stop working out your salvation

Stop working out your salvation!

There are few things as damaging to the body of Christ as people insisting that we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

Just because something is in the Bible doesn’t mean you lift it out of context and tell people to do it.

A cursory glance at the context of Phil 2:12 shows that people are not just slightly misunderstanding the passage… they are reading it completely upside down!

Here is the verse in question:

“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;” (Phil 2:12)

Now look at the next verse:

“for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:13)

What is Paul saying? He’s saying if you are working out your own salvation you should be fearful and trembling!!!

Why?

Because it is supposed to be God working in you… you are robbing Jesus of His glory!

Welcome to Galatia

You are falling under the Galatian bewitchment. Which says that if you turn your back on the free gift of grace and try to work for your own righteousness then you have fallen from grace. (Gal 5:4)

Having been made righteous in Christ you are going back under the law to obtain something you have already been freely given!

What you have effectively done is embraced the New Covenant, accepted the free gift of righteousness which was made possible by Jesus’ work on the cross and then turned around to trample it under foot by saying you need to add to Jesus’ work.

You say that the work of Christ is not enough! Basically – “thanks Jesus, but I actually think I can do a better job!”

Paul talks about righteousness just a few verses later in Phil 3 where he says we can have one of two types of righteousness:

      1) The righteousness that comes from our own works through obeying the law
      2) The righteousness that comes freely, from God, through faith in Jesus

He tells us that the first type is “skybalon” which is the Greek word for “poop”… we often try clean it up and translate it as “rubbish” when in fact if we are going to be truthful it’s actually much stronger than poop it technically should start with an “s”. Just saying. Paul doesn’t think much of self-righteousness.

Here’s my point

You don’t want to work out your salvation.

If you do, you have good cause for fear and trembling because you have rejected the work of Jesus and decided to go back under the old covenant.

A cursory glance of the Old Testament should remind you that this isn’t a great life decision.

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20 Comments

  1. I love the turn of phrase of Paul here when he says to ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’.
    Jesus translated the word ‘fear’ to worship and so when I read this verse I think of worship. When my children were little, and we told them that we were taking them to a party or The Show (sorta like a county fair) they would physically tremble with excitement.

    To me, this verse means “walk in the truth of God’s unconditional love and live your life with excitement when you remember all Jesus has done for you to buy your salvation”.

    • Thanks for sharing Bev – absolutely most of the time fear is mistranslated in the NT but often enough the word phobos means “fear” or “terror” and so we have to be careful to rightly divide the scriptures… I shared some thoughts on this in my reply in these comments to Peter.

  2. Hey Phil,

    I’ll be honest, I don’t quite understand your perspective on this verse. No matter how I read it, I can’t make the verse say “you should be fearful and trembling if you’re working out your own salvation.”

    The NET translation states the verse as “continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence.” This suggests to me that the Greek is a continuous imperative command rather than a continuous past action describing what they had been doing, though I have yet to examine this in the original language.

    I would agree however that this verse is not talking about the outcome of salvation being determined by your works.

    I see it merely describing that “working out your faith” (the actions that demonstrate faith) is a byproduct of obedience and is therefore still completely reliant on what God has done. Therefore God’s power to fuel obedience is really the subject of this section. Paul seems to be encouraging the Philippians to keep doing what they’re doing because it shows the power of God!

    I do agree that if someone tries to tell you that you need to “work out your salvation” then they are missing the point. In Paul’s logic here, you have to trace the effects back to the cause. Therefore, if you want the effects of working out your salvation, you need obedience; and if you want obedience, you need the grace of God!

    What are your thoughts?

    • Hey Daniel,

      I can see what you are saying and I would say that’s probably a middle ground from what I’m arguing against and what I’m arguing for :)

      I think we can agree that it is continuous but I’m not sure if it’s imperative or not… I haven’t looked into the Greek on this passage for a long time. Either way I still think the point is made though… keep doing this and your are going to find trouble for yourself.

