Must I work to get to heaven?

“Therefore, my beloved, as you 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.” Philippians 2:12

Recently I was asked what Philippians 2:12 says about working out our salvation. Some students of the Bible have referred to this verse as proof that you must work to get to heaven. However, we do not want to overlook the fact that the apostle Paul is writing to Christians as demonstrated by his reference to them as “saints” (1:1), “brethren” (1:12, 14;3:1, 13, 17; 4:1, 8, 21), and “beloved” (2:12). These are all terms that the apostle reserved for genuine Christians. Since his readers have already been saved from hell, he cannot be telling them how to get saved again.

The Greek word for “salvation” (sōtērian/sōterias) means “deliverance.” 1 What a person is delivered from is determined by the context.Paul uses this word three times in Philippians (1:19, 28; 2:12). In chapter 1 Paul spoke of his “deliverance” (sōtērian) through the Philippians’ “prayer and the supply of the Spirit” (1:19). Since Paul was in prison (1:12-14) he could be referring to his deliverance from prison. In verse 20, he spoke of Christ being “magnified in” his “body, whether by life or by death.” In 1:28 Paul explains to his readers that a lack of fear toward their “adversaries” by boldly preaching Christ to them would be to their adversaries “proof of perdition,” but to these believers it would be proof “of salvation [sōterias]. In the context, this means it would be proof of God delivering them from failing to magnify Christ amid difficulties by bolding preaching Christ.

When Paul writes, Therefore, my beloved, as you 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” (Philippians 2:12), clearly, he says that obedient “works” are necessary for this kind of “salvation [sōtērian].” Paul is not saying to work “for” our salvation. We are to work “out” our salvation. He has clearly taught that salvation from hell is a free gift from God that is received by faith alone (Ephes. 2:8-9). Deliverance from hell has nothing to do with our works.

But this kind of salvation must be “worked out.” It involves obedience even under the most difficult circumstances. Since Paul already said this kind of deliverance involves Christians magnifying Christ (1:19-20, 28), Paul has the same meaning in mind here. The word “therefore” (2:12) points us back to the humble and obedient example of Jesus Christ (2:6-11). Christ’s glorious exaltation was preceded by His humble obedience which led to suffering on the cross.

In a very graphic way, Jesus Christ “worked out” his salvation and we must learn to think of salvation as something more than simply getting to heaven. In Philippians 2:6-8, Christ illustrated One who “saved” His life by “loosing” it (cf. Matthew 16:25). If we live our lives according to our natural, selfish desires, then we are guaranteed to “lose” it. That kind of life will have no eternal or enduring value and it will be utterly ended as soon as it is finished. If, however, we do with our lives what Christ did with His (lose it), then we are guaranteed that it will endure for eternity and there will be eternal “reward” (exaltation) for that life (Matthew 16:27). Hence, we end up saving our life from being wasted on our natural desires and lusts.

No wonder we should “work out” this salvation with “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). To “fear” God means to take Him seriously. We are to magnify Jesus Christ in living and in dying (1:19-20). The stakes are eternally high and once our life has been lived on earth, there is no reversing of what has been done. Every day we live for the wrong thing is a day lost in eternity.

God wants us to humbly and unselfishly serve one another like Christ served us. But there are two things that work against us from fulfilling God’s desire. First, we don’t want to and second, we cannot. Christians by nature have neither the desire nor the ability to humbly consider others as more important than themselves (Philippians 2:3-4) because their sinful hearts are selfish. Hence, Paul says, “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). Our responsibility is to “work out” this salvation with “fear and trembling” (2:12) because God is at work in us to give us the desire and power to do His will (2:13).

There is an important balance between Philippians 2:12 and 2:13. Our responsibility is to “work out” while verse 13 emphasizes God’s role which is to “work in” and “through” us. If we only focus on verse 12, we will become legalistic or ascetic, relying on our own strength for spiritual power. If we dwell on verse 13 only, we can become passive and complacent. We are to live a life of “discipline / dependence” – fully cooperating with God’s Spirit to work in and through us to humbly serve one another.

Philippians 2:12 is not talking about salvation from hell, but about salvation from failing to magnify Christ in any circumstance. As Christians, we are to continue to magnify Christ in any circumstance by obeying Him as humble servants as He works in and through us.

Prayer: Father God, thank You confronting us with the importance of working out our salvation from failing to magnify Jesus in any circumstance. Unlike salvation from hell which is by Your grace through faith alone in Christ alone apart from any works, this kind of salvation involves obedient works so Christ is magnified in our Christian lives. We need You to work in our hearts to make us willing and able to obey You especially when we face challenging circumstances, so Christ is magnified whether we live or die. Just as Christ’s glorious exaltation was preceded by His humble obedience which led to suffering on the cross, so our eternal rewards will be preceded by humble obedience to Christ which may lead to suffering and physical death. Oh Father, help us magnify Jesus in any circumstance by obeying Him as You work in and through us. In the matchless name of Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.

ENDNOTES:

1. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature: Third Edition (BDAG) revised and edited by Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000 Kindle Edition), pp. 985-986.