If we are saved by grace, which I am told is a gift from God, and not by our good works, what does it mean in Philippians 2:12 when it says “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”?
This is a question that has been asked by many people. At first it seems that these two concepts are contradictive, but they actually harmonize very well.
Ephesians 2:8, 9 says, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: [it is] the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” [Emphasis supplied.] Yet the same author, the apostle Paul, writes to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Philippians 2:12.
This quotation from Philippians is only part of the text of the verse. Important context and instruction is given just before the part of “working out your own salvation.” Notice what the first part of that text says: “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out . . . .” Paul here sets the stage by telling the believers in Philippi that they are obedient Christians doing what is right all the time, not just when someone is watching them. They are being obedient even when he is gone from them.
Paul acknowledges them as doing a good work in the realm of salvation. They have been obedient, but they need to continue on in what they are doing. Anyone who thinks that the Christian life is doing your own thing and not being accountable to anyone is only fooling themselves. We are to be accountable to other Christians who make up the Lord’s body, the church. But more than that, we are to be accountable to the Lord himself. (See 1 Corinthians 4:2–5.)
So what Paul is doing here is urging them to work, not for the sake of approving themselves to their earthly teacher, but to think of their unseen Lord and to realize His presence all the more in Paul’s absence.
When he says, “work out your own salvation,” he is saying, “Complete it;” God has begun the work; carry it out to the end. The Greek word katergazomai translated as “work out” in Philippians 2:12, is, in Ephesians 6:13, translated as “having done all.” Christ’s work of atonement is finished; work from the cross; carry out the great work of sanctification by the help of the Holy Spirit.
The words “your own” are also important here. Please do not pass this by. Each man is to attend to his own work. No friend, no pastor, not even a parent can work it for him. He is the one who must respond to the Holy Spirit by obedience. No one else can do another’s work of bringing to completion the plan of salvation in the life. When the Bible says “with fear and trembling,” it means “with fear and trembling.” Salvation is not a light matter. It is very serious. Those who move through the sanctification process do so soberly and cautiously.
Verse 13 of Philippians 2 tells the conclusion of the whole matter. “For it is God which worketh in you.” If any good is going to come from bringing the work of God to a conclusion, it is because God has His hand in the matter. It is God who works in you.
This then brings us full circle. We are saved by grace, because grace is the unmerited favor of God working in us to bring us through the complete sanctification process. We are commanded by the apostle to move along in the process without any complaining or murmuring until the process is complete.
Pastor Mike Baugher is Associate Speaker for Steps to Life Ministry. If you have a question you would like Pastor Mike to answer, e-mail it to: firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail it to: LandMarks, P. O. Box 782828, Wichita, KS 67278.