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)

I remember as a teenager hearing these verses read in church. It made a lasting impression on me and although we may feel far from fully grasping all this passage entails, I hope you will find the following thoughts a helpful accompaniment to it.

Look to Christ to perceive what it means to “work out your own salvation.”

When we think of salvation, the Lord Jesus is our chief focus because He is our salvation. He committed Himself to the One who could save Him from death (Heb. 5:7) and thereby “became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:9). Through His life, death, and resurrection, He worked out our salvation from sin. He grew in His understanding and wisdom according to His age (see Luke 2:47, 52). His thoughts, words, and actions were aimed at achieving salvation for us. The context of our chosen verses from Philippians 2 tells of His exertions in achieving it. He lived in a God-honoring fashion; “taking the form of a servant . . . he humbled himself” (Phil. 2:7). His whole life was committed to God. He was “obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). Accordingly, God saved Him from death and “highly exalted him” (Phil. 2:9).

Christ withheld nothing in His achieving salvation for us. He did not give a part of Himself for us, but He gave Himself. This is conveyed to us in Philippians 2:7–9. He “emptied himself” and “humbled himself.” It is fitting, therefore, that God withheld no honor from Him: “God exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.”

Working out our salvation entails discovering and believing the truths of God and Christ revealed by Scripture. Yet it also includes much more, because Christ redeemed not a part of us only but our whole being—body and soul. Therefore, working out our salvation means responding to God with the whole of our being: heart, soul, mind, and strength. We are to apply our minds to understand our salvation, we are to exert ourselves putting Christ’s teaching into practice, and we are to allow Christ’s salvation to work through us and permeate our words, thoughts, and actions.

Since salvation was a whole-life work for Jesus, it is also a lifelong work for us. There is always more to learn of God’s saving works and scope for further application in our lives. We are a work in progress until the time, by God’s grace, that He completes the work He has begun in us.

Communion with God is key to “working out your own salvation.”

The accompanying expression “with fear and trembling” offers a valuable clue as to how we may “work out [our] own salvation” (Phil. 2:12). It tells of people who have turned to God and are humble before Him. It is to practice what Paul has already described in Philippians 2 where he taught the need to be humble, presented us with Christ’s example and taught us how to obtain it, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). If Christians lack a grace they may then come to Christ for that grace, much as Paul powerfully describes later in the letter. At one time, Paul was a man filled with covetousness, but he wrote of how he learned contentment, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).

Paul’s teaching in Philippians 2 on humility therefore establishes communion with God at the forefront for us when it comes to working out our salvation, because what you need to have for salvation is yours in Christ Jesus.

Communion with God is vital for working out our salvation. Why? Because these verses teach us, paradoxically, that the work that we are to do in “working out [our] own salvation” is work that God alone grants desire and power to do. This is brought into view where the text says, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

We appeal to God’s Spirit who works in us to receive His Word in humility along with other graces that are needful for salvation.

We would more easily understand an arrangement where God did the work and there was nothing for us to do, or vice versa, or if we shared the work. It would be easier to understand because these are common working arrangements between humans. But our relationship to God is different because God is infinitely greater than any creature. He is the potter; we are the clay, and this is the way that He has chosen to work. It is His good pleasure.

Although we struggle to understand or explain the arrangement described in these verses, as we grow as Christians we appreciate more that the work that is expected of us is work that only God can give us the will and power to do. Therefore, we appeal to Him that He would do the necessary work in and through us.

God has given us means by which we have communion with Him and further work out our salvation. These include His Word, which is given “that the man of God may be complete,” (2 Tim. 3:17); prayer, by which we confess our sins and bring our petitions directly to God; and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

We must also acknowledge that the fact God alone accomplishes good works in us is not an excuse for inaction. Instead, it is a call to action. The Spirit does not lie dormant in the Christian believer but is living and active: “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work” (Phil. 2:13). Our text from Philippians is a call for productive service to God, founded on His power.

God’s provisions of faith, repentance, and the church are also worthy of highlighting how we work out our salvation. Faith, because “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4); repentance, because it is “leads to life” (Acts 11:18); and committing to the Christian church, because “working out your own salvation” isn’t an individual task only, but there is the need to “comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth” of Christ’s love (Eph. 3:18).

We have a common goal for this work. The goal of the work is our Savior, our Lord Jesus, and although our salvation is worked out according to our own persons, personalities, and circumstances, we all as Christians share the same Savior and the same goal. We are “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).

Mental and physical workouts are hard work, but many people also enjoy these activities and benefit from exerting their minds and bodies. Working out our own salvation is no less difficult. Internally, the flesh wages war against the Spirit, not to speak of external pressures Christians encounter. We struggle in this task, but when we remember Jesus Christ, we have the greatest cause for taking it up, and it will yield the greatest benefits lasting into eternity. Presently the believer is comforted in the joy that comes from believing in Him.


We learn and believe the variety of God’s actions and movements that form our salvation both in Christ’s achieving it and in His applying it. The teaching to “work out your own salvation” is a comprehensive commitment to God in body and soul. Communion with God is vital for this work. We are unable in ourselves to contribute or add anything to our salvation. Yet God wants us to work it out in our lives. We appeal to God’s Spirit who works in us to receive His Word in humility along with other graces that are needful for salvation. Marvelously, all that is needed is already ours in Christ. God wants us to experience more of what He freely provides in Christ through communion with Him, and we petition God to grant the will and power to do that which pleases Him.

We cannot do what God asks of us on our own. We must depend on Him for the will and power to do what He wants, because Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Happily, Christians are not apart from Him, for He is with us and has promised not to leave us or forsake us. Now we ask Him to work in us according to His good pleasure.

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