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Work it Out

Philippians 2:12 - Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.

Work out your salvation? Does the Bible really say that? Doesn't the Bible teach that salvation is not the result of good deeds or righteous works? Doesn't Ephesians 2:8-9 say, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one should boast"? And doesn't Titus 3:5 say, "He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy..."? How, then, can the Bible tell us in Philippians 2:12, "Work out your salvation"? That sounds like a contradiction in the Scriptures--in fact, it sounds like the same author contradicted himself! After all, the apostle Paul wrote all three of those letters--Ephesians, Titus and Philippians.

An Apparent Contradiction

We can be sure that Paul did not contradict himself because he was inspired by the Holy Spirit when he wrote those epistles. An inspired writer of Scripture cannot contradict himself or any other inspired human author of Scripture--because God cannot contradict Himself! There are no contradictions in the Bible because God is the ultimate Author of the whole Bible. If it appearsthat there are contradictions in the Bible, it is because we lack understanding of the correct meaning of the texts in question. A better understanding of "conflicting" texts will usually harmonize the problem passages with little difficulty. Such is the case with Philippians 2:12.

An important and necessary method for understanding the meaning of any text of Scripture is to appreciate the occasion of the book. Every book of Scripture has an "occasion," a particular situation that existed when the book was written. Where was the author when he wrote the book? What was going on in the lives of the author and the readers? Was there a special problem that needed to be corrected? Was there a particular audience that the author had in mind? Was there a significant event that precipitated the writing of the book? Knowing the occasion of the book very often guides us to a better understanding of the difficult passages within the book and how they harmonize with passages in other books.

A Possible Interpretation

Before discussing the occasion of the book of Philippians, it should be pointed out that one way to resolve the apparent contradiction of Philippians 2:12 is as follows: We are not told to "work for" our salvation but to "work out" our salvation--we are to "work out" the salvation that God has "worked in"! That is, we have a responsibility to work at letting the light of our salvation shine out to the dark unbelieving world. God is the One who "made His light shine in our hearts" (2 Corinthians 4:6). Now we have the responsibility to let our "light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). As we "work out our salvation" we will reflect the light of God "in the midst of a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe..." (Philippians 2:15). Furthermore, we will be enabled to "work out our salvation" because "it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose" (Philippians 2:13). So then, let's take our salvation and, with His unfailing assistance, work it out for the glory of God.

On the surface, this seems like a sound interpretation. It certainly resolves the apparent contradiction and seems to fit the context of the verses which follow in the chapter. Furthermore, we know that the overwhelming thrust of New Testament teaching is that Christians are to work out their salvation--to unbelievers and believers alike--as a witness of what God in His grace has "workedin." We are to put into practice in our daily living all the benefits of salvation that God has worked in us by His Holy Spirit. This is not a momentary act but a lifelong process of growth and commitment.

It is possible, therefore, that the "work out what God has worked in" approach is the plain and simple way to harmonize Philippians 2:12 with the rest of the New Testament's teaching on the subject of salvation. However, knowing the occasion surrounding Paul's letter to the Philippians may lead us to a somewhat different interpretation.

The Occasion of Philippians

What was the occasion of the epistle to the Philippians? In chapter 4 we learn that a Christian brother named Epaphroditus had come from Philippi to visit Paul in Rome, when he was under house arrest during his first Roman imprisonment (Acts 28:30-31). Epaphroditus brought the apostle a monetary gift as well as news from the church at Philippi. This church had shown continuing love and concern by supporting both Paul and the work of the Lord in general (1:5,7). As a model church they had also contributed, at great personal sacrifice, to a fund for assisting their fellow believers in Jerusalem who were in time of great need (2 Corinthians 8:1-5). Paul wrote to thank the Philippians for their support and to tell them how the Lord was taking care of him (4:10-19) and overruling in his prison situation for good (1:12-26).

Paul was eager to hear the news about the believers at Philippi. He had worked hard to establish that church on his second and third missionary journeys. About ten years had passed since those early days (Acts 16), and the church had grown and prospered. Paul prayed constantly for his beloved sons and daughters in the faith at Philippi (1:3-4, 8). However, Epaphroditus brought disturbing news. There were two prominent dangers on the horizon at Philippi. On the one hand, there was the constant threat of the Judaizers. The Judaizers were zealously religious Jews who showed up just about everywhere Paul preached the gospel of freedom in Christ. The Judaizers taught that a person was not saved simply by trusting Christ. They taught that the works of the Law of Moses were an essential part of salvation. This false teaching had not penetrated the church at Philippi, but Paul was concerned enough to warn the believers in strong terms about the threat posed by these non-Christian Judaizers. "Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision" (Philippians 3:2).

On the other hand, there was the danger of an impending split in the church at Philippi. In chapter 4 Paul urges two women in the church, Euodia and Syntyche, to live in harmony. Apparently these two active and gifted Christian women could not see eye to eye on some matter, and other Christians were beginning to "take sides." Factions were beginning to build up within the church, destroying unity in the fellowship. We don't know what the issue was, but apparently it was not some doctrinal error. Paul would have dealt with heretical trends in no uncertain terms! Some biblical scholars have suggested that the developing rift at Philippi was between those believers with "perfectionist" leanings (3:12-16) and those with antinomian or "libertine" leanings (3:18-19).

