What Does it Mean to “Work Out Your Own Salvation”?

Salvation is the most important thing in the life of a Christian. It determines our eternal destiny and shapes how we live our lives here on earth. The Bible teaches that salvation is a free gift of God’s grace received through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). However, that does not mean we are passive in the process. The apostle Paul tells believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). What does this mean? Let’s explore this important concept.

Key Takeaways:

  • Salvation is a free gift of God’s grace that we receive through faith alone. Our works do not earn or merit salvation.
  • As believers, we have a responsibility to work out our salvation by obeying God, repenting of sin, pursuing holiness, and growing in Christlikeness.
  • Working out our salvation requires diligent effort empowered by God’s Spirit who works in us. We work, but only because God works in us.
  • The goal of working out our salvation is being conformed to the image of Christ and bringing glory to God in all areas of life.
  • Working out our salvation should be done with fear and trembling – an attitude of reverence, humility, and awe before the Lord.
  • While salvation is secure in Christ, working out our salvation is needed to reap eternal rewards and avoid divine discipline.
  • Working out our salvation is a lifelong process that will only be completed when we finally see Christ face to face.
What Does it Mean to "Work Out Your Own Salvation"?

The Gift of Salvation by God’s Grace

The Bible clearly teaches that salvation is a free gift of God’s grace that cannot be earned by human effort or good works. In His great mercy, God sent His Son Jesus to die on the cross for our sins (John 3:16). When we repent and believe in Christ, we are saved by God’s amazing grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). Salvation is received by faith alone in Christ alone. The apostle Paul says “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Our good works play no role in earning or meriting salvation. The Bible says that “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” before the absolute holiness of God (Isaiah 64:6). Even our best efforts to please God fall woefully short of His perfect standard. This is why we desperately need the salvation purchased for us by Jesus Christ on the cross. His perfect righteousness is credited to us when we place our trust in Him (Romans 4:22-25).

So Scripture clearly teaches that salvation is an undeserved gift of grace that we access through faith alone in Christ alone. This truth was powerfully recovered during the Protestant Reformation in the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The reformers correctly taught that we are declared righteous in God’s sight, through faith alone, because of Christ’s righteousness alone.

The Responsibility to Work Out Our Salvation

Since salvation is completely a work of God’s grace, does this mean we have no responsibility or role at all? Are we just passive recipients of this gift? The answer is no. While we contribute nothing to earn salvation, Scripture calls believers to actively pursue spiritual growth and godliness. Believers have a God-given responsibility to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Salvation is a work of God’s grace in which He works in us, through us, and sometimes in spite of us!

Although God fully saved us the moment we trusted Christ, He did not finish working in our lives at that point. The Christian life involves God’s ongoing work of inner transformation whereby He reshapes our character and behavior to be more like Christ. This is the practical outworking and demonstration of our salvation. Scripture calls us to work hard and make every effort to grow in godly character, obey God’s Word, flee from sin, serve others, share our faith, and honor Christ in all areas of life. Our obedience does not complete or improve our salvation, but it is an essential evidence and fruit of Christ’s work in our hearts.

Paul urges believers: “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” (Philippians 2:12-13). Notice the balance – we are commanded to work hard at living out our salvation, while acknowledging that it is ultimately God working in us. We work out what God has already worked into our hearts. Our effort is essential, but the power behind it is from God. The Lord gives us the desire and ability to please Him as we submit to His Spirit.

Working out our salvation requires dedication, self-control, endurance, faithfulness, and perseverance empowered by the Holy Spirit within us. It is a lifelong process of growing in holiness and being conformed to the image of Christ. As we discover areas of sin or weakness, we repent and rely on the Spirit’s power to change. This is what the Bible calls sanctification – being set apart from sin and growing in Christian maturity. We were saved instantly and completely at conversion, and we also undergo gradual transformation as we work out that decision in daily life by cooperating with God’s work in us.

The Goal: Christlikeness and God’s Glory

What is the purpose of working out our salvation? Why does God require it? For one, God wants us to become more like Jesus Christ. As Romans 8:29 tells us, God’s purpose is that we “be conformed to the image of his Son.” Salvation includes deliverance from sin’s penalty, but also from its power and one day even its presence. God is renewing us inwardly through the Holy Spirit so that we actually live differently than before (2 Corinthians 5:17).

God also wants us to actively work out our salvation so that we bring glory and honor to Him through our lives. As Jesus taught, when others see our good works they will glorify our Heavenly Father (Matthew 5:16). By working out our salvation, we make God’s truth and love visible to the world. We proclaim the excellencies of the One who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). Our Spirit-empowered obedience demonstrates the greatness and beauty of God’s saving grace.

So the ultimate goal of working out our salvation is being conformed to Christ’s image and magnifying God’s glory through our lives. God is at work within us, and we are called to join Him in that work as we pursue holiness and godliness. God graciously works through our efforts as we yield ourselves to Him.

With Fear and Trembling

Scripture calls us to work out our salvation with “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). This attitude of reverence and awe before God was modeled by Ezra and the exiles who returned to Jerusalem (Ezra 9:4; 10:3). They understood the seriousness of obeying God’s Word in light of His holiness, justice, and goodness.