      I have no problem with your interpretation though, if that’s how you see it and choose to interpret it. I would just always want to clarify that action comes as a product of faith not faith as a product of actions. As it still seems very easy for others to make it a rule and regulation and start relying on their own effort to keep their salvation… or even worse, to “better” their salvation (as if Jesus didn’t do a good enough job)

      • Lol, I wasn’t exactly aiming for a middle ground. I agree with the overarching statement you are making about not robbing Jesus of His glory, the only thing I really struggled with was the way it seemed you extrapolated your conclusion. I do want to add that I used the word “imperative” only in reference to its grammatical function (as a linguistic command) and not as a means to stress its importance. I would be appreciative if you could further clarify how my lens might get me into trouble here.

        Along those lines however, is it possible in your view that Jesus is glorified by our obedience?

  3. Hi Phil,

    I think your view on this verse is distorted. Here’s why:

    1. Our work – to the point it feels like hard work – is not an enemy of grace, but a friend of grace. Paul implied that laziness was in fact the enemy of grace and made it in vain (1 Cor 15:10 – But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.) This verse seems rooted on the same foundation as Phil 2:12-13, namely that our hard work is not in vain BECAUSE of God’s grace to us. Outside of Christ, our best efforts are dead works, in Christ they become means of receiving and ministering his grace. They lead to greater knowledge of Him and fruitful service of Him (Heb 9:14).

    2. Fear and trembling is not inappropriate in the New Covenant and could be seen as reverence or soberness, which are appropriate before the holy, almighty God. The love and grace of God may prevent them from being terror in the life of the believer, but certainly an awe of God that stills our arrogant outbursts is not a bad thing and something Job found a relief and delight. Further the author of Hebrews wrote of how we no longer come to a smoking mountain that made Moses tremble, yet still concludes in Chap 12: “let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

    3. Context: I would also say that the message of Philippians is not that of Galatians. If this verse was in Galatians there would probably be a stronger case (although not a conclusive one) for your interpretation of it. However, from my quick review, Philippians seems primarily concerned with progress and encouragement…
    “He who has begun a good work will bring it to completion”;
    “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more,”
    “for your progress and joy in the faith”;
    “complete my joy by being of the same mind…”
    “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

    In this context, working out our salvation (i.e. progress) fits in perfectly. Obviously the Gospel and justification by faith are foundational to progress and so they appear, but this is not the thrust of the letter. Phil 3 (as quoted by you above) starts with the word “Finally” – this is not the place Paul would introduce the main purpose of the letter. And in any event the chapter concludes with Paul speaking effectively of his efforts to work out or realise the fullness of his salvation.

    Further, Phil 1:28 mentions the phrase “your salvation” not in the sense of “man-made salvation”, but in the sense of “God-given salvation”.

    4. Lastly, working hard in the interests of progress does not rob Jesus of his glory for the hard work remains on a foundation of grace and by the power of the Spirit. And let us not so overstate the truth that “all glory is his” that we ignore all the references in the bible to God rewarding and honoring those who live lives of faithful worship and service of him.

    Your comments?

    • Hi Peter,

      These are some great points you make. Thanks for taking the time to write it all out and do so so graciously. I will do my best to answer you as best I can. I think we are doomed to agree to disagree (but that’s ok by me), I have no need to change your mind but hopefully I can clarify where I’m coming from.

      1) I am not arguing for a rest that is devoid of action. In fact, Noah’s name means “rest” and he had to build a boat for 120 years (not to mention gathering all those animals!) As believers we have entered rest but it doesn’t look like doing nothing. The difference is how we “work”.

      For me it’s not work at all. Rest is the presence of an attitude not the lack of an action. So rest says “I’m doing nothing, Christ in me will bring about all things.” We believe that we are just vessels of righteousness and that the fruit of the Spirit is just that… fruit of the Spirit – not of US! Love, joy, patience, kindness etc… we can “work those out” and be better at them… or we can just let God’s love, joy, patience, etc… flow through us. When I feel like my love etc is good enough I just ask my wife which she would prefer ;) haha

      Hopefully that clears up what I’m saying… this is why I’m saying it’s so important that WE do not work out our salvation but we allow God to do that for us. Is there a process of God helping us on the journey of discovering who we really are in Christ.

