In Philippians 2:12, Paul urges his readers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” What did he mean by these instructions?
What does Philippians 2:12 say?
“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 have looked into these words and tried to understand them. Sadly, the available answers are more likely to inject confusion than provide plain direction.
If you are like me, you probably find that explanation muddies the waters instead of clarifying things! It is more suited for triggering an esoteric theological debate than for teaching practical Christianity.
Other explanations stumble at the word work in conjunction with salvation. They wrongly equate “work out your own salvation” with “salvation by works” and leap into debunking that doctrine.
Paul did not teach salvation by works
Certainly, Paul did not believe or teach that we are saved by the merit of our good deeds.
He wrote plainly that eternal life is the gift of God in Romans 6:23. In Ephesians 2:8, he added: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.”
Yet, he also wrote, “Work out your own salvation”! What were his readers to do with his appeal? What are we to do with it today? Failing to understand Paul, many would have you think that there is danger in taking his words at face value. Actually, any danger that exists lies in failing to do just that!
Saved from death
First, we should consider what salvation is. When the Bible talks about salvation, it is referring to being saved from the certainty of eternal death.
The inherent meaning of spiritual salvation is being changed from physical existence (which includes the certitude of death) to a spiritual existence (which is eternal, incapable of death). Those who are now “dead in Christ” (people who died as faithful Christians) will be restored to life in spirit bodies, never to die again (see 1 Thessalonians 4:16).
The inherent meaning of spiritual salvation is being changed from physical existence to a spiritual existence. They will be transformed from the inevitability of aging and from all vulnerability to injury and disease.
Paul explained salvation to the Corinthian congregations this way: “For the trumpet will sound [at the return of Christ], and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (1 Corinthians 15:52-54).
To learn more about the Bible’s teaching on salvation, read “What It Really Means to Be Saved: Saved From What?” and “When Are You Actually Saved?”
Impossible to earn salvation
Back to Philippians 2:12. Was Paul urging the believers to work out their own immortality? The suggestion is ludicrous. Individuals, by themselves, cannot escape the certainty of death. Individuals cannot transform themselves from physical life to a spiritual existence. Through careful dieting, exercise and judicious life choices, people might prolong their physical existence. But nothing they do can prevent them from eventually dying.
Only God has the power to change that—the power to save spiritually.
God gives salvation. It isn’t earned. It isn’t granted on the basis of points people might gain for good living! Believers cannot cash in their life’s record to qualify for eternal existence. Nothing they have done, can do or will do could ever earn such a valuable gift.
Everyone who has ever lived—except for Jesus Christ—has sinned and thereby earned the death penalty. Paul wrote, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). That isn’t just referring to the certainty of physical death, but also to the death whereby one ceases to exist forever. A death from which there is no return.
Once earned, this death penalty cannot be lifted, except by God Himself.
(To learn about the process that God uses to lift that penalty, download our free booklet Change Your Life.)
Paul’s words at face value
Rather than overcomplicate what Paul wrote to the Philippians, let’s take his words at face value.
In Philippians 2:12, he began with the adverb therefore. So, we must look at the verses leading up to this to understand what he was saying.
The mark of godly character is when one practices what’s right with or without supervision. Next, he referenced how they had been conducting their lives: “as you have always obeyed.” He said they did this in his presence and then referred to his absence. In his absense, he exhorted them to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
In the verses preceding “therefore” (verse 12), Paul wrote of Jesus’ obedience (verses 7-8). Christ voluntarily subjected Himself to God’s will, which included sacrificing Himself, so that His death might pay the death penalty for all.
Then Paul referred to the obedience of the Philippian believers (verse 12). Just as Christ obeyed God, so did the Philippians.
Strangely, many in modern Christianity condemn those who teach as Paul did—that Christians should obey God as Christ did. Some people incorrectly conflate this with trying to earn salvation through works.
Presence and absence
Let’s consider what the apostle meant by “in my presence” and “in my absence.” He had been with the Philippians in person. Under his pastoral eye, they had lived exemplary Christian lives, obeying God just as Christ had done. At the time Paul wrote this letter, he was imprisoned in Rome. It was doubtful he would ever see them again. He sincerely hoped they would carry on living as they had when he was with them.
Truly, the mark of godly character is when one practices what’s right with or without supervision.
That is the core intent of what Paul wrote to the Philippians. We might paraphrase it: You’ve obeyed God when I was with you. Keep on doing it in my absence. That is the work that he urged them to continue.
In other words, be good Christian citizens . . . always!
“Work out your own salvation”
As we’ve seen, we can never earn salvation. But it’s also false to believe that nothing we do affects our salvation.
Are we expected to do anything? Paul answered that. Yes, we ought to obey as Christ did.
The mark of godly character is when one practices what’s right with or without supervision. Jesus stated the truth pointedly: “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15).
Many preachers de-emphasize obedience and say, “Only believe. Just accept Christ as your Savior and you will be saved.” The Bible contradicts this, telling us that faith (or belief) without works is dead (James 2:17). (To learn more about the importance of obeying God, read “Is Obedience to God Necessary?”)
The idea that teaching obedience is the same as earning salvation is as incorrect as the idea that parents who require their children to obey are teaching them that obedience earns them membership in the family. Loving parents provide for and protect their children out of love, not because of what the child might do for them.
When it comes to God the Father, we must love Him and live by His family rules, which are summarized by the 10 Commandments (1 John 5:3).
A gift can have conditions
Can a gift have stipulations that must be met by those who are to receive it? Of course! In fact, it grossly misrepresents salvation to teach that God will give salvation regardless of how sour someone’s attitude is or how reckless and unrestrained his or her behavior is. God’s priceless gift comes with requirements.
Here’s a tougher question: Does what Paul wrote imply that the Philippians could lose their free gift of salvation if they failed to obey?
The obvious answer is yes! It would be contradictory to teach that obedience is necessary—only to add “but not really necessary!” Yet that’s the inherent contradiction in many nominal Christian teachings today.
God gives salvation, but you can lose the privilege of receiving that gift.
To examine this further, read our article “Once Saved, Are You Always Saved?”
Fear, trembling—and courage
What did Paul mean by “with fear and trembling”? Simply put, Christians should be in awe of their calling and have a deep respect for the responsibility that comes with it.
What has God done? What can Christians count on Him to continue doing? The Amplified Bible puts verse 13 this way: “For it is [not your strength, but it is] God who is effectively at work in you, both to will and to work [that is, strengthening, energizing, and creating in you the longing and the ability to fulfill your purpose] for His good pleasure.”
And the International Children’s Bible has: “Yes, God is working in you to help you want to do what pleases him. Then he gives you the power to do it.”
The paraphrased New Testament by J.B. Phillips captures the intent of verses 12-13: “So then, my dearest friends, as you have always followed my advice—and that not only when I was present to give it—so now that I am far away be keener than ever to work out the salvation that God has given you with a proper sense of awe and responsibility. For it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and the power to achieve his purpose.”
God gives us help
Christians should draw encouragement from the sure fact that God personally called them and that He is committed to giving them the spiritual power to do what He expects of them. You can succeed, because God has been with you and continues to empower you!
That is our takeaway, for the message remains true for believers today. Obey God, whether anyone is watching you or not, and recognize how essential it is for you to fulfill what God expects of you.
And always remember that God drew you to Christ, and ultimately Himself, and will see you through to the return of Christ (John 6:44). At that time, He will give you the full gift of salvation, transforming you from physical to spirit.