“…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;” –Philippians 2:12
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. No Bible verse or single phrase from a Bible verse can cause apoplectic attacks among devout Lutherans like Philippians 2:12. The phrase seems to suggest we must save ourselves; that we must earn salvation by working for it with fear and trembling.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Philippians 2:12 is misunderstood when taken out of context; when it’s lifted from what precedes and follows it. Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians and the entire New Testament are abundantly clear that salvation is a free gift from God received through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus died an atoning death, taking away our sins. His holiness is imputed to us through faith, making us fit and ready for heaven. We are saved freely by the grace of God not by our works; not by ‘working out’ our own salvation.
So what, then, is the meaning of verse twelve from Philippians, chapter two? What did Saint Paul mean when he wrote, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling?”
The best answer I can provide in the short space of a newsletter is that ‘working out’ salvation means we all bear a responsibility to live gratefully for God in service to others in response to receiving the gift of salvation from Jesus. Each one of us, having received freely eternal life, is responsible for ongoing expressions of gratitude. In short, we are called to live in holiness, thankfully ‘working out’ our salvation with reverence and in awe of God’s love.
One witness to ‘working out’ salvation is a book published five years ago by Barnabas Piper, the son of a pastor, entitled The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity. While many assume clergy children’s lives unfold with ease, in fact they include unique challenges regarding their relationship with God (and with their parents!). One of our children recently discovered Barnabas Piper’s book. It’s now circulating among all our children, who are ‘working out’ their salvation. Philippians 2:12 encourages everyone to work out their own salvation; to pursue with earnestness the life that truly is life; to believe that the ‘working out’ of salvation is always God at work within us, enabling us to live in holiness.
As a side note, an interesting fact of Philippians 2:12 is that the pronoun of the addressees is actually plural. So when Saint Paul states, “work out your own salvation,” ‘your’ is plural, meaning that as a congregation we are called collectively to pursue and share a relationship with God. We are called to discern and find together God’s will for our common life.
For the rest of this summer, my prayer for everyone is for personal experiences and a shared experience of God that reveal new, exciting paths of grateful service. May we find renewal together in these beautiful days, hope and joy for the ‘working out’ of our life with God. God, bless us all, enabling us both to will and to work for your good pleasure.
‘Working out’ salvation with you,
Pastor Doug Heagy