We’re still under the larger heading of “living worthily of the Gospel” (1.27). In the previous section, we encountered the hymn of worship that beautifully displayed Christ’s Lordly example (2.6-11). Now Paul encourages the beloved Philippians to live accordingly, as they have done in the past.
12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” [a] Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain. 17 But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18 So you too should be glad and rejoice with me (TNIV).
I used to have trouble with verse 12’s “work out your salvation,” for a couple of different reasons. First, I thought that those who had professed faith in Christ were already “saved,” past tense. This verse makes it sound as if salvation for the Philippians Christians had not yet been attained. Second, “work out your salvation” seems to rub against the grain of the sacred doctrine of sola fide (by faith alone; Eph 2.8-9; Gal 2.16). I thought salvation was wholly God’s work—what’s going on here?
I’ll respond to my points of confusion in order. (1) If we look at the biblical account in its entirety, we’ll notice a fine balance between present and future justification/salvation. On the one hand, God does indeed declare those who place their faith in Jesus “righteous” now, in the present (Rom 3:22-25). On the other hand, there is definitely a future sense to the Christian hope, which looks forward to the day of Christ (So Phil 3.20-21; Rom 13.11-12; Gal 5.5; note the balance in Romans 8.23-25; similarly, 1 Peter 1.3-12).
(2) Scripture, of course, clearly teaches that we are saved by grace through faith (see above texts). And it also credits the church’s entire existence to God’s gracious election (Eph 1.4; 1 Thes 1.4; Rom 8.33). At the same time, nowhere in Scripture are we told, “Here’s what God did for you, now continue on with what you were doing.” Quite the opposite! Paul, for example, consistently employs indicative statements that explain what God has accomplished for his people through Christ, and then follows such statements with imperatives that lay out the Christians’ responsibilities in light of their blessed position (e.g., Romans 6—you have died w/Christ, you are dead to sin—stop living in it; or Ephesians 2-3, you have been raised with Christ—put on the new, put off the old).
Scripture repeatedly stresses the importance of a continued responsibility for those in Christ. Philippians 2.12 is no different.[i]
“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” The Christian life is not something that is to be done passively; nor are we left to go at it alone. It requires cooperation with God. I had a professor explain this by using the analogy of a car: If you want to go to the grocery store, you don’t just sit in your car and hope it takes you there (a passive, “let God” faith). Nor do you attempt to push the car (do by human effort). No, the car has an engine (God). Again, there’s cooperation, we have to turn the key and drive, yet we are fully reliant on His power: “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” Therefore, while working out our salvation is the imperative, the capacity comes from God. He can empower us to do great things. Work out your salvation, rely on His Spirit.[ii]
When the theology of salvation is discussed, there’s always the tendency to focus on how it applies to us individually. But we need to be careful because salvation here, although personal, definitely has corporate implications. In fact, Paul’s main concern is to foster other-centered attitudes in order to bring harmony to the community (Phil 2.2-4; 1.27). A strictly personal, individual application of the text misses the point.
Furthermore, “Fear and trembling” calls to mind passages from the Old Testament and the response of those in God’s presence (e.g., Exod 15.16; Isa 19.16; or Deut 2.25; 11.25). Therefore, this verse might be better interpreted as, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for God is present among you, in your very midst.[iii] In other words, be mindful of God’s presence among you, and be sure you’re aiding rather than impeding His work in your community.
Do everything without grumbling or arguing… This language recalls Israel’s time in the wilderness. Their grumbling and complaining brought them under divine judgment, and their status as God’s children was forfeited (Numbers 14; Exodus 17; Deut 32.5). For this reason, Biblical authors often use Israel’s past mistakes as a warning to the present generation (1 Cor 10.10-11; throughout Hebrews). By referring to those outside the Philippian community as a “warped and crooked generation,” Paul applies Israel’s disobedience and judgment to the outside world.
The speech in the church of Philippi will not contain bickering or complaining against one another, or against God. They are to be different: “blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” No one, whether God or man, will be able to accuse them of wrong doing. Their edifying speech, their service oriented and other-centered lifestyle, and spirit of unity will present a stark contrast to the outside world (2.15; 2.2-4; 1.27). They will “shine like stars” as they live out the Gospel, thereby illuminating the way home for the lost world that surrounds them (Phil 2.15; cf. Matt 5.14; Dan 12.3).[iv]
Paul ends this section by encouraging his readers to rejoice on behalf of their labors for one another. The more and more I study Scripture, the more I appreciate and recognize the importance of having the Christian grace of joy.
Application: Are we allowing God to continue to shape us, actively working to conform ourselves to the servant attitude of Christ? Do we bicker and complain, or are we grateful? Do we promote peace or create strain in our relationships when we speak? How different are we from the world around us. Is the way we conduct ourselves attractive to those around us? So much so that it points others to Christ?
God, as those who consistently fall short, we are in desperate need of your help and grace. Though we stand confident that, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1.6). We trust your promises, we trust your grace. Praise you, Jesus. Amen.
[i] Perhaps the closest parallel to Philippians 2.12 comes from the Apostle Peter’s second letter to the church in Rome, “make every effort to make your calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1.10).
[ii] Lecture notes from Dr. Klein’s, New Testament Theology class.
[iii] Greek “in you” can be translated as “among.”
[iv] Hansen, Philippians, 183.