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Rejoice That You Work Out What God Works In

After a three-month hiatus from the Philippians Weblog Commentary, I now return to this blog series with a post on Philippians 2:12-18, a passage that teaches us to rejoice that we out-work what God in-works. You can read prior posts on this series (commentary on 1:1-2:11) by clicking here.

Before we examine this text, however, let us see this text’s context in the broader scheme of Philippians:

  1. Paul, a Person of Joy (1:1-26)
  2. “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27-2:30).
    1. Unite in Perseverance (1:27-30)
    2. Be Humble, As Was Christ (2:1-11)
    3. Rejoice That You Work Out What God Works In (2:12-18)
      1. “Work out your own salvation” because God works in you (vv. 12-13).
      2. Be blameless and faithful (vv. 14-16).
      3. Rejoice because of your God-given perseverance (vv. 17-18).
    4. Persevere because we await One greater than Timothy (2:19-24)
    5. Honor those who give their all for Christ (2:25-30)
  3. The Practicalities of Joy (3:1-4:23)

As always, I encourage you to read this passage (Philippians 2:12-18) before reading my below commentary on the passage. (Click “read more” to read the whole post.)

Work Out, For God Works In

Paul loved his transition words, and we would do well to pay heed to them. Philippians 2:12-18 opens with a favorite word of Paul’s, “therefore.” As I implied in my above outline of Philippians, these verses are a subset of Paul’s general command in Philippians 1:27. There, Paul writes: “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” We have already examined the following verses that reveal how we live “worthy of the gospel of Christ” by uniting in perseverance and by being humble. Paul continues his instruction that we should live “worthy of the gospel of Christ” in a new way: by working out because God works in. (In my sermon on this text, I argued that v. 12’s “therefore” refers back to vv. 9-11 and teaches us to base our motivation for holiness in God’s glory, particularly revealed in the Second Coming. While it is true that God’s glory should be the motivating factor behind our holiness, this is not what Paul is explaining here. Paul is rather saying that because we are to live lives “worthy of the gospel of Christ” [1:27], we should therefore “work out our own salvation.”)

So because we live lives “worthy of the gospel of Christ” not only by uniting together and humbling ourselves but also by working out our own salvation. This phrase, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” has caused some people considerable mental and emotional distress. As Silva writes in the BECNT commentary, p. 118:

… we may reasonably deduce that to work one’s salvation is a more specific—at least a more suggestive—way of expressing the idea of obedience.

But what could Paul possibly mean by such an expression? Careful readers of the Pauline letters are brought up short by it, since hardly anything is more fundamental to the apostle’s theology than the doctrine that God saves “the one who does not work.” Moreover, by going on to explain that it is God who works, Paul may appear to render the command meaningless. The coneptual tension between verse 12 and 13 seems unbearable—apparently, an extreme formulation of the paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

Yes, Philippians 2:12-13 is certainly “an extreme formulation” of the dual doctrine of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, which is already a paradox, as Silva rightly notes. The careful reader will “rightly divide” this portion of the Word of Truth, however, by noting the grammatical relationship between these two verses:

(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, (13) for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

I have demarked the individual verses to better help our understanding of their relationship. Yes, we Christians are to “work out our own salvation”—or, as Silva so sharply phrases this, “bring about with all godly fear your own salvation”—but in whose power do we “work out our own salvation”? Do we work salvation out in our own power? No. “It is God who works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” In Silva’s words, this is “all for the sake of his gracious will.” Both divine sovereignty and human responsibility are at work in these verses, and we must rightly understand their relationship so that we are faithful to the biblical text—indeed, so that we are faithful to God.

Notice the transition at the beginning of v. 13: “for,” which means “because.” So to paraphrase Philippians 2:12-13, taking full note of the transition words in both v. 12 and v. 13:

Because you should live godly lives “worthy of the gospel of Christ,” you should “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” not on your own, but because “it is God who works in you, both to will and to act for his good pleasure.”

