Some Bible passages—at least on the surface—seem opposed to each other. Does that mean a clear understanding of the truth is unknowable? Certainly not! We know God is not a man that he should change his mind (Numbers 23:19). Jesus himself said, “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). In other words, one can resolve any apparent contradictions through further study. When we encounter difficult passages, we must refer to clearer portions of the Bible to provide insight.
One commonly misunderstood passage is found in Philippians where Paul writes:
Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.Philippians 2:12–13
Does this mean living eternally with God is dependent on our efforts? No, because we know from Ephesians that salvation does not come by our works, but by faith in Christ’s saving work for us: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).
Salvation is a gift of God.
Christ’s Complete Work of Salvation
The work of Christ accomplished this gift of salvation. The verses immediately before this section are a poetic hymn of praise describing Christ’s saving work (Philippians 2:5–11). We broke God’s law, so he came in obedience. We deserved God’s wrath, so he suffered—even death on a cross. There he cried out, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). He completed the work of salvation for you. By believing in him, you are saved. No wonder the name of Jesus is above every name!
Notice Paul doesn’t say, “work for your salvation.” That would promote a gospel of performance and couldn’t be reconciled with the rest of Scripture. Instead, he says, “work out your salvation.” The original Greek word has the sense of bringing something to fruition or fulfillment. In other words, make the most of what God has won for you in Christ.
Imagine you inherit a large tract of land. You didn’t do anything to deserve it. You simply received it as a gift. The new deed is in your name and says everything on that land belongs to you. At first, it might not seem like much more than a piece of paper until you visit the land. There you discover beautiful vistas and inspiring waterfalls. Later you discover a cave filled with precious stones. The more you explore the land, the more you appreciate the fullness of your inheritance.
Salvation is an inheritance to be explored. Initially, we may think Jesus has only saved us from death and won resurrection. But, as we learn more, we discover a gift far greater than we imagined. We realize Christ’s rescue is a full and complete spiritual salvation ensuring we will live eternally with Heavenly Father.
With Fear and Trembling
No wonder Paul describes this process with fear and trembling. This is not a fear of losing salvation. That would be terrifying! God does not want us to live in that kind of fear, so he assures us that the Spirit has sealed our inheritance in Jesus (Ephesians 1:13–14).
Instead, the fear Paul refers to here is reverence and worshipful respect. At every turn, we make jaw-dropping discoveries as we learn more about what we already have in Christ. Picture someone with tear-filled eyes trying to take it all in until, trembling, they finally fall on their knees in praise. This spirit of humility recognizes our own weakness and reveals our complete dependence on him.
How Do We “Work Out” Salvation?
First, we grow as we unpack all the blessings included in Christ’s work of salvation.
Knowing he will provide, we exchange worry for contentment. As we recognize his protection, we trust he can even use hardship for our good. Guilt is left behind when we begin to rest securely in his forgiveness. In this respect, salvation is being worked out. Salvation is brought to fruition internally.
This growth shows itself externally as we live our Christian lives in thanks to God. Once again, we don’t work for salvation (forgiveness, acceptance, and life eternal with God) to achieve it, but we work out from a place of confidence knowing we already have it. Because we know God will provide for us, we are set free to be generous. Since we are secure in God’s unconditional acceptance and love, we are enabled to love those who may not love us back. We bring to fruition and work out our salvation as we love and serve others. Believers are a new creation in Christ and are given a new purpose: “to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).
It brings us great joy to share the riches of this inheritance. Our joy will pour out from the heart in various ways as the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23) overflows through us to others.
Even This Is the Work of God
This concept of working out salvation could seem overwhelming if it depended on us. Thankfully, it doesn’t. The next verse shows even this is a work of God! “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). God is at work within us, whether that is growing in appreciation of the salvation he’s won or sharing it with others.
Return to that analogy of land you inherited. God motivates you to go out on another hike. He takes you by the hand and leads the way. Discoveries await: fields of flowers fragrant with grace, a wellspring of living water, and an overlook filled with opportunities. You marvel at what you have received. You can’t wait for others to enjoy this with you.
Philippians 2:12–13, understood within the context of the rest of Scripture, are beautiful and comforting verses. They begin with the completed work of Christ, encourage us to spend our lives unpacking and sharing with others all that we’ve received, and even promise his power and presence on that journey. Believers can rejoice that, through faith, that our names are written in heaven. Yet also, we can start the celebration right now as we discover all that we already have in Christ.
To discover more of what you already have in Christ, check out the free online study, God the Ultimate Humanitarian.
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Additional Questions You Might Have
Is it OK to Ask Questions About God?
People, during the course of their lives, will struggle with different doubts. What is most important is what you do with them.
Are You at Peace with God?
A lot of people aren’t. Some people are angry at God. Others fear him, wondering when the next hammer blow will fall.