Before we go too far into Philippians 2:12-18, we are met with an apparent paradox: Paul tells us in vs. 12 to “work out your salvation”, and then follows this up in vs. 13 by telling us “it is God who works in us.” So which is it: we work or God works? Do we just “let go and let God?” Do we make resolutions that we are going to change and put in the effort and discipline to make it happen? Certainly, we all are susceptible to leaning more on our work at times, or perhaps to expecting God to work in us without our effort. We accept that we are saved by grace through faith, but how often do we act like it is up to us to take it from there or simply stay where we are and not seek to grow in the spiritual disciplines? We are called to work out our salvation, but Paul rightly balances this by telling us that it is God who works in us. What may appear to be a paradox is really two truths to be held in tension: we work, but really it is God working in us.
Some years ago, as I was going through a ministry transition, I was reading through the Bible as I had done before, but as I read through Genesis, the Joseph narrative ministered to me in ways that had not happened during other readings. I saw that Joseph spent years in transition, suffering for doing no wrong, enduring isolation and betrayal, all while God was taking him to Egypt to save his family, God’s chosen people. I saw in the pages of Genesis a man who had great faith but still had doubts and fears about what God was doing and it was only at the end of the story that it all made sense to him. God used that to help me to learn some great truths that carried me through a rough time in my life. So, while it was me doing the Bible reading (working out spiritually), it really was God working in me.
How then are we to work out our salvation, knowing that it really is God working in us, keeping these in perfect tension. Working backwards in vs. 12, Paul tells us to work out with “fear and trembling.” Fear is the Greek term which can mean both to be afraid and to be in awe, which both play a part in how we behave. We fear God as He is the one who makes and enforces the rules.
When I am driving and notice a police car behind me, I am a much more careful driver because I know that the officer will be happy to point out any errant driving. We are also to fear God in the sense of reverential awe, because He is worthy. Using the same analogy of driving: when I drive and my wife is driving behind me, I am also more careful in my driving, but not because I fear she will give me a ticket, but because I love her and want to make sure we are together and she doesn’t get lost.
How much more is God worthy of our submission and love and living out the fear of the Lord. As Solomon reminds us a couple times, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” (Prov. 1:7) We also ought to live with a healthy fear of ourselves, knowing how prone we are to going our own way. As the hymn so eloquently states, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” It is a both a slow and a quick journey away from God and we need to live with a healthy fear of this. This is why we need to submit to the authority of the local church, and to the Word of God in our lives. We are prone to wander, so work out your salvation with fear, both of God and ourselves.
The other half of this expression is “trembling”, which is the word where we get the English word “tremor.” This may not have the best connotation in our language, but Scripture makes it clear that it is the right way of approaching God. Isaiah 66:2 tells us that God will look to one who “trembles” at His word. Daniel 6:26 gives us the command of Darius that people are to “tremble” before the God of Daniel. Psalm 99:1 reminds us that God reigns and the expected response is that the peoples should “tremble”.
In Ezra 9:4, the faithful group with Ezra are those who “trembled” at the words of God. In the New Testament, Paul describes himself as coming to the Corinthian believers in “fear and much trembling” and later commends them for receiving Titus with “fear and trembling.” Putting this together, it is clear from Scripture that fear and trembling are part of an appropriate response to a holy God and an unholy man. It helps to guide our lives towards God and away from ourselves, guiding our working out of our salvation.
Thus, it is with fear and trembling that we work out our salvation, but what does Paul mean by telling us to work out our salvation. We must be clear that he is telling us that we are to work out our salvation, not working FOR our salvation. Our salvation is not of works, but all of faith (Eph. 2:8-9). However, there is an expected behavior, which Paul describes as working out our salvation. Working out our salvation will take effort and commitment. To work out your salvation requires you to work, to put in the time and effort necessary, to devote yourself to the process and follow through on the work. It will also take perseverance, not giving up when you are tired or the road is hard. It is at those hard times in life when our faith is most strengthened (James 1:2-4). This is our side of the equation, but the good news is that it is not all on us: God works in us.
While Paul tells us to work out our salvation, he is very quick to remind us that it is really God who works in us. The joy of the journey with God is that He is at work in our lives. We may think we are doing things to grow spiritually, but really all we are doing is allowing God to work and not resist His work. When you plant a seed and it grows to a beautiful flower, it is not the work of the seed or the flower, but the work of the gardener, through the water and sunlight that produces the growth. If the seed could say “I don’t want to be buried in a pile of dirt,” then the flower won’t grow. But the seed cannot say, “Look at what I have done.” In much the same way, the things we do to work out our salvation simply open the door for God to work in us. This balance of God working in us while we work is pictured beautifully in the prayer of Solomon in 1 Kings 8:58-61. Solomon prays that God would “incline our hearts to Him, to walk in all his ways and to keep all his statutes and his rules, which he commanded our fathers. So, Solomon is saying that we cannot obey God’s word without God inclining our hearts towards him. Solomon also challenges his people, “Let your heart, therefore, be wholly true to the Lord our God, walking in all his statutes and keeping his commandments as at this day.” So, Solomon prays that God would make obedience possible, and then challenges the people to put in the effort. It is us working, but really it is God working in us.
How, then, does this play out in the lives of God’s people? Paul gives us a real-life example in the verses that follow: to do all things without grumbling or questioning (complaining or arguing as in NIV). This specific challenge is likely a concrete example of working out their salvation, under the theme of the section to live as worthy gospel citizens.
What is the result of living a life free of complaining and arguing? You will show yourself as someone who is different. Have you ever been around someone who complains about everything? How about people who complain about some things? How about a person who doesn’t complain about anything? The difference is striking between those who complain and those who do not. Paul says that we will stand out as blameless and innocent – no one would be able to lay any accusation or blame against us because we would be pure and sincere. Central to this, though, is holding fast to God’s Word and the truth of the gospel. When life and life’s trials are viewed through the lens of God’s word and the gospel, the things that would bring complaints are seen as simply bumps in the road on the journey towards life with God.
We will finish with a story: My father loves charcoal grills. I have tried to love them but never mastered them. The coals of the fire are supposed to do the cooking, but they have to stay hot in order to do the work. When one of the coals is separated from the heat source, it quickly loses its effectiveness. In much the same way, when we separate ourselves from the source of heat (God’s Spirit), we will lose our effectiveness. When we are connected to the source, then we can work out our salvation. Work out, but remember it is really God who works in you.