“Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”
This text is very important in helping us understand our salvation. To begin with, because God calls us to work out our salvation, it rejects the idea that Christians are inactive spiritually, and should sit back and let God “do all the work,” so to speak. On the other hand, it also rejects the idea that God is dependent on us with regard to our salvation. For the apostle here gives the one reason for our calling to work out our salvation: “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”
Yet the text is not only of great doctrinal importance; it is also of great practical significance. Set here in the context of Philippians 2, it is the key for the church to be strong, growing, and unified. Each member is to put on the mind of Christ, so that in lowliness of mind each esteems other better than himself, and each looks not just on his own things, but also on the things of others. But that growth in having more and more of the mind of Christ comes only in the way of taking heed to this calling to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
What can we say about this calling? At the outset, we should note that the text does not say to us, “Work your own salvation!” If that were the case, it would call us to do good works in order to earn our salvation—and that would be contrary to the very Word of God as a whole, as well as in particular (cf.). No, we are not to seek to work our salvation but, rather, we are called to “work out our salvation.” This calling comes to those who already possess the salvation of God. The apostle makes that plain when he addresses the letter to “all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi” (1:1), and also speaks there of that good work of God’s salvation already begun in them (v. 6).
Positively, this calling rules out all inactivity, laziness, and passivity on the part of believers. It rules out the false idea that believers are just to “sit back and let God do what He does.” This calling rules out a lack of interest and activity in evangelism and a life of thankful service in the church. It rules out what some in Reformed circles have mistakenly concluded because, they say, “God is sovereign.” Contrary to passivity and inactivity, the sovereign God here gives us this calling unto activity. “Work out your salvation! Be busy with the Word! Meditate upon it! Apply it diligently to your thought and life! Be not only hearers but also doers of it! Exercise yourselves spiritually! Strain and stretch every spiritual fiber and muscle of your heart, mind, and soul for the cause of God!”
When we say these things, we must also be clear that God has worked His salvation in us; yet in such a way that, when He saves us, He does not work salvation in us all at once and to such a degree that it is perfect and complete. We have a wonderful beginning of it! And yet, it is only a small beginning. This small beginning of our spiritual energy, power, and life needs to grow and must grow in every department of our lives and all through our lives! Just as in physical life, where a healthy child grows in the way of activity, so also in spiritual life there is spiritual growth and development in the way of spiritual activity. God calls us to spiritual exercise in every sphere and in all seasons of life.
To be sure, the salvation of God comes to all believers in the same way—that is, through Christ alone, by His grace alone, and through faith alone. We all receive justification for all our sins. We all receive the same power of God’s holiness that causes us to devote ourselves to God and reject the way of sin. And yet, this spiritual workout that God calls each believer to takes on a unique and personal form for each of us—not only at various times and stages of our lives (when we are a covenant child, a teen, a young single, a young parent, a grandparent), but also for each of us with our own besetting weaknesses and sins (some of us are more inclined to committing sexual sin, others struggle more to handle anger, yet others struggle with being good stewards of their possessions). Moreover, this calling also comes to us in the unique earthly trials and circumstances we face in our lives. God’s Word here calls each believer to work out his salvation under the unique, personal circumstances and conditions of his life.
This is an important calling, and this importance is made known to us in four ways. First, it is made known through the apostle’s reminder of our need to be always obedient to this calling: “…as ye have always obeyed, not in my presence only, but now much more in my absence…” (v. 12).
Second, it is made known to us in the form in which the calling is given. The Holy Spirit does not give an objective statement: “Every believer is to work out his own salvation.” That all by itself would be sufficient for believers to obey. But here, the Holy Spirit issues a command, “Work out your own salvation!”
Third, the importance of this calling is made known by the phrase “with fear and trembling,” which appears at the beginning of the original Greek: “With fear and trembling, your own salvation—work out!” The idea is that this is to be done with great, meticulous care, like the care of a sculptor at work, an artist painting his masterpiece, or a surgeon performing surgery! Work out your salvation with great care! This idea not only rules out all inactivity and passivity, but also all carelessness and recklessness in our spiritual lives. It puts to death the false idea that since God preserves every one of His children in salvation, we can enjoy the pleasures and pursuits of this world when we are young. Not so! The young person who fears and trembles as he/she works out his/her salvation is one who will take great care in choosing friends, avoiding drunkenness, and fleeing fornicating while dating. The parent who fears and trembles as he works out his salvation is one who will take great care in nurturing and even disciplining his children when the need arises. All of us who fear and tremble as we work out our salvation will not do something if we are in the slightest bit unsure whether it will compromise our blessed relationship of friendship with our covenant God. Again, we point out that one does these things not in order to merit righteousness with God, but because he desires to please God in love, devotion, and thankfulness to Him for the precious salvation so freely given to him.
