What Do Work & Fear Have to Do with Salvation?

A blue background with the word salvation and the phrase what does work have to do with salvation

What do good works have to do with salvation?

“Absolutely nothing!”

Wouldn’t every evangelical Christian instinctively answer the question this way? Didn’t all the Reformers agree that salvation is by faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, and not by works? We know what Paul teaches in Ephesians:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Many other verses say something similar (e.g., Gal 2:16; 2 Tim 1:9; Titus 3:5). Paul is crystal clear: associating any kind of work with the free gift of salvation invalidates its effectiveness (Rom 4:1–5).

But if this is true, why would Paul seemingly contradict himself by commanding his readers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” in Philippians 2:12?

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12–13, emphasis added)

Answering 3 questions

I would like to contest the notion that Paul contradicts himself when he insists that salvation does not come from works and that we must “work out [our] salvation.”

We will investigate Philippians 2:12 and answer three questions about it:

  1. Meaning: What does it mean to “work out your own salvation”?
  2. Method: How does one accomplish this “working out”?
  3. Motive: Why should we “work out [our] salvation”?

1. Meaning: What does it mean to “work out your own salvation”?

In order to understand the meaning of the command, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” we must consider four points: audience, salvation, work out, and fear.

Audience

To whom does Paul give this command? Philippians 1:1 tells us: the saints in Philippi along with their overseers and deacons. These readers are described as Paul’s partners in gospel ministry (1:5), partakers of grace (1:7), brothers and sisters in Christ (1:12; 3:1, 13, 17; 4:1, 8), and beloved (2:12; 4:1). Furthermore, Paul claims that God will bring to completion the good work begun in them (1:6), that God has granted them the gift of faith and suffering (1:29), and that they have always obeyed (2:12a). In short, Paul addresses his readers assuming that they are already children of God. So, if they are children of God, what kind of salvation is Paul asking them to work out?

Salvation

Theologians often speak of the three “tenses” of salvation found in Paul’s letters.1

First, in the past tense, people were saved when they believed (Rom 8:24; Eph 2:8). This tense is typically referred to as “justification,” and it is the tense most Christians think of when they speak of salvation.

Second, in the present, people are being saved (1 Cor 1:18; 2 Cor 2:15). In theological terms, this present aspect of salvation is often referred to as sanctification.

Third, salvation also has a future tense: believers will be saved (Rom 5:9–10; 13:11; 1 Tim 4:16). Paul uses salvation in this eschatological sense when he focuses on the believer’s ultimate deliverance.2

To which of these three tenses is Paul referring in Philippians 2:12, when he says, “Work out your own salvation”?

Based on the (already “saved” in the past tense) audience and the context, he must be referring to the present aspect of salvation, during which time believers grow in holiness as they are transformed into the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18; Phil 3:10). Paul uses the adverb “now” as well as the present imperative, “work out,” to indicate precisely when he expects them to obey the command.

This last sentence calls for further explanation—and so we turn to the meaning of “work out.”

Work out

The verb translated “work out” appears twenty-two times in the New Testament.

screenshot of Logos Bible Word Study  search on the Greek word translated “work out” in Philippians 2:12.

Click here to run a Logos Bible Word Study on the Greek word translated “work out” in Philippians 2:12.

Lexically, this word has four nuances:

  1. producing or accomplishing (Rom 5:3; 7:8; 2 Cor 4:17; Jas 1:3);
  2. preparing (2 Cor 5:5);
  3. doing or committing (Rom 1:27; 7:15, 17, 20; 1 Cor 5:3);
  4. and showing or demonstrating (2 Cor 12:12).

Paul’s usage in Phil 2:12 fits best in the fourth category, “showing” or “demonstrating.”