      I love that you mentioned 1 Cor 15:10 because that would have been my go-to verse to make my point (funny how we can see things so differently right?) I mean this is how I see it:

      “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

      Paul is saying, “I’m just who I am… nothing more, nothing less… but I manage to work harder [than all the apostles] BUT, NOT ME… the grace of God is what works through me.”

      At least that’s what I read that verse to say.

      2) I absolutely agree with you that love casts out all fear and that fear is not a motivation of God nor of the apostles. I think however it’s hard to argue that the word phobos always means awe and reverence. Here are a few examples of it meaning fear in a “terror” sense:

      Luke 8:37, Luke 21:26, John 7:13, John 19:38, John 20:19, Romans 8:15, Romans 13:3, 2 Cor 7:5, Heb 2:15, 1 Pet 3:14, 1 John 4:18

      I left out debatable verses and anything “end-timesy” as I didn’t want to bias my point. My point is though that there is a good precedent for the word phobos being translated as fear… especially when we consider that it’s not a fear of God.

      In Phil 2:12 Paul’s not saying be scared of God per se. Rather he’s saying, if you are doing this you should be fearful for your walk, where you are is what Paul talks about again and again as rejecting grace, rejecting the work of Christ and rather depending on our own efforts.

      3) I absolutely agree with the focus, I’m not saying there isn’t a working out of your salvation… I’m saying that it shouldn’t be our efforts that bring it about, it’s a discovery of what Jesus has done for us and in us. I have lots of audio messages on this but here is a short thought on the matter if you want to read something – http://phildrysdale.com/2013/03/stop-working-on-your-sin-start-discovering-your-righteousness/

      4) I agree as well – God in fact shares the fullness of His glory with us (John 17) but Jesus is not sharing salvation with us, He is the author and perfecter of our faith.

      Personally I believe that God is not rewarding our hard work, but rather our belief in Him, resting in His voice and allowing Him to work through our lives.

      Anyway, I hope that helped you see where I’m coming from a bit. I’m sorry my points towards the end were a bit short. I have tendonitis and my wrists are starting to really hurt! haha

      Bless you my friend… thanks for the chat :)

  4. Sometimes I wonder if Christians who think they can do righteousness by themselves don’t really understand what it was that Jesus did for them. And by” them”, I mean myself, too at times. Kind of like, you think you can add on to a perfect work when you don’t know how perfect the previous [Jesus’] work is. Make sense?

  5. Phil,

    So I read this verse/post about 20 times, prayed for revelation, looked up other commentaries but could absolutely not see how you could read it the way you were! Now, I do agree with all the conclusions that you make, it just does not seem that this verse takes us down a neat path to those conclusions. I do agree this verse is misused, and I think by correctly exploring it, we will find it is not an enemy to the grace message at all, but I am just not entirely sure that it is as strictly pro-grace as you interpret it.

    I came back to this post several hours later, and only then did I finally see how you possibly got what you did. I’m not intending to challenge you, just trying my hardest to see what you do. Do you possibly have another translation, or perhaps an own personal paraphrase that helps clarify how you see it? I think to those raising challenge, myself included, are doing so because it appears the verse you brought up has almost no connection to the conclusions (Even though your conclusions are true in their own right) that you make. Any more analyzation of this verse would be great!

    • Steve, you communicated my thoughts in your comment.

      Phil, everything you say about grace, and what it means, in the article above is true, in my opinion. But Philippians 2:12 doesn’t seem to be saying what you are saying.

      I suppose I am not exactly sure what to do with this verse either, and it is a favorite for those who wish to *push back* regarding grace. Perhaps it is saying that this salvation we have is AWE-inducingly AWESOME. Grace-oriented believers are NOT irreverent! ;-) We are FREE! But we are not irreverent. And there are times, *I’d* say, when this grace is SO awesome that it is fitting to view our “working out” of it as inducing a sort of “fear and trembling,” a “Wow!” Perhaps that is what Paul is getting at (I’d not thought of this before the provocation of thought from your article, Phil!). Just as “fearing God” is not “quaking in a corner,” but rather “reverential trust.”

      • Hi guys,

        Sorry for my delay in replying… I’ve been travelling pretty extensively the last 5 weeks and actually got a pretty bad fever in the midst of it too. Only now getting to sit down and catch up with things.

