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, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 2, verses 12,13)
I have heard several people lately talking about working their 12-step program. When I hear this I am not supposing that they are writing or producing their own program, but rather are taking the program that everyone else is following and applying it to themselves. However, when we hear Paul say “work out your salvation” there is a little more ambiguity as to his meaning. In some contexts where Paul uses this particular word (katargeo), it has more the idea of causing or producing something. For example, in Romans 7:13 he says it was not the commandments but sin that “worked” death in him, that is, that produced or caused spiritual death in him In another verse, Romans 7:18, he remarks that though he has the desire to do what is right he does not have the ability to “work” it. In this case Paul doesn’t mean he can’t produce what is right, since that is already established, but that he can’t act in accordance with what is right.
The ambiguity that attends this word forces us to make a decision as to what Paul means when he says here, “work out your salvation.” Does he mean cause or produce your salvation, or does he mean act in accordance with your salvation, that is, consistent with it. The one would mean we are still in need of salvation and can achieve it by working God’s good pleasure, in this case, particularly, living in unity with fellow believers. The other would mean we already have salvation and need to act consistently with it, again, in this context, by living in unity with fellow believers. The only way to determine which meaning is correct is to have an overall understanding of what Paul teaches regarding how one gains salvation.
From this letter itself we may see very clearly in 3:4-9 that Paul rejected his own accomplishments as a Pharisee, even though his righteousness based on the Law was faultless. He considered his previous accomplishments rubbish and leaving him in need of a righteousness not of his own making but that which came from God. He wanted and needed the righteousness that came from God on the basis of faith. And when we look outside of Philippians we find even more ample evidence that Paul did not believe that anyone could produce their own salvation by working (Romans, Galatians, et al).
Nevertheless, we are to work on living out our salvation consistently “with fear and trembling.” Again, we can see this as a strong expression for reverential trust, in which case Paul is saying that we should trust that God is the one helping us work out our salvation, rather than attributing our success to ourselves. But Paul may mean by this that there is an appropriate fear we should have knowing that God is helping us work out our salvation. By that he would mean that all true believers have God working in them this way and so will give evidence of God’s in-working by the way they out-work their already possessed salvation.
Just as Paul felt confident that God would complete the work he had seen done in the Philippians because they had given evidence of this working from the very beginning 1:6), so here he would be reminding them that the evidence they demonstrate by living in unity with one another gives them confidence of their salvation. The absence of such evidence would be cause for fear and motivate them to determine whether they really were in the faith. In the present moment the Philippians are caught up in conflict and need to consider whether the gospel is their most important priority, whether indeed they are living consistently with salvation in Christ.
The kind of work God does in believers is a full-service work. He not only works in them the willingness to do His good pleasure, but also gives them the ability to do His good pleasure. We need both. If all He did was make us able to do His will, but we didn’t necessarily desire to do it, that would be an incomplete kind of obedience. That would be robotic obedience. If we were willing to do it but could not, the good motive in itself would be a very incomplete kind of obedience. That would be futility.
It may seem shocking to us that we don’t have the ability either to desire God’s will nor the ability to do God’s will apart from His enablement. It certainly seems that it is our own desire and ability that leads us to obey. But that is the mystery and seeming lack of coercion that the sovereign working of God accomplishes in us. It is fully us obeying and fully God making us capable of obeying. Indeed, we will get the rewards for obedience even though without Him we could not have done it. We will be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ (1:11) though He bore that fruit in us.
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