Work Out Your Own Salvation
Work Out Your Own Salvation
Paul says in Philippians 2:12-13, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (ESV).
What it Does Not Mean. Often, I hear people using this passage to suggest that each person needs to find his own path to God. Basically, to say, “I don’t agree with you, but hey, we must work out our own salvation. So, you work out yours and I’ll work out mine.” That’s not at all what Paul means here.
The cadence of modern English places a lot of emphasis on the word “own.” We hear, “Work out your own salvation,” and it reminds us of a teacher saying, “keep your eyes on your OWN paper,” or a mother saying, “go clean your OWN room.”
But the context argues against this idea. First, Paul is addressing the Philippian church as a whole, not so much as individuals. It would be more like a mom saying to her four children, “I’m going shopping for the afternoon, and you will need to take care of yourselves for a few hours.” The emphasis is not one child taking care of herself in spite of the others, but on the group of individual children being responsible during mom’s absence. Perhaps for this reason the NASB leaves off the “own” and translates simply “work out your salvation.”
In any case, when does Paul ever suggest salvation is a “you do you” thing? It is important that we help our brothers and sisters in the mission of going to heaven (Heb. 10:24, James 5:19-20, Phil. 2:3, Gal. 6:1). It is never “every man for himself” in the church. Furthermore, salvation is not a subjective thing; it’s objective. It’s not about discovering your own way; it’s about understanding the true gospel of Jesus and obeying it.
What it Does Mean. “Work out” is katergazesthe, and means “work until the work is done,” or “carry out until completion.” Interestingly it is not “work for”; salvation is a gift of God, and no one can earn it or deserve it or add to it by obedience to the word. Instead, a saved Christian must daily set his mind and his hands to working the works of God. He must apply the significance of his salvation to his life. He must make Christ’s ruling influence evident in his life. He must continue until end, until death (Rev. 2:10).
“Fear” is phobos and signifies a healthy, wholesome caution, avoiding high-minded overconfidence; it is taking heed lest we fall. While perfect love casts out fear, there is always room for caution. In fact, “fear and trembling” is placed in the emphatic position in the sentence. Literally it reads, “...with fear and trembling keep on working out the salvation of yourselves...” The phrase also appears in 1 Corinthians 2:3, 2 Corinthians 7:15; and Ephesians 6:5.
Is fear and trembling inconsistent with faith? Not at all, perhaps it reflects even greater faith!
A happy-go-lucky and lackadaisical faith would be one that does not appreciate the high stakes involved. Thayer says, “fear and trembling is used to describe the anxiety of one who distrusts his ability to meet all requirements completely but does his utmost to fulfil his duty.” Meyer says, “not slavish terror, but wholesome, serious caution. This fear is self-distrust; it is tenderness of conscience; it is vigilance against temptation... It is taking heed lest we fall; it is a constant apprehension of the deceitfulness of the heart, and of the insidiousness and power of inward corruption. It is the circumspection which timidly shrinks from whatever would offend and dishonor God and the Savior.”
It is therefore right to serve God with fear. I love God. I trust God. I have confidence in salvation. But I appreciate the fact that I have a cunning enemy, a roaring lion that is lurking nearby. I am walking a narrow path that is sure and firm as long as I keep to it, but there are steep drop-offs on each side. I am not scared of God; I am scared of sin and its consequences. I possess a reverent fear of God, knowing that my relationship with Him does not excuse me from judgment, but instead provides me less excuse for ignoring His commandments. I understand Heaven and Hell are forever, and I am rightly terrified of missing out on God’s new creation! So, I will not serve God with shrugs and yawns and giggles, but with reverent fear and joyful confidence.
God is Working Too! Verse 13 is no contradiction to verse 12. Paul shows us the intersection between divine sovereignty and human free agency. Farmers know how this works. A farmer plants an apple tree, waters it and tends it, then thanks God for the leaves, blossoms, and fruit. When he toils at the plow it helps him rather than hinders him from seeing God’s hand in all things.
The fact that God works in us should never been seen as a reason to cease all efforts in His kingdom. He will not force us against our wills. We certainly cannot accomplish anything without Him. And so, since salvation was authored by God and secured by God and broadcast by God, and since growing in Christ is God’s desire for every person, our efforts to obtain salvation and maturity do not suggest we are pushing God out of the driver’s seat, nor taking credit for obtaining salvation. Instead, our efforts indicate acceptance, cooperation, submission, and obedience.