“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 desire and to work for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13 NASB)
My husband has two pairs of shoes. One is a dark blue pair of slippers, while the other is a black pair of loafers that he uses for walking. I will admit that they are similar in appearance in the best of times; and I will admit that given the dim light that is generally in the entry way makes the two hard to differentiate between. My poor husband, with his blinded and floater-obscured vision in his right eye, coupled with his visual field deficits in his left eye, has more than once gone out for walks in his slippers; and I have found him walking around the house in his loafers on numerous occasions. It came to the point that he began waiting until I was around to ask which shoes he should be wearing and when. The two were simply too similar in appearance! Nonetheless, the two pairs of shoes are vastly different in their purpose. The loafers are designed to support your foot on outdoor surfaces over long distances; while the slippers are simply meant to keep your feet warm and protected in the house. In the end, I put big spots of blue nail polish on the toes of his slippers so that he would be able to tell them apart.
This reminds me of the fact that sometimes appearances can be deceiving. Before we can delve into what Philippians 2:12-13 is telling us, it is important to first outline what it is and isn’t saying. Otherwise, we could very easily be “wearing the slippers” for walks outside!
Philippians 2:12 is a fairly well-known passage of scripture, one that is leapt upon by those who propose a “salvation by works” theory. The verse is, after all, abundantly clear! You are to “work out” your own salvation, and you are to do so with “fear and trembling”! How much clearer can it be? We have to work for our Salvation, and the fact that we do it with fear and trembling would indicate that it is not an easy thing to do. Right?
Those who use this text to support Salvation by works tend to overlook the passage from Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (NASB)
Talk about a direct contradiction in Scripture! So what is it, then? Salvation by faith, as indicated by Ephesians, or Salvation by works, as seems to be hinted at in Philippians? Both texts can’t be presenting truth, can they? Not with such opposing viewpoints!
Or … Can they?
Scripture will never oppose itself. If it did, it would not be the Word of God, for: “All Scripture is inspired by God and beneficial for teaching, for rebuke, for correction, for training in righteousness…” (2 Tim. 3:16 NASB), and God simply cannot contradict Himself: “God is not a man, that He would lie, Nor a son of man, that He would change His mind; Has He said, and will He not do it?” (Numbers 23:19 NASB)
Therefore it is the responsibility of any serious Bible scholar, as we all should become, to look at the context behind these texts. When we look at the whole of Ephesians 2 (See Ephesians 2:1-9), it becomes abundantly clear that this passage refers to Salvation: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our wrong doings, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” (Vs. 4-6 NASB). But what about the context of Philippians 2?
I invite you to read the passage in its entirety by clicking here. We will just highlight a bit of this passage: “…make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit. but with humility consider one another as more important than yourselves…Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus…He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death: death on a cross…” (Philippians 2:2,3,5,8,9 NASB)
It is clear here that we are not talking about Salvation, but rather, about our new life in Christ. It’s true that our highlighted text, verses 12-13 begin a totally new paragraph, and it could be argued that the aforementioned context doesn’t apply to verses 12-13. Keep in mind that paragraphs didn’t exist in the original text, and these have been add. Also keep in mind that Vs. 12 begins with the words, “So then…” This would indicate that it isn’t a different topic at all, but is completely in keeping with the new life in Christ outlined in vs. 1-10!
Therefore, the Bible is not contradicting itself; rather these two seemingly contradictory verses are talking about two different subjects, with Ephesians 2 assuring us that Salvation can only come through Christ Jesus, and that it is a gift from God; while Philippians 2:12-13 is providing us with instruction of how to live our new life in Christ, the one that we are given once we’ve accepted Jesus into our hearts (“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” 2 Cor. 5:17 NASB 1995)!
And it is with this contextual backdrop that we will, in the upcoming three parts of this short series, take a look at verses 12-13: “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to desire and to work for His good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:12b-13 NASB) and what they have to teach us about the whole process of sanctification. Please join us next Tuesday for: “The How: Working Out Our Salvation, Part 2”!
In His love,
Lynona Gordon Chaffart
Moderator, Associate Director, Answers2Prayer Ministries
(To access the entire “Working Out Our Salvation” mini-series, please click here!)