Fourth and finally, the importance of this calling is made known by the intimate way in which the apostle under inspiration leads in to the command: “Wherefore, my beloved….” This calling is not given to the world, but to the children of the living God! We are ones who are not only loved by the apostle, but by God Himself in Christ!
The call to work out our salvation may be further emphasized from three points of view. First, it may be emphasized that we are to be active and grow spiritually from the personal point of view of our own salvation. And in order to grow, we need to feed on and be nourished by the Word of God, especially in its preached form (cf.). Do we cherish the preaching?
Second, this calling may be emphasized from the viewpoint of the church. In the way of giving heed to this command, the mind of Christ will more and more fill our thinking, willing, and doing. And then, what happens in the church is that we will humble ourselves more and more as our Savior did, with the result that less and less there will be strife and vainglory. More and more will we esteem one another better than ourselves. Not only will we look on our own things, but also on the things of others (cf.). The secret to such a prosperous church flourishing with the mind of Christ is that her members take seriously this calling to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. Will it not be such a joy to see this in the midst of the church? Will it not please God to behold this in His church and in her members? It certainly will!
For third and finally, this calling may be emphasized from the point of view of God Himself. The blessed, spiritual growth of each child of His in personal salvation and of His church is dear and precious to Him!
And this, therefore, is good reason for having such a firm foundation for this calling to work out our salvation: “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” (v. 13). God’s working in us is the firm foundation of all our working out of that salvation! God Himself! Here, God addresses and answers those who misuse the sovereignty of God to undermine the calling to live the true Christian life; even those who object to the apostle’s command by asking, “Since God is sovereign and accomplishes all of my salvation, why should I work out my salvation?” The answer that the inspired apostle gives is simple: “Because that is how God works!” It is not we, but God working in us! And He works in us in the way of obedience to His every word and calling, including this calling to work out our salvation.
What blessedness there is in this word! How this blessed word ministers to every child of God who knows and feels in his own heart the greatness of the power of besetting sin and weakness he is fighting against! How can we with such sins and weaknesses be victorious in that fight? It is only the power of God at work within us that gives us the victory! While that victory is not perfected in this life, God is working His salvation in us so that we do work out our salvation. By His great work inside of us, sin does not rule over us but rather He and His grace! The result of this great work of God in us causing us to work out our salvation is that the beauty of Christ shows forth more and more in our hearts and lives. For the God of our salvation not only accomplished salvation outside of us at the cross, but also continues to apply it to us and in us by His indwelling Spirit and His powerful Word!
What a solid work this is! What a firm foundation we have to this calling! For it is God Himself who is at work within us! It is the very same One who “spake and it was done,” who “commanded and it stood fast” (cf.). Is there anything that He is unable to do? Listen to the answer the apostle gives in : “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”
The firm foundation of God’s work in us to will and to do of His good pleasure with regard to this calling gives us a wonderful assurance. A wonderful assurance that we will be kept safe by the power of His amazing grace unto the great day of our glorification! A wonderful assurance that also produces in us a blessed motivation to keep on stretching forth, straining forward to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.
That precious motivation for us to heed this calling is also set forth in three other ways in the text. First, it is indicated by the connection made to it at the beginning of the text: “Wherefore, my beloved….” For that address points us back to the blessed and perfect example of the love of the Lord Jesus Christ. He became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross, for you and me, for all His beloved. Ought we not respond in love to that great love He has for us? Second, we are told that it is the good pleasure of God Himself to work in us to accomplish this calling. Shall we not live to please Him by being obedient to this calling He has given us? Third and finally, this being the secret to a spiritually prosperous church, with members who have and display the mind of Christ, shall not we who love the church to which we belong work out our own salvation with fear and trembling?
May He give us grace to do exactly just that.