Work on your salvation???

People who come to believe in Jesus as their Lord and savior generally understand two very important things: one, they need to be saved, and two, there’s nothing they can do to earn it on their own. No amount of religious behavior can reconcile us to a holy God. No résumé of good works, no matter how impressive, can balance our spiritual ledger. Salvation is a free gift from a gracious God, period, and all we can do is receive it with thanks.

Small wonder, then, that the following sentence from Paul has caused confusion and consternation for many Christians:

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence but much more now in my absence, work on your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12-13, NRSVUE)

Wait: work on your salvation? And with fear and trembling?

It doesn’t sound much like the gospel of divine love and grace.

But it is — if we read it rightly.

When we lay this text alongside other things Paul has written — say, his letter to the Galatians! — we know that Paul could never mean that salvation is earned through works. So if we’re to read his words rightly, we have to begin by remembering two things. First, Paul is giving pastoral counsel to a specific church struggling in a specific way, not writing in general terms about what people need to do to be saved. And second, what Paul says here echoes earlier verses in the letter; looking again at what he’s already said will help understand what he’s saying now.

Let’s begin with the question many of you were already taught to ask: what’s the opening “therefore” there for? Paul is referring back to what he’s just said: the story of Jesus’ humble incarnation, costly obedience, and exaltation by the Father. He has already told the Philippians to adopt the same humble mindset, and that story of Jesus’ obedience is now the context for Paul to speak of the Philippians’ obedience.

The NRSV above reads “you have always obeyed me” — but actually, the word “me” is not in the text. Yes, it’s possible that Paul is referring to how the Philippians have always followed his pastoral direction. But it seems more likely that he’s echoing the opening sentiments of the letter: his joy over their “partnership” with him “in the gospel from the first day until now” (1:5).

In other words, they’ve always been a faithful bunch, and he wants them to continue to be so. But outside pressures are making it harder, and Paul isn’t with them to help guide them through the rough spots. Thus, Paul is encouraging them to stay the course. If they’re going to hold it together despite both external pressure and internal tension, they’re going to need to work at humility and obedience.

But what does Paul mean by “work on your own salvation”? I think this is another unfortunate translation. Both the New International and the New American Standard, for example, read “work out” not “work on.” The Common English Bible, moreover, takes the nuance further: the Philippians are urged to “carry out” their salvation.

It’s helpful here to revisit what Paul has already said about their salvation earlier in the letter:

…live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel and in no way frightened by those opposing you. For them, this is evidence of their destruction but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. (Phil 1:27-28, NRSVUE)

Note again Paul’s concern over his absence, as if to say, “I wish I could be there to encourage you directly, but I know you can do this.” The “this,” then, is living together in a way that embodies the gospel, which is the demonstration of their salvation. And that, in turn, means “striving side by side with one mind.” That’s the unity he’s been urging throughout the letter.

Thus, when Paul says “work on/out your salvation,” he isn’t saying, “Earn your salvation through works.” They have already been saved by grace. What they need to work on now is living in a way that befits the gospel, and again, that work is necessarily harder under the conditions of persecution, internal strife, and an absentee pastor who can only give occasional guidance through letters. Thus, “work out your salvation,” in this context, means “let your salvation have its outworking,” or “show the reality of your salvation in your life together.” Each individual must do their part, but the outworking of their salvation is a communal affair.

Okay, fine, someone might say. But what about that “fear and trembling” bit? And can’t Paul be a little more encouraging?

Yes, he can. And he will, as we’ll see in the next post.