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.
Many people interpret the word salvation in this verse to refer to eternal salvation from hell. This, I feel, is improper.
Some have interpreted Phil 2:12 to mean that Christians must bring about their own eternal salvation by obeying God. Such an understanding is entirely foreign to the Bible!
Others have suggested that the key to understanding this verse is the word out. Working out eternal salvation, they say, is different than working for it. They interpret Paul to mean that we are to put our eternal salvation into practice. This view removes the obvious theological difficulty of the previously mentioned view. However, I do not believe it best fits the context.
In this article I would like to present another grace view which I feel better fits the immediate context and Paul’s use of the words salvation and work out.
Believers Are in View
In our verse Paul calls the readers “my beloved,” an expression he reserves for believers. See also 1:1 where Paul indicates that he is writing, “to the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi.” Believers are already eternally saved and cannot lose that salvation.
Paul Is Calling Believers to Ongoing Obedience
Paul begins this verse with the words “as you have always obeyed.” We expect him to go on to say something like, “keep on obeying.” While he does not use exactly those words, that is implicit in what he does say. Working out one’s salvation is another way of talking about ongoing obedience. The following context bears out this conclusion.
Fear And Trembling?
While believers are not to fear hell-Jesus has guaranteed that no will go there (John 3:16-18; 5:24), we are to fear the Lord. This fear reflects both reverence for His awesome grandeur (e.g., Isa 6) and respect for His discipline (e.g., Heb 12:3-11). Believers are thus to exercise ongoing obedience with an attitude of reverential fear.
Salvation from What?
The word salvation (Gk. soteria) occurs only three times in Philippians. In 1:19 Paul said, “For I know that this will turn out for my salvation through your prayers and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.” Paul wrote Philippians from jail (see Phil 1:12-14). Thus the term salvation in 1:19 might refer to Paul’s deliverance from prison. However, in vv 20-26 Paul hints that while he expected to be released (vv25-26), he might instead glorify Christ by his death (vv20-23). Thus Paul may have used the word salvation metaphorically in v 19 to refer to a victorious triumph over the trials he faced by magnifying Christ through them whether he was released from prison or not. (See Zane Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege, Second Edition, pp. 96-99.) In any case the word salvation in v19 clearly has nothing to do with Paul’s eternal salvation!
In 1:28 Paul indicates that if the Christians at Philippi demonstrated a lack of fear of their adversaries (i.e., by continuing to boldly proclaim Christ and live for Him), this would be proof to the adversaries of their destruction (Gk. apoleia) and to the Christians at Philippi of their own salvation. Salvation in 1:28, as in 1:19, has two possible meanings. First, it could refer to deliverance from temporal difficulties-the very difficulties God’s adversaries do not escape (they experience “destruction”). Second, it could refer to believers triumphantly glorifying Christ through temporal difficulties, whether they escaped them or not. In both cases temporal, not eternal, deliverance is in view. So when we turn to 2:12 it is reasonable to expect that the word salvation is used by Paul as it has been in the only other two uses in this letter. That is, we expect another reference to temporal (=here and now) deliverance. That is indeed the case.
The salvation of 2:12 either refers to deliverance from the difficulties God brings upon the disobedient or to deliverance through the trials that the faithful experience, though not necessarily by means of escaping the trials themselves.
What Does “Work Out” Mean?
The word translated work out (katergazomai) means to “achieve, accomplish, bring about, produce, [or] create” (BGD, p. 421). Paul was thus exhorting the Philippian believers to bring about or achieve their own salvation by obedience to God. This makes perfect sense if temporal salvation is in view. Compare 1 Cor 11:30; James 1:21; 2:14; 5:19-20.
The translation work out is potentially misleading since one meaning of work out is to exercisesomething we already have (e.g., “he works out three times a week”). That is not what the Greek word means. It only can legitimately be translated work out in the sense of accomplishing something (as in “he worked out a solution to the budget deficit”). The idea that the word out is the key to understanding this verse is unsupported by the meaning of the Greek word in question or the context.
In this article I have argued that Phil 2:12 is not dealing with eternal salvation at all. Rather, it is dealing either with temporal salvation from the calamities which come upon the disobedient or with temporal salvation through the trials which faithful believers face.
Therefore, get to work and keep on working. Seek to utilize every opportunity to glorify Christ. Remember, it always pays to obey God and it never pays to disobey Him.
Our God is indeed an awesome God. It makes great sense for those who love and reverence Him to obey Him.