Why, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence…
I. THE OBEDIENCE OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS THE WORKING OUT OF SALVATION.
1. In relation to God. The absolute power of God's will, which is the law to every creature and the accepted law to the Christian, is regarded as expressing itself within the heart of man.
(1) "Worketh in you" is used elsewhere of that internal energy of God which is the spring of all other energy (1 Corinthians 12:6; Ephesians 1:11). But here it is the spiritual volition alone that is meant, that special influence of God upon the will and act of man in the things which pertain to the Divine good pleasure.
(2) "His good pleasure" imparts to "worketh in us" a character of love and perfect freedom that must never be lost sight of in our consideration of God's working on the human heart. His influences are not mechanical and unbending, working out a pre-determined law of election, but pre-spontaneous and springing from the heart. God can study and adapt Himself to His creature's freedom. In the profound mystery of our cooperation with Divine grace it is our own will and act while it is God's. The obedience of the Christian to the law within Him is perfect freedom.
2. In regard to the service it performs.
(1) The object of this service is personal salvation. We are to imitate the obedience of Christ in the utmost possible care of our own souls, as if our salvation were the very service of our covenant with God. But lest this should be carried to a morbid excess the apostle adds the other lessons on self in this chapter and elsewhere.
(2) Does the apostle mean by the peculiar stress He lays on "your own" that whatever God's inward working may mean, the accomplishment in result must be the working out on man's part of an actual salvation? Or does He refer to the Redeemer's intervention, and indirectly bid them remember that His obedience has not rendered theirs superfluous? Or "As ye obeyed in My presence when I could give you My aid, etc., so remember that neither My presence nor My absence was vital to your interests?" We may mingle all these meanings. Every Christian must make His own soul's salvation His personal care, and not so to rely upon Divine grace, atoning redemption, or human ministry as to neglect his own persevering sedulity.
3. In regard to its spirit. "Fear and trembling" is divested of the stern and depressing character it wears in the Old Testament. In the New it is always used in connection with obedience, and always to signify vehement eagerness to do well (2 Corinthians 7:1). There is here no idea of trembling apprehension of the future, nor anything but the humble alacrity that vibrates with eager desire to obey.
II. SALVATION MUST BE WROUGHT OUT IN THE MIDST OF AN EVIL WORLD. In "fear and trembling" before God, and "without murmurings," etc., and "before men." They are to yield obedience to three great laws.
1. The law of dignity.
(1) They are children of God;
(2) in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation;
(3) therefore they are to maintain their dignity.
2. The law of the preservation of purity. The force of the exhortation arises from the fact that as "lights" they are seen, and that "in the midst of the perverse nation they are to let their influences be felt."(1) As the children of God in their aspect towards the world are commanded to use their liberty of action so as to avoid sin in act, here they are commanded to abstain from receiving the principle of it again in their nature. This is the liberty of the children of God to keep themselves unspotted from the world.
(2) But the word "harmless" seems rather to mean "become" than be pure. There is a process of purification that implies the admixture of something of the world's evil still remaining. Surely this is verified by the experience of every one of us. The provision, however, is ample for the entire cleansing of the soul.
3. The law of a pure exhibition of character for the world's teaching and example. God has placed His people in the world to be to it what the luminaries are in nature. And of this the reason is: because ye hold in yourselves the Word which is the light of life.
(W. B. Pope, D. D.)
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.