Work Out Your Own Salvation?
Philippians 2:12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you 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 who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.
A misunderstanding of this scripture has brought a great deal of confusion to believers over the years. If read out of context, this scripture can seem to imply that being saved isn’t simply a gift from God, but it at least partly rests on our shoulders to “work out” our salvation ourselves. First of all, using proper Bible interpretation, we have to admit that in the light of all the scriptures that tell us that salvation is a free gift of God, it can’t be true that there is anything we can add to the free gift.
So if it can’t mean that, what does it mean? First of all, we begin with the word “therefore,” which tells us we must refer back to whatever was written last. What precedes these verses is one of the most powerful, beautiful passages in the New Testament—likely an early hymn extolling Christ’s voyage of humility and exaltation. So Paul is telling us that for whatever he is going to say, we must set it against our understanding of how Jesus “humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (v. 8).
So what does “work out your salvation” mean if it has nothing to do with adding our works to God’s in the process of saving us? In the scriptures, salvation can refer to the one-time-only act that God works in us in saving us from God’s wrath and bringing us into His Kingdom. It can also refer to the ongoing process of growing in grace that we generally call sanctification, and it can also refer to the time when we enter the next life, when the fullness of salvation comes our way. Here it is kind of a combination of the first two. We’ve been saved (once for all), but that salvation doesn’t sit still.
We are to take what has been “worked in” to us (saving grace, His power, etc.) and make it manifest by turning it into action. After emphasizing that we have been saved by grace through faith, Ephesians 2 says that we are called to “good works” as a result of that salvation. Perhaps the classic commentary Jamieson, Fausset and Brown says it best: “Salvation” is ‘worked in’…believers by the Spirit, who enables them through faith to be justified once for all; but it needs, as a progressive work, to be ‘worked out‘ by obedience, through the help of the same Spirit, unto perfection” [meaning completion].
Our initial salvation has been worked in, and we are gloriously saved, delivered from sin, and set for heaven. But in the meantime, we have been prepared for good works that involve our taking that salvation and expressing it by works of obedience (as Jesus did, providing the ultimate example). The great news is that we not only have the example of Jesus, but God is working in us to want to do His will, and works alongside us to give us encouragement, grace and empowering by His Spirit.
Prayer: Lord, thank You for the free gift of salvation. Show me the path of obedience, so I can demonstrate what You’ve done for me and in me by what You direct me to do. Thank You for willing and working in me for Your good pleasure.