“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.” Philippians 2:12 (N.K.J.V.)
A man bought an acreage of hilly land spotted with boulders and covered with weeds and briars. Then he began his work on the land. First, he paid a backhoe operator and a dump-truck driver to dig up the boulders and haul them away. Second, he employed a man who owned a tractor with an attached mower to mow down all the weeds and briars. Third, he hired a fellow who owned a bulldozer to level out the land. Fourth, he brought in a well-drilling company to dig a well. Fifth, he contracted a builder to build a fine house on the site.
One day a friend came to visit the now beautiful homesite. As the two men gazed over the place, the friend said, “Praise God for such level land that is void of boulders, weeds, and briars.” The comment irked the landowner but he let it go. Next the friend said, “And praise Him for such a fine well to go along with the land.” Again, the comment peeved the landowner but he held his tongue. Finally the friend added in, “And praise Him for such a beautiful house. My, my, God surely is good.” At this point the landowner could no longer remain silent. He looked squarely at his friend and said, “Well, you can praise God all you want but you should have seen what He had the place looking like when He had it all to Himself!”
Let’s get one thing clear: Works play NO part in regards to an individual’s salvation. The words of our text were written by Paul, under the inspiration of God, as a part of a letter to the church at Philippi, and in the opening verse of the letter (1:1) he calls his audience “saints.” Since “saints” is a New Testament term that is synonymous with “Christians,” it’s obvious that Paul considered those believers in Philippi to be full-fledged Christians already. For that matter, this is the same Paul who taught in Ephesians 2:8-9 that works play no part whatsoever in an individual getting saved:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (N.K.J.V.)
But now let’s get a second thing clear: Works DO play a part in how the Christian lives the Christian life. This is where our text verse comes into play. The Christian is told to, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Notice that Paul doesn’t say, “…work for your own salvation…”; he says, “…work out your own salvation…” That’s a different idea altogether.
Okay, fine. But what does the idea mean? For one thing, it means that the Christian has a responsibility to actively pursue personal holiness in his daily affairs and to do everything he can to keep himself from the snares of sin. Sin always wants to bring the Christian back under its grip, and it takes work, real work, to resist that pull. For another thing, though, it means that an inner salvation should produce outer works of service worthy of that salvation. As has often been said, “Salvation is not of works, but salvation works.”
John Phillips compares the gift of salvation to a gold mine and says, “If someone were to give you a gold mine of incalculable worth, you would have a treasure, but the gold would not do you any practical good unless you worked it out of the mine.” Likewise, the Christian, having experienced salvation and thus been empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, has tremendous potential for good in resisting sin and serving the Lord, but that potential doesn’t automatically translate to action. Just as hard, long, extensive work goes into mining gold from the earth, the same level of work is required to mine the Christian ideal from the Christian.
In John 15:8, Jesus says to His followers, “By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.” Bearing much fruit comes as a byproduct of working out your salvation. Going back to my opening illustration, think of the landowner as a Christian, his land as salvation, and his efforts to improve the land as him bearing much fruit. Putting it simply, Christian, working out your own salvation means doing a lot with the “land” that God has allowed you to have.
But why does Paul say that the Christian should work out his salvation with “fear and trembling”? Doesn’t that imply that it’s possible for the Christian to lose his salvation? No, it doesn’t. Paul liked this phrase and used it frequently in his writings (1 Corinthians 2:3, 2 Corinthians 7:15, and Ephesians 6:5). In this context, he uses it to encourage the Christian to distrust his own efforts to live the victorious Christian life. The Amplified Bible is a translation that foregoes a literal word-for-word translating of scripture in favor of adding in extra words to better convey the fullest meaning of the original Hebrew or Greek. In regards to the “fear and trembling” portion of Philippians 2:12, it reads:
“…work out (cultivate, carry out to the goal, and fully complete) your own salvation with reverence and awe and trembling (self-distrust, with serious caution, tenderness of conscience, watchfulness against temptation, timidly shrinking from whatever might offend God and discredit the name of Christ).”
And so, Christian, the point of this post is that your moment of salvation was merely the beginning of you living the earthly life that God wants you to live. It was God empowering you to live out the Christian ideal. But you being empowered doesn’t mean that you will stay tapped into that power and use it to resist sin and serve God. That takes some WORK on your part. Yes, your life can closely resemble the Christian ideal, but for that to happen you are going to have to grab your pickaxe and shovel and put in the required work. So, tell me, how are you doing on that? If your gold mine hasn’t been producing much spiritual gold lately, why don’t you head down into the mine today and start putting in the work it takes to bring that gold to the surface?