Sermons and Chimes: Working Out Our Salvation

Alfred Ellmore, my Great-Great Grandfather
I’m coming to terms with my heritage in Churches of Christ through the person of my great-great grandfather Alfred Ellmore, one of the early preachers in the Restoration Movement that yielded this fellowship. This is an installment from his 1914 book Sermons and Chimes, and my reactions to it in the form of a dialogue with him:



“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:[12-]13.)

One of the great blessings to man in this life is that his Creator has given him something to do. Without having his hands and mind employed he can not be happy. And in order to make this work a success, God proposes to take man into partnership with him, hence in the work of salvation there are two parties, the divine and the human, and if one be taken out, either the divine or the human, the work is a failure. Without the divine, man can not save himself. Man can not forgive his own sins, nor raise himself from the dead. Without the divine we would be denied the comforting influence of the Holy Spirit, and would know nothing of his sustaining grace. And without man’s acceptance and his hearty co-operation, God does not propose to save man. Man without God can not save himself, and without man’s acceptance God will not save man. And to make this a little stronger, God asks man through the means to save himself.

Right up to the point where you said “God asks man through the means to save himself,” Great-great Grandfather, I was right there with you. Because, right off the bat, I see a conflict with Acts 15:11, Ephesians 2:8, and 2 Timothy 1:8-10 — just to name a few.

Salvation applies to man in three distinct or separate states, and the first thing is to ascertain which salvation does Paul refer to here. There is offered to man a present salvation from past sins. This means pardon, forgiveness, justification. And man is promised salvation from the grave. This means only the salvation of that which was lost, viz., the body. It was the body which was lost in the grave, and when that which was lost in the grave is taken out of the grave, man will be saved from the grave. Then we are promised eternal life beyond the resurrection, and this will be given unto all who have washed their robes, who have been redeemed, and have lived faithful lives unto death. Now which of these salvations is referred to here? Does he refer to conversion, to their salvation from past sins? Whatever salvation it was, it had to be worked out. Then for two reasons we know he could not refer to their conversion. First, they had already been saved from their sins. Paul was not writing to sinners but to Christians, and though they had been saved from past sins, he is speaking of a fugure salvation. And second, there is not much “work” required in becoming a Christian. We read in the New Testament of the thousands who became Christians under the apostles’ preaching, and it was always the work of one day. There is not the case of one person who was told what to do to be saved, being put off until tomorrow. But if one were to obey the gospel today, and live forty years a faithful Christian life, there would be some work in that. Clearly, then, it was not conversion they were to work out.

I have heard this so-called division of salvation described differently … as justification (Acts 13:39; Romans 4:25; Romans 5:16), sanctification (John 17:19; Acts 26:18; Romans 15:16; Hebrews 10:29), and glorification (Romans 8:30; 1 Peter 1:21): the pardon and forgiveness; the process of being set aside for growing increasingly like God through Jesus’ Holy Spirit; the translation into a glorified, eternal form to dwell with them forever. These are scriptural terms, and I have nothing against calling scriptural things by scriptural names — but it would seem to me that your division separates the last of these into two separate things, and ignores the middle one completely. And here I would differ with you.

Salvation is most often spoken of as a single thing; a continuous process. It may well begin with an acceptance of pardon and forgiveness, progress through the living of an increasingly Christ-like mortal life, and continue forever in an immortal form — but it is spoken of as a single life; a single salvation.

But does Paul refer to their salvation from the grave? For two reasons he could not have meant the resurrection of the body. First, we all get that salvation; as by Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Second, we do not have to “work” out that salvation. The death in Adam is universal and unconditional, so is the resurrection.

Then we are forced to the conclusion that the salvation spoken of here is the salvation in heaven, it is eternal life. Then, my friend, is there something startling here? Though they were Christians, but they were not in heaven, nor were they absolutely certain they would be; if they prove faithful unto death, a thing I fear very many Christians are not doing, they would be saved. The same thought is found in Heb. 4: “Let us therefore fear, lest a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to have come short of it.”

I would have to argue that in leaving out the “part” or sequence of salvation that has to do with becoming more like Christ — the part which involves our active participation and partnership with God through His Holy Spirit — you have left out the possibility to reach the correct conclusion.

And you have opened the door to the doctrine of a works-based salvation, against which Ephesians 2:8-10, Galatians 2:16 and all of Romans 3 and 4 (in fact, the entire epistle) argue heartily against.

