Philippians 2:12 says, “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.“
On the surface, it can seem like a strange command.
Work out my salvation? I thought Jesus paid for all my sins and that I don’t have to do any good works to earn my salvation. What does it mean to work out my salvationwith fear and trembling?
It sounds a little scary, right?
And a bit confusing?
How does this command fit into the rest of what the Bible says about resting in Christ and trusting in him alone for salvation?
Let’s dig a little bit deeper.
Work Out Your Salvation With Fear and Trembling – What It Doesn’t Mean
First, let’s be crystal clear on what this command does NOT mean.
To work out your salvation with fear and trembling does not mean in any way that we earn our salvation. Scripture is absolutely crystal clear on that.
Our salvation and eternal life were purchased by the sinless life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection of our savior. There is nothing we can to add to the salvation that Christ purchased for us.
Hebrews 9:26 puts it this way, “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
Once and for all, Jesus has put away our sin. How? By laying down his life for us.
Isn’t that glorious good news?
We don’t have to add a single thing to what Christ has accomplished. When Jesus said, “It is finished,” he really meant it.
You can’t say it any stronger than Paul said it in Galatians 1:8: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”
Paul was incredibly passionate about keeping the gospel pure and undiluted. In fact, he cared about it so much that he said if anyone dared to preach a different gospel he should be accursed by God.
This raises a critical question then: what DID Paul mean when he said to work out your salvation with fear and trembling?
Work Out What God Has Worked In
Several things should strike us when we hear Paul say, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
First is the phrase, “Work out…”
To work something out is to prove it to be true. When we work out a math problem, we aren’t fundamentally changing the answer. Two plus two always equals four. When we do the equation, we are simply proving that two plus two equals four.
You could say, in a sense, that we are called to work out the “math” of our salvation.
In other words, God has already done the staggering work of salvation in us. He has saved us, forgiven us, rescued us, put his Holy Spirit in us, and united us to Jesus. That glorious work has already been done.
But that doesn’t mean that we simply sit back and do nothing.
No! On the contrary, we’re called to do good works as a way of showing that God does indeed live in us. These good works in NO way earn our salvation. They are simply proof of what God has already done in us.
An example of this is what Jesus said in John 13:35: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Jesus doesn’t say that if we love one another we will be his disciples. Rather, he says that our love for one another is PROOF that we are his disciples.
This is what James was getting at when he said in James 2:14, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?”
Salvation is through faith, not a result of works. Period. Full stop.
Our good works are simply proof that our faith is real.
To work out your salvation with fear and trembling is simply to work out what God has already worked in. God has worked salvation in us. The good works we do are simply evidence of what God has already gloriously done within us.
Work Out Your Salvation…For It Is God Who Works In You
The second thing that should strike us when we read the command to, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” is the words that follow.
In the following verse, Paul says, “…for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
This should give us GREAT encouragement.
How can we be sure that we WILL produce good fruit? How can we be confident that we WILL do the good works that God has called us to do? How can we be sure that we’ll actually work out our salvation?
Because God himself is at work in us.
We work to do the good deeds God has called us to do, knowing that he is giving us both the motivation and the power to do them.
This is how God always works. He calls us to obedience and then he gives us the power to obey.
You can think of it kind of like a car engine. We press down on the gas pedal, confident that the engine will kick in and propel us forward.
In the same way, we strive to do good works, knowing that God himself is working in us and will provide us with all the strength and power we need to do those good works.
This should be such an encouragement to us.
Spiritual growth doesn’t solely depend on our ability or strength or gusto. If this was the case, I’d have no confidence that I could make any progress spiritually.
Rather, we cooperate with God, working with him as he works in us. We press down on the gas pedal of righteousness as God propels us forward.
Or to use the language of Paul, we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that God is already at work in us.