Christians are often concerned about God’s will for their lives. They usually mean, “What does God want me to do for Him while I’m on earth?” It’s a question related to vocation. It’s also a question that gets elevated above a more crucial one. A better and more important question, because it cuts deeper into our being, is “What “work” am I to be about?” Is there a work Christians are to be doing that saturates every aspect of their lives? There is a work that we are to be about no matter our vocation, economic status, church affiliation, family situation, gender, or education level. It’s a “job” we unknowingly signed on to when we came to Christ.
It’s the “work” of salvation. That’s right. The Holy Apostle Paul admonishes his friends in Philippi to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for God works in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2.12-13).
Evangelicals are often dumbfounded by St. Paul’s admonition to “work out your own salvation.” His words throw a spiritual wrench into human theologies that seek to control Scripture with logical arguments and exegetical fallacies. But, Paul will have none of it. His words prevail over all others.
When this clarion call is devalued, we unknowingly suffocate the significance of the work we’re called to do. We miss out on the opportunity to effect a level of spiritual life available to every believer. Because there is such fear of anything that even hints of a “works-righteousness” or “works-salvation,” the Apostle’s words are ignored or dismissed. Their importance is reduced to empty words on a page unrelated to how we are to live our lives as Christians.
Thus, the real work you and I are to be engaged in every moment of our lives is not taken seriously. We are left without any genuinely substantive work to “do” substituting insipid moralism and/or driveling piety believing these ideas are Christian. We assume we’ve been laid off until Jesus returns.
The Challenge of Interpretation
Some may think that Paul is saying, “work for your salvation,” “save yourself” or “do good works to save yourself.” Totally wrong interpretation. However, some enlightened Christians may think that since this misguided interpretation is part of a “works-salvation” tradition, the admonition is to be dismissed altogether.
Or, others may explain: “It’s not ‘work for your salvation’ but ‘work out the salvation you already have.'” In other words, “You’re saved; now live like it.” Closer but still no cigar. A few weeks ago I heard a pastor explain the phrase like this. He didn’t get it quite right. St. Paul is getting at something more profound and life-transformative.
Unfortunately, if we focus only on this one phrase because it makes us uncomfortable trying to explain it so it makes sense within our theological understanding, we will miss what is actually being written. We think that Paul certainly cannot be connecting work with salvation since Luther and Calvin say he can’t be and so do all the other evangelical authors we read.
And yet, that is exactly, without question, what the great Apostle does. In fact, he makes it a matter of “obedience.” Having highlighted our need to develop the humble mind of Christ who was completely obedient (vv. 1-10), St. Paul writes:
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.” (v. 12)
To be obedient to God, we must “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.” Seems pretty clear, right?
What’s the Meaning of “Work?”
The Greek word used here – katergazomai – is translated in many ways in the New Testament. These translations inform our understanding of its use here. It’s most often translated as the verb “produce” as in Romans 7.8; 2 Corinthians 4.17, 7.10, 9.11; James 1.3. It can also be translated “bring about,” “do,” “perform,” and “work.”
According to Strong’s concordance, the word is made up of two words “kata” – down, exactly according to (bring to decisive finality) + “ergazomai” – work, accomplish. It literally means: “work down to the end-point,” to an exact, definite conclusion. It can be used to denote a “process,” to “bring about,” to “effect by labor,” or to “achieve.”
In other words, there’s no dancing around it. St. Paul is telling us to “bring about/accomplish salvation,” or “perform/do/work our salvation.” In fact, do it with intensity. Put your whole heart into it. Leave no stone unturned. Get at it with all your might. Do it as if your life depends on it (it does!!).
Yipes!! This throws us into a tailspin because we know that salvation is by faith, right? Is Scripture contradictory? No. So how can salvation be described like this? Let’s see…
“Salvation” – not what we think
Here a major issue: our understanding of “salvation” is too narrow. Salvation has been reduced to mean only one thing – having our sins forgiven so we can get to heaven. For most, this is what it means to be saved. There’s a moment in time when you “get saved” or experience salvation and that’s it. You might say, “you’re good to go.” This understanding reduces salvation to a past event – a done deal – with little awareness of what is actually taking place.
I once preached a series of messages from the book of Hebrews. It became quickly evident that “salvation” is presented in Scripture as happening in the past, currently happening now, and will happen in the future. We have been saved, are being saved, and will be saved. For most of us, salvation is an event of a life-time. In other words, we are always being saved; always on the path of having our sins forgiven and always preparing for heaven. Grasping the truth that salvation is an ongoing function will help clarify the connection St. Paul makes between work and salvation.