I’m not sure than anything in all of Christendom has done more damage to the faith of believers than a doctrine of works-based salvation; that completely deficient teaching that our salvation is all up to us and that God has done His part and He’s through with us and the Holy Spirit is not going to help us today — only the people who lived in the later years of the New Testament age.

Because it leads to self-reliance and self-doubt, both of which are dead-end tracks to nowhere fast. Self-reliance and self-doubt may be quite useful tools for those who crave power to manipulate others into doing what they desire others to do, but they do not lead one closer to Christ because they are centered on self. To God be the glory!

Those “once in grace always in grace” people do not get much consolation here. Paul says: Let “us” fear! What! Paul fear he might be lost? “Final perseverance” people are not all saved here; they were not all baptized into Christ, and are therefore not in Christ.

“Work out your own salvation.” This suggests two things: First, I need not ask my brother to work out my salvation. He has a work of the same importance, that of working out his own salvation. And we need not ask the Master to work out our salvation. He has not promised to do that. And when he commands man to do a certain work, he will not do that work for man. Then if I do not work out my own salvation, it will not be done. Surely, the Lord will assist us in this great work. “He is a sun and a shield, he will give grace and glory, and no good thing will he withhold from them who walk uprightly.” He will not do our work, but he will assist us in doing it.

“We need not ask the Master to work out our salvation”? Really? Because it’s my understanding that we cannot do it ourselves (Romans 3:23) and that He offers the help we need through His Holy Spirit (John 14:26; Romans 5:5; Romans 15:16; Ephesians 1:13; 2 Timothy 1:14; Titus 3:5; Jude 1:20-21).

There are two things said of the congregation at Philippi, which I believe I never heard of being said of any other congregation: First, they had always obeyed, not in his presence only, but now much more in his absence. Whoever knew a congregation who were more faithful after the preacher had left them? Second, here is the only congregation I ever heard of which had its beginning at midnight. Turn to the sixteenth chapter of Acts, and here we read of the beginning of the work in Philippi. Paul and Silas were the apostles called to Philippi by a vision. And on the Sabbath day they went out of the city to a place where resorted persons for prayer, and Paul preached to some women who assembled there, and a woman named Lydia heard the word, believed, and was baptized. And a certain damsel, possessed of an evil spirit, said: “These are the servants of the most high God who show unto us the way of salvation.” And after some days, Paul being grieved, commanded the evil spirit to come out of her, and when her masters saw their business interfered with they beat the apostles, who were then put into the inner prison, and their feet were made fast in the stocks, and there in a strange city, and no friends, and bleeding and hungry, they sang praises and prayed. The Lord heard them, sent an earthquake which opened the doors and threw off their chains, and the jailor rushed into the prison, and seeing the prisoners all loose, was going to take his own life, but Paul saw him in time, and said: “Do thyself no harm, for we are all here.” Then he called for a light and fell down before the apostles and brought them out, and said: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said: “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved and thy house.” And they spake unto him the word of the Lord and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes, and he was baptized, he and all his straight way, and when he had brought them into his house he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house.

Now here is the report of the beginning of the cause in Philippi. And were are the preachers now, under the most favorable circumstances, who would follow out such a program? Perhaps one-half of the men called preachers in the United States would not baptize people under any circumstances. But many who do baptize would not have gone out and baptized persons at midnight. No; they might say: “Wait until next Sabbath, and I will preach a discourse in our church, and if our church is the church of your choice, you can join.” But these preachers were preachers of the gospel; they were laboring under the commission of Him who had said: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature; he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” Now, if you should happen to come upon a group of people administering this rite at midnight, what would be your conclusion as to their faith? Would you say they were Catholics? Oh, no; Catholics never baptize. But come among the Protestants; would you say they were Methodists, or Lutherans? Hardly. But are they Presbyterians? No. Presbyterians (except the Cumberlands) do not baptize.

Again, dear ancestor, you seem to miss no opportunity to say rude things about believers of other opinions than your own — and perhaps in their absence — rather than finding an opportunity to teach the beautiful, deep meaning of baptism and its salvific power in our lives. Would it not be more instructive to point out to those hearing or reading why baptism was commended by Paul and Silas to the jailer and his family … even to the heart-touching symbolism of the two evangelists washing the jailer’s sins away in baptism even as the jailer humbles himself to wash their stripes?

