Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only 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
So far, we have read Paul’s greeting to the Philippians, where he expressed his thanksgiving to God for them, as well as his affections and prayers for them. He then assured them that his imprisonment has served and will continue to serve the advancement of the gospel. Finally, he commanded them to behave as citizens worthy of the gospel by being united in one mind and humbly serving each other.
After having done his best to describe the absolute humility and glory of Jesus, Paul now launches into a new, yet connected, urging for the Philippians. He pleads for them, because of the servitude of Christ, to obey the commands of God just as they always have. The apostle concedes that they have walked diligently in obedience so far, yet he presses them to strive even further in his absence than they ever did in his presence.
WORK OUT YOUR OWN SALVATION // VERSE 12
The first aspect of this verse that we must notice is the word therefore, which reminds us that the truths displayed within these two verses are continuing the message, logic, and arguments of the previous sections. Specifically, recall Paul’s command in verse 27 of chapter one: to behave as a citizen worthy of the gospel by standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side in one mind, and being unafraid of opponents. He then continued by urging us to be united together in one mind and one love by humbling ourselves as Christ humbled Himself. Since we have this mind in Christ, who is our example and Savior, Paul now commands us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Furthermore, considering this context, it should not surprise us that the command is given in the plural. Just as they must be citizens of one mind, so also they must work out their salvation together.
Before addressing what it means to work out our salvation, consider the affectionate tone of Paul. As in chapter one he expressed his affection and longing for them, he now refers to them as his beloved. They are both dear and near to his heart. His exhortation of obedience toward them is an act of love toward them. Among those who shy away from all forms of authority, this is difficult to grasp; the Bible, however, emphasizes continually that commanding what is best for someone is an act of true love.
He then continues to commend their previous obedience, while also exhorting them toward further good works. Knowing that his death may be near, the apostle wishes to encourage them to obey beyond his presence, whether with them or in this life. He is simply reminding them that their obedience must flow from a love for Christ, not (primarily) a love for Paul.
Now let us address the exhortation directly: What does Paul mean by commanding us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling? First, we must understand that obedience and working out salvation are the same idea. As he begins the verse by commending their obedience and ends by exhorting the working out of their salvation, it should be clear that these concepts are one and the same. To obey is to work out one’s own salvation, and to work out one’s own salvation is to obey. Paul is, therefore, urging us to obey God in order to work out our own salvation.
Second, we should consider the nature of Paul’s wording. Work out is the ESV’s translation of katergazomai in Greek, which often means to perform, accomplish, achieve, or produce. In commanding us to work out of salvation, that is to obey, is Paul, therefore, commanding us to produce, achieve, or accomplish our own salvation? The short answer is no, not in the sense of earning salvation. But it should be followed up immediately with another question: Is Paul suggesting that obedience is necessary for salvation? To that question, we must answer yes. From answering these two questions, yet another also arises (which answering should guide us in the original question): How is obedience necessary for salvation without itself being how we earn salvation?
To answer this, we must define and distinguish the doctrines of justification and sanctification. Justification refers to the one-time, once-for-all work of Christ by which sin is forgiven and we are declared righteous before God. Justification for the Christian, therefore, is a past event that occurs by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Most commonly, the Bible uses legal language to describe justification (justification itself being a legal term), since by it our sin is pronounced forgiven and we are adopted as children of God.
Sanctification, however, is not a one-time event; instead, it is the continual process of being made holy. In fact, sanctify, sacred, and consecrate all stem from the same Latin word for holy. Holiness, of course, in the Christian life means being conformed to the image of Christ, walking in imitation of Him. Through sanctification, we continuously grow to be more and more like Jesus. Sanctification is, therefore, a lifelong and gradual process. It is only complete whenever Christ returns or calls us home.
While these two doctrines are inherently tied to one another, we must also recognize them as distinct. Francis Turretin describes the difference between these two doctrines as such: “Justification is concerned with the guilt of sin; sanctification with its pollution” (690). Being justified in Christ, condemnation no longer exists for the Christian, defeating the guilt of sin. Yet the pollution of sin must still be fought. The legal consequences might be erased forever, but the offenses themselves do not cease. In many ways, each individual salvation is a smaller scale of the Christ’s redemption of the cosmos. Our sin, after all, broke both ourselves and the natural order, making neither us nor the world as we should be. On the cross, the war for both individual and cosmic redemption was won. The cross was the decisive battle, yet the war continues still. Much like after the fall of Berlin during World War II, the Pacific Theater continued on, even though victory was guaranteed. Still, for the soldiers in the final stage of the war, the bullets and casualties were no less real. Similarly, the cross has sealed the final victory, yet the war must continue on for a time of God’s choosing. Sanctification is that continual war against our flesh and the kingdom of darkness.
Yet because the debt of sin is paid fully in justification, we can say with complete certainty that we are justified by faith alone. Only the work of Christ can make us right before God, whereas our righteous deeds are nothing more than filthy rags. Good works, therefore, give no merit to salvation. Yet because sanctification is our process of learning to obey God, our obedience through good works is a necessary aspect of salvation. In fact, we might say that our obedience is the evidence of our salvation, that sanctification is the evidence of justification. If we never work out our salvation by obeying Christ, then we have no reason to believe that we have been justified by Christ. Assurance that we have been justified and will be glorified only comes through presently being sanctified, through obedience.