A second issue is to understand that salvation is what God works in us not what we make happen within ourselves. Salvation is God’s work of saving shared with us. God is Salvation. Ironically, ask the typical evangelical Christian how he/she “got saved” and they’ll begin by telling you what they did – even though they’d claim that they did nothing to “get saved.”
Salvation is God’s salvation. He is the Source of salvation. I am not. The only way to be saved is to become united with Salvation by faith. Period. We may say those words yet actually believe something else.
Obviously then, to “work out our own salvation” must be connected to the one who is Salvation – who is saving us all the time. Thus, verse 13: God is at work within us and we are to join in that work.
It is better to understand this reality as: “work out what God is working in” or “work with God for salvation.”
“Work” = energy
The Greek word used three times in these verses – once referring to the believer and twice referring to God – is our word for “energy.” God energizes our salvation as we ourselves put energy with Him into salvation since He’s energizing His goodwill. In other words: “energize your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who energizes in you, both to will and to energize for his good pleasure.” No wonder we can’t save ourselves. We don’t have the energy for it. God supplies it and we, being energized by it, engage in all that saves us.
Understand, St. Paul is not talking about “good works” here. He’s talking about energized or energizing effort, an energy coming from God himself.
For these verses to make sense, we must understand that 1) God is working to save us, 2) we work with God for our salvation. These are not parallel realities but synergistic realities – they work together to produce the end, salvation. In other words, we must cooperate with God as He saves us. This is true salvation.
Ephesians 2.8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
There’s nothing in these verses that contradicts this understanding of St. Paul’s admonition in Philippians 2.12-13. Salvation is always through faith. Salvation is always a gift of God and a result of His grace. Salvation is never earned nor simply a result of any human work. Salvation “is not your own doing” but is participating by faith in God who is Salvation and is saving.
Titus 3.4-7 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.
Again, there’s nothing in these verses that contradicts this understanding of St. Paul’s admonition. Salvation is always what God does. Salvation does not occur simply because one engages in righteous works. God’s goodness, loving-kindness, and mercy are essential to salvation along with the work of the Holy Spirit (in which we also participate).
We learn these lessons from this reality. Salvation is a:
- Synergistic work – Humans are cooperative and participative in what God supplies, salvation.
- Unifying work – Humans and God experience harmony, wholeness, and integrity in real salvation.
- Serious work – Humans are to put energy into their salvation (“with fear and trembling”) not in order to save themselves but in order to participate in God’s salvation. This work is urgent, strenuous, solemn, and necessary.
- Continuous work – God continually works salvation in us so we are to continually work salvation with Him.
So, what’s my point?
I’m not saying you’re not saved unless you agree with this understanding of St. Paul’s admonition. Neither am I degrading the need for cultivating the habit of doing good works for the glory of God and the good of others.
I want Christians everywhere (including my wretched soul) to realize their need to daily participate in the salvation God provides through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit which involves the “faith-work” of communing with the Trinity.
Here is a prayer that provides a means, when spoken with a genuine heart, of participating by faith and effort in God’s salvation:
My most merciful and all-merciful God, O Lord Jesus Christ: in thy great love, thou didst come down and take flesh in order to save all. And so I pray thee, O Savior, save me by grace. If thou shouldest save me because of my deeds, this would not be a gift, but merely a duty. Truly, thou aboundest in compassion and art inexpressibly merciful; for thou hast said, O my Christ: ‘He who believes in me shall live and never see death.’ If faith in Thee saves the desperate, behold: I believe. Save me, for thou art my God and my Creator. May faith be accounted to me in place of deeds, for thou shalt find no deeds to justify me. May my faith suffice for everything: may it answer for me; may it justify me; may it make me a partaker of thine eternal glory. Do not let Satan seize me and boast that he has torn me from thy hand and fold; but rather, Christ my Savior, save me whether I want it or not. Come quickly, hurry, for I am perishing: for thou art my God from my mother’s womb. O Lord, grant that now I may love thee as I once loved sin, and that I may labor for thee without laziness just as I once labored for Satan the deceiver. All the more shall I labor for thee, my Lord and God, Jesus Christ, all the days of my life, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
I recommend saying this prayer every morning to realize salvation in a very tangible way.
Comment below and let me know any questions you may have about St. Paul’s admonition in Philippians 2.12-13 and its application to your life.