinist have seized it, cut it in two, emphasized each his own word in it according to his philosophy, and thus equipped fought each other for two hundred years over a doctrine of faith and works. The text teaches —
I. THAT SALVATION IS AN ACHIEVEMENT. What is here meant by salvation.
(1) Not anything done by Christ in the way of expiation.
(2) Not getting to heaven. A man does not enter heaven to find salvation, but because he has it.
(3) Not an immediate work wrought in some hour of deep feeling. What is then done is an important but small part of salvation.
2. Positively. It is a moral process in which time and effort are chief factors.
(1) If a man has any sinful habits, he must overcome them; or lacks and weaknesses, he must supply the deficiency.
(2) And then there is the great reality of character — a needed group of qualities that only comes about by elaboration.
II. THIS ACHIEVEMENT IS THE RESULT OF SHARP AND DEFINITE STRIFE.
1. Every man is bound by every consideration to undertake this work. He is here to do this very thing.
2. When he comes upon the stage he finds evil, and his work is to east it out and bring in good. No evil goes out of itself. No nation and no man ever grew into virtue or dropped evil as a tree drops dead leaves.
3. Look at the world and its history — tell me if a single gain has been made that did not turn on the overthrow of some positive evil with pain and effort.
4. Let every man ask himself, Am I saving myself? I am ignorant, etc. I find in myself hereditary evil. I have contracted evil habits. I am passing on from day to day without communion with God, doing nothing for humanity. Am I striving to escape from that broad road to destruction?
III. THE TWO-FOLD PROCESS. Work it out, for God works it in.
1. No other influence can touch a man like God's. When I give you my hand it is in part my strength that upholds you. When you cheer me I am leaning on your inspiration. But when God works in a man to will and to work, the union of wills is so close, that separate threads of influence cannot be detected. It often hurts a man to be helped by others; it never hurts him to be helped by God.
2. The importance of this two-fold process.
(1) Suppose God were left out and man saved himself, overcame his weakness and faults, and so trained his faculties as to become a wise and good man. What sort of a man would you have? assuredly a conceited one who will at last become a selfish one. A man cannot isolate himself in sharp individuality from God and live.
(2) Suppose that God saved a man without any effort of his own: that He shut up the path of evil, and by some Divine alchemy whitened the passive soul, the result would be worse than in the previous case.
3. Now suppose again the reunion of God and man in the work of salvation. When a man recognizes that God is at the bottom of all his work, he is led straight up to the exercise of every element of His character. Then he becomes reverent, and reverence is one half of character. Along with this comes humility — the soil of all the virtues. And as the man comes more and more to feel that God is in him he is swept into the current of God's own thought and feelings, and so he loves as God loves; and all the patience, tenderness, truth, and majesty of God work in him, subduing him into their quality.
(T. T. Manger.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.