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.
Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
Do you work out? If you do, you know that consistent physical exercise requires a great deal of discipline, because each successful workout involves overcoming discomfort. For some people, the most difficult hurdle to overcome is just getting started. It’s easier to not work out, less stressful to do nothing. For others stretching or taxing the muscles is the biggest challenge, because of the burns and aches that go along with that process. A good workout involves increased heart rate, heavier breathing, and typically some soreness and recovery afterward. It’s no wonder that the New Year’s resolution that’s most often made but not kept is to start a new exercise regimen. It’s a hard commitment to keep!
In the middle of chapter two of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul challenges his friends to spiritual fitness. He says, “…as you have already obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). The good news for them was that they weren’t starting from scratch. They were already in decent shape. Paul says that they’ve “already obeyed,” and when he says “so now” he seems to be encouraging them to keep doing more of what they’ve already been doing. Paul wants them to continue a process they’ve already begun, to “work out” their salvation with “fear and trembling.”
What does it mean to “work out” our salvation?
It would be so easy to make the mistake of thinking we need to work for our salvation. Whenever there is work involved, we’ll always be tempted to believe we’re earning God’s favor. That can’t be what Paul means here, because we know throughout Scripture (see Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 6:23; 1 Peter 1:3-5; and others) it’s clear that salvation is a gift from God. Plus, Paul’s letter is to “saints in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:1), so his readers are already saved. It seems clear that Paul’s intent here is not to imply salvation by works.
Most scholars believe that Paul’s exhortation is really more about sanctification, the lifelong process by which God makes a saved person righteous. The Greek word for “work out” is ”katergazomai,” which is a really fun word to say. This word means to “continue to work until completion.” Once we are saved, for the rest of our lives God will continue to work in us and on us to make us holy. What’s comforting is that, although this process involves hard work on our part, it’s God Himself who does all the heavy lifting. Paul says, “…for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). We are participants in our own sanctification through obedience, but we aren’t making ourselves righteous. God is the one who changes our hearts. Not only that, it is God who gives us both the desire and the ability to do the work of obedience anyway, and it’s all “for His good pleasure.”
Paul then gets specific. One of areas we are to “work” on is to “do all things without grumbling or questioning” (Philippians 2:14). If you’ve never attempted to go through your entire day without complaining, give it a try. It is hard work! There is disciplined effort and self control required, because you’re exercising a muscle that doesn’t often get stretched. It’s easier to be contentious, to whine and complain, and to bemoan the circumstances of our lives.
Why go through the effort required to be gracious with others when things don’t go our way? Paul gives the saints in Philippi three reasons. First, when they avoid grumbling and questioning they reflect Christ. Paul says their blamelessness will be like a beacon of light in a dark world. Second, when they avoid grumbling and questioning they’re obeying God’s Word, and this makes Paul proud of them and thankful that his own efforts have been fruitful. Finally, when they avoid grumbling and questioning it produces joy, both for Paul and for the Philippians themselves. Paul says “I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me” (Philippians 2:18). This idea of experiencing joy through suffering and trial is a theme Paul weaves throughout the remainder of his letter.
- Think about your experience with physical exercise. What principles can you apply to your spiritual fitness?
- What are some examples of times in your life where God has stretched you in order to make you stronger and grow you in righteousness? How did it feel in the moment? How does it feel now that you’re looking back on it?
- Are you a complainer? What benefit do you get from complaining? Paul says do all things without grumbling or questioning. How could avoiding a contentious spirit lead to blessing in your life?
Identify a common situation that occurs in your life that you’re likely to complain about or become contentious about. Talk with your Life Group or with some close friends about your desire to see that pattern change in your life, and ask them to pray for you. Consider the opportunity to shine the light of Christ in the world as you seek to grow in this area of your life.