Philippians 2:12-13 is one of Paul’s most famous statements and it’s one we forget to place in the context of the letter. At first reading, it looks like Paul is highlighting a paradox of YOU work out your salvation because GOD is working in you. But in context, I think Paul is still concerned that the Philippians are living their lives in a manner worthy of the gospel (1:27) and are motivated to do so for the right reasons.
Paul is imprisoned in Rome around 60-62 AD, waiting to see whether he will be released or executed. The Philippians church has generously sent him financial support. Paul is writing this letter to thank them and send them news.
Paul had 3 purposes in writing this letter
- to express his joy that their faith has led them to support him financially;
- to encourage them to live lives of obedient persevering faith;
- to update them on his circumstances.
In chapter 1, he expressed his gratitude for their faith that led them to support him financially and he told them he is praying for their spiritual health. He prayed that they would have a genuine faith that manifests itself in wisdom which leads them to love one another and that they would persevere in this faith until the end. In spite of his circumstances, he rejoiced that the gospel was progressing even though he was not free to proclaim it himself.
Philippians 1:27 begins the first major section of the body of the letter which continues through the end of chapter 2. Paul urges them to stand firm in the face of persecution and remain united in their thinking, purposes and faith. He wants them to be unified around their fellowship in the gospel and to have the kind of unity that results from being committed to the same things. Paul used Jesus has an example of this humble attitude who although he had the rights and authority of God, Jesus voluntarily gave up those rights to become our servant and die on our behalf.
12Therefore, 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, 13for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. – Philippians 2:12-13 ESV
- Philippians 2:12 begins the conclusion of this section. (“Therefore”)
- Paul is concerned about their motivation to pursue the implications of the gospel. He wants them to be motivated by fear of God, not fear of Paul.
- We need to both fear God (take Him seriously) and trust in His grace. He is my creator and He holds my life in His hands, but He is also gracious, merciful and trustworthy.
- To “work out your salvation” is in the context of conducting your life in a manner worthy of the gospel, standing firm in one spirit, striving to be self-sacrificing like Jesus and holding fast to the word of life.
- We are working out our salvation as we believe in that salvation more firmly and live more consistently as if that salvation is true.
- We have an interpretative choice to make: who is doing the willing and the working? Us or God? Since the near context places the emphasis on fearing God and the far context emphasizes God will bring us to maturity (1:6), I lean toward God doing both the willing and the working.
- RC Sproul uses this analogy to explain this concept.Imagine a father and child walking hand in hand along a cliff path. The father is holding tightly to the child’s hand as the walk and the child is holding tightly to the father’s hand.It is right and proper to encourage and admonish the child to hold on tightly. From the child’s perspective, that is what she must do. Her task is to cling to the father’s hand.But the reality is, the father will never let go. And unlike an earthly father whose fingers may slip, our heavenly father will never lose his grip. If I stumble and start to fall, he may left me skin my knee to teach me something, but he will never let me plunge over the cliff.So I strive for to hold tightly or to work out my salvation, as I do this underlying my choices and my actions and all my efforts is the certain hope that though I may fail today in this moment, I will not fail in the long run. I will cross the finish line because God is going to see to it that I do.
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Series: Philippians: Choose Life
Study: Philippians Resources
Scripture references are from the English Standard version.