What Does it Mean to "Work Out Our Salvation?"

There is a phrase in the Bible that has always captured me … perplexed me … encouraged me … discouraged me …  and thrilled me.

The phrase is this – “… work out your salvation with fear and trembling …” – Philippians 2:12.

It is found in the framework of a heartfelt sentence of encouragement from Paul, the Apostle, to his dearly loved church at Philippi.  And although Paul wrote it to the ancient Philippians – the Holy Spirit actually had him pen those dynamic words for you and for me.

But what does it mean?  What does it mean to actually work out your salvation with fear and trembling?

Should I be afraid of salvation?  Is salvation a scary process?  Why should I tremble about God’s work in my life?

I believe in the wisdom of context when trying to figure out a complicated Bible passage, so let’s read a bit before and then a bit after this oft-quoted yet difficult to digest principle.

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 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.” – Philippians 2:13

First of all – Paul calls me “beloved” so that has got to be a good thing, right?  He, and that wonderful Holy Spirit, both care about me and they are invested in the woman that I have the potential of becoming.  Although Paul is no longer alive on planet earth, his voice continues to ricochet through the centuries and calls me, his beloved, to a lifestyle of obedience.

I don’t know about you but nearly every single day of my human existence I contend with cultural issues.  I wrestle with God’s will and with trying to discern what a lifestyle of Godliness actually looks like.

When I am in that bloody wrestling ring with my culture, with that diabolical enemy or even with myself, I must always allow the Word of God to set the ground rules. So, rather than trying to decide on my own what is good and what is bad … what is God and what is not … what is me and what is sin … I must simply open the Bible and go on a glorious treasure hunt within its sacred pages.

I must set aside personal bias … I must ignore religious expectations … I must resist cultural persuasion and I must simply allow that same Holy Spirit that Paul listened to, to speak with me through the powerful Word of God.

That’s how I obey.  I read my Bible and obey.  I remind myself that Paul loved me and I obey.

I caution myself that I don’t have a better idea than God and I obey.

I don’t talk back to the Holy Spirit and I obey.

For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” – Philippians 2:13

Wait … what?!

God is doing a work in me?  God is building something unseen in me?! God rolls up His sleeves and works on me?!

How wondrous is that?!

God puts forth His loving functionality in my life so that I will become like Him! He shows up in the crevices of my life and operates in spite of my weaknesses so that I will be the beneficiary of His divine strength!

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God knows that I am not enough … but that He is always more than enough!

Wow … just wow!

God is absolutely delighted to work in the garden of my life!  He sings over me as He pulls out weeds … as He plants new fruit … and as He gently whispers wisdom.

I am not a bother to God!  He doesn’t roll His eternal eyes at my incompetence nor does He gossip with Jesus about how that Carol McLeod is just not getting it … she is not getting it at all.

God is actually quite fond of cleaning up my messes and coaching me along the journey of life.

God wants His will in my life more than I want it and so He continues to encourage me on a daily basis, He is careful to direct me in His paths of righteousness and He is quick to supervise my decisions.

So … now let’s go back to that conundrum of a phrase “… work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

The day that you become a Christian, you didn’t automatically become a know-it-all. 

All of your sins have been instantly forgiven but you still have some learning to do!  Your past failures … your daily missteps … and even your future offenses are now under the blood of Jesus Christ.

There is, however, a process to which we all must submit that is called “maturing in your faith”.

And that is where this phrase applies: “ … work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

If you want to grow strong in your faith you will work it out.  You will discipline yourself to a lifestyle of Godliness and obedience.

You will choose to live for Jesus even when you don’t feel like it.

You will listen for God’s voice and obey even when you would prefer to get your own way.

You will know that God loves you and only wants the best for you and so you will take the Christian walk seriously.

You will honor the One Who made you with your constant devotion, heartfelt obedience and uncompromising righteousness.  The Christian walk is not stand-up comedy.  This maturing in Christ is not to be taken lightly or half-heartedly.

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Jesus took it so seriously that He died for the possibility you would choose to live for Him.

So, friends, this week … I am working it out.  I am laying down my will, my preferences and my street smarts in order to grow in my faith.

You might see me sweat … you might even hear me groan in pain … and you might think I should throw in the towel … but I won’t.  I will never give up.

I will continue to work it outwith fear and trembling.  It’s no laughing matter for me to work it out … but I intend, like Jesus, to give my life for it.

I’m working it out …What else could I do?!

Thanks for listening to my heart this week.  As you know by now, my heart is truly not a perfect heart but it is a heart that is filled to overflowing with gratitude for the life I have been given and for the people who walk with me.  And, it continues to be a heart that is relentlessly chasing after God and all that He is!