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 ESV)
The apostle Paul is instructing these Christians on how to live their lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. His desire for them is to have unity, being of the same mind, same love, and same attitude (2:2). This unity will only occur when we do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit and count others more significant than ourselves by looking out for their interests. The example of Christ is given to these Christians so that they can see what a humble, self-sacrificing life looks like. Jesus sacrificed himself for our interests, counting us as more significant, doing nothing for his own advantage. By living a humble, self-sacrificing life, God exalted him to the highest place of glory and honor. The example of Christ is to lead us to do the same. We are to live humble, self-sacrificing lives and by doing so God has promised to reward us with “an eternal weight of glory.” It is with this example of Christ in mind that he gives the instructions in Philippians 2:12-13.
Because of what Jesus has done for us in living a self-sacrificing life by putting our interests ahead of his own, we are to continue to obey (2:12). Continue in faithful submission to God’s will, just as we see our Lord Jesus Christ doing. What Paul wants them to do is to work out their salvation with fear and trembling because it is God who works in them, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. We noted at the beginning of our study of Philippians that the apostle Paul says something similar in Philippians 1:6. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6 ESV).
Have you ever read this sentence in verses 12-13 and thought that this seems to be contradicting itself? This is the reason why many will pay attention to either one side or the other of the sentence. Some will emphasize the personal responsibility of salvation. You must work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. Others will emphasize the other side of the sentence. God is the one who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Therefore, you do not do any work because God is doing the work. So people have taken this sentence, pick one side that fit their own theology, and set it against those who hold the other side of the sentence. So I want us to see that we cannot do that. We cannot take one side that we like and deny the other side of what Paul says. These two ideas must work together as Paul declares. So let us study what Paul is saying and include both concepts that Paul is presenting for us and then draw some conclusions.
Work Out Your Own Salvation (2:12)
We have a responsibility regarding our salvation. It is important to recognize that we do not come to Jesus by faith and submit by faith in baptism, but then think there is nothing else to do. We cannot think that all that is required of us is to go to church every once in a while. Paul is writing to Christians who have already obeyed the Lord and are already saved. Yet Paul speaks of salvation as a process by which these Christians must continue to obey as they already have and work out their salvation. Coming to Christ by faith is simply the beginning. Baptism is not the end point but the beginning point. Paul tells these Christians that they are running well (“as you have always obeyed”), but must continue to run well all the way to the finish line. To get a sense of what Paul is saying, the Greek word that is translated “work” in verse 12 is the same word used by Paul in Romans 4:15, Romans 7:8, Romans 5:3, and 2 Corinthians 4:17 where the word is translated “brings, produces, preparing, achieving.” Paul is telling us to bring about or produce our own salvation.
But think about this statement in isolation. If the apostle Paul wrote to us and told us to bring about our own salvation or that we need to produce our own salvation, I hope we would quickly feel dread. If I have to bring about my own salvation, then I have a really big problem. If salvation depends completely upon me, then I am doomed. To add to this, working out my own salvation with fear and trembling brings even greater dread. What a hopeless feeling! All that I am left with is fear and trembling if I need to generate or produce my own salvation from myself. Verse 12 is frightening without verse 13. I have heard lessons that stopped right here in teaching this command. I have heard this sentence quoted, dropping off the rest of the sentence found in verse 13, as a sort of battering ram against people telling them that they better obey or they are doomed. Is this the intention of the text? Is Paul’s point to look at the example of Christ, a humble, self-sacrificing life, and we are do the same and if not, then watch out for the wrath of God? We are missing the rest of the sentence. So let’s look at how working out our own salvation with fear and trembling is to come about.
It Is God Who Works In You (2:13)
Though we are bringing about our own salvation, there is a way this is happening. Paul says to bring about your own salvation because God is working in you. Work, because God is at work in you. God is doing his work in you to fulfill his purpose when we are active and at work in our salvation. Notice that verse 12-13 are linked together as effect and cause. Our work is the effect and God’s work is the cause of our work. We work because God works. Or to say this another way: Our work is empowered by God’s work. Paul really emphasizes this in verse 13 using the word “work” twice. God works in you, to will and to work for his good pleasure. All working out of our salvation on our part is the effect of God working in us.
The scriptures give us this picture many, many times though we may not have noticed it. Let’s beginning by looking at this very letter. Back in Philippians 1:9-11 the apostle Paul taught us that the more love toward God abounds, the more fruit of righteousness is borne. The scripture speak of our work as fruit. We read about the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5). We are told to bear fruit and that we will bear fruit if we are the branches attached to Jesus (John 15). Paul said the same to the Colossians:
So as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Colossians 1:10 ESV)
God is doing a work in us which is bringing about fruit in our lives. God is working in us and changing our lives by increasing in the knowledge of God. Think about how Paul said this to the Ephesians.
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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8–10 ESV)
Notice again that God is working so that we are working. God is at work and therefore we are created for good works and walking in good works. The prophets spoke the same about what the Christian life being this way. Listen to Ezekiel.
25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25–27 ESV)
Please notice that God says that he was going to cause his people to walk in his statutes and cause them to be careful to obey his rules. This is the same as Paul’s words that God is at work within us, to will and to work for his good pleasure. How was God going to do that? God was going to cleanse them and give them a new heart so that they would obey him. This is what Paul is saying in Philippians 2:13. God is the will behind your activity of good works. God influences our activities and our will to bring about our working in our salvation. We do good works because of God’s amazing grace in our lives. The more we know God, the more we will desire to walk in God’s ways and obey his rules. Peter said this also.
3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:3–11 ESV)
God, by his divine power, has granted to us all things for life and godliness and has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that we may become partakers of the divine nature. Therefore, we make every effort to add to our faith. These two things work together so that we will not be ineffective or unfruitful and will not fall. Notice how this happens in verse 3: “Through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.”
So how do we work out our salvation with fear and trembling? We do not work out our salvation by demanding a life of perfection or else we are lost. That is not the point Paul is making. Christians should not feel this weight because that is not how our obedience is to be brought about. God is bringing about our obedience. God is enabling us to will and to work for his good pleasure. We have a responsibility to continue to work and bring about our salvation because God is at work through that work. We do not drift toward godliness or holiness. We have a responsibility regarding our salvation. Therefore we accept this responsibility with fear and trembling. We recognize that we must continue to work out our salvation.
But the point is not that you are left to do this yourself. God is not asking the impossible from us. Paul makes sure we understand that God is working through us and in us when we are working out our salvation. His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness. Perhaps Paul offers the best simple summary statement of this concept when he wrote to the Corinthians.
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10 ESV)
We are working hard because God is working in us. God does not do the work for us, like a parent doing the child’s homework. Rather, God has made is possible to obey and bring about our salvation by giving believers access to the power necessary to accomplish this. Do we think about the Christian walk this way? Do we think about obedience to our Lord is this way? We are instruments to accomplish God’s purposes. Our obedience of faith will grow and improve as we allow God to work in our lives and change our hearts toward him, which happens by growing in our knowledge of him.
Dedicate yourselves today, this week, for this year, and for your whole life to grow in the knowledge of God. God will be working in your life and in your heart as you come in contact with God, which will cause you to change your way of thinking and change your activities so that your salvation will be secure as you conform to his image. You are working out your salvation when you lead humble, self-sacrificing lives. You are working out your salvation when you desire and treasure Christ above all else. Your affections and desires will change as you grasp God’s very great and precious promises and as you increase in the knowledge of God. What will you do different this year so that you will be working out your salvation?