Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13 NIV)
The Apostle Paul gives us an intriguing and challenging directive in Philippians 2:12. “…as you have always obeyed…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you…” It is challenging because it is life-long work, and because obedience can be both difficult and costly. It is intriguing because working out our own salvation can have multiple meanings.
In this post-Christian, you-get-to-decide-what-your-own-truth-is culture, working out my own salvation can seem to mean I get to decide what salvation is to me. I work out my own. What you believe may be fine for you, but what I believe is truth for me. God doesn’t give answers, He only asks questions for you to pursue to work things out on your own. The meaning here would be something akin to working out a Sudoku puzzle or figuring out how to assemble some Ikea furniture without the instructions.
Or working out my own salvation can be an encouragement to go to the spiritual gym and work hard on my obedience. It can come down as a form of trying-to-be-a-good-person theology that essentially makes salvation something we do by our hard work, rather than something Jesus did for us on the Cross and gave us as a gift through our trusting Him. This sense of working out my own salvation can leave me spiritually sweaty and self-satisfied, but far from God.
Another way of looking at working out my own salvation is the sense of personalizing salvation in my own life and walk with Jesus. This is the sense I believe Paul was suggesting. Salvation itself is not something I mold and shape to fit my life. My salvation is Jesus. He took on human flesh to die on a Roman cross as the perfect Sacrifice for the sins of the world, then conquered death so we can have eternal life. This salvation is the same for every human being. We are all sinners, saved by the grace of Jesus Christ. The ground is level at the foot of the Cross. However this salvation must be worked into our lives and will take its unique shape in each of us as we obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit to become all God wants us to be individually and uniquely.
God calls some to be pastors and others to be school teachers or mechanics or business owners or custodians. God gifts some to be writers and others to build things and still others to create art or music. God calls some to marriage and others to singleness.
Drinking alcohol is not sinful in and of itself, according to Scripture. Drunkenness is a sin. Working out my own salvation with fear and trembling means asking God what will glorify Him in my life. My dad had a can of beer and some Cheez-its most every night before going to bed. But I never saw him drunk. My grandfather, on the other hand, drank himself to an early death. As a minister of the gospel, I do not believe I am automatically called to tee-totaling avoidance of alcohol, but rather to sobriety. But here’s the thing: in my own individual walk with Jesus, it is clear to me that glorifying Him means, for me, to avoid alcohol altogether. I am not offended when I am at dinner with ministerial colleagues and someone orders a glass of wine. That’s between them and Jesus, as long as they are not getting drunk. But the Holy Spirit has led me to this: obedience and salvation in my life mean avoiding alcohol altogether. It is my personal calling in my walk with Jesus to glorify Him. This is the sense I believe the Holy Spirit meant in moving Paul to encourage us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
In working out my own salvation, I am not free to disregard the plain teaching of Scripture. My own salvation does not mean I can be holy on Sunday at church and then lie, cheat and steal through the week in business. But within the general will of God for all Christians to be holy and obedient to God’s moral laws is the specific will of God for me in my faithfulness to Jesus.
Paul is right, of course. It is God who is at work in us to accomplish His will in and through out lives. It is in the context of obedience to Him that we work out the details of our own salvation and what faithfulness to Jesus looks like in our own individual lives. I am glad that God is not a cookie-cutter God, expecting all of us to think and act exactly the same. If following Jesus means dancing ballet for every one of us, I’m in BIG trouble! He is a God of infinite creativity, and He made each of us to uniquely bear His image. We are called to discover and follow the unique shape of our relationship with God within the foundational truths of His revealed Word. And that makes life a real adventure!
In all of it, I believe the most important question to ask God is not “Why me?” or “Will you please give me what I want?” or “Where were you when I was suffering?” I believe the most important question to ask God is “How can I live my life to bring glory to you?” Read Scripture with that question in mind. Pray with that question in mind. Live obediently with that question in mind. And together with Jesus, you will “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”