Paul writes in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Philipi, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12) This can be a perplexing statement. So, let’s take a closer look.
It’s easy to misunderstand this and think you have to “work for your salvation,” but that is not what Paul said. He tells us to “work out” not “work for.”
How do we work out our salvation?
First, it is important for us to recognize we have already received our salvation from the finished work of Christ. As believers in Jesus, our salvation is not in question here, or ever. Jesus clarifies this for us as recorded in John 6:28-29, “Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”
Second, we are not attempting to earn more of God’s love or approval. God’s love is unconditional. By definition, there’s nothing we can do to earn more of (nor lose) something that’s unconditional – it is received without condition.
In light of this, we can see that the “working out” is what God is doing in us and through us. Paul finishes his sentence by saying, “…for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13 ESV)
Why “fear “?
How does “fear” align with John’s writing in 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”?
First, it is the same Greek word in both verses, so this is not a translation issue. However, there are two ways this word can be used (two definitions). One definition is “fear, dread, terror.” This is what John is describing; there is no dread or terror in true love.
The second definition is “reverence for one’s husband.” We are the bride of Christ; He is our husband. In Paul’s writing we see the “fear” is a reverence.
Paul is revealing that we will revere God as we recognize our utter inability to live up to God’s standards. When used together, “fear and trembling” is describing “the anxiety of one who distrusts his ability completely to meet all requirements.” (Strong’s Concordance) Clearly, our only hope is what Jesus has done on our behalf.
Paul also use this language when writing to the church in Corinth, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
Paul is saying his own ability is totally insufficient, and salvation comes only through relying on the “power of God”. The same is true for our salvation.
How do we work out our salvation?
We work out our salvation by leaning into Jesus more and more, and watch how He transforms us by the power of the Spirit to look more and more like Him. Our effort alone is totally inadequate, but we are able to experience transformation by the power of God.
Let’s talk about it –
Do you ever find yourself attempting to work as if your salvation is up to you? How would this understanding of these Philippians’ verses help you rest in the “power of God”?