Be Blameless

“Work out your own salvation” is an admittedly umbrella-like command. What does working out our own salvation entail? Paul gives a specific application of v. 12’s command to “work out your own salvation” in vv. 14-16:

  • “Do all things
    • without grumbling
    • or questioning”
  • “Shine as lights in the world,
    • holding fast to the word of life”

We first work out our own salvation by doing all things “without grumbling or questioning.” Notice that Paul does not specify against whom we are to not grumble or question. Silva points out that these verbs call us back to Deuteronomy 32:5 in the LXX (Septuagint, Greek Old Testament). In the NT then, as in the OT, grumbling and questioning refer explicitly to grumbling and questioning against (spiritual) leaders. But these leaders lead on behalf of God. We as Christians are to “do all things without grumbling or questioning,” extra-textually because whether we grumble against and question God directly, we do grumble and question God when we grumble and question even people because “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). This is indeed a hard horse pill for us to swallow, sometimes! (Concerning how Christians can glorify God in their submission to earthly authorities, you may listen to my recent sermon on 1 Timothy 2:1-8.) But swallow we must.

In the context of these verses, we Christians are to “do all things without grumbling or questioning” so that we “may be blameless and innocent, children of God in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.” When we as Christians don’t grumble or question, the “crooked and twisted generation” notices and concludes that our faith is real, at least to us. By not grumbling or questioning, we glorify God in the midst of hardship, as we should. By not grumbling and questioning, we are “blameless and innocent” and prove ourselves to be genuine “children of God.” Indeed, true children of God will not “do all things without grumbling or questioning” perfectly, but true children of God will exhibit a willingness to strive for this goal as a way to concretely “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.”

In these verses Paul also brings out the fact that we Christians “shine as lights in the world, holing fast to the word of life.” The ESV’s “holding fast to” is much more accurate than the KJV “holding forth.” The point in these verses is not our evangelism—though evangelism can and should stem from our perseverance in the faith—the textual concern here is that we as Christians “shine as lights in the world” by “holding fast to the word of life.” By clinging to the Bible as the inherent word of God, worthy of our obedience, we “shine as lights in the world.” Just as Jesus specifically resisted Satan by the proper application of Biblical truths, so should we confront sin and temptation with proper application of the Bible and live out these truths not in our own power, but humbly by the power of God.

The Philippians were to do these things “so that in the day of Christ I [Paul] may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.” As someone who had brought the original members of the church at Philippi to Christ, Paul had invested greatly in this church. Its spiritual growth meant “fruitful labor” for him, which he wrote about in Philippians 1:22.

Rejoice Because of Your God-Given Perseverance

Paul goes so far in these verses as to say, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” Paul rejoices with the Philippians even in the midst of his hardship—which could lead to death. Paul’s joy does not rest in his own present circumstances; it rests in the Lord, in what the Lord is doing in the lives of the Philippian believers and believers elsewhere. Paul gives a final command in v. 18: “Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.” Did you notice that? We are to rejoice with Paul at God-given perseverance! We are to rejoice when we do something without grumbling or complaining. We should rejoice when we hold fast to the word of life. We should rejoice when we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. And not because we somehow do this on our own! No! We should rejoice when we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling because “it is God who is at work,” who gives us “both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Nowadays, it is easy to become discouraged in the faith. We may share the gospel with someone repeatedly, but they have yet to come to Christ. We may see the lostness of dear friends or beloved family. We may be discouraged at some sin that is giving us particular difficulty. We may lament when we recall that 88% of American teens leave the church by the end of their first year in college and only half ever return. But God never tells us to get discouraged; he tells us to rejoice. He tells us here to rejoice as we work out our own salvation in fear and trembling because it is God himself who is at work in us. That tells us two things: 1) we should rejoice in our perseverance, and 2) we should rejoice at God’s preservation. God is truly at work in the lives of all of us who are born-again Christians. God is at work in your life, fellow Christian. Rejoice in that. Maybe you don’t see it, but the Bible says it is so. Rejoice in faith, for one day that faith shall be sight. As Augustine of Hippo once said:

Faith is to believe what we do not see; and the reward of this faith is to see what we believe.

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