So then, my beloved, just 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; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Paul has just written or included the magnificent “Christ-hymn” of vv. 6-11 which speaks of Christ’s self-emptying, his humiliation, obedience and subsequent exaltation, which he also prefaced with the exhortation to “let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (v. 5). Therefore, in view of the graphic example of Jesus’ commitment and obedience to the will of the Father, Paul now exhorts the Philippians also to “work out” their own salvation.
As already indicated, the first thing to remember with respect to Paul’s admonition here is to set it in its own historical and literary context. It is possible to treat this text as a piece of general Christian advice separated from its context so that to “work out one’s salvation” can be filled with just about any kind of content. Further, it can be treated in such an individualistic way that working out one’s own salvation is something one does and achieves on one’s own, apart from and without the community of God’s people. Finally, the text can be approached as a theological battle ground where the issues of salvation by faith apart from works, or the relation between God’s work and human work are discussed in an abstract manner as though there were no context at all, and as though we need to carefully explain what Paul really meant, because Paul was not quite careful enough in what he has written here. So the major question for us is: What did Paul mean when he wrote this phrase?
The context for this verse probably goes all the way back to Paul’s exhortation in 1:27 which also includes a reference to Paul’s presence and absence:
Only, 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.
Paul, imprisoned in Rome and so very far away from his beloved Philippians, writes to encourage them to stand firm in the gospel in the face of persecution and suffering (vv. 28-30), disunity (2:1-4), and the crooked and depraved age in which they live (2:14-16). Whether he is present or absent he wants them to live “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” So, too, in 2:12 he writes that he wishes them to obey his commands “not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence.”
The particular command Paul now wants them to observe is that they “work out their own salvation” (tēn heautōn sōtērian katergazesthe). It should go without saying that Paul is not here saying that we save ourselves by our own works, as is perhaps suggested by Zerwick & Grosvenor: “do your best to bring about your own salvation in fear and trembling…” (596). Elsewhere Paul insists that believers are saved, not on the basis of their own works, but by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ (e.g. Romans 3:21-26; 11:6; Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:5). Even in Philippians Paul refuses to seek any righteousness of his own, but only that which comes from God alone through faith in Jesus Christ (3:9).
To say this, however, is not to say that the believer is passive, that no response or action is required. Just the opposite! Having been “found in Christ” and having received the gift of righteousness that “comes through faith in Christ,” believers
Must apply to its fullest consequences what is already given by God in principle. The believer is called to self-activity, to active pursuit of the will of God, to the promotion of the spiritual life in himself, to the realisation of the virtues of the Christian life, and to a personal application of salvation. He must “work out” what God in His grace has “worked in” (Müller, The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians [NICNT (1955)], 91).
Even Müller’s good counsel, however, is too abstracted from the immediate context. Within the flow of Paul’s argument, to work out one’s salvation means adopting the way of Christ in humility and service to others, in costly obedience to the will of God, pursuing a unity of love and purpose amongst the people of God, offering steadfast witness to the world as we live as the children of God, holding fast to Christ as our only righteousness, and looking forward to his coming as our only hope. To work out one’s salvation entails shouldering our share of the mission, and resisting all attempts to dilute our faith, and all threats to the unity and work of the church.
One of the wonderful features of the letter to the Philippians is the catalogue of vibrant examples presented for the church to emulate; Jesus, Timothy, Epaphroditus and Paul himself, are all set forth as exemplary examples of Christian dedication and service, and all show what it means to work out our salvation. The Christian is called to live the Jesus way today and tomorrow, looking for opportunities to humbly serve others for their benefit, and the gospel for God’s glory, as they long for and await the Lord’s return.