Philippians 2:12 says “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”, and Christians roll up their sleeves to get busy. And more than just getting busy, they do it with fear and trembling, too. This article will show that traditional interpretations of “work out” and “fear and trembling” are problematic and incongruous with the rest of Scriptures.
Work out your own salvation
Now that you have received your salvation from Jesus Christ who died on the cross for your sins, it’s time you work it out, make worthwhile the sacrifice of the Son of God. GotQuestions.dot.org describes this “work out” as “… actively pursuing obedience in the process of sanctification … ‘straining’ and ‘pressing on’ toward the goal of Christlikeness,” while DesiringGod.dot.org has an article with the title “Why MUST We Work Out Our Salvation?” It explains the reason why: “the works we do prove that our faith is real. Works are evidence of election.” Different sources give different reasons, but they all point to the need for a Christian to work out their salvation. These interpretations are also consistent with the messages I’ve heard from varying sources over the years.
There are two key concepts in the views expressed above that go against my core belief: sanctification as a process, and works that prove our faith.
First, I don’t believe sanctification is a process, but it’s a once-for-all gift from God as we place our trust in Christ’s sacrifice. Let’s consider the verse below:
For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified (Hebrews 10:14—KJV)
And secondly, I don’t believe our faith must be predicated upon one or more works, because if it is, no one will ever know what work, or works, it is that qualify their faith. Ephesians 2:8-9 are probably the most well known verses that can be used to illustrate this point:
For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9—NET).
Now let’s read Philippians 2:12 in its entirety, and let’s also add verse 13 for clarity:
Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13—KJV).
As evident from this verse, the problem is not obedience as the Philippian Christians “have always obeyed,” not just while Paul was with them, but even more so while he was absent. Paul didn’t write that the people SHOULD work out their salvation, or they MUST, or they should MAKE EVERY EFFORT TO, nor did he make any promise of rewards if they do, or gave veiled threats if they don’t, work out their salvation. He questioned the quality of their works, the foundation upon which they work out their salvation. Are they doing things out of envy or selfish ambition? Or are they doing it out of the love for the brethren?
There is no doubt from the reading of Philippians 2 that the focus is not with the concern whether they work out their salvation, but with how they should do the works.
With fear and trembling
I really didn’t have to labor the point as it is rather clear that verse 13 explains the true meaning of “with fear and trembling.”
A New Covenant Christian no longer operates from the realm of the flesh, but from a spirit of grace where he knows everything he does, he deserves no credit, of which he should not boast, for it is God who works in him “both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” Whenever the flesh is involved, there is self-glorification, and boasting. Ephesians 2:8-9 says since we’re saved by grace, and not by works, we have no reason to boast about ourselves or our abilities. In Romans 3:27, the apostle Paul also discouraged people from boasting as he pointed out to the Romans that they now lived under a new law, one that required faith, not works.
However, when a New Covenant Christian still uses the law as his guide, he will always look to himself as the prime mover in all his actions. If he does what is expected of him, he gets the blessings, and conversely, if he does not, he stands a chance of losing out on his blessings. This mindset creates an environment where boasting and self promotion thrive.
Therefore, Paul must have used the phrase “fear and trembling” as a contrast to the opposite attitude of pride, for the reason being “it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” It is God, not you! So don’t go and strut your stuff, don’t brag about what good things you’ve done for God. Paul does not mean at all that the working out of our salvation involves any sense of duty, obedience, gratitude, reciprocation to what Jesus had done for us, or any other guilt producing motivation at all. He didn’t need to because his audience the Philippians “have always obeyed.” The danger they faced was not that they were lazy, but in the attitude of their heart involving only one thing: Are they relying on God’s grace, or their own works, in their relationship with God? Do they know that it is God who works in them both “to will and to do”?
There is really no need for anyone to serve God in “fear and trembling,” in the atmosphere expected under a ruthless taskmaster. Paul articulated strenuously in several epistles the case for our relating to God through grace only, not works. Paul is also the one who asks us to grow up and stop feeding on the basic teaching of repentance from dead works, or vice versa repentance from NOT doing good works (Hebrews 6:1-2). Therefore, far be it from him to preach “fear and trembling” in the literal sense.
Working WHAT out?
Most Christians assume the working out of our salvation involves only things pertaining to faith. Some examples are: going to church, bible study, revival camp, spiritual retreats, evangelistic outreach, preaching the gospel, etc. But did Jesus die to redeem us only for these things? Or he died to restore all the things that make us who we are? Our profession, hope, aspiration, fear, sorrow, pain, joy, weaknesses, strength, personality, ideosyncrasies, and many things that made King David exclaim “I praise you because I’m fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
To work out your salvation is to live the life that God made you in the first place, but with a difference. You used to live in self pity, but now you’re loved by God. You used to indulge in sinful activities to get temporary relief from pain but now, with hearts full of love from God, you’re set free to know the difference. You used to live a life without meaning but now you know you have a special place in the heart of God and his eternal kingdom.
You don’t need anyone to tell you that you need to breathe fresh air to live, so it is with the working out of your salvation. It is God who creates this wonderful air for you to breathe, it is also him who works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. The caveat is tread lightly, don’t become filled with prideful arrogance, but if there is an attitude you should have, it should be of fear and trembling as you did nothing to deserve even the salvation that you have.
- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.
Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen
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