As Protestants, we champion the doctrine of salvation grace alone through faith alone—by Christ alone! We have firmly planted our feet in the Protestant sand, and that will never change! However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some texts of Scripture that make us scratch our noggin if we don’t understand the context.
One of these texts of Scripture is Philippians 2:13, which says:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (italics added)
To many Christians, this verse seems like it contradicts other parts of the Bible, especially Ephesians 2:8-9. Although, if we don’t like at verses by themselves—and look at the surround context!—we will begin to see that this verse does not espouse salvation by works.
Context, Context, Context
Taking the verse at face value—and by itself—it would seem as though it advocates either for working for our salvation or working to keep our salvation. However, neither are true. Context is key here, friends.
In the following verse, the Apostle Paul tells us “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.“ This solves the question, does it not?
This passage of Scripture doesn’t teach we are commanded to work for our salvation nor to keep it; rather, it teaches that we must work out our salvation—to cultivate it—but that it is God Himself who works in us to do the cultivating. Like the text says, “for it is God who works in you.”
When we read verses in their proper context, we see the bigger picture and are therefore able to understand what God wants us to understand.
Work Out Our Salvation with Fear and Trembling?
It’s safe to assume this verse may frighten many Christians who don’t read their Bible much. Or, at the very least, they wouldn’t know how to explain it when talking with a person who advocates for works-based salvation.
When the text says that we should “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” it simply refers to our role in sanctification. The Greek verb for “work out”–katergazomai–means to “keep on working out to completion, to ultimate fulfillment” (source). That is, it means we should continually be working out our salvation.
John MacArthur put it like this:
The command is for believers to make a continuing, sustained effort to work out to ultimate completion their salvation, which has been graciously granted to them by God through their faith in Jesus Christ.
But again, we see clearly that we need to work out our salvation to completion, but how do we do so? Again, the answer is simple: it refers to our duty in sanctification. What is our duty, you ask? We have a responsibility as Christians to pursue holiness by obeying God in our lives.
Believers are to be undefined before God (2 Corinthians 7:1); we must set our minds on heaven (Colossians 3:2); we must walk in a way that reflects the gospel that saved us (Ephesians 4:1).
So when Scripture tells us we must work out our salvation, it’s simply telling us to do our part in sanctification! But then, Scripture goes behind the scenes, so to speak, and reveals that even when we do our part in sanctification, it is God Himself who is working in and through us (v. 13).
Even though we must obey the command to do our part in pursuing holiness, we always remember that it is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we do so.
Pursue Holiness, Church!
The pursuit of holiness is a mandate (Hebrews 12:14). We must pursue it. Joy-filled obedience is a natural result of regeneration. Our part in sanctification is just that: obedience. And this shouldn’t be begrudging obedience; no, it should be obedience that springs from a heart that takes joy in the God of salvation.
We play an active role (with God) in sanctification. We are called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, all the while knowing that it is God who works in and through us–for our good and His glory!
Soli Deo Gloria