Perhaps, on the other hand, the rift was being caused by nothing more than different views and ideas about the church's time and place of meeting or the details of their evangelistic program! Would any church today split over such trivial matters? Unfortunately, there are church "walk-outs" and splits over matters of even less importance. Maybe that's why the Holy Spirit left the particulars of the rift at Philippi undisclosed--so that we can readily apply this Scripture to a range of "trivial" matters causing disunity in our churches today. In any case, it is hard to miss Paul's emphasis on the importance of unity throughout his letter to the Philippians.

A Call for Unity

Besides Paul's straight-out exhortation to Euodia and Syntyche to live in harmony (4:2), all the Philippians were urged to show forbearance and gentleness to one another (4:5). Their thoughts about one another were to be positive--and only positive! Only reports which were true, and only those traits and actions which were honorable, right, pure and lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy were to characterize their thoughts about their fellow believers (4:8). They were to reject gossip, refuse to listen to slanted reports, and relinquish their tendencies to dwell on the negative traits of their fellow church members! Thinking only about the positive attributes and praiseworthy actions of the brothers and sisters would steer the Philippians back towards unity. And thinking only about the praiseworthy actions and positive attributes of fellow-Christians will move us toward unity today--especially with that brother or sister who always seems to rub us the wrong way!

Beginning in chapter 1, Paul urged his beloved Philippians to "conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" (1:27). In chapter 2 Paul pleaded with his brothers and sisters to be "like-minded, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself. Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others" (2:2-4). And then Paul gave them the ultimate example of a self-giving attitude: the Lord Jesus (2:5-8).

But notice how this wonderful Christ-exalting Scripture is set in a practical context: "Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus" (2:5)! Now, in application, Paul says to the Philippians in verse 12, "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 salvation with fear and trembling." That is, especially in view of the occasion--the problem of disunity in the church--the Philippian believers were to work out their salvation.

A Better Interpretation

In what way were the Christians at Philippi to work out their salvation? Were they to let the fruits of their salvation interact with one another in such a way that the problem of disunity in the church would disappear or at least diminish? In other words, were they to take the love and patience and forbearance and forgiving spirit that God had given them as an essential part of their salvation and "work it out" towards their fellow believers? Certainly this would promote unity and help to heal the rift that was splitting the church at Philippi. In view of the occasion of the book of Philippians, this interpretation certainly comes closer to what Paul had in mind when he wrote "work out your salvation." In fact, it may be exactly what he had in mind when he penned this phrase.

However, one further point must be investigated before we draw our final conclusions. When the word "salvation" is used, it does not always mean the "salvation of our souls." This is true in both the English language and the Greek language of the New Testament. In English, we sometimes talk of "salvation" in terms of deliverance from a distressing or life-threatening situation, or a solution to a perplexing problem. For example, "The bankrupt farmer saved his farm from foreclosure by working out an acceptable payment plan--he worked out his salvation!" The same is true in the Greek language. In Philippians 1:19, Paul talks about his salvation, meaning his deliverance from prison. He is confident that through the prayers of the Philippians in accordance with the plans of God, he would be "saved" from his present imprisonment. The same Greek word for "salvation" is used in both Philippians 2:12 and 1:19!

It is quite possible, therefore, that the "salvation" that Paul had in mind when he wrote Philippians 2:12 was not personal salvation of the soul, but rather salvation or deliverance of the local church from a disastrous split! The Philippians were to work out a solution to the problem of the party spirit to save the unity of their church. And they were to do it with "fear and trembling" because this was serious business. Contention is devastating in any church, but is especially critical in a young, growing church. The good news was that they could be sure that God was at work in them to give them the will and the strength to achieve the Christian unity that pleases God (2:13), an accomplishment which is humanly impossible.

Paul could have used his apostolic authority, detailing the exact course of action to take, but he chose to exhort the Philippians to "work it out" themselves. He gave the guidelines (2:2-4, 4:4-9) and the model to follow: the self-giving attitude of Christ (2:5-8).And they were to work out their differences without "grumbling or disputing" (2:14)! The result of their "salvation" from selfishness and strife and the impending split would bring glory to God because their united testimony would shine for all the world to see (2:15).

The Application for Today

In light of this interpretation, the application of Philippians 2:12 to the Church today should be obvious. When differing views on non-heretical matters rise above the level of "personal opinion" and begin to assume contentious "rift status," believers need to sit down together and "work out" the way to save their church's unity. Whether it be a disagreement regarding the times for services or the types of music or the color of the paint in the Sunday school rooms or the carpet in the main sanctuary, the solution must be "worked out" and Christian unity maintained.

Don't pretend the contentions don't exist. Don't sweep the disunity under the rug. Work it out! We can be sure that since God's will for us is unity in our churches, then there is a divine solution for every disrupting problem. The solution may not come easily. "Salvation" from a disastrous situation will involve serious attitude changes on the part of all--swallowing our pride, forsaking our personal ambitions, sacrificing our "pet projects." But the result will be well worth the sacrifice and effort!

Let's bring glory to our Lord Jesus and fulfill our mission to be "lights in the world, above reproach in the midst of a crooked and depraved generation, holding forth the word of life" (2:15). Let's work it out!

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