The phrase, “Working out your salvation with fear and trembling” is a direct quote from the King James Bible translation of Philippians 2:12, part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s one of the most misquoted and least understood texts in Christiandom. It’s often used to support the argument of salvation by moral observance (self-effort) – what the Bible technicality calls “works.” It’s also used to augment the logic that one can lose one’s salvation. Which is really strange considering that Paul the apostle of grace is being quoted in support of salvation by self-effort. He’ll probably flip in his grave! He almost lost his life severally for preaching salvation by grace.
The whole message of Paul is that Jesus took care of salvation from start to finish, man’s additional input unrequired. It was his point of radical departure from the Jewish faith. At the beginning, the early Church struggled to separate Christianity from Judaism. It’s why Paul was summoned to the council meeting at Jerusalem; at which a resolution was passed that non-Jewish converts must abstain from eating meat with blood. (Acts 21:15-25) That is actually a command under the Law of Moses. (Leviticus 17:12, Deuteronomy 12:23) The Jewish converts were told “all follow the Law of Moses seriously.” (Acts 21:20) But Paul in his epistle to the Galatians called that a “crazy” observance. Not exactly a phrase you’d expect from an apostle but he had a point: “Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. How foolish can you be? After starting your new life in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?” (Galatians 3:2-3)
The Message translation is not that genteel: “How did this new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it?” (Galatians 3:3-5 MSG)
Then Paul continues his challenge: “Answer this question: Does the God who lavishly provides you with his own presence, his Holy Spirit, working things in your lives you could never do for yourselves, does he do these things because of your strenuous moral striving or because you trust him to do them in you?” (Galatians 3:6 MSG)
It’s of course unimaginable that the man who wrote all of the above can then be quoted as advocating salvation by works and self-effort. He can’t say one thing in his letter to the Galatians and make a 180degree volte-face in his letter to the Philippians. Therefore “working out your salvation with fear and trembling” CANNOT mean working hard to make heaven, or working hard to make heaven by moral striving. Something must be wrong in such interpretation of this text.
Well it turns out something IS wrong in our reading of the text. And it arises from taking the text out of its textual setting. We’re not quoting the FULL text! When we look at the full text we’ll discover that Paul is actually saying EXACTLY the same thing in this letter as in his letter to the Galatians: that salvation by self-effort is preposterous. The mistake comes from reading Philippians. 2:12 in isolation. That’s truncation. The full text is Philippians 2: 12 AND Philippians. 2:13: “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13 KJV) Essentially therefore, we’re able to work out our salvation BECAUSE God is working in us to make us willing and able to do his good pleasure. The system is rigged, we’re not doing the work out, God is the enabler! We can do nothing without him. (John 15:5)
You see, Paul didn’t number the paragraphs in his letters as verses. He wrote his letter like we write our emails today– in continuous sentences. He didn’t even know he was writing the Bible! He was just writing letters to his converts. The estimated date of the writing of the Book of Philippians is AD 62. But the numbering of the Bible in verses didn’t begin until roughly 1,500 years after. Robert Estienne (Robertus Stephanus in Latin), a 16th century printer and classical scholar was the first to number scriptures as verses within a chapter. Numbered New Testament went into print in 1551, though as early as the 13th century the Bible had been divided into chapters. Chaptering and versing of the Bible allows for easy referencing, though one of the criticisms of Bible numbering is that it encourages people to quote scriptures out of context. Paul’s original letter to the Philippians was not written in verses. It’s why you can’t separate Philippians 2:12 and Philippians 2:13.
Essentially therefore we can’t please God without God helping us to please him. That’s what Philippians 2:12-13 is saying. This accords with an earlier statement made by Paul in the same letter: “And I am certain that God, who began a good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” (Philippians 1:6 NLT) The Amplified translation is even better: “And I am convinced and sure of this very thing, that he Who began a good work in you will continue until the day of Jesus Christ (right up to the time of His return), developing that good work and perfecting and bringing it to full completion in you.” (Philippians 1:6 Amp) It is God doing the work, we’re just working out what he’s working.
Bearing in mind Philippians 1:6, the only logical interpretation of Philippians 2:12-13 is that we should work out outwardly what God is doing inwardly in us, in humility and deep reverence for God. We’re not working to avoid going to hell, or lose our salvation, or Paul would contradict himself severally. The same Paul had already told us in his letter to the Ephesians that we have been sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 1:13) In other words, our salvation is a done deal. Here’s what he wrote: “Once you heard the truth and believed it (this Message of your salvation) you found yourselves home free – signed, sealed and delivered by the Holy Spirit. This signet from God is the first instalment on what’s coming, a reminder that we’ll get everything God has planned for us, a praising and glorious life.” (Ephesians 1:13-14) Therefore our salvation is not in doubt. It is signed, sealed and delivered. The word of God said so.
The problem many have is understanding the King James translation of the Bible. It can be very confusing if you lack appreciation of Shakespearean English. The King James Bible was published in 1611. People go to school to learn to read Shakespeare for the simple reason it’s ancient English. King James Bible requires no less study. It’s not a text the modern man can easily grasp. Just like Chaucer or other classical literature. It was actually translated using four sources– Masoretic Text, Textus Receptus, Vulgate and Septuagint. The English of the 17th century had expressions like “evil concupiscence”, “superfluity of naughtiness.”
Here’s the New Living Translation of Philippians 2:12-13. It gives us better understanding of what Paul was writing about. It’s modern text: “Dear friends, you always followed my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away, it is even more important. Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” (Philippians 2:12-13 NLT)
The Message translation is even better: “What I’m getting at friends is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I’m separated from you, keep it up better. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13 MSG) IN OTHER WORDS THIS PASSAGE IS ABOUT PASSION AND REVERENCE FOR GOD, NOT FEAR OF GOING TO HELL. “Working out your salvation” is about dynamic responsiveness to the Holy Spirit. How hell got into all this one truly has to wonder! We seem to read the passage as, “Work out your salvation in the fear of going to hell!”
The belief we can earn salvation by our own effort is called the heresy of pelagianism. It is named after the British monk Pelagius (354-420 AD). St. Augustine would counter the heresy with the doctrine of grace. We cannot earn our salvation by our moral striving. And we must stop alleging Paul preached this doctrine. Not if we don’t want Paul to scowl at us from heaven! Dynamic responsiveness to the Holy Spirit. That’s the new deal! And that’s how you work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
If you’ll like to give your life to Christ please pray this prayer: “Father, I come to you in the name of Jesus. I know that I am a sinner. I believe Jesus died for me and that you raised him from the dead. I confess with my mouth that Jesus is Christ is Lord and I receive him as my Lord and my Saviour. I am now born again. Amen.”
If you have any questions you can write me. Just mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d be glad to answer your questions.