“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” It’s often used either as a whip or explained away (“Now, what Paul isn’t saying is…”). As usual, it’s crucial to examine the statement in the flow of Paul’s letter.
First, the whole statement reads, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his own good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13).
Second, “Therefore,…” already clues us to what has gone before. Paul has described Christ’s humility and exaltation for our salvation, which he commended as an example for believers. Jesus Christ is Lord, having been exalted to the Father’s right hand as our Redeemer (Phil 2:1-10).
Third, in chapter 3 Paul will draw a line between his assets and liabilities, and move his assets (“righteousness under the law”) into the liabilities column, counting his good works apart from Christ as “dung, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…” (Phil 3:8-9).
You Are Light, So Shine!
With these pieces of the puzzle in place, we can focus on the pericope in question, 2:12-18, which summons the Philippian church to live as lights in the world. Christ, the Light of the World, is their example. Of course, Jesus Christ is in a sense inimitable, utterly unique. He alone descended from heaven in the incarnation, laying aside his sovereign privileges. And he alone endured humiliation, even to the point of death on a cross, for our shame; he alone was raised to the position of all authority and power above every name in heaven and on earth. His work alone saved, and not by offering an example, but by doing what only he could do. Nevertheless, it is also presented as an example for us to follow—not so that we will be like Christ, but because we are in fact in Christ, united to him in his death and resurrection.
It’s important to begin with the obvious: Paul says “work out your salvation…,” not “work for” it. It is something that we have already been given. Not only justified, we are regenerated and are being conformed progressively to the image of Christ. Even this sanctification is God’s work: “…for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Divine and human action do not constitute a zero-sum game. Hyper-Calvinism confuses works-righteousness with good works, human activity with an attempt to attain justification. Of course, if one is seeking a meritorious reward, then works are condemned. Not only our sins, but our righteousness, falls short of God’s glory. To offer up our own pretended righteousness to God actually arouses his anger (see chapter 3). In regeneration, we are passive: acted upon and within by the Spirit through the gospel. In justification, we receive Christ’s imputed righteousness (again, chapter 3). In sanctification, we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” knowing that God is completing in us that renewing work that he began. It is done with seriousness, but also in the freedom of children rather than the anxious fear of servants who wonder if they will be condemned.
A Real Imperative
The indicative announcement of Christ’s achievement for us in verses 1-11 grounds his imperative. Nevertheless, it is a real imperative. And it’s an imperative not only to rest in Christ, but to work. Because we rest in Christ alone for our justification, we can finally perform good works without wondering anxiously if they are good enough. Of course, they are not good enough to pass God’s righteous verdict as our Judge, but their deficiencies are pardoned for the sake of Christ. It is a great comfort to know that our perfect justification and sanctification in Christ already brings forgiveness of the sins clinging even to our best works! So now there is work to be done, from our salvation, not for it. Work it out. Flesh out its implications. On the basis of the gospel’s indicatives, take seriously the imperatives to love and serve your neighbor. Let’s not collapse justification into sanctification or sanctification into justification. They are distinct yet inseparably related aspects of that salvation that Christ has won for us.
So Paul is not simply telling us to look to our justification. That’s not working out our salvation. He’s very specific in the details: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ, I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (vv 14-18). Timothy and Epaphroditus are being sent to minister to them and they will undoubtedly be examples of such service (vv 19-30).
We miss Paul’s point if we think that he is talking about justification here. If that were the case, then the imperative would be the condition of justification. However, the call to be “blameless and innocent” is to live uprightly before other sinners, not to offer one’s “righteousness” as a guilt-offering to God. Paul alludes here to the wilderness generation, that was “crooked and twisted” (Deut 32:5). They “grumbled” and “complained” against God and his servant Moses (see also 1 Cor 10:1-12). As Numbers 20:10-14 indicates, this grumbling was actually a formal and legal charge that the people brought against Yahweh. (Amazingly, God allowed himself to be put on trial and even struck for his people as he was the water-gushing Rock that Moses was commanded to strike.)
So the Philippian church needed encouragement to flesh out, live out, and work out that salvation that Christ had won for them. Humility, patience, and sacrificial love should characterize their lives. They are “lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life“—that is, the gospel. They never look away from the gospel, but rest in Christ in relation to God even as they are active in good works toward their neighbor.
Bottom line: The gospel is not the enemy of good works, unless one is seeking justification by obedience, as Paul makes clear in chapter 3. In fact, the gospel is the ground of good works. The goal is both to be clothed with Christ’s alien, perfect, and complete righteousness and to be more and more “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (1:11). So not only when we are resting in Christ for justification, but when we are going out of ourselves to love our neighbors in sanctification, the Triune God has it all under control. We’re only working out that which he has worked for and within us according to his gospel. Holding fast to the word of life, we work out our salvation in the knowledge that “he who began a good work in you will bring it completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).