“Wherefore, my beloved, as ye 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 which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Philippians 2:12-13
Before attempting to explain this passage, we must be clear as to what it does not teach. There is no idea here of an unsaved person doing good works to earn salvation, and for two reasons: first, because those addressed were already saved, and second, because the Bible is clear in its teaching that “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us” (Titus 3:5). Again, the passage does not mean that a Christian should work out an in worked salvation. There is no such idea in the Greek.
The English translation is good, if one uses the words “work out” as one does when referring to the working out of a problem in mathematics, that is, carrying it to its ultimate goal or conclusion. The Greek word here means just this.
The words “your own salvation,” are to be taken in their context. The working out of the Philippians’ salvation was affected in some way by the presence of Paul with them and his absence from them. When Paul was with them, his teaching instructed them, his example inspired them, his encouragement urged them on in their growth in grace. Now in his absence they were thrown upon their own initiative. They must learn to paddle their own canoe. Thus Paul sets before them their human responsibility in their growth in grace, for sanctification is in the apostle’s mind. They have their justification. Their glorification will be theirs in eternity. Their growth in Christ-likeness is the salvation concerning which Paul is speaking. Thus, the saints are exhorted to carry their growth in grace to its ultimate goal, Christ-likeness. 1 John 3:2 speaks of the saint’s future conformation to the image of Christ, and (3:3) says, “And every man that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself even as he is pure.”
The salvation spoken of in verse twelve is defined for us in verse thirteen, namely, the definite act of willing to do God’s good pleasure and the doing of it. That is the saint’s responsibility from the human standpoint. But the saint is not left without resources with which to do both, for God the Holy Spirit indwelling him produces in him both the willingness and the power to do His will. The saint avails himself of both of these by fulfilling the requirements laid down by our Lord in John 7:37, 38, namely, a thirst or desire for the fullness of the Spirit, and a trust in the Lord Jesus for that fullness. The literal translation is as follows: “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, carry to its ultimate goal your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is the One who is constantly supplying you the impulse, giving you both the power to resolve and the strength to perform his good pleasure.” In verse twelve we have human responsibility, and in verse thirteen divine enablement. – Kenneth S. Wuest