Likewise, we should approach our salvation with utmost sincerity and gravity. Working out our salvation includes repenting deeply of sin, striving passionately against temptation, serving God wholeheartedly, enduring trials faithfully, sharing Christ boldly, and living in light of eternity. The fact that our eternal destiny hangs in the balance should promote earnestness, not carelessness, in how we live.

This sobering truth moved Paul to proclaim: “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” (Philippians 2:12). Paul cared deeply that his fellow believers were living consistently with their confession of faith, especially when he was not present with them. He did not want them to become spiritually complacent or compromise with the world’s standards.

Therefore, “fear and trembling” describes the serious, weighty attitude with which we must work to walk worthy of the gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27). It includes deep reverence toward God in light of His surpassing glory and a healthy fear of the consequences of disobedience. This mindset motivates us to pursue holiness and keep short accounts with sin. We heed the sobering warning against unfruitful works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11).

Working to Reap Eternal Rewards

While our salvation is eternally secure in Christ, Scripture indicates believers will still give an account of their lives at the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10). At this evaluation of our works, Jesus will dispense rewards to His people for faithful obedience and service in this life. Paul looked forward to receiving this “crown of righteousness” for finishing the race well (2 Timothy 4:8). He desired to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of him (Philippians 3:12). Clearly our works have implications for our eternal reward and legacy in Christ’s coming kingdom.

In this sense, diligently working out our salvation is profitable for all things, “holding promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8). As Jesus exhorted, by storing up treasure in heaven instead of living for worldly gain, we reap eternal benefits (Matthew 6:19-21). The eternal rewards we receive and services we are given in heaven are linked to how we spend our lives on earth. This should greatly motivate us to work heartily as serving the Lord, not men (Colossians 3:23-24).

On the other hand, passages like 1 Corinthians 3:15 indicate that those who build with worldly or inferior materials will “suffer loss” of reward while still being saved. Their works are burned up like wood, hay and stubble, even though they themselves are still secure. Therefore, how we build our lives as believers has huge implications for our heavenly reward and our Master’s evaluation. This makes working out our salvation essential.

Avoiding the Lord’s Discipline

In addition to impacting heavenly rewards, working out our salvation diligently also helps us avoid the corrective discipline of the Lord in this life. Scripture warns that “the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Hebrews 12:6). God will lovingly, painfully discipline His wayward children to bring them back to obedience and to protect them from destroying themselves through sin.

King David bitterly reaped consequences like death of a child, rebellion of a son, and turmoil in his kingdom because he indulged in sin and covered it up (2 Samuel 11-12). We must not think we can escape God’s eye or the consequences of known sin. “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7). To avoid God’s rod, we must work out our salvation in reverent fear by putting off sin and pursuing holiness. Then we will stay in close fellowship with Christ and not give the devil a foothold (Ephesians 4:27).

The Lord’s loving discipline is never pleasant, but those who are trained by it reap holiness and peace (Hebrews 12:11). By taking our salvation seriously and judging our own hearts, we avoid coming under God’s corrective hand. Sin’s passing pleasures are not worth the pain and damage of God’s discipline if we continue in it (1 Corinthians 11:32). Far better to work out our salvation diligently to maintain close communion with Christ and avoid the Lord’s discipline.

A Lifelong Process

It is important to understand that working out our salvation is not a one-time event. It is an ongoing lifelong process that will not be completed until we meet Christ face to face. We will never reach perfection or full maturity in this life while we still struggle with indwelling sin (Romans 7:14-25). Even the apostle Paul at the end of his life said he had not yet attained full Christlikeness but was still working to grasp hold of it (Philippians 3:12-14). Sanctification will only be complete when we receive our glorified bodies free from sin.

But until that day arrives, followers of Jesus must continually work out their salvation by trusting in the Spirit’s power to put sin to death and live in light of their new identity in Christ (Colossians 3:1-17). We work hard to make progress in godliness while recognizing that ultimate perfection awaits us in eternity. In this life we “know in part” and see dimly as in a mirror, so we hunger for the day when we will know God fully (1 Corinthians 13:12). We walk by faith, not sight, as we work out our salvation.

The path of Christian growth often feels slow, difficult and frustrating. We may encounter setbacks, trials, failures and opposition. But Scripture exhorts us to let steadfastness and endurance have their full effect as we wait patiently on the Lord (James 1:2-4). He who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it as we submit our lives to Him day after day (Philippians 1:6). By God’s power and grace, we can make progress in working out our salvation until we go to be with the Lord. What joy awaits those who are faithful to the end!


The exhortation to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” summarizes every believer’s responsibility before God. Salvation is a gift of God’s grace received through faith alone in Christ alone, not something we earn or merit. Yet as recipients of God’s amazing grace, we are called to actively pursue holiness, obedience, and spiritual maturity in daily life through the Spirit’s enabling power. We humbly work as God powerfully works in us to transform us into Christ’s image and bring glory to Him in all we do. This requires earnest, sober effort in light of eternity and coming rewards and consequences. Working out our salvation is not optional – it is the way every follower of Jesus should approach the Christian life. By God’s amazing grace, let us diligently work to walk worthy of our calling in Christ!

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