But it is God who works the will into the people. And says the sleepy Christian: “I’d like to do more and better work in the church, but I haven’t the will, and when God works the will into me, I will rise up and do my duty.” And says the alien: “I’d like to be a Christian, and when the Lord works the will into me I will obey, and of course you could not expect me to obey if I were not willing.”

Now, it is affirmed here that it is God who works the will into man, and if he do this independent of man’s will, even without consulting man, then men have a lawful excuse for their disobedience. But if the Lord propose reasonable means to induce men to obey, and they reject the means, man is to blame.

I am unable to find scripture which supports your turn of phrase, “it is God who works the will into man.” The closest I can come is 2 Peter 1:21, which is speaking of prophecy and prophecy alone; or Philippians 2:13 (the second verse you quote in your introduction), which says “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” And I believe that this does not say He works His own will into people, but works within believers who want to do what He wills; what pleases Him — almost certainly through the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (v. 1).

I wish you were still alive to explain to me how you came by this phrase and what you mean by it, as it is perplexing and outside of scripture and my experience. Was it a phrase used by other evangelists of differing opinions from yours; are you quoting it, daring them to justify it themselves? Because you seem to agree with it in the paragraphs which follow:

In the autumn of 1867 I went into Hamilton County, Ind., to preach. On Lord’s day the house was filled with women, and the men were seated on planks, chairs, and wagon seats in the yard, and I stood on the door step. The audience was enthusiastic, and I was energetic. After we closed, a shrewd man made his way through the crowd, and I was introduce to him as Mr. Smith. In a firm but mild manner he said: “Mr. Ellmore, I want to make a statement to you. I just wish to say that today is the first time I ever heard the gospel preached.” Said he: “I was born in North Carolina, and it was my lot to be thrown among that people who believe that God foreordains everything that comes to pass. Those who were born to be saved will be saved, and those who were born to be lost will be lost. Sometimes these people would hold protracted meetings and get up revivals; some would ‘get through,’ and they would shout. Others would seek and fail. I often became anxious as to my future. On one occasion I was in the woods crying and praying. All at once I sobered, and began a soliloquy: ‘What are you worrying over? My salvation. Is not that all unnecessary? Suppose you are one of the elect, don’t you suppose the Lord will call for you at the right time? But suppose you are one of the non-elect, will your worrying and praying induce him to accept you — when you from all eternity were lost, and couldn’t be saved?’ And I folded my arms and told the Lord that, if he wanted Dan Smith, he could let me know, and I should never make another effort until he informed me, and behold, I have spent the forenoon of my life, and now a part of the afternoon, waiting for the Lord to do for me what he has commanded me to do for myself, and today I have learned what that duty is.” Soon Dan Smith, wife and nearly all of their children were members of the church.

But how does God work the will into man, and leave man free to do his own will? Let us see. Early in the spring here stand two men, a father and a son, and the father says: “My son, it is now time to begin work on the farm.” But the son says: “I have decided to change my line of business. I shall quit the farm!” Says the father: “This is the first time you ever refused to obey my command, how is this?” “Well, father, until this morning I was a minor, and I was subject to you, but this morning I am twenty-one, and here are two citizens now, and two ‘wills’ to be consulted.” Now, since the father is willing — anxious — but the son is not willing, what is the first thing to be done? The father must “work the will” into the son. And what is the proper course for him to take? He might say: “My son, I am the stronger, and if you further refuse, I will force you to go.” This might be in accordance with the will of the father, but I hardly think it would work the will into the son. He might force the son to work, but it would be against the will of the son. Suppose, instead of coercion, he tries persuasion, and offers inducements. “My son, if you will go and work on the farm I will give you a dollar and a half for each good day you put in.” But the son hesitates: “I can make better wages for less hours at some other business.” But the father is loath to let the son go, saying: “Your mother and I are growing old, and we can not consent to having the family circle broken. And now, if you will work with us this season, I will give you two dollars per day, and in addition, I will give you one-third of everything the farm produces this year.” The son springs to his feet and asks: “Where shall I sow the oats, and where shall I plant the corn and cotton?” The father says: “A great change has come over you, and what has brought about this great change?” “You did it, father, by offering me such amazing inducements that I could not find it in my heart to deny.” So, the Father offers lost man remission of sins, the comforting influence of the Holy Spirit, his abundant grace, food and raiment, a glorified body, and an eternal home in heaven, and the considerate, reasonable man says: “I yield, I yield.”

