“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.”—Philippians 2:12–13
“The Doctor” says of these verses,
“I venture to put it to you, it is perhaps one of the most perfect summaries of the Christian life to be found anywhere. It was one of those perfect pictures which we tend to find so frequently in the writings of this Apostle. He was very fond of stating the whole thing over and over again; he liked to give a summary of the Christian life, and here is one of the most pregnant statements which even he himself ever made.”Lloyd-Jones, David Martyn. The Life of Joy. Baker Publishing Group, 1989, p. 160.
As glorious as these two verses are, they have troubled many sola-affirming Protestants. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone and here Paul is telling us to work out our salvation! Keep calm. Carry on. There’s no need to drop sola Scriptura at this point in order to keep the others. Working out the meaning of just two words should work out any difficulties you have with “working out our salvation.”
I’ll only briefly deal with the first here. Paul instructs these saints to work out their salvation. He does not tell them to work it up. He does not tell them to work it in. Paul does not tell them to work for their salvation. He tells them to work it out. We have an aversion to salvation and works ever being put into a concoction together, but we need to be more sophisticated chemists than that. While abhorring Galatian-chemistry involving salvation and works, we need to practice Philippian-chemistry involving salvation and works.
The second word is “salvation.” Our problem here is that we confuse Christianese with Biblical language. Biblical and theological language are not the problem, though people sometimes complain of them as though they are. No one complains when the football commentator speaks football. If you love the game you learn the language. Yes, we need to define our terms and help people along, but many complaints about Biblical language in the church are really just evidence that the church is full of people far more interested in other games.
However, we are fluent in Christianese. Rather than speaking the foreign language of the Bible as heavenly citizens, we impose a foreign language on the Bible. And the sneaky thing about Christianese, is that it so often is just right enough to get you confidently wrong at some critical junctures. When Christians today hear “salvation” they think narrowly when most often the Scriptures speak broadly. Christians think only of the beginning of the race, when the Scriptures are speaking of the whole of it—from start to finish with all the sweat and exertion in-between. Perhaps I’m being a bit unfair. Maybe just as many Christians think of the end of the race as well. But most leave out the race itself. We are deists concerning God’s new creation. God has wound us up. Now we are on our own till the alarm sounds.
The Bible speaks of the salvation of the saints in all three tenses. We were saved; we are being saved; we will be saved. Salvation is not simply something that has happened to you. It is happening to you and it will happen to you. Salvation involves not just your regeneration, justification, and adoption. It also includes your sanctification and glorification. More than that, your salvation stretches further back than your experience. Your salvation stretches from eternity to eternity, from election to glorification.
So when Paul tells these saints in Christ Jesus (1:1) to work out their salvation, he is clearly referring to the nowness of salvation, assuming a past, advancing to the future. Paul is assuming regeneration, justification, and adoption in the past and calling for sanctification in the present towards glorification in the future.
What is sanctification? It is what Paul spoke of in 1:25, it is “progress and joy in the faith.” It is, as Jerry Bridges speaks of it with his various book titles (and very Biblical ones mind you), The Pursuit of Holiness, The Discipline of Grace, and The Practice of Godliness. Sanctification is the saints being sanctified. It is our growth in holiness, godliness, obedience, and discipleship.
But have I not just narrowed a term that I said was broad? Salvation remains broad; it’s the working out that is the narrow part. This part we call sanctification. Sanctification is working out your salvation past toward your salvation future. The salvation you are to work out is God’s salvation—the whole of it; but the working out of it is narrow, it is part of it.
Now, if you’r estill bothered, I have only two things for you at this point. The first is my weak words, linked below. The second is God’s strong word. When the Word causes you to stumble, it will be the word that steadies. Keep reading. When the Word confuses, it will be the Word that clarifies. Keep reading. The salvation you are to work out, is worked out for this reason, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (emphasis mine).