"Therefore, 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, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." Philippians 2:12-13
Works or faith.. which is it? There is a good chance that you read that and respond "faith" without thinking twice. But what about places that seem to clearly indicate that we are saved by works? Say, the book of James, or the verses above out of the book of Philippians? What are we to do with those? I won't deal exhaustively with these questions in this one article. There are enough books to fill libraries on this topic and as I continually remind you, I am no scholar, just an observer and lover of the Word. Others will guide you better than I can on this topic.
When I first started attending Crosspointe, my church, our Pastor happened to be preaching on the book of James. I just could not wrap my mind around why James seemed so clearly to contradict everything that Paul says. It was one of the first times in my life that I began to deeply ponder something in scripture that didn't make sense. Thankfully, Justin helped sort that question out for me by the end of the series. John Piper also helped me tremendously with this issue. If you have questions that are not answered in this short article, which I do not expect them to be, please reach out to me... firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let's walk through this passage the way I would in my reading. John Piper has a wonderful series at desiringgod.org called Look at the Book where he shows you how to read scripture. I will use different colored ink so it is easier to follow.
"Therefore, my beloved..."
The first thing you do when seeing lead words such as therefore, but, or so is to look back at the previous verse or passage for context. Paul isn't saying "therefore" to reach the word count requirement for his epistle, he is building off of what he just said. I want you to understand clearly... these next two verses (and all the way through v.18 [and frankly our entire lives]) depend on what Paul just said in verses 9-11. So what did he say?
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
I don't want to start an inception trail here so go and read 1-8 if you want to know what the therefore here is referring to! What is important is what is placed in italics. Jesus Christ is Lord. This is the battle cry of the Christian. And from this statement, we see that God has exalted Him because of His redemptive work and consequently at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that He is Lord. When this will happen is up to your eschatology. So, what comes after "Therefore, my beloved..." depends on Jesus being Lord.
"as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence"
Let's not linger on this lettuce too much. It's important to a good sandwich, but not the one we are making at this time.
"work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,"
There it is! That work word. The work that Paul is talking about here is not a working for salvation but a working of salvation. It would be better understood if read like this: Outwardly work your salvation. Strive to show outwardly that which Christ, by His spirit, is working inwardly. By no means under the big yellow sun that God hung in the sky (I speak as a man) is Paul saying that you must work to attain salvation here. How do we know that? There are two reasons: what immediately proceeds this, and what the rest of the Bible says about salvation. What proceeds?
"for it is God who works in you"
God does the work. It is His work. Even if this were saying that we work to earn salvation, we don't even earn it ourselves. Our works are God's works.
"For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." Ephesians 2:10
"both to will and to work"
Everything we do, from our thoughts and intentions (will) to our actions (work) are brought about either directly or indirectly by God. God works through His saints to bring about the ultimate good for His saints. Isn't that beautiful? God works through us to bless us. Side note: don't neglect the body of Christ. His blood purchased the church. Join a church and be part of a Christ exalting community. If you are looking for one look no further. But why? Why doesn't God just let us do our own thing? Why does he stake claim over our works and our willing? For starters, the world would have collapsed in on itself about a week after God decreed that to be. Secondly... look no further than what follows the text.
"for his good pleasure."
There is no contradiction in God working all things for the good of those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8) and Him working all things for His good pleasure. It is His good pleasure to work things for our good. It is His good pleasure for us to delight in Him when we are on the mountains. To see His glory as fully as we are allowed to see it on this side of eternity. To bask in His goodness and blessing. To be joyful in His providence. ALL for His good pleasure. It is also His good pleasure to point us to His saving grace and unending mercy when we are stuck in the valleys. When we our lost and hopeless. When we are having a particularly dark season in our spirit. When we are in a dry land with no drink. When despair grips us like your mom in the grocery store. ALL for His good pleasure.
Rest in God's sovereignty this day. Be content in knowing that if you are a child of God, all that you do is ultimately for His good pleasure, and that His good pleasure is for you to delight in His Son by His working in you through His spirit.
If you are not a child of God, Repent and believe the gospel! You are never too far off. Don't linger like Lot.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.