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Does the Philippians 2:12 phrase, ‘Work out your salvation with fear and trembling’, Imply Salvation By Works?

Duke Jeyaraj answers this question and brings out the main message of Philippians 2

The reading of Philippians 2 reveals a clear pattern. This pattern compares two categories. Jesus put sinners ahead of himself and died for them on the cross (Phil. 2:6-10). Timothy put the welfare of the church at Philippian before his own welfare (Phil. 2:19-24). Epaphroditus placed the life of Apostle Paul ahead of his life (Phil. 2:25-30). We must keep this pattern in mind as we interpret Philippians 2:12 where we read this: “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (ESV). The very next verse says this: “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13, ESV). This is the pattern of comparison in Philippians 2:12-13: the work of God in the life of the believer who works out his salvation with fear and trembling. As pointed out above, the second category in the comparison pair is more important than the first category (sinners were more important than himself for Jesus; the welfare of the church at Philippi was more than his own welfare for Timothy; the life of Apostle Paul was more than his own life for Epaphroditus). Keeping the same pattern in mind, we can confidently say this: the work of God in our salvation is more important than we ourselves working out our salvation for the simple reason that it is God who enables, empowers us to do that work. It is not a self-work, but a God-powered work! So, the glory goes to God, not to us! The credit goes to God, not to us! So, Philippians 2:12-13 when it is seen in the clearly seen full context of Philippians chapter 2 does not teach salvation by works. “Christians are recipients of God’s initiatives of motivation and empowerment”.[1]

One principle we must follow to correctly interpret the epistles is this: we must read the letter in one sitting (don’t we do the same when it comes to any normal letter?).[2] When I wrote a letter proposing marriage to the Chennai-located Evan (my wife) in the year 1999 as a 25-year-old Bible College student in Bangalore, she read that letter of several paragraphs in one sitting! So, if we read Paul’s letter to the Philippi church in one sitting we will not stop until we read the last verse of the letter which is this: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with your spirit” (Phil. 4:23 ESV). So, what is the implication of this verse? All the things that Apostle Paul wanted the Philippian believers to do (including ‘working out their salvation with fear and trembling’) must be done enabled by the grace of the Lord Jesus, and through self-effort!

So, a total trust in God’s enabling grace would enable obedience to the command, ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12; Eph. 2:8-9). Elsewhere, in two places, Paul couples the gracious enablement of God with this choice use that enablement to work hard. Colossians 1:29 is one such place: “To this end I strenuously content with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (NIV). Though it is Paul who strenuously contents, we must not forget the complete enablement for this came from energy that Christ gave him! I Corinthians 15:10 is the another place where Paul places God’s enablement along his choice to work hard: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (NIV). So, even if I as a believers work out my salvation with fear and trembling, it is not me who works, but the grace of God that is within me (I Cor. 15:10 adapted into Phil. 2:12-13).

What will be the fruit of working out our salvation with fear and trembling? Paul describes this in Phil. 2:14-18. There are things that we will not do: (1) we will not ‘grumble’ (Phil. 2:14), (2) we will not question authorities God has placed over us unfairly (Phil. 2:14), and, (3) we will not copy the crooked and depraved generation around us (the porn-watching, bi-sexuality embracing, bad-language-using generation). There are things we will do: (1) we will hold fast to the Word of Life (Phil. 2:16) – we will be diligent in Bible Study,(2) we will be ready to pour our very life for the sake of the Gospel (Phil. 2:17) – like how Jim Elliot, John Allen Chau were ready to do) and, (3) we will be glad and rejoice with our fellow believers (Phil. 2:18) – our happiness will not be dependent on happenings, but on Him (Paul was in a prison as he wrote this letter – Phil. 1:7). And if we worked out our salvation with fear and trembling enabled by God’s grace what is the reward? “In the day of Christ” (the final day of judgment) we will make our spiritual mentors proud (Phil. 2:16). Notice this here: holiness is as important as forgiveness to inherit eternal life on the final day of Christ!

Yes, salvation is by grace (Eph. 2:8-9), but it will always result in good works (Eph. 2:10). Doing these good works will not save us. But if we are truly saved, we will produce Grace-enabled, Holy Spirit empowered good works as described in Phil. 2:14-18.

What the connection between the humiliation and exaltation of Christ as described in Phil. 2:5-11 and the call the quit ‘grumbling and questioning’ in Phil. 2:14? Phil. 2:1-2 provides the clue. It is a call for unity among church believers. They were perhaps arrogantly opposing the leadership of the church. They were surely grumbling against the leadership of the church. This had to stop. Gordon Fee explains: “Go to Phil. 2:12-13. Now what is the point? Notice, how ‘therefore’ clearly signals that this is the conclusion. Given Christ’s example, they are now to obey Paul. In what? Surely in having unity, which also requires humility’.[3]

Even today what Paul wrote is applicable. Yes, church leadership should be held accountable. But at the same time, we must not fight with church leadership for petty, silly reasons. When the church leadership embraces hell-populating false teaching we must oppose them. When they act in a way that the kingdom of God is destroyed we must act. Otherwise, we must humble ourselves and work alongside the local church leadership.


[1] Richard R. Melick Jr., The HCSB Large Print Study Bible (Nashville, TN: 2015), 2044.

[2] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Hyderabad, India: Authentic Books, 2008), 59.

[3] Ibid., 68.

(Rev. Dr. Duke Jeyaraj is the founder of Grabbing the Google Generation from Gehenna Mission. This is a reader-supported Indian ministry. Find out more at http://www.dukev.org. Watch Duke at http://www.youtube.com/visitduke).