Read Philippians 2:1-13.
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. (Philippians 2:12-13)
The spirituality of the desert involves training exercises such as fasting, watching, and praying. One criticism you often hear of such things is that they are a means of “trying to save yourself.” I have a hard time understanding this criticism.
Is the idea that we shouldn't try to save ourselves? If we feel tempted to gluttony or avarice or pride ought we to give in, because trying to resist would be trying to save ourselves? We should sin the more that grace may abound? Presumably that’s not the idea.
Maybe the idea is that we shouldn’t do anything to try to save ourselves apart from obeying God’s law. There’s no law against eating, so we shouldn’t fast. There’s no law against watching TV, so we shouldn’t pray so much. I don’t think this can be the idea either.
Perhaps the idea is that people who fast or watch or pray think that they are earning salvation by “good works”, that by inflicting pain on themselves, by denying themselves, they earn forgiveness or merit in heaven. If I feel a desire to be a better person and to do what I can to that end, hopefully my motivation is my love for God, but there may be some element in me of a desire to be salvageable. Indeed, Jesus makes a distinction between “servants” and “friends,” where the servants are mercenary followers who obey for reward or to avoid punishment, and friends obey out of love.
However, that isn’t the criticism. The criticism is that such exercises are an attempt to save ourselves, not that they are an attempt to earn salvation from God.
It is common for protestants to emphasize justification by faith, sometimes to the exclusion of all else (e.g. sanctification). We believe and God saves. Perhaps the idea is that we can’t contribute to our salvation — that would be Pelagian — so we shouldn’t even try. Just have faith. Believe in God, love God, and do whatever you want (Augustine). If your faith and love are real, what you want will be what God wants. We should put our time and effort and thought and prayer into loving God and neighbor better, not into improving our own self-control and actions, mortifying the flesh by our own efforts.
This gets closer to an acceptable perspective. And yet Jesus says that if we want to be disciples, we must deny ourselves. He says that it is something we must do. Something we must do.
What is the nature of the self-denial Jesus requires to undertake? Is it to turn down that extra piece of pie, to exercise when we don’t feel like it? Is it sufficient to deny ourselves 10% of the time, or 20%?
I imagine that our attempts at self-denial take many different forms and proceed by fits and starts, but the goal must be complete self-denial, utter death of self and rebirth in Christ. We must follow the Spirit in all things. The key here, the mark of entering into discipleship, is this: have you resigned yourself entirely into God’s care and provision, explicitly giving up rights to self-determination, desiring and attempting to follow the Spirit in all things?
Indeed it is God’s work to save at that point rather than our own. But that salvation must take place in this world. Maybe the Spirit will lead you into the wilderness to fast be tested, or to watch and pray in order to avoid falling into sin, or to eat locusts and honey in the desert. Maybe that fast is your own attempt to save yourself, but also, underneath, God’s means of saving you.
Remember, this “childhood of eternal life” is an opportunity that is not repeated. We don’t get another try. The talents we bury in the ground here will be taken from us and given to someone else.
Let us work out our salvation with fear and trembling — for it is God who is working in us.
For more on self-denial, see The Extent and Reasonableness of Self-Denial by George Whitefield