“Therefore, my beloved, as you 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;” (Philippians 2:12 NKJV)
This verse from Philippians contains an important exhortation for all Christians – we are to “work out” our salvation with fear and trembling. But what exactly does this mean? In this blog post, we’ll explore the meaning of this verse and how we can apply it to our lives as believers.
The command to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” has been the source of much discussion and debate over the years. Some see it as a call to work for our salvation, implying that we have a role in earning or maintaining it. Others view it as an encouragement to live out our salvation in obedience and godly reverence. There are elements of truth in both perspectives.
As we study this verse in its context, we’ll see that Paul is indeed calling believers to actively pursue spiritual maturity and Christlikeness, while maintaining a posture of humility and dependence on God. Salvation is a gift of God’s grace, not something we can earn. But it does result in a lifelong process of being conformed to the image of Christ.
This process requires effort on our part, but it is also fueled by God who is at work in us (Philippians 2:13). As redeemed children of God, we have the responsibility to work out what God has worked in. The “fear and trembling” speak to the seriousness of this calling and the awareness that we are completely dependent on God to fulfill it.
- Our salvation is secure in Christ but must be worked out in daily life
- We are to pursue spiritual maturity and Christlikeness with seriousness and humility
- While effort is required, it is God who empowers and equips us
- Both divine sovereignty and human responsibility play a role
- This verse strikes a balance between faith and works
As we unpack the meaning of this verse, my prayer is that we would all have a renewed sense of the importance and privilege of our salvation. May we pursue holiness in God’s strength, for His glory, and with an attitude of joyful reverence.
The Background of Philippians
To fully understand Philippians 2:12, we need to understand the background of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This was one of Paul’s “prison epistles”, written around A.D. 60-62 while Paul was imprisoned in Rome. The church at Philippi had a special place in Paul’s heart, since they had consistently supported his ministry (Philippians 4:15).
Earlier in the letter, Paul expresses his gratitude for their partnership in the gospel (Philippians 1:5). He is writing to thank them for the gifts they sent with Epaphroditus and to update them on his circumstances. The tone of the letter is warm and affectionate, even joyful, despite Paul being in prison. He mentions his hope to send Timothy to them soon and even plans to come visit them himself after being released (Philippians 2:19, 24).
In chapter 1, Paul explains that his imprisonment has “really served to advance the gospel” (Philippians 1:12). Some are preaching Christ with pure motives, and others to cause Paul distress. Yet Christ is being proclaimed, so Paul rejoices (Philippians 1:15-18). Paul’s perspective is eternal – whether he lives or dies, Christ will be exalted (Philippians 1:20-21). He encourages the Philippians to live lives worthy of the gospel so he can continue boasting about them (Philippians 1:27).
Paul then makes a transition in chapter 2 to focus on the importance of unity, humility, and service – all for the glory of God. It’s in this context that he provides the exhortation to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
The Meaning of “Work Out Your Salvation”
The command to “work out your own salvation” implies that salvation involves action on our part. The verb translated “work out” is katergazomai, meaning “to accomplish, to perform, to achieve, to carry out something to its ultimate conclusion” (Blue Letter Bible). Paul uses this same word in several places to describe completing a task (Romans 5:3-5, Romans 7:8, Romans 7:13, Romans 7:15-18, 2 Corinthians 4:17).
Salvation begins with grace through faith in Christ. But it is not a one-time event. There is an ongoing working out and living out of what Christ has worked in us. Constable’s Expository Notes describes this verse as meaning “we must make salvation practical in our lives…We must expend energy to make the implications of our salvation apparent in our Christian lifestyle.”
There are a few key things to highlight about this working out of salvation:
- It’s a command, not a suggestion. Paul uses the imperative verb form, indicating this is something every believer should actively pursue. It is not optional.
- It requires effort, energy, action. As noted above, katergazomai implies accomplishing something to its finish. We have a part to play through disciplined, committed Christian living.
- It’s internal, not external. We work salvation out from the inside, allowing it to permeate every aspect of life. It’s the fruit of God’s work in us.
- It’s gradual, lifelong. Working out salvation is an ongoing process of spiritual growth in Christlikeness. We will never attain sinless perfection in this life but must keep making progress.
- It’s personal, not corporate. The text says “your own salvation.” While we help each other along the way, no one can do this for us. Every believer must take ownership.
- It’s empowered by God. As verse 13 makes clear, God gives us the will and power to work out our salvation. We are dependent on Him to fulfill this command.
Working Out Salvation With Fear and Trembling
The additional phrase “with fear and trembling” provides an important qualifier on how we are to work out our salvation. It speaks to the attitude and posture of reverence, humility, and sincerity that should mark this process.
The “fear” mentioned here is not a terrified, servile fear. The Greek word phobos was used in secular Greek for the fear and awe people had toward gods and kings (Blue Letter Bible). It reminds us that God is infinitely powerful, holy, and worthy of our utmost respect.
“Trembling” comes from the Greek word tromos, meaning “trembling, quaking, fear” (Blue Letter Bible). It occurs elsewhere in Scripture to describe people’s reaction in the presence of the divine (Exodus 19:16, Acts 7:32, 1 Corinthians 2:3). This trembling highlights human weakness and dependence on God.
