Work out your own salvation
Far from any reference to salvation by works, Paul’s appeal is for a life and a lifestyle consistent with the demands of faith.
One of the difficult Scripture passages to understand, especially to those of us who insist on salvation by faith in God’s grace alone, is Philippians 2:12: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”* The difficulty is further compounded by the verse that follows: “For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:13). Is there a contradiction between the two statements: the demand and the promise, the summoning and the enabling? Is there a legalistic stance in the phrase “work out your own salvation”? Or is there an attempt to walk the theological tightrope, trying to balance the divine and the human in the process of salvation?
Perish the thought. If there was one truth that was precious to the apostle, it was the good news of salvation by grace through faith alone. Paul spent his entire ministry proclaiming that salvation could not come by any other way except through grace, and that a sinner’s acceptance before God is not something merited, but always something given. The apostle even bequeathed to the Christian community two whole epistles — Romans and Galatians — devoted entirely to this good news of God’s saving grace. And to the Ephesians he wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8, 9).
What, then, did the apostle mean by demanding that Christians must “work out” their own salvation?
Far from any reference to salvation by works, Paul’s appeal is for a life and a lifestyle consistent with the demands of faith. In effect, the apostle is saying, “Yes, you are saved by faith. You are saved by the free grace of God. But you are saved to live. Your faith experience must move from believing to living. You must live out your salvation. That involves a lifestyle of obedience, just like our great model — Christ Jesus — who obeyed even to the point of humiliation and death (Philippians 2:5-12). And furthermore, your Christian walk is your personal responsibility; no one else can do it for you.”
“Work out your salvation,” therefore, does not mean “work for your salvation,” but “live a life consistent with the new status of being children of God.” As Jac Muller points out, “The believer is called to self-activity, to the active pursuit of the will of God, to the promotion of the spiritual life in himself, to the realization of the virtues of the Christian life, and to a personal application of salvation. He must ‘work out’ what God in His grace has ‘worked in’.” 1
This human responsibility, the apostle suggests, is to be pursued “with fear and trembling.” Paul is not referring to any “slavish terror” 2 of a vengeful master; nor is he concerned about any frustration in the fulfillment of God’s redemptive purpose. But he is wary of self’s innate capacity for overconfidence or complacency in the journey toward the kingdom. Ellen White warns, “God does not bid you fear that He will fail to fulfill His promises, that His patience will weary, or His compassion be found wanting. Fear lest your will shall not be held in subjection to Christ’s will, lest your hereditary and cultivated traits of character shall control your life. … Fear lest self shall interpose between your soul and the great Master Worker. Fear lest self-will shall mar the high purpose that through you God desires to accomplish. Fear to trust your own strength, fear to withdraw your hand from the hand of Christ and attempt to walk life’s pathway without His abiding presence.” 3
In that sense, fear and trembling must accompany the Christian walk, but in no way is there any implication that the journey is to be performed by self alone. “For God is at work in you.” The word for “at work” is energeo. God is energizing you. God is empowering you. He who has begun a “good work in you” (Philippians 1:6) is now enabling you to finish that work.
This emphasis on God’s work in the life of a Christian (1 Corinthians 12:6, 11; Galatians 2:8; Ephesians 1:11, 20) gives us the assurance that the contours of salvation — the beginning, the continuation, and the culmination — are guaranteed by God’s grace to everyone who believes in Him, and walks with Him. As Karl Barth has noted, “It is God who gives each one whatever he accomplishes in ‘working out his salvation.’ … As such we put ourselves entirely into the power of God, that as such we recognize that all grace, that everything — the willing and the accomplishing, the beginning and the end, the faith and the revelation, the questions and the answers, the seeking and the finding — comes from God and is reality only in God . … Man cannot put his salvation into practice except as he recognizes: it is God ... !” 4
That is the beauty of the gospel. God is paramount in the salvation of man. His grace initiates and His grace completes the redemptive process. “Whatever is to be done at His command may be accomplished in His strength. All His biddings are enablings.” 5
Therefore, fear not. Tremble not. Believe and let God work in us.
John M. Fowler (M.A., Ed.D., Andrews University, M.S., Syracuse University) is an editor of Dialogue and a former associate director of education at the General Conference. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
*All Scripture passages are from the Revised Standard Version.
- Jac J. Muller, The Epistles of Paul to the Philippians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), p. 91.
- Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 4 vols. (New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1905), 3:437.
- Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), p.161.
- Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Philippians, tr. James W. Leitch (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1962), pp. 73, 74.
- White, p. 333.