“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;” (Philippians chapter 2 verse 12 NKJV)
The Bible teaches that salvation is a gift so how then is it that we are to “work it out” and “with fear and trembling” too? Does this mean we can lose our salvation? I thought once I accept Christ, my salvation is already guaranteed?
This all seems contradictory…
…or maybe not.
Let’s dissect this bit by bit, shall we?
1) “Work out”: The Amplified Bible Classic Edition (AMPC) version of the Bible expands ‘work out’ to mean ‘cultivate, carry out to the goal, and fully complete’ which is a translation of the greek verb katergazomai.
How then do we demonstrate this? First thing to bear in mind is that our ultimate goal in life, once we accept Christ as our Lord and Saviour, is to increasingly become Christ-like. As a result, our focus is no longer on our own desires but on actively pursuing obedience as we work hand in hand with God and the Holy Spirit through the life-long process of sanctification each and every day. In that vein, Apostle Paul explains what this entails in Philippians chapter 3 verses 7 to 14 (AMPC):
“But whatever former things I had that might have been gains to me, I have come to consider as [one combined] loss for Christ’s sake.
Yes, furthermore, I count everything as loss compared to the possession of the priceless privilege (the overwhelming preciousness, the surpassing worth, and supreme advantage) of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord and of progressively becoming more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him [of perceiving and recognizing and understanding Him more fully and clearly]. For His sake I have lost everything and consider it all to be mere rubbish (refuse, dregs), in order that I may win (gain) Christ (the Anointed One),
And that I may [actually] be found and known as in Him, not having any [self-achieved] righteousness that can be called my own, based on my obedience to the Law’s demands (ritualistic uprightness and supposed right standing with God thus acquired), but possessing that [genuine righteousness] which comes through faith in Christ (the Anointed One), the [truly] right standing with God, which comes from God by [saving] faith.
[For my determined purpose is] that I may know Him [that I may progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, perceiving and recognizing and understanding the wonders of His Person more strongly and more clearly], and that I may in that same way come to know the power outflowing from His resurrection [which it exerts over believers], and that I may so share His sufferings as to be continually transformed [in spirit into His likeness even] to His death, [in the hope]
That if possible I may attain to the [spiritual and moral] resurrection [that lifts me] out from among the dead [even while in the body].
Not that I have now attained [this ideal], or have already been made perfect, but I press on to lay hold of (grasp) and make my own, that for which Christ Jesus (the Messiah) has laid hold of me and made me His own.
I do not consider, brethren, that I have captured and made it my own [yet]; but one thing I do [it is my one aspiration]: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,
I press on toward the goal to win the [supreme and heavenly] prize to which God in Christ Jesus is calling us upward.“
2) Fear: The word fear is not to be understood in the common sense of something to be afraid of. No one wants to live in that kind of fear and I certainly don’t want it to affect how you relate to God because of incorrect understanding.
Phobos is the greek origin of the word fear in this verse and Apostle Paul’s use of the word in this context is to highlight the awe-inspired reverence and respect the gift of Salvation duly commands, because of how AMAZING it is.
For the avoidance of doubt, fear here is NOT about terror or the fear that you might lose your gift of salvation because of something you did or did not do, as is often the context in which this verse is cited by those who lack understanding or want to instil religious fear in others.
Think whatever you like but you cannot lose your salvation as a born-again Christian (not just by calling yourself one but by the fruits you bear in line with God’s word) because, “…God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable. [He never withdraws them when once they are given, and He does not change His mind about those to whom He gives His grace or to whom He sends His call.]” (Romans chapter 11 verse 29 AMPC).
3) Trembling: Trembling, in this context, simply refers to the attitude we have in working towards this goal of working out our salvation. The AMPC version of the Bible also expands this word to mean “self-distrust, with serious caution, tenderness of conscience, watchfulness against temptation, timidly shrinking from whatever might offend God and discredit the name of Christ”.
If the main purpose of this verse is not about a misunderstood fact that we could lose our salvation, what is it about? It’s really just about recognising the gravity of the Salvation we have graciously been given and the fact that it is something we are to protect so cautiously, from any tainting that would make a mockery of something so precious that it could not have been made available in any other way apart from the sacrifice of Christ Jesus.
So in the same way you’d protect your most precious jewel from being damaged or abused, do same and much more where your salvation is concerned that may God may be glorified in EVERYTHING!