Fear and trembling does not contradict the joy and confidence we have in Christ but tempers it with an awareness of God’s glory and our own limitations. It combats pride or complacency in the Christian life. Even mature believers like Paul approached service to God as an overwhelming privilege that should never be taken for granted.
As Wuest’s Word Studies puts it, we work out our salvation “with a deep sense of awe and reverence toward God, and a healthy fear of displeasing Him.” This fear reflects the holiness of God and the seriousness of working out our faith. It motivates us to live wholeheartedly for Him and honor the gift of salvation we’ve received.
Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility
Philippians 2:12-13 holds together the biblical balance between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility in salvation. God initiates salvation by His grace. But we are also called to actively work it out in reverent obedience.
Verse 13 gives the divine side: “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” Salvation depends fully on God’s work in us. The desire and power to work come from Him. Left to ourselves, we would never choose God or have any ability to live for Him.
At the same time, verse 12 gives the human side, commanding us to “work out your own salvation.” A synergistic relationship exists between God’s work and ours. He gives us a new heart which enables and compels us to now live in ways pleasing to Him. As believers, we take responsibility while recognizing that even our efforts are empowered by His grace.
God’s sovereignty does not make us passive. Rather, it activates us to pursue His will out of love and gratitude! What a joy and privilege that the God who saves us also indwells us by His Spirit, transforming us daily into His likeness. Our role is to obey and humbly rely on His strength to follow Him.
What Does Working Out Salvation Look Like?
If we are commanded to work out our salvation continually, it begs the question: what does this look like practically? Thankfully, Scripture gives many examples of what a life being transformed by God’s grace looks like. Here are some key ways we work out salvation:
- Reading, studying, and meditating on God’s Word: God’s truth renews our minds and transforms us (Romans 12:2). The more we engage with and apply Scripture, the more it shapes us.
- Prayer: Developing a vibrant prayer life connects us to God and positions us to follow His will. Through prayer, we receive strength for obedience.
- Fellowship and service in the church: We grow through regular Christian community, worship, and serving one another. The church provides accountability and encouragement.
- Crucifying sinful desires: We actively strive against temptation and destructive habits through the Spirit’s help (Galatians 5:16-17, Colossians 3:5-10). Sin inhibits growth.
- Developing Christlike virtues: As we exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, we increasingly reflect Jesus (Galatians 5:22-23, Colossians 3:12-17). Virtues must be cultivated.
- Sharing our faith: Telling others about Christ reinforces our purpose and keeps us vigilant. We must be ready to make a defense (1 Peter 3:15).
- Giving generously: Using our resources to serve God and others helps break sin’s control over us (2 Corinthians 9:6-8). It guards the heart.
- Persevering through trials: Hardships produce endurance, character, and hope as we rely on God (Romans 5:3-5). We grow in strange soil.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. But it demonstrates that working out our faith requires action. Our salvation leaves no area of life unchanged. As we yield each part of our lives to the Lordship of Christ, we increasingly reflect Him and experience the blessings of obedience.
Working Out Salvation is a Lifelong Process
It’s vital to understand that working out our salvation is not a short-term project. It requires lifelong diligence, commitment, and effort. Every day we must choose to align ourselves to God’s will through the Spirit’s power. There will always be more progress to be made as we become conformed to Christ’s image.
Paul says that even at the end of his life, he had not yet attained or been made perfect (Philippians 3:12). But he pressed on toward the heavenly goal in Christ Jesus. Like Paul, the more mature we become in Christ, the more we recognize how far we have to go. We should never assume we have ‘arrived’ spiritually.
Growth happens slowly, through the steady discipline of daily choices to feed our spirit rather than our flesh. There will be highs and lows, successes and failures along the way. Thankfully our salvation rests on Christ’s finished work, not our own perfection. But out of love for Him, we seek to follow Him wholeheartedly, one day at a time.
Working out our salvation requires a marathon mentality. We pace ourselves, cheer others on, rely on grace, and keep moving forward in the strength God provides. While effort is required, it is joyful and rewarding work. The end goal makes every step worthwhile. Allowing God’s salvation to permeate our lives brings blessing on earth and glory in eternity!
Applying Philippians 2:12 Today
The command to work out our salvation with fear and trembling remains very applicable today. If anything, it’s needed more than ever. We live in an age of spiritual apathy, biblical illiteracy, and cheap grace. Too many Christians take their salvation lightly. Churches downplay sacrifice, obedience, and holiness. Self-reliance rather than God-reliance is encouraged.
Passages like Philippians 2:12 challenge easy-believism. They call us back to a biblical perspective – salvation leads to surrender; it changes everything. Those who belong to Christ are called to walk as new creations, day by day working out the implications of His lordship. Yes, salvation is a gift received by faith. But true saving faith always bears fruit. It motivates a lifelong pursuit of consecration to God.
Paul’s exhortation serves as a wake-up call to every believer, no matter how mature. Do we take our salvation as seriously as we should? Does the way we live reflect an awe of God and a healthy fear of displeasing Him? Are we putting in the daily effort needed to apply our faith, kill lingering sin, and grow Christlike virtues?
May Philippians 2:12 give us a renewed desire to work out our salvation with vigor and resolve. God has done the work of giving us new life in Christ. Now may we honor that glorious gift by striving to live wholly for the One who saved us.
All of heaven awaits the day when God’s work in us will be completed. Let’s press on toward that goal, working out what God has worked in, for the glory of our Savior and King!