By Brannon Howse
The Scripture: Therefore, my beloved, 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.
The Twist: This verse is used to support the argument that salvation is, at least in part, accomplished through our works.
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”?
A lady called into my radio program one day and wanted to know how to respond to a friend who had used Philippians 2:12 to claim that salvation is achieved by works. The truth as taught by the whole of Scripture, though, is that works are not the source of a person’s salvation. Works are a fruit of one’s true salvation. Simply put: when you’re a believer, you’re going to do good works as a by-product of your conversion.
Ephesians is clear that, as believers, our good works were planned by God before we were even born. Ephesians 2:10 declares: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Obviously, Christians should be involved in good works.
One reason we know we cannot earn salvation through good deeds is that Scripture interprets Scripture, and Ephesians 2:8-9 says that “by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Because of Ephesians 2:8-9 we know that Philippians 2:12 cannot mean that working out your own salvation means earning your salvation.
So what does this verse mean when it says to “work out your own salvation”? This is a reference to our ongoing obedience and faithfulness. A hallmark of a true believer is obedience and faithfulness, just as reflected in the wonderful, straight-to-the-point old hymn, “Trust and Obey.” The hymn announces that “there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” Another word for the sort of ongoing obedience commanded in Philippians 2:12 is perseverance. We are called to persevere in the faith because it’s tough work to persevere, isn’t it? We go through trials, tribulations, and temptations, but we must persevere. This is a way we are also called to contend for the faith (along with the Hebrews 12 “cloud of witnesses” we discussed earlier) or to defend the essential Christian doctrines such as the supremacy of God’s Word, the inerrancy of God’s Word, and the exclusivity of Jesus Christ. Jude 3 speaks to this as we are told to “contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”
The context of Jude 3 is contending against false teachers, and this may be one of the more difficult assignments we take on. Some of the greatest trials I have ever been through as a believer have involved contending for the faith against people who also claim to be believers. In the process, I’ve discovered that many individuals I’ve confronted are actually false converts, tares among the wheat or goats among the sheep. It is hard work—and almost always unpopular—to contend against false teachers who have crept into the Church or infiltrated evangelicalism. Such contending almost always brings persecution, which is why Acts 20:28-31 warns the elders of the church to be aware of false teachers who have risen from within:
Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.
I have endured soft persecution from people inside the Church, as I gently and lovingly tried to “earnestly contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” So understand, my friend, that as we oppose false teachers, they will come against us.
When we face such persecution, the temptation, of course, is to throw up our hands and say, “This isn’t worth it; I quit!” However, true believers don’t do that. They persevere. They don’t say, “Sorry, this is more than I signed up for,” and then walk away from the faith. Anyone who does was not a believer in the first place. The Bible is clear on this point.
When we are saved, repent of our sins, turn from our sins, and place our faith and trust in Jesus Christ, we are justified. We are not justified by our own works but by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, and through His death, burial, and resurrection. Because of Jesus Christ, God now looks at true Christians as fully justified. He looks at us as holy through the blood of Jesus. So, “work out your salvation” is about ongoing obedience, faithfulness, and perseverance. It is the benchmark of our sanctification.
Philippians 2:12 reflects the sanctification that follows our justification, and that is a lifelong process. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 declares, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” As you grow in sanctification, you develop a deeper hatred of sin and your old life, and you gain a deeper love for God’s Word and walking in truth.
When I was a false convert, I didn’t love to study God’s Word, but now I do. People might wonder: “How does he do that? It seems like it would be awfully boring to look up all those scriptures, study their meaning, and write and speak on these theological issues.” And you know what? When I was a nonbeliever, I would have thought the same thing. But as a true believer, I experience great joy in doing this. The love of God’s Word is one sign of a believer who is going through the sanctification process. As old things pass away, we become more sensitive to the sin in our lives, we have a love for studying God’s Word, and we take joy in talking about the things of the Lord and contending for biblical truth.
Growth in sanctification also shows us all the more that we deserve hell, and it makes us more appreciative and grateful than ever that God, in His sovereignty, saved us and allowed us to come to repentance. Sanctification sets us apart for God’s purposes. This, too, is part of working out your salvation—to be set apart, to work at being set apart for God’s purposes, to be in the world but not of the world, to be faithful and obedient. First Corinthians 9:24-27 reaffirms the truth described in Philippians 2:12 as it says:
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into submission, or into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself become disqualified.
