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In my adult life, as I came to a greater understanding of God’s grace and sovereignty, I struggled to understand the role I play in my own spiritual growth. How do I best cooperate with the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit? What would it look like for me to grow more firmly rooted in my salvation? I found help in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

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. (Phil. 2:12–13)

In light of the truth that Jesus is Lord, presented poetically in Philippians 2:1–11, Paul tells his Philippian audience they should then work out their salvation “with fear and trembling.”

At first glance, this command appears confusing. Is Paul saying that salvation is something we, by our own efforts, work toward or earn from God? Is Paul pushing the Philippians to be afraid of God, as if He in His wrath and impatience is holding out eternal salvation like a dangling carrot and may snatch it away at any moment?

Paul never teaches in any of his other writings that salvation is something we earn from God. In fact, in chapter 3 of his letter, he warns the Philippians about people who were teaching these very things. Paul, and all of Scripture, teaches that we’re saved by the work Christ did on our behalf through His perfectly lived life, His death, and His resurrection. We receive this gift by trusting in Christ by faith. So we can conclude with certainty that Paul is not advocating that we must work to attain perfection and therefore reach up to God by our own merit.

Work Out

So what is Paul saying? If we look at each word in this phrase we get a much better idea of the larger meaning. The word for “salvation” here is not the same as the word we use when we mean “justification.” Justification is a legal term for our account having been wiped free of sin and replaced by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. We call this “salvation”—and it is—but this isn’t the term Paul uses here.

It is God who works the benefits of the gospel into us.

Paul uses the word for “salvation” that refers to what happens after we become a Christian, what we often term “sanctification” or becoming more and more devoted to Christ. When we become Christians, our status becomes “righteous,” but we spend the rest of our lives understanding and applying this gift we’ve been given.

So when Paul says, “Work out your salvation,” there is nothing else for us to get or gain; we’ve been given everything we need for life and godliness. He’s telling us to know and to live out the full benefits of the salvation we’ve been given.

The word translated “work out” signifies seeing that work to completion. Paul is telling us that we must be purposeful and diligent in this “working out” process. We must seek to know and understand the benefits of being in Christ not just so we comprehend the truth or the facts about Him but so that those truths and facts change us.

With Fear and Trembling

Paul says we are to work out our salvation with a specific mind-set: “with fear and trembling.”

When I read this phrase, I think of cowering in the corner, fearful of punishment from an authority figure. However, Paul is not describing a fear that drives the believer away to hide from God or cower before Him. Paul is describing a fear that drives the believer to seek God, to run toward Him rather than away. We run to our Father, not away, and for good reason, because the mind-set undergirding this “working out” of our salvation is an understanding of our own powerlessness and helplessness to produce our own spiritual growth and spiritual fruit.

We know God is our help, so we run to Him with a proper fear of Him—a trust of Him and a submission to His authority. Paul tells us why in verse 13: “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Our working needs to be understood as being in cooperation with God’s working. And we also need to understand His work and how it is different from ours.

God Wills and Works In

Paul says God both wills and works. He transforms our minds and hearts to actually desire to do what is right and what pleases God. He changes us into willing participants in the process of spiritual transformation. His work is done by the power of the Holy Spirit, who resides in the believer, moving and empowering the Christian to think and act in a way that pleases Him.

We “work out” in cooperation with him. We’re receptors, receivers, and responders, and so, our work is consistent, responsive faith that bears fruit in obedience. We respond by faith at salvation, we present ourselves by faith to Him—that is, we present our “members to God as instruments for righteousness” (Rom. 6:13)―we submit by faith to this process, we wait in faith that He will lead us to good works, we believe by faith that He is the effector in our works, and we rest by faith in confidence that we are pleasing to Him.

In other words, it is God who works the benefits of the gospel into us. We make ourselves available to His work and trust that He will do the work of transforming us as we strive to walk in obedience.

He works in; we work out.

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