Work Out Your Own Salvation

By Mike Willis

Salvation is sometimes mentioned as an event which occurs at a moment in time when the believer submits to baptism (Mk. 16:16); at other times, it is looked at as an ongoing process (1 Cor. 1:18 – see NASB); in other texts it points toward the future salvation of mankind at the second coming of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:5). It is, therefore, altogether proper for the apostle Paul to write to the “saints,” in Philippi as follows:

Wherefore, my beloved, as ye 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. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure (2:12-13).

There are many lessons from this passage regarding our need to work out our salvation which we need to impress upon our minds. Please consider this text with me.

Independent Christians

There is a fundamental need for every person who becomes a Christian to learn to stand independently from every other man because of his relationship to Christ. I do not mean by this that every Christian should try to be an island; rather, every Christian needs to grow up into a mature person in Christ able to be weaned from the person who led him to Christ. Hence, Paul rejoiced that the Philippians had learned to be obedient to the Lord “not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence.” We Christians need to be active in helping those who become Christians to learn to mature in Christ and learn to be obedient to the Lord without our encouragement. They need to learn to stand with God, regardless of what happens to every other Christian.

Christianity is an intensely personal relationship with the Lord. Hence, Paul wrote, “work out your own salvation.” Paul could not work out their salvation for them; the bishops in Philippi could not work out the salvation of the saints in Philippi. Every individual must personally work out his own salvation.

In Fear And Trembling

The working out of one’s salvation is to be done “in fear and trembling.” God is not to be viewed only as a God of love who sent His Son to die for our sins. He is also described as a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29) by the same writer who said, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). Hence, the Christian needs to be reminded that his relationship with God is not so secure that he cannot fall from grace. Rather, his relationship with God is such that he can maintain fellowship with God only so long as he is walking in the light (1 Jn. 1:6). So, with fear and trembling, he needs to constantly give attention to his daily walk to stay in the light to be sure that he does not step outside the bounds of God’s grace.

Such a man has “fear and trembling” because he knows the nature of sin and what it does to one’s relationship with God. Sin is something which God despises; indeed, its nature is such that it always separates a man from God (Isa. 59:1-2). The Christian should realize that the commission of sin always separates a man from God.

Frankly, I have a little trouble understanding how those who believe that the perfect obedience of Christ is imputed to the believer so that his sins of ignorance and weaknesses of the flesh are not imputed to him could admonish a man to walk “in fear and trembling.” They have already assured such a person that the sins which they commit have no effect upon the relationship which they sustain to God. Here is a sample of the kind of writing I mean:

One who is in Christ does not fall out of Christ upon the commission of sin because we were all sinners when we were incorporated into Christ . . . . In Christ, sins committed are sins forgiven when they are committed; yet he who is concerned about his salvation will repent and ask for forgiveness because he is of such mind, the mind of Christ . . . (R.L. Kilpatrick, The Ensign Fair, Vol. VI, No. 8, p. 16).

For the life of me, I cannot understand why a man would need to walk “in fear and trembling” if his sins are unconditionally forgiven before and without repentance and prayer. Yet, Paul urged the Christians to walk before God “in fear and trembling.”

God Worketh In You

After admonishing the Christians to “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling,” Paul turned to say, “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Some have perverted this verse to teach their Calvinist doctrines of illumination and irresistible grace. They teach that the ability to believe the gospel is given to man by God through an irresistible act of grace; this irresistible grace is also what causes man to want to do the will of the Lord.

This idea makes nonsense out of the admonition given in verse 12. Why should Paul write “work out your own salvation” if both the ability to will and to work out one’s own salvation had to come from the Lord? Furthermore, this doctrine states that this extension of God’s grace to man is irresistible; therefore, if irresistible grace is extended how could a person keep from working out his own salvation? I think that our readers can see that this admonition presupposes the free-will of man to choose to work out his own salvation or to not work it out.

Furthermore, this Calvinist doctrine makes the example of Jesus Christ which is held before the Philippians worthless. In the earlier verses in this chapter, Paul urged us to imitate Christ (2:6). Christ was one who humbled Himself and became obedient unto death (2:8). His obedience came as a free act of His own will (Lk. 22:42 -“nevertheless, not my will but thine be done”). Because He was obedient unto death, “wherefore God also hath highly exalted him” (2:9). This example cannot be imitated by man according to Calvinist doctrine. Man, according to the Calvinist point of view, does not have the ability to will to do the will of God; he is totally depraved and unable to do any good. Hence, the Calvinist interpretation of this verse is nonsensical.

Let it be further noted that the statement “God . . . worketh in you” does not mean “irresistible grace.” The word energeo is defined as “to be operative, be at work, put forth power.” It, however, does not refer to an irresistible operation of God. The same word appears in Eph. 2:2 to describe the “spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience.” Is it to be understood in that context to refer to an irresistible force leading us to sin? It also appears in Rom. 7:5 to describe the “motions of sins . . . did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.” Are we to understand that this was some kind of irresistible force operating that caused men to sin despite their efforts to resist temptation? If so, the promise of God means nothing for He said, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (Jas. 4:7). It seems to me that if we are going to define energeo in Phil. 2:13 to mean an irresistible operation of God, we are going to be forced to define the word in a similar way in these other passages.

We are left then with explaining the manner in which God worketh in us to will and to work His good pleasure. The passage simply states that God causes us to will to do His good will. The passage does not state how God causes us to will to do His will. The Calvinists present a theory regarding how God causes us to will to do His will; this theory is inconsistent with other biblical passages. I would like to suggest that the only force which God uses upon us to cause us to will to do His will is moral argument. In this, I would like to suggest some of the things which God does to cause us to will to do His will.

(1) The divine love of God is a force of God which causes us to will to do His will. His love for mankind is seen in the giving of His Son; “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. . . ” (Jn. 3:16). “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). The love which God has for us causes me to want to act to do His good will. (2) The love of Christ is a force which causes us to will to do His will. The love of Jesus is seen in His willingness to lay down His life – to bear the punishment of our sins – in order that we might be saved. Paul wrote, “For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead” (2 Cor. 5:14). John said, “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19). The love which Jesus manifested toward us causes me to want to do the will of God. (3) The beauty of holiness causes me to want to do the will of God. The life which is most attractive is that life which is lived in obedience to the will of God. “Godliness . . . is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (1 Tim. 4:8). When I look at the characteristics of the persons with whom I come in contact, I am more impressed with the devoted saint who, in the fall of his life, still clings to the wife of his youth, has raised his children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord and, consequently, is surrounded by God-fearing children and grandchildren, and is respected by his fellow saints for his faith and his fellow men for his demeanor in life. When I contrast this life with even the best that atheism, agnosticism, humanism, and other philosophies have to offer, I am impressed with the Christian life. Indeed, the beauty of holiness causes me to want to do the will of God. (4) The fear of hell causes me to want to do the will of God. The Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), the second death – one’s portion in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone (Rev. 21:8). My desire to escape the torments of hell is a force which causes me to want to do God’s will.

These factors used by God are the things which God uses to work in me to will to do His will. There is nothing in the Scriptures which teach that God works on me through some irresistible force causing me to want and to do His good will. Rather, these moral arguments and forces are used by God to draw men to Him (cf. Jn. 12:32). Man has the freedom to choose whether to resist the Lord and to open the door of his heart unto Him.


Beloved, I hope that you have personally accepted responsibility to be active in working out your own salvation in fear and trembling. The moral inducements of the Lord constrain you to give your life to Him as a living sacrifice to Him.

Truth Magazine XXIII: 16, pp. 259-261
April 19, 1979