When a sentence begins with the word therefore, you need to know what the therefore is there for. Paul, having finished calling the Philippians to imitate Christ’s humility, wrote “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 good pleasure.” Because of Christ’s work for our salvation, we must work out your own salvation.
Work Out Your Own Salvation
We will begin by focusing on Paul’s emphasis to work out your own salvation. You are responsible to work out your own salvation, not the salvation of others. There is only one God (not you). It is the Holy Spirit (not you) that brings conviction of sin (John 16:8). There is only one Judge and He does not need our help. When we acknowledge and embrace that the Lord is the true Judge, we will be less critical and more discerning. What is the difference between being critical and being discerning? The difference is in motivation. A critic delights in finding faults, but a discerner delights in truth. A critic believes he is the judge. A discerner knows that the Lord is the Judge. We must not be our brother’s critic and instead be our brother’s keeper. We should counsel, encourage, and even rebuke at times, but each person must work out his or her own salvation. Oswald Chambers wrote, “When you have to give advice to another, God will advise through you with the direct understanding of His Spirit; your part is to be rightly related to God that his discernment comes through you all the time for the blessing of another soul.”
Now that our focus is on working out our own salvation, we need to discern what Paul means when he says, “work out your salvation”. To work out means to actively work to bring something about as you are striving and giving all your energy for this purpose. The goal is “your own salvation”. How do we work out our salvation when salvation is not by works (Eph 2:9)? It is because we work out not work for our salvation. When the Bible speaks about salvation, it speaks of Justification and/or Sanctification. In this section, Paul is speaking of sanctification. Sanctification is the ongoing process in which a justified person becomes more and more like Jesus Christ. Justification is a one-time event that happens upon faith in Jesus and sanctification is an ongoing event after one has been justified. Justification says you are God’s son and sanctification is the process in which you become more like God’s Son, Jesus. Our work out, in Philippians 2:12, is our obedience (2:12) in sanctification. Paul is not saying salvation is something we earn by work (we are justified by faith, not works) but is saying that believers must be actively working out their salvation (sanctification). We strive to please our Savior, and this is a demonstration of our salvation.
We are told to work out our own salvation with “fear and trembling”. This does not mean that we live our lives in panic and anxiety, but with awe and reverence for God. It involves a sober assessment of yourself: not seeking to exalt yourself or not resigned to a depressed feeling of yourself. It is not thinking of yourself too much or too little. Working out your salvation with fear and trembling means to live with an intense desire to do what is right. Having received salvation as a gift, we must work zealously to live worthy of it. John MacArthur wrote: “It acknowledges that every sin is an offense against Holy God and produces a sincere desire not to offend and grieve Him, but to obey, honor, please, and glorify Him in all things.” God, who sent His Son to redeem us from our sin, calls us to surrender to Him and to actively work out your salvation with reverence and awe.
God is At Work in You
If this sounds too difficult to do, take heart. We are told in verse 13 that God is at work in you. As you work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, God is at work within you. What does it mean that God works in you? It means to will and to work. God works in you to will/desire: your desire to pray, read your Bible, etc. is from God. God works in you to work: your work is only possible through God’s previous work (workmanship). God works in you for God’s own satisfaction. He delights in our work (That should spur our good works). If you hate that you don’t pray as you should, it is God calling you back to Himself. If you hate that you don’t read your Bible as you should, it is God calling you back to Himself. The preserving work of God is that He will never let you fall away (Jude 1:24-25) Let these words give you comfort: “For God is at work in you.”
Remember Jesus Christ, who humbly entered our world in order to save us from our sin. Because of Jesus, we are not strangers, but sons. As sons, we are being trained in righteousness. God graciously saves us and graciously keeps us. Our conviction is from grace. Our confession is from grace. Sanctification is proof of grace and your salvation. Therefore, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling because God is at work within you.