Dave Black on Philippians 2:12-13

Aug 5th 2012, 9:11 AM I always enjoy and benefit from reading Roger Olson’s blog posts. Since we’re studying Philippians in our Greek 3 class this summer, I was especially glad to see his recent sermon called “Grace Works” Philippians 2:12-13. I partly agree, and partly disagree, with his exegesis. I agree that the term “salvation” (soteria) in 2:12 is not referring to forensic, juridical justification but rather to what Olson calls “life after conversion.” Where I might diverge a bit from Olson is in his definition of “life after conversion”: “maintaining a healthy relationship with God as a converted believer.” This interpretation, in my view, is short-sighted since it begs the question of context and the macrostructure of the book (see my Novum Testamentum essay, The Discourse Structure of Philippians).
What does Paul mean by “work out your own salvation”? As Olson correctly notes, there are too many contextual clues to conclude that Paul is referring to initial justification. The emphasis is on the life of a Christian. But let us take that thought one step further. There are two main imperatives in 2:12-16: “work out your salvation” and “do all things without grumbling and complaining.” Hence 2:12-16 may be analyzed as a continuation of the plea to unity begun in 2:1-4. The theme of 2:12-16 may be stated thus: “I plead for you to obey me and to work at bringing healing to your community. For God is already at work among you to foster mutual good will instead of ill will. Do this in order that one one will be able to find fault in you as you share with others the message of life.” As F. F. Bruce writes (Philippians, 56-57), “In this context Paul is not urging each member of the church to keep working at his or her personal salvation; he is thinking of the health and well-being of the church as a whole. Each of them, and all of them together, must pay attention to this.”
In other words, what many commentators fail to consider is the corporate dimension of Paul’s exhortation in Phil. 2:12-13. Apparently his concern is that the Christians in Philippi, torn apart by dissension and strife, will work to complete the sanctification of the church (and each individual within it) lest the work of the Gospel be hindered. Believers are “co-souled” (2:2), inextricably linked together by the Spirit of God on the basis of their common faith in Christ as Lord and Savior, who is in the process of creating a visible community of faith — a living, breathing organism that knows that its most credible form of witness to the world is its own unity and love. In this light, verse 14 now makes perfect sense: the Philippians must “do all things without grumbling and complaining.” To be saved is to enter into a faith community that grants all of its member the opportunity to experience the depth of Christ’s love. Thus Paul is addressing the matter of unity where it matters most — in the area of interpersonal relationships. Perhaps this explains why his love ethic is so thoroughly eschatological. It is an ethics bound up with the purpose of the church as the New People of God whose citizenship is in heaven and whose ethics are best seen in the virtues of self-abnegation and humility of mind (2:3-4).
From this point of view, “salvation” in 2:12 is not simply a matter of one’s relationship with God. The role of the saints is much broader and deeper. Salvation helps us to structure our congregational life in such a way that we have the greatest potential to be influential witnesses within our families and communities, among whom we shine as stars in the world as we offer them the life-giving message. Hence we must always be praying that our love for one another (and, of course, for God) “might abound yet more and more in knowledge and full discernment” (1:9), simply because lovelessness is one of the main reasons people say they do not want to accept the Christ of Christianity.
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