by Perry Brown
I have sometimes heard Christians go into interpretative gymnastics when confronted with the command in Phil 2:12 to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” The explanation I remember hearing most is that “we can only work out a salvation that God has already worked in.” In other words, Paul was telling the Philippians to simply “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27). Since they had been saved by God in Christ Jesus, they should act like it and bear spiritual fruit.
However, this approach assumes that Paul is talking about eternal salvation in 2:12. In fact, the word salvation can refer to deliverance from things other than eternal condemnation. Paul says in 1:19 that “this shall turn out for my deliverance” (NKJV). The same Greek word for salvation (used in 2:12) is used for deliverance here, and by looking at the context in 1:12-17 we learn that Paul was expecting to be delivered from his imprisonment in Rome for the Gospel. Physical deliverance was what he meant in 1:19.
In the same manner, Paul used the word for salvation again in 1:28, but this time he was talking about salvation for the Philippians. Salvation from what? In 1:27-28 he talked about the Philippians’ unity of spirit and purpose in “striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by your opponents.” Their unity was a sign of destruction for their opponents, and it was a sign of deliverance, “salvation,” from their opponents. Those enemies of the faith could not prevail against the believers’ unified front. Again, the salvation was physical and temporal, not spiritual and eternal.
So twice in Philippians Paul has used the word salvation referring to something other than eternal salvation, before he commands that they “work out [their] salvation” in 2:12. Could he be referring to some kind of physical, temporal salvation in 2:12 also?
When you trace Paul’s line of thought from 1:28 through 2:18, it is obvious that he is talking about God working through the Philippians’ temporal suffering which was directed at them by their opponents. Follow Paul’s thoughts:
- 1:27 Paul calls for the Philippians’ unity in the faith.
- 1:28-30 That unity was needed because they were under attack for the faith, just as Paul was.
- 2:1-4 Paul again pleads for unity, and he says that it comes through selflessness and humility among the believers.
- 2:5-11 The believer’s model for humility under fire is none other than the Lord Jesus Himself. Jesus obeyed His Father, and the Father exalted Him when He humbled Himself.
- 2:12-13 Picking up his exhortation from v 4, Paul now says that just as the Philippians had always obeyed, now they must also obey again “with fear and trembling,” a probable reference to the humility and submission that Christ exemplified. As God delivers them from their opponents while they stand together in humility toward one another, they can be assured that it is God working His will in them.
- 2:14-18 This unity will prove them to be “blameless and innocent” in a corrupted world where they shine as “lights” for the Gospel. That kind of faithfulness under fire will make Paul rejoice when they all stand before the Lord-and even now while he is in prison.
When considered in its context, Phil 2:12 is transformed from an awkward interpretative problem into a wise and sobering challenge. We cannot oppose one another as believers if we expect to oppose the attacks of the world against our common faith. And humility toward our brothers and sisters in the faith is the key to our unity. If we do not kneel to serve one another, we will have a difficult time standing before the world.
So in Phil 2:12 we do not have a call to work to gain eternal salvation. We have instead a call to a victorious deliverance from spiritual defeat in our sufferings.
Perry Brown has served for the last 11 years as Editor and Marketing Director at American Tract Society in Garland, TX.