By James Metsger
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, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)
Do you remember the first time you had a substitute teacher? You came to school thinking you were going to be a good boy or girl only to find Mr. What’s His Face or Mrs. What’s Her Name standing before the class. Your age usually determines your reaction to this. Younger kids groan inwardly because they generally love their teachers. Older students, however, watch as the substitute fumbles through the teacher’s instructions and then collectively look at one another as if to say, “I’m pretty sure we’re in charge now.” When the cat’s away the mice will play. “Not so fast!” says Paul. As a travelling apostle, Paul could only stay temporarily at the churches he helped plant. He wrote letters to encourage them in pursuing a lifestyle of obedience in his absence. He even sent substitutes like Timothy to teach and serve.
In verses 12-13, Paul commends the church for their obedience, and then he commands the church.
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
The preposition in this command is important. Paul says, to work out, not work for. So, if you hear Paul saying work for your salvation, watch out! You can easily get in trouble. “Earn it!” “Behave your way into a relationship with God.” “Work your way into God’s good graces.” No! Our relationship with God is not based on our work for God, but on faith in his work for us. We are a people of faith. We don’t perform our way into God’s good graces and then wait in trepidation for the Simon Cowell-like thumbs up or down from him.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
You don’t work your way to God. Faith is a gift and grace is unmerited, so our salvation can never be earned. What then does Paul mean when he says to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling?
The answer lies in the preposition “out.” Paul is referring to the outworking or the fruit of your relationship with God. It’s the difference between justification and sanctification. God justifies you as an internal one-time act whereby he declares you righteous. But he doesn’t stop there. He also transforms you through the ongoing, life-long process of sanctification. This is the Holy Spirit’s work in you to transform your affections and attitudes in ways that are evidenced by your behavior. You are being changed by God, and the fruit—the working out—is evidence of your salvation.
If you hear all this and are immediately exhausted because it sounds like a lot of work, here’s some good news:
for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:13)
Notice how Paul first commends the church: “You’re pursuing godliness. Bravo!” Then he commands the church: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling!” He finishes by comforting the church. God is working in you.
God works in. You work out.
Our very longing, our desire for God, is actually given to us by God. He wills it for us, and then he works it in us for his good pleasure. Growth in our spiritual life (sanctification), is a gift from God. He works it in, so we can pour it out by living holy and blameless before him and others. We shine his light in the darkness for his glory. He gets the credit.
This is good news. And none of it would be possible if God hadn’t sent Jesus to be a substitute for his people—to take our punishment, give us his righteousness and secure our salvation. So get to work by resting on the work he has done for you and in you.
Is there an area of your life with God where God is calling you to take a step and move? What’s stopping you?