Philippians 2:12b-13a ; James 2:21-23, 26
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
A great North African theologian named Augustine said it only once, I think. But I think of it all the time, and in almost every context. He said: “Without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.”
Without God and His grace, I cannot attain the life – the character and the conduct – for which I yearn. Yet, after a point, without my collaboration, God won’t do anything more – not because He’s limited and needs my help – but because only I can make His gift of new life fully my own.
I have to trust God, give up on trying to make it by myself, and give myself over to His leadership, doing what He tells me. I have to decide to do those things, because God respects my freedom and self-sovereignty and the gift cannot become entirely mine apart from my choosing to make it my own by embedding it in my behavior.
Let me give an analogy. Several months ago I resolved to get myself new and improved legs, specifically two new knees. I was sick and tired of suffering from bone-on-bone arthritis. It was eager to reverse the disability into which I was headed. I wanted to save all that energy I was using up just to endure pain and apply it to more important purposes – such as making new followers of Jesus and stronger followers of Jesus.
So I decided to trust an orthopedic surgeon named Stephen A. Mikulak, and asked him to give me new and improved knees. I could not get them without him but without me he could not give them to me. I had to choose to let him do things for me which I couldn’t do for myself. I had to choose to put myself in his hands. I literally had to choose to allow him to put me under anesthesia and do hurtful but beneficial things to me that I would have fought his doing if I’d been at all conscious at the time.
I choose to undergo surgery, and did everything I was told to do in order to prepare for it. Then, after the surgery and after I had regained consciousness (at least in a relative sense), I discovered that my legs felt worse than they had before Dr. Mikulak had laid hands on them, and that I was now disabled in ways I hadn’t been before.
Now, I had to trust Dr. Mikulak some more. In order that the good thing that he had begun might have its full effect, I had to do a variety of unpleasant and even painful things. I had to stop doing for a while some things that I absolutely love doing, like preaching or leading programs that help our community and enable some folks to meet Jesus. I had to regularly do some exercises that struck me as stupid and/or that hurt a lot. I had to take medicines that made me dopier than I normally am. And, worst of all, I had to listen to my wife and some others even when in my drug-induced haze I thought I knew better than they!
Dr. Mikulak gave me two new knees – and some new tendons and ligaments, but I’ll spare you the gross details – but my legs still feel worse than they did in March, and I am still weaker than I was five and a half weeks ago. But I have faith in Dr. Mikulak and that faith impels me to certain works. Having faith in Dr. Mikulak means more than believing things are going to get better eventually. It means that, right now when things are not better, I am committed to following his prescriptions of often pretty darn yucky physical therapy, ingestion of certain medicines that don’t exactly give me a sharp mental edge, restraining from certain preferred activities, at least pretty much most of the time respecting some temporary limitations, and fighting down feelings of guilt over depending on my wife, who already has way too much to do but is nevertheless cheerfully doing a lot of extra things for me out of love. Dr. Mikulak has given me new knees, but it is up to me whether I make the most of his gift. Without him, I cannot; without me, his further efforts cannot do me much good at all.
Because I have faith in Dr. Mikulak, my trusting him involves my following his instructions. I have got to put my faith in him all the way on this, or not at all. My faith in him is real only if it involves some works.
Do you see the analogy with gaining a new and improved life in Christ? When I faced my own character defects and emotional disabilities, when I got sick and tired of being confined to the prospects for my life I could obtain on my own, I sought for some help from beyond myself. I gave myself over to the Lord. Just as I had put myself in Dr. Mikulak’s hands, I put myself in God’s.
Without God, I could not.
But without me, God would not.
God did a kind of surgery on me. He took out my old heart, and put a new and better one in its place. But that new heart by itself did not make me a new man; it just gave me the opportunity to become a new man. In order to make good on the opportunity God gave me, I still have to make certain choices, form certain habitual practices and keep implementing the Great Physician’s instructions.
Just as now I am gaining new and improved legs by following Dr. Mikulak’s instructions, I am gaining a new and improved life by following God’s instructions.
I am, as Paul puts it in Philippians, working out my own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in me.
I have some fear and trembling because I know I am free to abandon my follow-up and to let all God’s gracious work to go for naught. I have grateful hope because I know that my salvation, my life in Christ, is a gift from God, a product of God’s working in me from first to last, even now by empowering to me to keep to my spiritual therapy (or what has traditionally been called my spiritual disciplines). But I also have responsibility because – while, without God, I could not be at this place – without my corroboration God can take me no further.
In my case there are things I have to do or, despite God’s best efforts, I will never work out into my character and conduct what God has worked into the deep fibers of my heart. I have to get up early in the morning and write down what I need to say to God, and more importantly, what God needs to say to me. I have to forgive those who do me wrong. I have to learn to love Adele more like Jesus.
The Greek word translated here “work out” is the Greek word, katergazesthai. It does not mean to “work for” something you do not yet have but to “work out” something you already have had “worked into” the very core of your being. It is like working out the limberness and tensile strength the physical therapist has worked into your legs by massaging and manipulating your muscles before putting you through your exercise paces.
To work out our salvation in this way then is to work out what God has already worked into us. It is to worship together, to pray on our own, to share our wealth, to join forces in improving our community, and so forth. Our collaboration facilitates God’s bringing His gift of new life to its completion. Our efforts are what we get to do to enter a partnership with God. We have been freed from works in the sense we don’t have to do anything to earn God’s gift; but we have also been freed for works to enjoy a collaboration with God in fulfilling His work of healing and strengthening us, and making us new and improved people. Let us pray.