All-Seminary chapel service continues series on Philippians
“In the last 20 years, our culture has increasingly embraced the word ‘paradox’ as a way of understanding life’s realities,” observed Professor of Theology and Culture Robert K. Johnston
at the beginning of his sermon on Wednesday, February 8. The featured speaker in the morning’s All-Seminary Chapel, Johnston continued the Philippians series as he focused on Philippians 2:12-24, and especially the first two verses of that passage.
He pointed out that today, “simplistic, linear thinking somehow seems naïve,” and explained that although the Church has tried to reject paradox, it is with us—the many different understandings of the atonement are just one example.
But the Bible is comfortable with paradox, Johnston said, referring back to verses quoted earlier in the service from Proverbs 16 that wrestle with the tension between prayer or planning, our activity or God’s. Further, in 1 Corinthians 15:10 Paul writes a totally paradoxical statement: “I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”
“The text this morning is all about paradox,” said Johnston, and “we are in a place where we can hear that text better than our parents and grandparents.” He quoted verses 12 and 13: “Therefore, my beloved…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” The salvation Paul refers to is not mere conversion, Johnston explained, but the whole of Christian life.
Further, it is not merely the individual’s Christian life, but the community’s. “The church in Philippi had dissensions, murmurings, rivalries, squabbles,” explained Johnston. Much like the churches he’s been in or even Fuller Seminary, he said, the church in Philippi needed to “work out the health of its community—the wholeness of its community.” Johnston pointed to “instruction after instruction of what we are to do to work out our salvation” in Philippians—all community oriented—such as, “strive for unity,” “reject selfish ambition,” and “live in harmony.”
Our model for this is, of course, Christ himself, Johnston noted, referring to the first half of Chapter 2. “Jesus freely chose to empty himself so that God’s will could be manifest,” he said, “and it was the combination of him freely choosing God’s destiny that led to his being exalted to the highest place.”
While such obedience and humility might seem unreachable, Johnston showed how the paradox of verses 12 and 13 “gives us the confidence to move forward”—it isn’t us, but God willing and working through us. Tempering this confidence, however, the Philippians paradox gives us humility as we remember that our salvation rests on God’s activity. “God creates both a will and an empowerment in us,” he said.
“God calls me to use my gifts and energies and desires as his child,” said Johnston, “and he works to accomplish his will and desire in our lives.”
“Brothers and sisters,” he exhorted in benediction, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”