Work out your salvation?
John M. Fowler
What does it mean when Paul says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12 )? 1 How is it possible to be saved by works, even though Paul says in many places that salvation is by faith alone?
One of the essentials of biblical interpretation is to read a passage in its context. The immediate context of this passage is Paul’s desire that the Philippian Christians should lead a life “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). Such a saved life should put away self-centeredness (2:2) and reflect the mind of Jesus (2:5) in everything that is done, even to the point of death. Paul’s admonition is couched in strong words: don’t take your salvation for granted. Take its demand on your life seriously: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12).
We must not stop reading here. Paul’s admonition to show our salvation by our works is immediately followed by the apostle’s assurance of divine enabling: “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:13).
Is there a contradiction between the two statements – the promise and the demand, the enabling and the summoning? Is there a legalistic stance in the phrase “work out your own salvation”? Or is there an attempt to walk a 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 gifted. 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 the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8, 9).
What, then, did the apostle mean by saying “work out your own salvation”? Paul is appealing 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 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 (Phil. 2:5-13). 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 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’.”2
This human responsibility is to be pursued “with fear and trembling.” Paul here is not referring to any “slavish terror”3 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.”4
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 it is God who 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 …!”5
That is the beauty of the gospel. God is paramount in the salvation of humans. 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.”6 For God is at work in us.
John M. Fowler (Ed.D., Andrews University), is an associate director of the Education Department at the General Conference and is the editor of Dialogue. His e-mail: email@example.com.
1. All Scriptures, unless otherwise noted, are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version.
2. Jac J. Muller, The Epistles of Paul to the Philippians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), p. 91.
3. Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 4 vols. (New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1905), 3:437.
4. Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1900), p. 161.
5. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Philippians, James W. Leitch trans. (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1962), pp. 73, 74.
6. Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 333.