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Work Out Your Salvation

Question: In the New Testament, Paul says that we should work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Could you explain what he meant?

Answer: God’s purpose in salvation does not merely comprise freedom from guilt and the penalty of sin. To be sure, God forgives and rescues sinners from Hell, and He does this on account of what Jesus Christ did on their behalf and not because of any merit on their part. Yet, God’s purpose in salvation is broader than that. He also saves people from the power of sin in their lives that they may live righteously for his glory. Thus Christ “gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).

So, salvation includes both “justification” (God declaring the believer righteous on account of Christ) and “sanctification” (God empowering the believer to live righteously). The apostle Paul has the latter aspect of salvation in mind when he commands us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling:

"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now 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 do for His good pleasure. Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world" (Philippians 2:12-15).

The context makes it clear that Paul is here speaking about sanctification and not about justification. He exhorts the believers to be united together, humbly serving one another (2:1-11), and living blameless and innocent lives in the midst of an evil world (2:14,15). He is not telling them how to become right with God, but how to live righteously and thus fulfill God’s purpose for them.

Elsewhere in his letter, the apostle Paul discusses justification (Chapter 3:1-9). There, Paul emphasizes that nothing that he ever did could earn him a right standing before God. Since his conversion, he had ceased to depend on his personal obedience to the Law for righteousness. He was now trusting in Christ for justification. His desire was to “be found in Him (Christ), not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Philippians 3:9).

We must be careful to distinguish between these two aspects of salvation. In justification, God accepts the believer on account of Christ, and not because of anything that man does to merit God’s favour. As Paul says, he stands before God “not having mine own righteousness” but on “the righteousness which is from God by faith.” In sanctification, God enables the believer to live righteously: “it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” He gives the believer both the desire ("to will") and the energy ("to do") to obey God's will. Yet, the believer himself is the one who must “work out his salvation with fear and trembling.” Justification is something done by God for man. Man does nothing to merit justification. In contrast, sanctification is something done by God in man and is manifest in the obedience and good works done by man.

To apply these truths, if you are depending on your works and obedience to the law to become right with God, please stop doing so. Do not let your works become a barrier between you and God. Cast away all confidence in your deeds and instead trust in Jesus Christ alone to make you right with God. On the other hand, if you already trust in Christ, remember that God did not only save you from guilt. He has also saved you from the power of sin to live for His glory; God Himself enables you to fulfill His good pleasure. Take God's purpose seriously: work out your salvation with fear and trembling. He saved you to do good works. Do them!

© Dr Joseph Mizzi