What Does Work Out Your Salvation with Fear and Trembling Mean?
- it is taken to mean that once we have salvation, it can be lost, if we’re not careful, and
- it is taken to mean that once we have salvation, we must work to continue to have it
Essentially, the two statements above are similar, but with a slightly different emphasis on each one. Many people take this verse in Philippians to mean that salvation can be lost and/or that while salvation is fully “free,” work on our part needs to be done to ensure that our salvation is maintained. Two questions arise though from Paul’s statement that require a careful understanding or we will fail to gain Paul’s (and therefore, the Holy Spirit’s), actual meaning here.
First, we must allow Scripture to interpret Scripture to gain the full meaning of any portion of Scripture. Too often, today’s Christian loves to “hunt and peck,” whereby he/she looks for a specific verse or two that seems to speak to their situation and they then build a theology on that verse (or few verses), for their lives. Second, too often cultural context is completely ignored by today’s Christian when attempting to determine Scriptural meaning for any portion of Scripture. Without context, it really becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to grasp God’s intended meaning. It is ridiculous to attempt to understand the meaning of Scripture by divorcing it from the day in which it was originally written (cultural context). Yet, too many Christians do that to their own detriment.
A case in point is the admonition by Jesus that we should “turn the other cheek” or “go the extra mile” (cf. Matthew 5). These are often ripped out of their cultural context to mean that Christians must turn themselves into doormats. If an “evil” person strikes us on the cheek, we are obligated to turn to them the other cheek as much to say “Here, go ahead and slap me silly on the other side of my face as well.” With the phrase “go the extra mile,” we assume it to mean that I must go out of my way to allow the “evil” person to use me however he/she sees fit. If they order to me to carry something for them, I should not only carry it one mile, but two, thereby proving that I the veritable doormat. That’ll show ’em!
The problem with this understanding is that it is arrived at completely devoid of cultural context. Within that context, we learn that it applied to people during Roman times due to the specific set of laws that existed then. I’ve gone over this several times before. You can check out one such article at this link.
This is an example of how Scripture can be easily misunderstood because of a failure to consider context and/or the entirety of Scripture. It is the same when it comes to doctrines like Soteriology (Salvation) or Christology. It is so important to realize that when we approach Scripture any time, our goal is to understand what God means, not what we think He means or what we are comfortable believing He means. We are to learn how to “rightly divide” His Word (2 Timothy 2:15), so that we gain God’s intended meaning. Too many people do not do this for a variety of reasons. They might become part of a denomination and then learn what the Bible allegedly teaches or they simply go through life taking everyone else’s word for something instead of diligently finding out what God’s Word means themselves through proper and continued study. However, Christians need to become masters at allowing Scripture to interpret itself. This takes time and a tremendous amount of study.
If we are going to attempt to understand Paul’s comments to Timothy related to working out salvation with fear and trembling, we need to ask a number of questions related to that one passage of Scripture. Certainly, Paul’s words were not written in a vacuum and at the very least, we can compare this one passage to other letters also written by Paul (under the guidance of the Holy Spirit), in order to gain a fuller picture. We also need to use other tools (like context and Scripture against Scripture), in order to arrive to the conclusion that gives us confidence that we have gained God’s intended meaning.
I’m going to start by stating that I believe the Bible – in its entirety – teaches that salvation is completely free, truly eternal, and cannot be lost. You can view our ABOUT page to see how that breaks down foundationally with more Scripture referencing. In brief, we fully believe and are confident in the fact that the Bible teaches four aspects of salvation:
When a person responds to the gospel, repents of sin, turns to God in Christ for salvation, the Holy Spirit then brings about a spiritual change within that person. From that point onward, he/she is freed from the guilt of sin (whether felt or not; this is judicial). The person also receives Christ’s righteousness in exchange for his/her own “filthy rags.” This is essentially the “new birth” that Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about in John 3. It is a spiritual transaction that cannot be undone anymore than a physical birth can be undone. Yes, a person can and will die, but this does not negate the fact that they were born physically. Death does not undo this miracle. Nothing can undo the “second birth” either. It is a permanent condition.
Before we go any further, let’s look at the verse in question – Philippians 2:12 closely. I’ve listed them below from several well-known translations.
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, (NIV).
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, (ESV).
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, (NASB).
Wherefore, my beloved, as ye 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, (KJV).
So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, (HCSB).
So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, (NET).
If you look closely, in not one of the translation listed above does Paul say or even hint at the idea of working for salvation. In each case, Paul tells the Philippians (and by extension, us since we are also part of the same Church), that we are to “work out” our salvation. This is a huge difference that should be immediately noticed. There is a vast difference in working for something versus working something out. We are to allow (and even forcefully cause), our salvation to take over our lives and in most cases, we do that by submitting our will to His. It is not automatic. There is work involved.
Salvation is a completely free gift from God to us (Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8). There is nothing that a person can do to earn salvation. If there was, no matter how it is argued, salvation would not be a free gift. At the same time, persevering in it is not something you or I do either. Our “work” is to cooperate with God in the working out of that salvation in our lives. If we do not cooperate with Him, we will make it very hard on ourselves and will bring dishonor to God.
Can you imagine if someone bought you a house, gave you the key and said, “This is yours! All you have to do is make monthly payments on it!” What kind of “gift” is that?! Sure, they put the down payment on it, but you are now left with coming up with the monthly mortgage! It wouldn’t be a gift at all, but a true burden. Now if someone gave you a house where you owed nothing on it (no monthly mortgage or taxes), that would actually be a free gift. Certainly, you might be expected to keep the home up so that it did not go into disrepair. However, even if you did allow that to happen, the house itself would still be yours. No one could take it away from you because it was completely paid for by someone else, leaving you with absolutely no debt on it.
Someone might argue, “Yeah, but you could walk away from that house.” Yes, but that is where our illustration breaks down because that is not what Scripture teaches about our salvation either. We’ll discuss this in a multi-part series soon.
Paul wants us to understand not only the tenets of our salvation, but how it should look in our lives, where the rubber meets the road. In fact, Paul makes this clear in the very next verse, Philippians 2:13 where he states, “for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God.” Notice that salvation is not only what God does for us, but what He accomplishes within us as well! It is the outworking of our salvation, the results or fruit of it. This is a truth that needs to sink in.
But the Christian doesn’t simply sit there idly, while God does everything. We have to cultivate the outworking and effects of His life within us. Paul provides an example in the very next verse, Philippians 2:14, which states, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing.” Why would Paul tell his readers that this is a responsibility of the Christian – to do everything without grumbling or arguing – if the entire responsibility rests with God Himself? Clearly, the Christian has work to do but not in gaining or keeping salvation.
Clearly, God brings this about in our lives but He does so best when His children are willing to submit to His Lordship and deliberately “work out” the way it is supposed to look in our lives. If we know ahead of time that Christians have a responsibility to do everything without grumbling or arguing, that is a goal we should set for ourselves. If we did not know this ahead of time, it would be hard to set that as a goal. But just setting the goal is not enough. We have to actively work toward that goal knowing that God is “bringing forth in [us] both the desire and the effort.” Why? The remainder of the verse tells us. It is for His “good pleasure” that He does these things and He wants us to join with Him in that effort that He creates within us. We join Him by submitting our will to His and by leaning on Him for strength to do what His Word tells us to do.
This is the “working out” of our salvation and this is why the narrow path of Christianity appears so difficult at times. It is difficult because it is sometimes not easy for us to set aside our own wants and desires and bring our will into alignment with God’s. This is why it is extremely important to study His Word and to understand what it is telling us. This helps create within us the desire to be more like Him and to bring glory to Him.
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