Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians to “work out (katergazesthe) your own salvation with fear and trembling” is a bit of a puzzle. Are we saved by works after all? Remembering the exodus, the Psalmist declares, “Yet God is our King from of old; he worked salvation (eirgasato sōtērian) in the midst of the earth” (Ps. 73:12 LXX). It would be unthinkable to instruct the Israelites in Egypt to work their own salvation. Salvation is always what God does, isn’t it?
Fee says: ‘This has long been a difficult passage, especially for evangelical Protestants, who, on the one hand, tend to individualize Paul’s corporate imperatives (such as this one) and, on the other hand, cannot imagine Paul suggesting that salvation is something the individual must “work out” for oneself even though it is with God’s help. 1
Hawthorne and Martin translate “work at achieving [spiritual] health”.2 They don’t want readers to think that Paul is ‘concerned with the eternal welfare of the soul of the individual, as though he were addressing issues of “the perseverance of the saints”.’ But the translation is feeble.
The problem, as so often, is that evangelical commentators fail to grasp the apocalyptic or eschatological or narrative or historical dimensions to Paul’s argument. Let me respectfully suggest a better way of reading the passage.
1. What the Philippian believers do to bring about their own salvation is at the same time the work of God in them (Phil. 2:13). That needs to be made clear, of course. God began a good work in them and will continue it through to the day when Jesus is confessed as Lord by the nations (Phil. 1:6; 2:11).
2. They have to work out their own salvation both in Paul’s absence and in his presence. This distinction sends us back to an earlier statement: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents” (Phil. 1:27–28). The point, presumably, is that when he is with them, he can strengthen their resolve to hold true to their calling in the face of persecution. In his absence, they must fall back on their own inner resources. They must work out their salvation on their own.
3. In this context “salvation” means seeing the job through to the end. Paul’s prayer is that they may grow in love, knowledge and discernment, so that they may affirm the things that matter and, therefore, be “pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Phil. 1:10). He rejoices because he is confident that his current predicament, one way or another, will “turn out for salvation”, in that he will not be ashamed and Christ will be honoured in his body, “whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:19-20). Likewise, the steadfastness of the believers is a sign of the future “destruction” of their persecutors and of their own future “salvation”.
4. The significance of Paul’s presence and absence also comes up for discussion at a number of points in 2 Corinthians. We learn, for example, that he has written a difficult letter to the church which has caused them considerable distress, and that he is relieved to hear from Titus that they have proved themselves innocent in the matter (2 Cor. 7:5-16). They were “grieved into repenting”, and Paul goes on to explain that “godly grief produces (ergazetai) a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces (katergazetai) death” (2 Cor 7:10).
The point is not exactly the same, but it shows that Paul was very conscious of the fact that the churches were left to their own devices in his absence and that they needed to find ways to work out their salvation under challenging circumstances.
5. The eschatological orientation of the statement is also underlined in the passage that follows (Phil. 2:14-16). They are not to squabble and fight among themselves but to be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish (amōma) in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation (geneas skolias kai diestrammenēs), among whom you shine as lights in the world.”
The “crooked and twisted generation”, I think, must refer to the Jews. Moses complains that “blemished (mōmēta) children, not his, have sinned, a generation, crooked and perverse (genea skolia kai diestrammenē)” (Deut. 32:5). Jesus called them a “faithless and twisted (diestrammenē) generation” (Matt. 17:17; Lk. 9:41). So the Philippians must work out their own salvation in fear and trembling until that day when God would vindicate this transformed and reformist Jewish movement, when the nations of the Greek-Roman world would confess Jesus as Lord.
6. Interestingly, the phrase “with fear and trembling” (meta phobou kai tromou) is used commonly in the Septuagint for the dread that seizes the nations in the presence of the living God (eg., Exod. 15:16; Deut. 2:25; 11:25; Ps. 2:11; Is. 19:16; Jdt. 2:28; 15:2; 4 Macc. 4:10). Perhaps Paul is conscious of the fact that the church in Philippi consists mainly of converted Gentiles, who approach the living God with the fear and trembling appropriate to pagans—in contrast to, no doubt, the complacency of the current “crooked and twisted generation” of Israel.
7. Salvation (sōtēria), therefore, will come at the parousia, when their “saviour” (sōtēr) will come from heaven and transform the “body of humiliation” of the persecuted believers to be like the “body of his glory, according to the working of the one who is able to subject all things to him” (Phil. 3:20-21, my translation; cf. 1 Cor. 15:27). We may compare here 1 Thessaslonians 1:10: they wait for the Son from heaven, “who delivers us from the wrath to come”.
Fee’s solution to the problem that the verse presents is to say that it has to do with “how saved people live out their salvation”. What Paul is talking about is ‘the present “outworking” of their eschatological salvation within the believing community in Philippi.’ But katergazomai does not mean “work out the practical implications of something”. It means “achieve, accomplish, bring about, produce, create”.
The Philippian believers are members of this community of eschatological witness by grace, through their faith in the resurrection of the Son of God and its long term implications; they have no reason to boast (cf. Eph. 2:8-9). But such communities will be of no more use to God than the “crooked and twisted generation” of Jews, which has brought YHWH’s name into disrepute throughout the oikoumenē (cf. Rom. 2:24), if they do not get their act together and behave righteously.
Standing firm, being of one mind, counting others better than themselves, resolving disagreements, being blameless and innocent, and so on—these ethical actions are not the practical outworking of an assured prior salvation. They are the basis—if they persevere—for their eventual “salvation” on the day of Jesus Christ.