Philippians 2:12-13: A Partnership That Cannot Fail
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 according to his good purpose.Philippians 2:12-13
Every coin has two sides that cannot be separated. The one requires or demands the other. It is the same with Paul’s teaching in these verses in Philippians 2:12, 13. There is both a command and a promise in this passage – something that we are all required to do on the one hand and a promise of something that God will do in us on the other.
The word “therefore” shows that what Paul is thinking here flows directly from what he has spoken of earlier in Philippians. From the opening verses of this letter, we can see that Paul had a very good relationship with the Christians in Philippi. Though imprisoned in Rome at this stage, Paul was not defeated or demoralised. He was filled with joy, especially when he thought of and prayed for the Philippians (1:4). He is absent from them in body, but not in heart. Their partnership in the gospel will continue (1:5), and Paul is confident that the Philippians will continue to make progress in the faith. Here Paul feels pulled in two directions. He would much rather depart and be with Christ, for that is “much better” (1:23), but if it is the Lord’s will for him to remain, and to continue to assist the Philippians in their spiritual progress, then he is ready for that too (1:24, 25). For Paul, to live is Christ (1:21). This is what his life is all about. And why? The answer is in the wonderful verses at the opening to the second chapter. Christ did not regard equality with God as a thing to be grasped, or held tightly to himself. Instead, he humbled himself, and took upon himself human nature. He became a slave and became obedient even to the point of death on a cross (2:8). All this he did for us.
Paul’s “therefore” in verse 12 flows directly from all of this. If this is what Jesus has done for us, though we did not deserve his mercy and grace, surely we must strive to honour him and to emulate him in our lives (2:5). For Paul, “to live is Christ”, and here we see part of what he means by that. Christ has to be our motivation and our example for obedience and for progress in the Christian life. The Christian life is not some sort of empty moralism – striving always to do the right thing because that is noble or virtuous. The Christian life is a life of gratitude and thankfulness to Christ for what he has done for us. He is our Lord and our Saviour. He is also our example in his own humility and obedience.
Responsibility to Bear Fruit
So then: continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling (vs. 12). We need to be careful here. Paul is not suggesting that by our hard work we will achieve our salvation in the end. In the Greek text, the literal order of the words is this: with fear and trembling, your own salvation, work out. In other words, we are given salvation by God as something that comes first. It is still a free gift with no strings attached. It always has been and it always will be (Ephesians 2:8, 9). But then once we have received salvation, we have a responsibility to get stuck in there and labour to bring forth the fruits of salvation in our own personal lives.
What does this mean in practical terms? Well let me ask you this question: Where, in your Christian life, are you having the greatest struggle at this point in time? Where are you being put to the test – that is – you know what the right thing to do is but in your heart you’re having such a hard time doing it? If you can answer that question, then I can say to you that there is precisely where you are being challenged by the Scriptures to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
For the Philippians themselves, one of their big areas of testing was their relationships with each other. It was a wonderful congregation, and from what he says in this letter, it is clear that Paul loved these believers and fellow partners in the gospel (1:5) very much. Clearly also, the Philippians loved and valued the apostle Paul. They prayed for him (1:19); they shared with him in his gospel efforts, and like Paul they were prepared to suffer for the gospel’s sake (1:29). They were so concerned about him that they sent Epaphroditus to encourage him and to care for him in his needs (2:25). They had sent him monetary gifts to encourage him in his missionary efforts and support him in the work and they were the only church to do so (4:15, 16). However, when they looked at each other, they found that they disagreed on certain issues. That would have been fine – we do not always see things the same way. But along with the disagreement, there was pride, and some people were going around saying that their views were more important than those of others and they should be listened to whereas those who disagreed did not know what they were talking about. Then the bitterness and grumbling set in, the disputes and disunity. Look again at what Paul says in 2:1-4 and 2:14, 15. Later on in the letter, he pleads with Euodia and Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord (4:2).
So then the challenge for the Philippians, the area in which they especially needed to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, was the area of relationships with one another. Let me say that in this, they were no different from any congregation of believers. We have been brought together as sinners who are saved by grace alone. We all love Christ and want to honour him because of what he has done for us. We do not argue and dispute with him. But arguments, grumblings and disputes with each other? That is another story. Can you see how Paul draws all these things together, starting with Christ who is and has to be the motivation and example for all of us as Christians? If we love Christ and are thankful to him, we will want to walk in his footsteps. The path is one of humility and obedience (2:8) for us all. As we strive to walk on that path, this will mean challenges and opportunities as we live and serve alongside fellow Christians. Hard going? Yep. No question about that. But this is the salvation that we have to continually work out this side of heaven.