Working Out Salvation

1. Question

I’ve got a simple question for you followed by a less than simple answer: what does Paul mean when he tells us to ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’? (Philippians 2.12). If we’re already saved, what does it mean to work out our salvation?

2. Background

One of the central ideas that helps us understand spiritual dynamics and the nature of our relationship with God: salvation is a process and an event. When we way that salvation is an event, we mean that there is a moment in time when God accomplishes in our lives something called salvation. When we say that salvation is a process we mean that God is doing something over time. Let’s unpack this a bit further.

Immediately following God’s great deliverance of people from Egypt, Mirriam declared in song, ‘The LORD is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation’ (Exodus 15:2).  In Acts chapter 16 we read about a troubled jailer who asked Paul and Silas, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ (Acts 16:30)? The answer to this question is the central message of the Bible.  A concise way of stating the gospel is simply that ‘God saves sinners’. Note the three components of this statement: God, sinners, and salvation.  God is the one who does the saving, sinners are the ones who experience salvation; salvation is thus what God does and what sinners experience.  And we know this is all done on the basis of God’s grace (Ephesians 2.5, 7, 8-9).

Salvation is a rich, full, multi-faceted concept. When we discuss salvation, we refer to the entire work of God to deliver people from sin and its consequences.  Remember, the human condition is that we are dead in our sins, alienated from God, guilty of breaking God’s law, and morally polluted. The good news is that the salvation God provides solves all of these problems: God makes us alive, he brings us to himself, he forgives our sins and pronounces us not guilty, and heals our pollution, both pronouncing and making us righteous.  This is indeed a great salvation! (Hebrews 2:3).

The Hebrew word for salvation is יֵשׁוּעַ yeshuah and means ‘deeds of deliverance, deliverer, helper.’   The Greek word for salvation is σωτηρία soteria and means ‘welfare, prosperity, deliverance, preservation, salvation, safety’.   Thus, salvation is God’s rescue by which He delivers people out of destruction and into His safety.  More specifically, salvation is the work of God in Christ that brings people from death to life, from alienation to belonging, from guilty to forgiven, and from slavery to freedom. All of this is the event of salvation.
So why do we say that salvation is also a process?

One way to think about salvation is in three time zones. You can say this about your life: I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved’. When we say ‘I have been saved’, we mean that at one point in the past we experienced God’s work of justification. When we say that we will be saved, we mean that we will experience God’s work of glorification. But between these two we live in the ‘now and the not yet’ tension between justification (what has happened) and glorification (what will happen). This is what we call sanctification – the process of being conformed to the image of Jesus (Romans 8.29).

3. Answer

With that 'salvation background' in mind, here’s a brief answer to the question I asked at the beginning: to work out your salvation means to cooperate with the Holy Spirit to live consistently with the new identity you have in Christ. But even this working isn’t by ourselves; even in the working out out of salvation God works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2.13).

Paul’s point to encourage the Philippians to honour God by living consistently with the work that God has already done in their lives through Christ. This is why he tells them ‘Do all things without grumbling or questioning’ (Philippians 2.14). The attitude of gratitude should mark those delivered by God from sin and death into forgiveness and life. It is more than coincidental that Paul targets grumbling and complaining; that's an entire sermon in itself. Let's get back on point: living well and living honourably doesn’t save us; it doesn’t ‘get us on the team’; rather, this is how we live on the team. Working hard doesn't make us part of the family; we work hard because we are part of the family. We honour God by growing into the conformity to Christ, living consistently with our new identity in the power of the Holy Spirit.

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