In Paul’s letter to the Philippian saints, he says to them in 2:12:
“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.”
Thanks a lot, Paul. Everything seemed pretty simple until we got to this verse!
Does this verse effectively “undo” everything that we’ve studied up to this point about the nature of works? Is Paul actually saying that WE are the ones who “work out” our own salvation? Let’s “work this out”, shall we?
We already know what this CAN’T mean, don’t we? This can’t mean that we somehow work our way into salvation. This can’t mean that we are the ones who earn, merit, or come to deserve God’s grace through our own efforts. There are too many Scriptures that plainly teach that this isn’t true (Eph. 2:8-9; 2 Tim. 1:9; Tit. 3:5). So what DOES it mean?
In his commentary on this passage, Albert Barnes suggests that this phrase could mean any/all of the following:
- “That we are to make an honest effort to be saved in the way which God has appointed” – In other words, we respond to God’s plan to save us through obedient faith in Christ instead of coming up with our own plan, or perverting His plan into something that we are more comfortable with. We all have religious friends who have attempted to “work out their own man-made plan of salvation,” don’t we? This simply won’t “work!”
- “That we are to break off from our sins by true repentance” – Barnes seems to be saying that salvation is not merely a one-time “transaction” between God and the individual; rather, it is a concept that “works itself out” in our lives through a constant desire to grow, spiritually. After all, doesn’t Paul tell the Christians in Colossae in Colossians 3:5 to “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you?” Since this letter was written to the “saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae” (Col. 1:2), repentance evidently continues to be a big part of the life of even the saved Christian!
- “That we are to believe in the Savior, and honestly put our trust in Him” – According to John 6:28-29, belief in Jesus Christ is at least some form of “work.” If this is the case, maybe this passage is pointing to the fact that our constant, steadfast, core belief in Jesus as our Savior plays a large part in maintaining/working out our salvation!
- “That we are to give up all that we have to God” – Since Paul has already told us in Ephesians 2:10 that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works,” perhaps this means that our lives are to be a perpetual display of salvation-inspired works!
- “That we are to break away from all evil companions and evil plans of life” – Paul warns the Corinthian brethren in I Corinthians 15:33 that, “Bad company ruins good morals.” If this is possible, then part of our “working out” our salvation would mean that we avoid the relationships & paths in life that could “ruin” our “good morals.” The implication seems to be that we can receive salvation through Christ and then forfeit it through the relationships that we allow ourselves to be part of!
- “That we are to resist all the allurements of the world, and all the temptations which may assail us that would lead us back from God, and are to persevere to the end” – This seems to be Barnes’s “summary” of everything that he has said up to this point, doesn’t it?
As we move further into this important verse of Scripture, we see HOW we are to “work out our own salvation.” We are to do this “with fear and trembling.” What does this mean? The word “fear” is from the Greek word, “phobos,” and it means: “fear, dread, terror” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). The idea of where we will spend eternity should (and does) involve some kind of fear. If it doesn’t, we probably haven’t thought enough about it.
The word translated “trembling” is an important word as well. This word, “tromos” in the Greek, is “used to describe the anxiety of one who distrusts his ability completely to meet all requirements, but religiously does his utmost to fulfill his duty” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). In other words, as I am “working out my own salvation,” I am taking the process incredibly seriously, but I am also fully and acutely aware of the fact that my efforts will never be enough. My desire is to serve and please the One who has saved me from my sin, which was something that I could never “work out” on my own.
Although our good works do not – and cannot – save us, our lives should be filled with and characterized by them. If this passage is true, it certainly seems that our salvation is a very serious issue that shouldn’t be taken lightly. It also seems that if we don’t take it seriously, we may not remain saved, if we were ever really saved to begin with.
So, what does it mean if someone who calls him/herself a “Christian” doesn’t have any good works in their life?
We will let James answer this question for us next week.