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(Philippians 2:12-13).
“Work out your own salvation.” That phrase appears as though Paul is admonishing the Philippians to work to earn their salvation. However, if we interpret Paul’s words in that sense, we will be (i) contradicting the whole body of biblical revelation because salvation is by grace through faith and (ii) contradicting Paul himself because he taught in his epistles that salvation is by faith.
The Need For Salvation
Scripture first and foremost teaches the sinfulness of all human kind. Naturally, we are all sinners because of inherited original sin from Adam and as a result, are separated from God and His glory (Ps 51:5, Rom. 3:23). But God out of love, though humanity is separated from Him as a consequence of sin and bound for eternal destruction, provided a way of rescue to reconcile sinners unto Himself by faith in Jesus Christ:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved ?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”(Acts 16:30-31).
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:1)
These Scriptures (not exhaustive) point us to one truth: Justification by faith. To be saved therefore, a sinner has to repent of their sins and put their trust in Christ Jesus, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith”(Rom 3:25). If it is true (and it is) that sinners are saved by faith alone without any self-rigtheousness, then we must put in proper context what Paul means by “work out your own salvation”. He is obviously not writing about earning our salvation by self-effort or by deeds of good works.
A Prison Epistle.
It is crucial to note the circumstances surrounding the epistle to the Philippians and the verse under consideration in particular. Paul is in prison and not physically present with the church as its leader. From prison therefeore, he writes to give instructions on numerous topics confronting the Philippians church. In Chapter 2, Paul exhorts on Christian conduct citing Christ’s example of humility “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)… “… Have this mind among yourselves” This is a message calling on the Philippians church to take a cue from the humility and suffering of Christ. Note also that our opening verse starts with “Therefore”. This means Paul draws on his previous teaching on Christ’s humility and goes on to tell the believers to emulate Christ (vv.1-11).
Philippians Was Written To Christians
We must bear in mind the epistles were written to Christians to give instructions on Christian living or conduct. So when Paul wrote “work out your own salvation”, he wrote to Christians. They were believers. They have salvation. They have trusted Christ by faith and needed instructions on Christian conduct. Paul calls them “my beloved” and he pointed out that they “have always obeyed”. You can’t call on unbelievers to work out their salvation; a salvation they don’t have. The Philippians no doubt were Christians. And the fruit of their Christianity is that they are living in obedience. The mark of a true Christian is a life of obedience.
Work Out Your Own Salvation
Now if the Philippians were already Christians, and they were, Paul is greatly concerned they will continue in obedience especially because he is no not physically present with them and his imprisonment has opened up the church to infiltration by false teachers. “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry…”(Philippians 1:15). “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Philippians 3:2). The infiltration of false teachers in his absence needed to be addressed. The church was in danger of falling into laxity, complacency, hypocrisy and legalism. Because of this, Paul admonished them to continue in their obedience.
Let’s face it. It is human tendency that when a leader is not present or when no one is watching, people naturally fall into laxity in their faith. This is what Paul warns against. The command from Paul is this: Live like Christians. Let the salvation you already possess manifest in how you conduct your life. “Will and do God’s good pleasure”. Take personal responsibility for your Christian conduct: “your own salvation”.
The Greek. verb rendered “work out” means “to continually work to bring something to fulfillment or completion.” It cannot refer to salvation by works (cf. Ro 3: 21– 24 ; Eph 2: 8 , 9 ), but it does refer to the believer’s responsibility for active pursuit of obedience in the process of sanctification ¹.
“Work out…with fear and trembling” The point here is that of godly reverence: don’t develop a cavalier attitude towards God’s grace. Don’t play slack with the grace of God. Every believer must have a “healthy fear of offending God and a righteous awe and respect for Him (cf. Pr 1: 7 ; 9: 10 ; Is 66: 1 , 2 )².
The charge to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” can be compared to Peter’s charge also: “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall”(2Peter 1:10). As a believer, there is already a work of grace going on in your life. God is already at work in you “both to will and to work for his good pleasure”. If you have a desire for the will of God, you didn’t produce that desire. God planted it in you.
The Christian is always called upon to respond to God’s ongoing work of sanctification. God works first and we must cooperate “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29).
1: John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2006), kindle
2: MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible,