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; 13 for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure – Philippians 2:12-13
The first time I ran across these verses, I scratched my head for I found them both contradictory and confusing.
Contradictory because it seemed to go against everything I knew about salvation. “I thought salvation was a free gift, so what is this verse talking about“, I murmured to myself.
Confusing because it seemed to suggest at first that we are working, and then it goes on to suggest that God is working. “Who is working here“, I pondered. “Is it me, Is it God, Is it both?“.
As I sought out an explanation from others, I quickly came to understand that this is a passage that divides the church into doctrinal factions. Moreover, depending on the faction, these verses are either used as pillars, wholly ignored, or only spoken about in private.
If like me you are a little bamboozled by this passage, I hope the next few abbreviated sections helps to shed some light. If it only persists in confusing you further, I apologize in advance.
Quick context: First, Paul wrote the his letter to the body of believers in Philippi (not unbelievers) as a thank you and encouraging letter. Second, these two verses complete a passage where Paul speaks about us having the mind of Christ – mind of humility and obedience – which ultimately led to Jesus’ name being exalted (read verses 5-11)
What It Means To Work
There are multiple words for the word work in Greek. The Greek word translated as work in the line that says “work out your own salvation” is NOT the Greek word for toil and labor. The word work here means to cause or to effect (as in a change). In other words, it means to trigger.
The Greek word translated as works in the line that says “it is God who works in you” is the Greek word that means active.
So we see that it our job to trigger, and it is His job to be active in us.
What Own Salvation Means
Context reminder: This is written to a body of believers as encouragement and thank you.
No matter how you view Philippians 2:12-13, it is safe to say that all believers have triggered salvation by choosing to put their faith in Jesus Christ. This being the case, the question that lingers is this: What is Apostle Paul talking about when he speaks of triggering (working out) our own salvation.
Context reminder: The preceding versus speak to Jesus the man having the mind of humility and obedience.
The word salvation simply means safety or to be delivered.
We (believers) have been delivered from the penalty of sin (God’s mercy), we presently have been given the ability to be delivered from the power of sin (God’s grace), and we will be taken away from the presence of sin (God’s final victory).
By this we see that salvation is three-fold – encompassing the past, present, and future. All of it is done out of the Father’s love and accomplished by Him through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Indeed, a triune God accomplishes a triune salvation where our spirit is saved (past), our soul is being saved (present), and our body will be saved (future).
Our soul consists of our mind, will, and emotion. It will either conform to this world, thereby causing us or triggering us (working) to experience hell on earth in the kingdom of this world, or it will be conformed to the guidance of the Spirit of God, thereby causing us to experience heaven on earth in the kingdom of God. The choice is ours – choose a hellish life outside of the influence of the Spirit of God or choose a heavenly life inside of the influence of the Spirit of God.
While on earth, Jesus triggered the Kingdom of God to be manifested by having a mind set on humility and obedience. By so doing, God was active (worked) in Him to will and to do His good pleasure (compare this to Philippians 2:12-13). The pleasure of God was for Jesus to be the solution to people’s spiritual, psychological, and physical ailments, as detailed in miracle after miracle. Awesome!!!
Therefore, we see that these verses are an encouragement and admonition for us all – like Jesus – to trigger (work) our own deliverance (own salvation) from the kingdom of this world and to be delivered into the kingdom of God (which Jesus said was at hand and made available to us) by having a mind set on humility and obedience to the Holy Spirit.
Moreover, we see that Philippians 2:12-13 is speaking of our present salvation while on earth from the craziness sin will cause in our lives if we do not bend our mind, will, emotions to humility and obedience to the Spirit of God.
Why is it we have to do it? It is because Jesus the man is gone from the earth. He has already made the Kingdom available to us. Just as He won’t force us to accept Him, He won’t force us to live in the Kingdom He has already made available to us.
What Fear and Trembling Means
Looking up the original meaning of Greek word translated as fear in the passage reveals two words. One translates as possession or hold, while the other translates as awe or reverence. Hence the part that says “with fear” translates into with a possession of reverence or holding onto awe.
Now if the question is awe of what? The answer is awe of what God has made available for such a man who operates in humility and obedience. Nothing should awe us more than what God did for His Son when He lived a life of unmatchable humility and obedience (see Philippians 2:8 -11)
The word trembling translates into quaking with dread. If the question is the dread of what? The answer is dread of missing out on the life that God paid for through the sacrifice of His Son. Is that encouraging?
God desires that we trigger a life of living in His kingdom (which has been delivered to us) by establishing a mindset of humility and obedience through taking a hold of the awe of what God has in store for us and a dread of missing out on it.
In the kingdom of God abides love, joy, peace, self-control, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, patience and more regardless of our circumstance. Why would we not trigger that? I hope you agree that indeed good for us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling