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; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)
When studying this passage of scripture, it is important to remember that "Therefore" ties this verse to the previous section where Paul desires the Philippians to respond positively to his admonition to have the mind of Christ (Philippians 2: 5–8). The command is to the entire group since the word you is plural. The subject is their mutual, corporate salvation (Philippians 1:19, 28; Luke 22:24–30).
The Apostle Paul goes on to tell the Philippians to "work out your own salvation." Now be careful as you read these words. Paul is not telling us to work FOR our salvation. It is so important that you hear these words. We are surrounded by people who are working for their salvation. They are trying to earn enough points to get into heaven. They are like the student who is working hard to be accepted to a college, or to gain a scholarship. They are like the salesman who is trying to meet a particular sales quota.
I would venture to say that a majority of people feel that they must produce BEFORE they can be "saved". They spend their lives fretting over any mistake. Those who feel they "have a good shot at Heaven", desperately fear that they are going to do something wrong which is going to get them booted out of Heaven at the last minute. But this is not what the Bible teaches. The Bible tells us that we are forgiven and made new not because of the good we have done to counterbalance the bad . . . but because Christ paid for our sin on the cross. We don't work FOR salvation; but we are to work OUT our salvation. In other words we are to work at godly living BECAUSE we are saved.
So what does Paul mean when he tells the Philippians to "work out your own salvation"? There are several things involved in working out our salvation. Here are a few that come to mind:
- We are to work at making sure that our hope is truly grounded in Christ and not on our own efforts
- We are to work at taking advantage of the ways that God has given us to help us grow.
- We should read the Bible, pray, worship, serve, give, fast and so forth.
- We should work to make a break with sin. We are not to just sit back passively, but are to work at repentance and renewal.
- We are to work at adopting and applying the positive behaviors that the Bible admonishes. In other words we are to work at love, compassion, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, endurance and others.
- We are to guard against the influence of the world. In other words we will adjust our friendships, our amusements, and our use of time in order to combat the real presence of sin in our lives.
As Christians we need to be serious about developing our faith for several reasons. First, we are serious because we are in a battle. We know that we are fighting a formidable foe in the Devil. We must be serious, because he is serious. Peter tells us that our enemy prowls around like a roaring lion (1 Pet 5:8). Paul tells us to put on the full armor of God so that we can take a stand against the devil's schemes (Eph. 6:10-11). The Devil is taking this contest seriously and we had better take it seriously too.
Therefore, we too must be careful about what we believe and how we live, especially when we are on our own. In the absence of cherished Christian leaders, we must focus our attention and devotion even more on Christ so that we won't be sidetracked. To be like Christ, we must train ourselves to think like Christ. To change our desires to be more like Christ's, we need the power of the indwelling Spirit (Philippians 1:19), the influence of faithful Christians, obedience to God's Word (not just exposure to it), and sacrificial service. Often it is in doing God's will that we gain the desire to do it (Philippians 4:8-9). Do what He wants and trust Him to change your desires.
What do we do when we don't feel like obeying? God has not left us alone in our struggles to do His will. He wants to come alongside us and be within us to help. God helps us want to obey Him and then gives us the power to do what He wants. The secret to a changed life is to submit to God's control and let Him work. Next time, ask God to help you want to do His will.
References: NKJV Holy Bible, Life Application Bible (NIV), the Nelson Study Bible.