By Working Out Their Own Salvation - Page 1 of 2 (series: Lessons on Philippians)

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

John Lowe

Lesson #13
Title: By Working Out Their Own Salvation

Scripture: (Philippians 2:12-13, NIV)

12 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{12.4} and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.


In the following two verses of our study, Paul explains spiritual growth. After presenting Christ as the perfect illustration of the humble mind, the apostle returns to his original theme of living worthy of the Gospel (Philippians 1:27) and describes what enables us to live this way. He has commanded the Philippians to stand fast in the Gospel and to keep a spirit of unity within the church. Now he urges them to complete God’s work in their hearts by obeying these specific commands. Obedience was the spiritual duty of the Philippian believers. Paul’s heart and mind are clear on this matter, as is his instructions to the Christians at Philippi. He wants them to resolve their interpersonal conflicts and to focus their energies on the progress of the Gospel.


(12) 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,

Having reminded his readers of the exemplary self-sacrifice of Christ, Paul now proceeds to point out its practical bearing upon the life of the church as a whole, thus resuming his appeal to them to show the same lowliness of mind towards one another (vv. 1-5).

“Salvation”{12.3] in this verse is used, I believe, in a general sense. Paul is talking about working out their problems which they had in the church and working out the problems in their own Christian lives. He is not there to help them and is not sure that he ever will be there again because he is in a Roman prison. So he tells them “to work out{12.2] your salvation{12.3] with fear and trembling.”

God has already achieved our salvation. It is “of God” (1:28). In fact, “No one can work his salvation out unless God has already worked it in.” Therefore, Paul does not mean that we are to “work out” our salvation in the sense that salvation needs our work to be accomplished; rather, it has the idea of carrying out. The key to understanding the meaning of this command is found in the phrase “as ye have always obeyed.” Paul refers to what believers had been doing in the past—obeying—and compared their past obedience to the present—now. Paul was not directing his call for Gospel unity to a congregation that was apathetic or apostate. The Philippians had a track record of participating in the work of the Gospel (1:5{12.6]), both when Paul ministered among them and after he left (2:12). But they could not be satisfied with the evidences of grace they had displayed in the past; on the other hand they should not be slow to strive for holiness through faith-filled, Spirit-empowered effort. God did not save us by our works, but He did save us “unto good works” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Christian fruitfulness is the result of amazing grace. The absence of spiritual progress in our lives is due to our active resistance of God’s energizing power.

The phrase “fear and trembling” means “seriously and reverently.” It confirms that spiritual growth is conditional. The word fear describes respect for God, so that we will never want to disobey Him. The word trembling conveys the idea of personal distrust in one’s ability because of the possibility of failure. It is with these attitudes that we should approach our spiritual growth along with an urgent commitment to obedience. But what does the Apostle mean by this? Is it possible that Paul, the champion of salvation by faith alone, advises his converts to obtain it by works? No; only if we separate verse 12 from verse 13 will we draw this wrong conclusion. Paul is not thinking of works which a man must do in order to earn his “salvation”{12.3]; he is concerned with the fruits of the Christian life which can appear only as God produces them in us. Equally, however, such fruits cannot appear if man resists God’s work in his heart. Religious progress always depends on the grace of God; but without man’s co-operation God himself is helpless. Hence he is not exhorting them as individuals to “work out”{12.2] their personal salvation. He is rather urging them to forsake self-assertive zeal, so that they can all work together for the spiritual health of the whole church as a witnessing community (v. 14), for a church torn by strife never makes a favorable impact upon the world! With his own approaching departure in view, Paul seems to have modeled his remarks upon Moses’ farewell address (Deuteronomy 32:1-5). But while Moses rebukes the children of Israel for their past disobedience, Paul believes that he can count upon the Philippians’ obedience to the Gospel even in his absence, because God is present with them in the power of His enabling grace (v. 13).

At first sight this confidence hardly seems compatible with a feeling of “fear and trembling,” but the other occasions on which Paul used this expression indicate a man-ward rather than a God-ward reference (1 Corinthians 2:3; 2 Corinthians 7:15; Ephesians 6:5). The phrase denotes an attitude of humility in relationship to other men. What Paul here demands of the Church is the same humility he called for in verse 3, the same willingness to see something from another’s point of view . . . The man who approaches another within the congregation with fear and trembling acknowledges that he has submitted his own life to the power of God and that all the vindication proceeds from God alone (1:28).

Special notes and Scripture

[12.1} “To will” means to wish, to desire, to have in mind, to purpose.

[12.2} “Work out” means to do, to achieve, to accomplish.

[12.3} “Salvation” means an act of rescue or deliverance, preservation.

[12.4} “Fear” means reverential awe for God.

{12.5} “Trembling” means quivering, quaking with fear.

[12.6} “because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,” (Philippians 1:5)

(13) for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

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