This phrase is found in Philippians 2:12 and is one of the favorite biblical references of those serious Christians who believe that their spiritual progress in this life depends on their commitment and their diligent efforts to grow spiritually.
The word “work” in this instruction from Paul to the Philippians and thus to these industrious Christians seems to be a signal to buckle down and get busy obeying the law of God, reading God’s Word, fellowshipping with other Christians, and developing their prayer life. And doesn’t “with fear and trembling” mean there will be dire results if they don’t?
The problem with this mode of thinking is its logical outcome is that the worker inadvertently is trying to participate in his own salvation; he is subconsciously “helping God out” by what he does. Does God really need our help?
Doesn’t the Bible teach that Jesus has already done the heavy lifting; that our salvation has been secured at the cross? God’s just penalty for our sins was paid, we were redeemed from God’s enemy Satan as he was defeated and stripped of his authority there, and our old man died, three days later to be resurrected to a brand new life of faith in Christ. “It is finished!”, cried Jesus as He died.
Thus, we have been definitively saved at the cross, but we are in the process of being progressively and experientially saved daily, and one day we will be finally saved in toto when our bodies are redeemed when Jesus returns.
If “salvation is of God” (Philippians 1:28), will He not accomplish this complete salvation in all three of its forms by Himself, without our help? The answer is, “Of course He will!” It is only our unconscious desire to “be like God, knowing (deciding and doing) good and (not) evil” (Genesis 3:5) that drives us to try to be “good and not evil” in daily experience in order to save ourselves.
However, Philippians 2:12 remains. Does not the word “work” that we are admonished to perform by Paul in order to “work out” our own salvation imply I do have something to do in this “being good and not evil” process? How can salvation be totally from God, including its progressive stage, if I still have to work at it?
The very next verse, Philippians 2:13 gives us the answer: “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”
In other words, the work involved in the continuing salvation that is occurring in us after we are saved and while we are still here on the earth—what is known as “sanctification”—is not being done by us but by God Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit who lives within us!
But we all acknowledge that, don’t we? When we have done something meritorious and see it as a “good work,” we are always quick to deflect the credit to God: “To God be the glory; He did it all. Hallelujah!”
However, if our best-laid plans for what He should do in our lives are not working out to our satisfaction, we make every effort to make sure they get done anyway. “He wants me to be Holy, so, by gum, I am going to do my very best to obey God’s law so I can be.”
Tell me, how is that God doing it all? It seems to me that is deciding for myself what, how and when God is going about His job of sanctifying me, i.e., making me holy, and then asking Him to bless my plans with His power.
What, then, is the the trick of distinguishing between my own efforts to shape myself up, and God’s efforts to do so? Paul clearly gives us the answer to discerning this distinction in Philippians 2:13 when He tells us that the Holy Spirit is working in us “to will” (to want to do) and then to do (to actually accomplish) exactly what He wants for your life.
Do you see the incredible implications of this verse? This means that the way I know how to live as a Christian every day is not to look at God’s law that tells me what I ought to do or refrain from doing and then try to obey it. That is living by the law, a practice condemned by Paul throughout his letters. Instead, this verse says I know how to live as a Christian by figuring out exactly what I want to do and then going for it, trusting that Daddy is at work changing my will (my want to’s) as He says He is doing in this verse, whether I see evidence of that or not! That is “living by faith”—trusting like a little child Daddy will do what He says.
Could that possibly be true—in order to do God’s will I simply throw open the screen door every morning and attack the world in the power of God by doing exactly what I want to do? That is ultimate freedom, and “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32)!
Objections immediately flood the mind: “What if I want to sin?” “What if I want to do something that will hurt others?” “That is license,” and on and on. Every objection betrays the Pharisee’s lack of faith that the God who “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11) can change my will to conform to His as Philippians 2:13 clearly says He is constantly doing.
Is not the conclusion then this: in order to do God’s will, I do what I want to do and don’t do what I don’t want to do? Does God not have the power to change all my “ought to’s” to “want to’s” whenever He desires?
Now “work out your own salvation” takes on a whole new meaning. I suddenly see that doing what I want to do and not what I ought to do will change everything in my life. It is a whole new way to live—by faith and not by the law. It will take some time to figure out, or “work out,” its implications as I learn a whole new way to think.
As others begin to see the results of living by faith—love, joy and peace, etc. (the fruit of the Spirit)—appearing in my life naturally, unconsciously, with no effort on my part, I stand in awe (fear and trembling) that God would work such a miracle in such a wicked sinner as I. My mind is renewed as I work out this salvation in my daily life, and the Lord’s prayer is answered as the kingdom of God comes to my world!