What It Means to ‘Work Out’ Our Salvation

We can’t earn eternal life, but we must work hard to live it out.

“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[.]” (‭‭Philippians‬ ‭2‬:‭12‬ ‭ESV‬‬)‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

In his satirical Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines a Christian as one who “follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.”

We have all known the type. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says that God’s name is blasphemed on their account (Romans 2:24; cf. Isaiah 52:5). The nonbeliever can smell a religious hypocrite miles away.

Hypocrisy, of course, is not only a problem for the religious. Since God’s standards are stamped on the conscience of every one of his image bearers, each is accused by that same conscience when he inevitably falls short (Romans 2:14-15). The line of hypocrisy, to borrow from Solzhenitsyn, runs through us all. Yet Paul was also acutely aware of the particular danger hypocrisy poses to the Lord’s people – the perversion of the grace of God (cf. Jude 4). Since there is truly no condemnation in Christ (Romans 8:1), the Christian is always open to the temptation to interpret his forgiveness as license to sin. To this Paul says, God forbid; to belong to Christ is to have died and risen with him—hence, to have died to sin and risen to righteousness in him (Romans 6:1-4).

So, after recounting the redemptive work and world-changing reign of Christ in his hymn, in Philippians 2:12 and following, Paul is vitally concerned that his readers would understand not only the fact of forgiveness but also the shape of Christian discipleship.

He begins in pastoral tenderness by addressing them as “my beloved.” Then, he frames his exhortation: “as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence” (v. 12). A Christian who obeys his Lord only in the presence of a spiritual authority figure is arguably no Christian at all. King Jehoash did what was right in the eyes of the Lord when he was under the tutelage of Jehoiada the priest (2 Kings 12:2), but when Jehoiada died, he listened to wicked counselors, and pagan worship revived in the land (2 Chronicles 24:17–19). True obedience to the Lord is rendered even when his all-seeing eye is the only one watching.

Paul then issues his command: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” As Protestants, we confess that our justification before God is a result of grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide). What, then, are we to make of the apostle’s warning to “work out our own salvation?”

Context is key in biblical interpretation. We must apply the classical hermeneutical principle of the analogy of Scripture (Analogia Scripturae)—meaning that we must let Scripture interpret itself. Specifically, we must interpret less clear passages in light of clearer passages. Texts devoted to expounding upon a certain topic inform our understanding of texts which only address the topic in an ancillary way. In Philippians 2, Paul is not providing a detailed exposition of the doctrine of salvation but addressing ethical concerns about the character of Christian discipleship. Elsewhere, the same Paul explicitly teaches justification by grace through faith alone (Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16). Thus, Paul is not affirming justification by works but considering another issue.

What is Paul teaching? We must consider both the verb (“work out”) and the object (“your salvation”). The single Greek verb translated “work out” can be literally rendered “work down”—that is, to work something down to its goal or end. It often means to achieve, effect, or produce, but here it does not denote meritorious efforts which curry divine favor. The object of the action, “your salvation,” is also instructive. We are not told to work down, achieve, or affect our justification in the sense of our definitive legal vindication before God—a once-for all event which occurs at our conversion (1 Corinthians 6:11; cf. Romans 8:30). Rather, the whole work of salvation is in view, which includes perseverance, sanctification, and arrival into glory. This full-orbed view of salvation is the good work which Paul says Christ will complete in us (Philippians 1:6) when are filled with the fruit of righteousness and present our lives to Christ (v. 11). It is for this full realization of salvation for which we are to strive—a theme to which Paul will return in the epistle.

Paul also explains the manner of the Philippians’ Christian obedience—namely, with “fear and trembling.” Since Paul is not discussing justification per se, he is not teaching us to cower with fretful concern over our destiny on the day of judgment. Neither is this fear reducible to a mere, outward “respect,” since the fear is of such a degree that it engenders actual trembling. Rather, Paul has in view a spirit of holy, reverent awe at God’s potent, personal involvement in the lives of his people.

In graduate school, I joined one of my Old Testament professors on a whitewater trip on West Virginia’s Gauley River. At one point, being tossed on class 4 and 5 rapids, I was tossed from the raft, dangerously close to the imposing Pillow Rock. My professor, ordinarily quite mild-mannered, assumed a new persona, barking directions to me as I swam in drill sergeant fashion. In that moment, my professor’s seriousness rose in proportion to the gravity of the situation. I responded in fear, clinging to the raft until I was finally lifted back in to safety.

Similarly, biblical fear does not scare the believer away from the things of God but stirs him toward them. Paul came to Corinth with fear and trembling because of his seriousness about the message of the cross (1 Corinthians 2:3). Later, the Corinthian church welcomed Titus with fear and trembling, recognizing his sincerity as a missionary (2 Corinthians 7:15). Kings and nations are to worship the Lord with fear and “rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11)—a striking juxtaposition if there ever was one. The Christian life is a serious, reverent endeavor to work out the full implications of the grace worked into one’s life by our fearsome and awesome God.

Are you obeying the commands of Christ only when your pastor, Christian colleagues, or other sources of spiritual influence are present, or do you follow Christ consistently regardless of your audience? Do we let our fear of God drive us to him, or do we fear the things of the world more, allowing ourselves to be tossed on the waves and driven away? May we heed Paul’s instruction and serve the Lord with fear—no matter who is watching.


Heavenly Father,

You have saved me and called me with a holy calling. You do not permit me to sit idly by and passively enjoy your blessings but command me to live obediently for Christ. Help me to live in such a way that is worthy of your grace, striving for holiness in my life and encouraging it the lives of others. Grant me to strive to know Christ and make him known. Teach me to live in the fear of God and instruct others in it. Be glorified in my life, which you have purchased with the blood of your Son.

In Jesus’ name,


Prayer Requests:

  1. Pray for your local church to be marked by reverent awe of the Lord in its worship, fellowship, and teaching.
  2. Pray for new believers who have come to faith through ABWE missionaries to understand that God’s grace is not license to sin. Ask God to pour our obedient, persevering grace in their lives.
  3. Pray for ABWE workers across the globe to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. Intercede for them to grow in reverence for the Lord and zeal for his cause.
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