        Steve – I can see why you aren’t connecting the dots – I didn’t see it for years and it just came to me in a quiet time with the Lord reading through Phillippians. Since then I’ve actually read a couple of theologians and hear some other teachers say the same thing – so I’m not alone but I’m certainly not in the most common camp of interpretation.

        As far as translations I can’t think of any off the top of my head, I usually read in ESV or NKJV although I do have my trusty 26 translation bible for getting to see things in a few different ways. I highly recommend to everyone on any passage of scripture (especially ones we think we know well) to read them in as many translations as we can. As at the end of the day even the best translation is ultimately someones interpretation of the scripture in the original language.

        Dan – That is how I used to interpret this passage myself and I don’t mind if people interpret it that way. Like I said in other comments below – I’m merely putting across what I personally feel this passage is saying. However I do think (again see other comments) that the fear and trembling here doesn’t really work as simply “awe” but again that’s my interpretation.

        Either way while this peripheral topic is important (as it’s so commonly quoted to argue very unhealthy lifestyles of works and legalism) we must remember that the whole passage is not specifically about working out your salvation either way, it’s about people being too reliant on Paul and Him encouraging them to grow in their personal walk with the Holy Spirit rather than being dependant on Paul who can’t always be with them.

        Hope that helps guys – it was rather fleeting but I’ve hundreds of emails to catch up with and I’m trying to write some new stuff as I’ve not blogged or podcasted in a couple of weeks.

        Be blessed! Thanks for sharing some thought provoking stuff!

        • Phil…!

          Thanks so much for getting back to us both on this! I saw it before I saw grace: often it takes YEARS for a new insight ;-) and I have seen MANY instances SINCE seeing grace most fully where a passage has become clearer for me!!!

          This verse in Philippians 2 IS often used by those who, well, mix grace and law! I think awe can be a wonderful experience, full of bliss! Yet, I do hope to give further thought to your take on the verse!

          Again(!), I thank you for getting back to us! And God’s blessing on you, too!

  6. Just read this again – after reading it a hundred times before – and reading the comments over and over again also, and still not getting my head around what you meant. But now and I think I finally get it!! I know nothing about Greek and original texts and the like, but I think the translations and punctuations they use don’t help much in our understanding of the original message! Would it be true to say that what you are getting at is something like this?:
    “If you are going to try and work out your own salvation, then you do so at your own peril and should be in fear and trembling, because it’s God’s job and His alone.”
    I’d never in a million years have come to read it like that unless you’d pointed it out!
    THANK YOU so much for putting a new angle on everything – again :-)

    • Hi Christine – that’s a great way to put it… again according to what I see it to mean. But it is my opinion. Like you said punctuation doesn’t help at all but we have to remember that punctuation is something we decided to add in our translations at our discretion so it’s not always perfect.

      Thanks for sharing – glad you found it helpful.

  7. I agree that we should not work out our own salvation. Jesus will work out my salvation in me. The flesh cannot work it out. Now our flesh is as dead because we do not obey our flesh. We live according to the Spirit.

  8. I am very fearful. After knowing Jesus I turned away in a trial back to a lifestyle of sin. Years later I returned and I was joyful and all was good until one day at church, I asked myaelf how I could have done all those things knowing what Jesus did for me. I decided I hadmt really accepted Christ fully. I decided that my obedience was necessary in addition to His sacrifice. I am now very clear that I was wrong, however, I attempted this agreement with God. That night I read Hebrews 6 and when I came to 6:4-6 I was terrified. It has taken me 2 years to understand that I had fallen from grace that fateful day. Now I am stuck and fearful that I am no longer have access to the gift of Jesus. That in that act I fully rejected Him and now I will be lost with no hope. If I inderstand scrioture and what you said, I have been foolish and prideful and have most likely hardened my heart to never be able to repent.

    • Tonia, I think that fear is pretty indicative that God hasn’t given you up. Just pray about it, he’ll help you out. I also think you may be misunderstanding the verses you read. Look around online, I’ll pray for you too and I honestly believe you are not beyond hope.

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