Functionally, this is the only time “work out” (katergazesthe) is used as an imperative in the New Testament. While this fact does not necessarily change the lexical meaning of this verb, it does invite a survey of other commands in Philippians in order to see if Paul uses similar words as imperatives, thus helping to inform the nuance of this verb in 2:12. By my count, at least twenty-three general commands are given in Philippians (we could add several more if we were to count the imperatival ideas found in Paul’s prayer in 1:3–11 and in places where he uses his personal example as a way to encourage imitation [1:12–18; 3:10–14; 4:11–13]). Three of these share the same nuance as “work out” in 2:12:

  • “Conduct yourselves (politeuesthe) worthy of the gospel” (1:27).
  • “Do (poiete) everything without grumbling or disputing” (2:14).
  • “Practice (prassete) [the things you have seen Paul doing]” (4:9).

Contextually, if Paul is calling on his readers to demonstrate their salvation, to “work it out,” we have ample material right in the letter itself to show us what this means.

Here is a sampling:

  • consider others as better than yourself (2:3);
  • live humbly like Christ (2:5);
  • rejoice in the Lord (3:1; 4:4);
  • hold on to what you have attained (3:16);
  • stand fast in the Lord (4:1);
  • don’t worry (4:6);
  • think on good things (4:8).

Indeed, working out one’s salvation results in heeding all the imperatives in Philippians. But this is only the beginning, for working out our salvation is a call to show the fruit of obedience in our speech, deeds, thoughts, and attitudes.

Fear

The gospel fruit that believers demonstrate should flow not from a spirit of pride, doubt, dread, or duty but—in Paul’s words here—from a spirit of “fear and trembling.” We must have a reverential awe in the presence of God, whose majesty has just been described in 2:9–11. We must have a sense of holy wonder before the God whose power enables our obedience.3

We must have a spirit of humble dependence (Job 40:3–5) that trembles at God’s Word (Isa 66:2).

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2. Method: How does one accomplish this “working out”?

Working out our salvation means demonstrating our salvation by bearing spiritual fruit. So how is spiritual fruit-bearing accomplished? Please consider with me the foundation, means, and substance of this enterprise.

The foundation of our work

First principles are essential to help us chart our course correctly.

For example: sanctification (working out our salvation) is a “synergistic” work in which both God and humans work together. God works—as the indicatives of Scripture remind us. And humans work—as the imperatives of Scripture demand.

For example, our passage states that we are to work out our salvation even as—and precisely because—God is generating both the willing and doing of his good pleasure (Phil 2:12–13). Or as Paul says to the Colossians: we have died to sin and must put sin to death (Col 3:3–5). Or as Jude says, we must keep ourselves in the love of God while knowing that he is keeping us from stumbling (Jude 21–24). Paul gives evidence of this mysterious synergism in 1 Corinthians 15:10:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

Christian, your sanctification will require—as Kevin DeYoung put it in an excellent book—“Spirit-directed, gospel-driven, faith-fueled effort.”4

Another first principle I’d offer: sanctification is a necessary result of being justified. This means that regardless of the method someone may follow, God will “make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8). Indeed, God has ordained that his children will walk in good works (Eph 2:10), that they will serve in the new life of the Spirit (Rom 7:6), and that he will complete the good work that he began in their lives (Phil 1:6).5

Another first principle: the Holy Spirit has a large role in making us holy (1 Pet 1:2). He exposes sin so that we can recognize it and turn away from it (John 16:7–11). He illumines the Word so we can understand its meaning and grasp its implications (1 Cor 2:6–16). And he shines the spotlight on Christ so that we can see his glory and be changed, i.e., he reveals Christ’s glory (John 16:14; 2 Cor 3:18).6

The means of our work

While the practice of spiritual disciplines does not guarantee that Christians will grow, these disciplines certainly provide opportunity for the Holy Spirit to produce spiritual fruit in the life of the believer.

I will simply give a listing of spiritual practices which Christians down through the ages have pursued in their efforts to be conformed to the image of Christ.7

The disciplines include Bible intake (reading, memorizing, hearing the Word in preaching and teaching, meditating, and copying), prayer, worship (personal and corporate), church membership, evangelism, serving, stewardship (of time and money), fasting, journaling, learning, and paying attention to the heart (Prov 4:23).8

The substance of our work

Having considered the foundation and means of our work, we turn finally to the substance of it. I find it helpful to consider this substance under various domains.

