This question came in from one of the new Christians in our church, who was reading Philippians chapter two and asked this question: “What does it mean to work out your own salvation?” Ok. Let’s address this. If you want to get your bible, we’ll be starting in Philippians chapter 2.
The first thing that comes into some people’s minds when they see this is, “I thought salvation wasn’t by works, it’s by faith?” It’s a valid question. We know from elsewhere in Scripture that Paul himself, who wrote this phrase in Philippians 2:12, also wrote the lengthy teachings in Romans and Galatians on salvation by faith alone apart from works. Paul is not contradicting himself here. Working out your salvation isn’t just stated here in Philippians 2. The verse in question, though, contains our question, so let’s read the verse: “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,” Let’s look at what’s going on here.
Paul is writing to the church at Philippi, and he speaks quite highly of this church in the first eleven verses of the letter. When we get down to verse 21, Paul starts to talk about life. The Christian life. In verse twenty-two he talks about living in the flesh and the fruitful labor of this life in the flesh, as he states his wrestling match of desiring to depart and be with Christ – verse twenty-three, but also stating that for the present, remaining alive in this world is more necessary on account of churches like Philippi – verse twenty-four.
In verse twenty-seven, though, is where we can get to more direct application and interpretation on the question we’re looking at here. Paul issues a command: “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” That’s an active imperative, even though your bible, like the ESV, may use “Let” – “let your manner of life” – this is something Paul wanted the Philippians to do – “your” in verse twenty-seven is plural – it’s a charge to the church as a whole, and when it’s a charge to the church as a whole, it’s also a charge to each individual within that church. I know there’s more to say here but for the sake of this video, we’ll move on – but we’ll return to verse twenty-seven in a few minutes.
Paul gives some counsel on how to live early chapter two, keeping in mind chapters were not in Paul’s original – it was one continuous stream of thought. In verse five of chapter two, he switches to writing about Christ’s example of humility and continues through verse eleven. It’s in light of that – going back to chapter one where he began writing about the Christian life, that we have the instruction to the church and its individual members in verse twelve of chapter two.
Verse twelve. “not only as in my presence but much more in my absence.” Keep that in mind as I read from verse twenty-seven of chapter one: ”whether I come and see you or am absent.” Coming and seeing them or being absent. In my presence, much more in my absence. The connection is there. Really just two ways of saying the same thing. Paul wants this church to life in a certain manner whether he’s physically there or not. He doesn’t want them to put on a holy appearance just when the apostle comes to town. He wants them to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel ALL the time. And he wants them to work out their own salvation ALL the time with fear and trembling. The phrase “fear and trembling” could be worthy of its own video and again, time doesn’t permit us to break that down and do it justice.
I think inherent in the question that this new believer sent me was what I mentioned at the beginning: “Work? I thought it was by faith?” Is it by faith, or is it by work? Let’s dig into the answer.
One basic issue with the question is, as is so often the case, a matter of definitions. When Scripture speaks about “salvation,” is it only speaking about that moment when a person is declared to be justified – their sins pardoned, the penalty for them removed, and the person declared to be righteous by God? No, it doesn’t. Scripture uses “salvation, or being “saved,” to describe three stages in the Christian life – yes, it talks about the moment a person is declared to be justified, but it also talks about salvation as the ongoing Christian life AFTER a person is declared justified, and it also talks about salvation as that which will come to its fullness on the last day when the dead are raised and given glorified bodies and will dwell with God and the Lamb forever in the age to come. Here, in Philippians 2 verse twelve, Paul is addressing the second – what the Christian life is to look like AFTER having been declared justified – the process known as sanctification. Is it Paul’s burden here to give us a comprehensive, all-encompassing teaching on the Christian life? No. So don’t think that what Paul doesn’t say here is absent from the teaching of Scripture. In its immediate context, Paul is writing to a church that is doing well, and he wants them to continue to do well, whether he gets to see them again face-to-face or not.
He gives this exhortation to work out their salvation in light of Christ’s example of humility in verses five through eleven – because Christ did this, you, Philippians, ought to do THIS – as indicated by the “therefore” that begins verse twelve. What Jesus Christ did, and the Philippians having received justification – salvation – by faith, as a gift, as verse twenty-nine of chapter one says – is to then result in what Paul wants the Philippians to do in verse twelve of chapter two – AND in verse twenty-seven of chapter one. Walking in a manner worthy of the gospel. Working out their own salvation. Two ways of saying, really, the same thing: what does your life look like, Philippians – you…the church as a whole, AND all the individuals within it?
We’re going to go back to that question that comes into people’s minds… does this make salvation by works? No. It’s all about faith at its root, but…the faith that justifies produces something and that something is works. Obedience. You think about Ephesians 2, verse s eight and one. Paul says the Ephesians were saved by grace through and not by works – it’s the gift of God so man will boast. But the next thing he says is that the Christian is God’s workmanship… create for a reason… created in Christ Jesus FOR good works… good works which God has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
The Christian life is not just one of passivity… it’s at once being passive AND being active. We have our rest in Christ… Matthew 10, verses 28 and 29. We receive faith as a gift – again, Philippians 1:29. We receive everything good from God as a gift – 1 Corinthians 4:7. At the same time, that faith, that resting, is to produce activity. Wrestling against the ruler, the authorities, the cosmic powers of darkness over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil. There’s nothing passive about wrestling… Scripture uses metaphors like wrestling to establish its points… wrestling is hard, it’s exhausting and it’s WORK. We have Scripture telling us to strive after the holiness without which no man shall see the Lord in Hebrews 12:14. We have Scripture telling us the mortify sin… kill the deeds of the flesh in Romans 8:13. We have the book of James that in its five short chapters issues more than 50 commands for the life of the Christian. It’s about becoming more and more conformed to the image of Christ as we walk through this life.
I imagine, though, somebody, in listening to this so far, might be a little bothered by how I read the text from Philippians 2:12. I stopped at the end as if there were a period there. There’s not. The thought isn’t complete, and it’s not complete even if your verse twelve has a period, like the King James does. All your English translations of note start verse 13 with the word “For.” Whether verse twelve ends with a comma or a period, you just can’t leave out verse thirteen. “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” Is it our working out our salvation, then, or is it God working in us? Yes. Yes, it is…. We can only work out our salvation BECAUSE God is working in us. A minute ago I cited Romans 8:13 and the killing of the deeds of the flesh…killing them by the work of the Holy Spirit in us… becoming confirmed to the image of Christ as I just said…and 2 Corinthians 3:18 says we are being transformed from one degree of glory to another – how? It comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
Yes, Scripture wants us to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel, working out our salvation… …sanctification… which 1 Thessalonians 4:3 says is God’s will or us… that growing in holiness between the time we are justified and the time we either die or Christ returns, whichever comes first. Do we rest in Christ by faith, or do we work out our salvation? Yes, again to both… and I think you’ll find the more you rest in Christ by faith, the more you will work out your salvation…. faith always has to come first… but that faith that comes first, if it is the faith that has truly saved you, will produce the working out of Philippians 2:12. Amen.