Armed with a fuller understanding of the meaning and necessity of our obedience to Christ, we must now consider how to work out our salvation. As we have already stated, the short answer is to obey, but still we can ask what to obey and how to obey. First, working out our salvation means obeying the Scriptures. The more obvious answer might be that we obey God, but since, as Christians, we believe that the Bible is the only revealed and infallible Word of God, it is more necessary that we clarify our obedience to the Scriptures. Many people will claim to obey God while blatantly denying or subtly contradicting the commands of the Bible, but to disobey Scripture is to disobey God. Thus, when we ask what to obey, we turn our eyes squarely upon the Word of God.
Second, in order to obey the Scriptures, we must know the Scriptures. If working out our salvation means obedience to the Word, we must first and foremost read and understand the Bible. The process of sanctification will involve a multitude of ways to submit to God and follow after Him. We must learn to pray to Him. We must learn to love one another. We must learn to do all things to the glory of God. Yes and amen. But the baseline for obedience is reading and learning the Scriptures and the God who spoke them. Take up, therefore, and read the Bible. If you are frustrated in your battle against sin and even questioning the reality of your salvation, work out your salvation by diving into the Word.
This, of course, is not to belittle any of the other commands in the Bible that require obedience. Scripture reading takes precedence, however, because those commands remain hidden until we read them. For example, how can husbands learn to love their wives as Christ loved the church without reading the Bible to know how Christ has loved His church? Or consider prayer. How can we obey the commands to pray to God without also getting to know that God through His Word? Working out our salvation must go beyond reading Scripture; however, it cannot be done without knowing and learning the Word either.
Only one more crucial phrase remains to be explored before we continue onto the next verse: with fear and trembling. What does the apostle mean by this phrase? To begin, I do not think this means, at least primarily, to obey out of fear of losing our salvation. Certainly, there is plenty to be said for sober warnings against assuming that we are saved while the evidence of our lives proves the contrary. We should remain watchful and vigilant of our walk lest we find ourselves drifting onto the broad easy path, where at the end we might hear Christ say, “I never knew you.” Such thoughts must keep us alert and awake.
Since, however, Paul has already discussed the assurance of salvation (1:6), the fear of God appears to be more fitting here. Deuteronomy 10:12-13 reveals that fearing God and obeying Him work in tandem: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?” Fearing God, loving God, serving God, and obeying God are all symbiotic aspects of following after Him.
But why does Paul emphasize the fear of God instead of, say, the love of God? I think because the fear of God and our sanctification both directly flow from the holiness of God. We fear God because He is holy. He is far stranger, far greater, and far more dangerous than we ever give Him credit for. God is to be feared above all other beings, if for no other reason than for being the Maker of all other beings. Our sanctification is also based upon the holiness of God because it is the process by which we are made holy. Of course, not holy in the divine sense, but holy in the creaturely sense, meaning we being wholly devoted to purposes and uses of God. Also, since the road of sanctification is what Proverbs would call the path of wisdom, the fear of God is, therefore the beginning of sanctification.
We would also do well to remember that salvation is a serious affair. Our age is one of triviality. From staggering volume of mind-numbing entertainment to the get-a-new-one-instead-of-replace-it mentality, nearly everything around us pleads to keep things light-hearted and superficial. God, however, calls us toward the opposite. Christianity must be marked by a certain degree of solemnity.
FOR GOD WORKS IN YOU // VERSE 13
Now that we have read the command of obedience given to us in verse 12, we move on to the promise of supply in verse 13. The word for means that verse 13 is meant to be the root from which verse 12 grows and produces fruit. So what is that root? We are commanded to work out of salvation because God is working in us.
What does it mean that God works in us? The rest of the verse gives us a clue: He works in us so that we can both will and work for His good pleasure. First, Paul attributes our work and will to the work of God within us. The necessity of God’s work in order to work is easier to understand. Peter writes for us to act as stewards of God’s grace, so that whenever we serve, we serve “as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11). When the strength to work comes from God, He gets the glory for the work done because He is the supplier. Every good work falls under this category. We are each required to do good works; however, they have no merit to earn salvation since we can only achieve them by the strength that God supplies.
Yet God is not merely the supplier of strength for our actions but also of our intentions. Our work derives from the work of God in us, as does our will. The desire to obey is, therefore, also the gift of God. Since our will has been permanently marred by sin, our will runs counter to God’s will. Even when we do obey God’s laws, we most often obey out of selfish ambition or conceit. Through Ezekiel, God prophesies how through the work of Christ He would change the will of His people: “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:27). God would cause His people to obey His commandments by putting His Spirit within them. This indwelling Spirit is the great Comforter of the Christian life. By the Spirit, we are given confidence of our being made children of God, while also being the Agent by whom we cry to God as our Father (Romans 8:15-16). Both our will and work for God are enabled by God through His Spirit. Sanctification, therefore, is a work of the Spirit and is non-existent if the Spirit is not present.
Second, we must note that God’s good pleasure is the goal of His work within us and through us. God’s saving work is the result of His pure and gracious benevolence towards us. Without His gracious will to save us, we would not be saved. Nothing in us deserves the salvation that we repeatedly scorn, yet He rescues His rebellious people. Once again, Ezekiel parallels this passage well: “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came” (Ezekiel 36:22). God, therefore, acts for His own glory, holiness, and good pleasure. Our salvation is not primarily about us but about Him. We indeed are gloriously blessed beneficiaries of His loving-kindness, but our salvation is for the glory of God, not man. To this salvation, we cling.
All Christians have been justified, but the call of these verses is now work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Our obedience does not earn us salvation, but it is the evidence of it. Indeed, if verse 13 is the names God as the source of our obedience, then a consistent lack of obedience can only mean that God is not at work in that person. Our obedience is evidence, not the cause, of our salvation, and we are only able to do so because is at work within us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.