Work Out Your Salvation: Vindication at the Bema (Phil 2:12)

by Bob Wilkin

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians
Is Heavily Concerned with
the Judgment Seat of Christ (Bema)

Understanding why an author is writing is vital to understanding what he means. Only in the last few years have I realized that in Philippians, Paul’s overriding concern is that his readers will be vindicated at the Judgment Seat of Christ (Bema).

“I thank my God…for your fellowship in the gospel…being confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6). For years I thought that this is a verse about eternal security.

However, I learned that the Philippians’ fellowship in the gospel most naturally refers to their financial participation in Paul’s gospel ministry (cf. Phil 4:15 -17). I also discovered that the good work is defined (cf. vv 5 & 6) in this context as the Philippians’ fellowship in Paul’s gospel, that is, their financial support of his ministry.

Then about five years ago I heard a message on the day of the Lord. In a side comment, the speaker, Dr. Dick Mayhue, said that the day of Christ Jesus refers not to the Rapture or Second Coming, but specifically to the Judgment Seat of Christ, the Bema. After I digested Mayheu’s comment, Phil 1:6 and “salvation” in Philippians came together for me.

Paul is confident that their support of his ministry will continue and that the result of their support will be their praise at the Bema by Christ for all the good that came of it. There are allusions and direct references to the Bema throughout the epistle. See, for example, Phil 1:19 and 2:12 (discussed below); 2:15-16; 3:12-14; 4:15-17. Paul ends the letter with a reference to “the fruit that abounds to your account” (4:17). How amazing to realize that every believer has an “account” in which eternal rewards are accumulating.

Recognizing that Paul is confident that his supporters will have a good report at the Bema gives us the proper framework with which to understand a notorious tough text, Phil 2:12.

However, before we go there, we begin with a verse that sheds a lot of light on what Paul means by salvation in Philippians.

My Salvation Is Paul’s Vindication (Phil 1:19)

“For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance [or salvation, Gk. soteria] through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.”

I just finished listening to a message presented at the 2006 ETS Annual Meetings in Valley Forge, PA on this verse. The speaker argued that the salvation Paul anticipated was his release from prison. He rejected the idea of many commentators that soteria here refers to Paul’s vindication before the judgment of God. I found myself attracted to the view the speaker rejected. Of course, the vindication the commentators discuss is at the final judgment and concerns kingdom entrance, not rewards. However, if we see the location of the judgment as the Bema, and the issue as rewards, vindication before Jesus is precisely the idea Paul has in mind.

Paul knows that the prayers of the Philippians, combined with the ministry of the Holy Spirit in his life, will result in his salvation, or his vindication, which he defines here as 1) not being ashamed, because he persevered to the end in 2) boldly magnifying Christ. Compare this to 2 Tim 2:12 and 4:6-8 and we see that this is transparently a Bema concern for Paul.

Paul doesn’t want shame at the Bema (cf. 1 Cor 9:27; 1 John 2:28). He knows that if, in spite of persecution, he boldly proclaims Christ till he dies, then he will be vindicated at the Bema (2 Tim 2:12). Even if he is not vindicated before Rome’s Bema, He will be vindicated before Jesus’ Bema. Jesus will approve of Him if he holds fast (cf. 1 Cor 9:24-27; 2 Tim 4:6-8).

Since Paul’s salvation is his vindication at the Bema, then we should expect that the salvation he desires for the Philippians is the same thing.

Your Salvation Is the Philippians’
Vindication (Phil 2:12)

“Therefore, my beloved…work out your own salvation [Gk. soteria] with fear and trembling…”

Why didn’t I see it before? “Your salvation” in 2:12 is so obviously compared to my salvation in 1:19! Paul anticipated his own vindication at the Bema. And he urges the readers to see to it that they too are vindicated at the Judgment Seat of Christ. They too faced persecution (see 1:27 -30). Would they continue to boldly magnify the name of Jesus? If not, they would face shame at the Bema. If so, they would hear Jesus’ praise there.

I have heard many labored explanation of what it means to “work out” your own salvation. People struggle against works salvation. Well, this passage is preaching works “salvation.” But the salvation here is not eternal salvation from hell, but vindication at the Bema.

Salvation in Philippians Is
Vindication at the Bema

About two-thirds of the uses of the words salvation (soteria) and save (sozo) in the NT refer to physical or spiritual well being, not to salvation from hell. In the OT essentially 100% of the references to salvation refer to physical or spiritual well being, often in relation to the nation of Israel.

So much grief has been caused by people thinking that salvation in the Bible always refers to escaping eternal condemnation. The issue in Phil 1:19 is clearly not Paul getting into heaven. The same is true in Phil 2:12, though most miss this simple truth.

Salvation (soteria) occurs just three times in Philippians, the two verses we have considered, plus 1:28. The latter could refer to eternal salvation from hell, but, in light of 1:19 and 2:12, naturally refers to their vindication at the Bema as well.

Aim to Hear “Well done, Good Servant”

We who are born again may or may not be vindicated when we are judged at the Bema. Some will hear, “Well done, good servant.” Others will not (see Luke 19:11-26).

Oh, how I long to have His approval (1 Cor 9:27). Don’t you? While the approval of Mom and Dad is great, the approval of the King of kings will be so much greater.

Paul didn’t fear martyrdom. What he feared was besmirching the name of Jesus. May we all share his concern and live each day in light of Jesus’ soon return. He could return this year. Whenever He comes for us, will we be vindicated? We will if we work out our own salvation, our own vindication, in fear and trembling.

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