There are, of course, ethics for the individual. This would include the need for right thinking (Phil 1:9–10; 4:8). It includes, also, metaphors of ethical responsibility including sacrifice (Rom 12:1), athletics (1 Tim 4:7), warfare (Eph 6:10–17), and change-of-clothing (Col 3:8–12). It also includes virtues to pursue (Col 3:12–15) and vices to avoid (Col 3:5–9).

There are also ethics for the family and home. Paul provides direction regarding marriage (Eph 5:22–30) and parenting (Col 3:20–21), for example.

Paul, too, speaks in various places of ethics in daily work (1 Thess 4:11–12; 2 Thess 3:10–12). He also speaks of ethics in the church—including observation of the ordinances (1 Cor 1:14–16; 11:17–34), serving and edifying each other (Eph 4:12), evangelizing (Rom 10:14–15), and gathering together (Heb 10:25).

Finally, Christians must model good ethics in the state and society (Rom 13:1–5; 1 Thess 4:12).

This list is obviously representative of the imperatives given to Christians as they work out their salvation with fear and trembling, but it shows the kinds of work God calls Christians to do.

3. Motive: Why should we “work out [our] salvation”?

Why should we work out our salvation?

Simply notice what Paul says:

My beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Believers can work out their salvation because God is the one who enables both the willing and doing of his good pleasure (Phil 2:13). That in itself is meant to be a kind of motivation.

But Christians still need to do something. We need to “work out our salvation”—not because we must work to earn God’s special favor,9 nor to earn rewards10

We need to look to the Scripture to find the motives it advocates. Those would include

  • bringing glory to God (Rom 15:7; Eph 1:6, 12, 14);
  • pleasing God (2 Cor 5:9; 1 Thess 4:1; Col 1:10);
  • being good examples to others (Heb 13:7);
  • gaining assurance of salvation (2 Pet 1:10);
  • following Christ’s example (Eph 5:2).

The final and ultimate right motivation is love—love for God and neighbor (Matt 22:34–40; 1 Cor 16:14). I could give many, many more.11

Yes, the Christian has good reason to work out his or her salvation—not for perishable prizes but for eternal life (1 Cor 9:25).

May God help all who claim the name of Christ to demonstrate obedient fruit in our lives—not to earn our salvation but to show it.

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  1. Douglas J. Moo, A Theology of Paul and His Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021), 468.
  2. Moo, Theology of Paul, 468. Moo argues that Paul uses this eschatological sense of salvation most often.
  3. Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 237, for both of these nuances.
  4. Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 71–91.
  5. See Jonathan R. Pratt, “The Relationship Between Justification and Spiritual Fruit in Romans 5–8,” Themelios 34.2 (2009): 162–78, for fourteen more examples.
  6. DeYoung, Hole in Our Holiness, 81–2.
  7. Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014), and David Mathis, Habits of Grace (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016).
  8. John Flavel, Keeping the Heart, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1998), 129–32.
  9. Andrew David Naselli, No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Came From, What it is, and Why it’s Harmful (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017).
  10. Joseph Dillow, “The Doctrine of Rewards,” in A Defense of Free Grace Theology with Respect to Saving Faith, Perseverance, and Assurance, ed. Fred Chay (Woodlands, TX: Grace Theology Press, 2017), 343–45. For an opposing description of rewards, see Thomas R. Schreiner and Ardel B. Caneday, The Race Set before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 79–86.
  11. DeYoung, Hole in Our Holiness, 57–60, gives forty ways in which the Bible motivates us to pursue sanctification.
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Written by
Jon Pratt

Jon Pratt is the Professor of New Testament and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, MN. He also serves as an elder at Redeemer Bible Church in Minnetonka, MN. He and his lovely wife, Elaine, have been married for 37 years. The Lord has blessed them with 4 children and 4 grandchildren. Jon enjoys reading, biking, and cheering for Minnesota sports teams.

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