“Discipline” involves work. Paul is saying, particularly in verse 27, that as a minister of the Gospel or as a church leader he must live according to a certain standard, or he is disqualified from leadership. But this verse also applies to any believers, whether an elder or pastor or not. We do not want to live in a way that brings shame to the Gospel of Christ. The discipline of the body brings it into subjection or submission, so that we can live godly lives.
Colossians 1:21-23 also teaches this principle of perseverance and sanctification:
And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.
So the Bible is clear that you must continue in the faith. A true believer does not fall away or become apostate.
Jesus Himself said, in Matthew 24:13, that “he who endures to the end shall be saved.” He who endures to the end. Of people who endure to the end, whose works are good works, Gospel works, full of biblical righteousness, you can say, “They’re saved.”
Of someone who is a self-professing Christian but then goes back into the world, acts worldly, undermines the Gospel, and tramples on the blood of Christ, we have to ask if that person was ever truly saved. It’s possible that someone like this is truly a Christian, because Christians sometimes do fall into gross sin. In such cases, we have to ask, “Is that person going to repent? Is he or she under conviction?” If people like this are indeed believers, then they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and they are going to come under great conviction. Eventually, they will be so miserable they will repent, come back, and be restored if God gives them the opportunity to do so. I’ve seen it happen.
I once watched a pastor who preached sound theology and solid, verse-by-verse Bible teaching divorce his wife, walk away from her and his children, and marry another woman. When he did, many people rightfully questioned whether or not he was truly saved. Had he ever been a believer? We just had to watch and see what would happen. If he was truly a believer, he would fall under conviction, and the Lord would discipline him. Hebrews 12:6 makes this perfectly clear: “For whom the Lord loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives.” So a believer who falls into sin is going to be convicted by the Holy Spirit and is going repent, but this may require that the Lord severely discipline this child He loves in order for repentance to occur.
The other option is that the Lord might end his life early. The Bible, in several places, speaks of believers who become such a poor testimony that the Lord takes his or her lives; He takes them early. Some, Paul says, had to be removed and have fallen asleep because they are such a poor testimony or they have so grieved the Lord. This happened, for example, to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 2 as well as to those who came to the Lord’s table in an unworthy manner as described in 1 Corinthians 11:27-30.
Yet another possibility is that he will never repent because he was a false convert. As a result, the person is not chastened by God because he is not God’s child, and the person does not have the Holy Spirit living within. People like this are not under any conviction of sin but instead jump in with both feet and show no remorse and no conviction. This is not the fruit of a true believer.
To complete the story I started earlier—the pastor that left his wife for another woman—what did he do? He came under conviction and was miserable. Eventually, he repented, came back and stood before that church, and confessed his sin. People who know him today say he is truly a broken, humbled man who has repented. He is no longer a pastor—he lost that privilege and has suffered consequences because of his sin—but he has repented publicly which validates his conversion.
The life of a true believer is marked more by obedience than disobedience, as noted in 1 John 2:3-6:
Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.
Later, 1 John talks about people who are false teachers, but it also speaks to people who have claimed to be Christians but then walk away. First John 2:19 declares:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.
In other words, if the people in question had been true believers, they would have continued with the followers. While this is talking about false teachers, it can also apply to Christians in general.
The Church is filled with false converts. I was one of them for many years. One of the great tragedies in the Church today is the large number of false converts who have come into a fellowship because we have preached an easy believism, an easy Gospel. We have not preached dying to self, having a hatred of self, a hatred of sin, and a need for biblical repentance. We have not preached the hallmarks of a believer, and so this is a great crisis in the Church today.
True believers don’t turn back. Paul, in Philippians 3:12-14, speaks of this “pressing on.” Here’s what he says:
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Note that Paul is writing this while he’s in prison, and yet he says, “I press on. I’m in prison, but I’m not giving up; I am pressing on.” And then he continues in Philippians 4:13 with, “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me” or “who empowers me. I can endure persecution and hardship. I can be content in whatever state I find myself. I can do with much; I can do with nothing. I can endure persecution. I will keep going. Why? Because of Christ. I persevere in the faith.” And that’s what “working out your salvation” means.
So do not buy it when people use Philippians 2:12 to say that to “work out your salvation” means you have to earn your salvation. No, this is a reference to sanctification, obedience, and faithfulness. We cannot earn our salvation. “Working out our salvation” involves surrendering to Christ, persevering, and walking in obedience and faithfulness. Those who do this are walking through the process of sanctification, not earning their salvation!
Copyright 2014 ©Brannon Howse. This content is for Situation Room members and is not to be duplicated in any form or uploaded to other websites without the express written permission of Brannon Howse or his legally authorized representative.