So it is only by coercion and bribery that God “works his will into man”? What of the motivations of love for God and gratitude for what He has done for us in Christ and the honest desire to please Him? Have these no value in becoming more self-giving as Jesus was; living the kind of life He lived?

Now let us note some of the worthy examples who were laborers in the vinyeard, and first, the Master himself. He labored in the carpenter’s shop until he was thirty years old. He then became a preacher, and he labored from morning till night, and after the multitudes whent home to rest, Jesus went apart to pray, and upon one occasion he prayed all night (Luke 6:12). He visited the sick and he healed them. He sought the hungry multitude, and fed them. He went about doing good. How would the ten-thousand-dollar clergyman size up with the lowly Master? The twelve apostles must go into all the world and preach, and take, in part, bonds, and whippings, and imprisonments for their reward. They often labored with fear and trembling.

In his boyhood Paul was taught the trade of tent-making, and after becoming a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, and after becoming an apostle, he worked at his trade between discourses, to help bear expenses of himself and the young preacher who accompanied him. A preacher of his ability to stop by the wayside and work with his hands! But he worked with “fear and trembling,” not so much for the hardships and dangers of self, as for the poor and forsaken around him. Paul could look across the dark river and see the rewards of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked. And have we all thought of that three-years’ meeting he held in Ephesus? Did anybody ever read of such labors as those were? To the elders he says: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember that, by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears!” Is not this a remarkable experience? For three years! A long meeting. I ceased not to warn every one of you, the whole congregation. Night and day. Not only during the day, but in the night also. But he warned them night and day with tears! There are not many preachers now who could give such a report. Do we know of one? Just one? And do we see Christians now serve God “with fear and trembling?” Do we see elders feeding the flock “with fear and trembling?” Do parents warn their children of the dancing hall, and of the saloon, and of the Sunday ball game with fear and trembling?

Now, in view of these things, let us all — every one — go to work, not boisterously, but industriously, quietly. Let us assist every one near us, to work faithfully. And let us pray much, pray without ceasing, at least once per day, but three times would be better. Let us do all the good we can, and no harm.

Great-great Grandfather, this is only half-a-gospel. It is the same half-a-gospel that too many preachers preach (and to only moderate effectiveness) today: Don’t do bad stuff. Do good stuff. Work faithfully. Pray. Do all the good we can, and no harm. Obey. Don’t mess up.

It isn’t specific. It doesn’t tell us what good stuff to do, or what good stuff to do might be, or what we should work faithfully at, or what all the good we can might involve.

And it is also only moderately effective because it is only moderately descriptive. It misses out on that whole middle sequence of the salvation process: growing up in, maturing like, growing closer to, becoming like Jesus Christ in this world, through the power and comfort and assistance of His very own Holy Spirit in our lives. It is part of an ongoing transformation which begins with our surrender and forgiveness (justification) and continues through our grateful obedience (sanctification) :

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” ~ Romans 12:2

“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” ~ 2 Corinthians 3:18

… then culminates in our being changed from mortal to immortal at the return of Christ and the judgment we escape by His grace:

” … who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” ~ Philippians 3:21

“After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” ~ 1 Thessalonians 4:17

Great-great Grandfather, there is not one iota that you or I or anyone else (save the Lord) can do to effect this part of the change. It is beyond our capability. What Paul means by our working out our salvation in fear and trembling cannot possibly mean our transformation into eternal beings, but our transformation into Christ-like mortals through partnership with God, His Son the Christ, and Their Holy Spirit.

“For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” ~ 1 Corinthians 3:9

“As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.” ~ 2 Corinthians 6:1

“We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith …” ~ 1 Thessalonians 3:2

Paul doesn’t say this of himself or Timothy out of arrogance; but out of God’s grace and desire to work through those of us who believe.

“There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.” ~ 1 Corinthians 12:6

That’s what scripture means when it says, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13)

Partners with God. Working out our salvation. Not by ourselves. Not earning it ourselves.

Together, with Him. Yes, in holy fear and trembling at the notion of God Himself dwelling within us and working through us — but also trembling with excitement at the incredible opportunities afforded by a partnership with God Himself.

I believe you were on the right track when you began this sermon, dear ancestor.

I wish you hadn’t taken the dead-end siding.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s