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Philippians 2:12 (ESV)
12 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,

What did Paul mean when he said, "work out your own salvation?"

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I feel that I should warn you that the best answers you will get around here will only partially answer the question, as it is currently worded (which is wide open). Since this is not a site about doctrine or application of the passage, you won't find answers explaining how we should apply this passage--only answers on potential intentions of Paul and probably the translation of the passage. If you are curious how we should apply this to our lives, you need to ask on Christianity.SE. –  Richard Nov 16 '11 at 12:47
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Thanks for the heads up. I'm not looking for application. Feel free to edit the question to make it more targeted to the scope of this site. –  JustinY Nov 16 '11 at 18:04
    
Oh, I think it's fine as it is. I just wanted to make sure you knew about that. :) –  Richard Nov 16 '11 at 18:08
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This is potentially an awkward theological passage, as the verse you have quoted appears to promote the idea that human beings can accomplish their own salvation by their actions. This is a belief called Pelagianism, which has been considered heresy since the earliest days of the Church.

If we look at the Greek, the translation you have quoted is pretty good:

μετα φοβου και τρομου την ἑαυτων σωτηριαν κατεργαζεσθε

With fear and trembling work out your own salvation

ἑαυτων means specifically that the subject of the verb (in this case, Paul's "beloved", the believers in Philippi). The verb is κατεργαζομαι, which does indeed mean "work out", "accomplish for yourself", "bring about".

I think the key thing for interpreting this passage, though, is verse 13:

for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2.13, NRSV)

The "working out" that the Philippians are asked to do, then, is not to use their own innate abilities to accomplish their salvation, but to let God act in and through them. It reflects other Pauline thought, such as "not I, but Christ in me" (from Galatians 2:20).

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@Richard It's a paraphrase of Galatians 2.20. Thanks! –  lonesomeday Nov 16 '11 at 13:18
    
Nice, thanks. :) –  Richard Nov 16 '11 at 13:27
    
@lonesomeday: Agreed. Plus one. An old saw from Hermeneutics 101 is that "a text without a context is a pretext." Sometimes a verse that is quoted out of context can stand perfectly well on its own merits without any qualifiers. Sometimes, however, a verse quoted out of context can be misleading, if not heretical. Philippians 2:12 is one such verse. Years ago the germ of an idea came to me, and that was to write an article for (say) Christianity Today, that focuses on how some "difficult" passages in the Bible can be simplified by contextualizing them! –  rhetorician Jun 26 '13 at 17:07
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There are, at least, two different perspectives that can be derived from the phrase "work out your own salvation"...

  1. Do something to gain a salvation that you do not already have
  2. Live out the salvation that you already do have

Reading Phil 2:12 in context of its preceding verses has me to believe that perspective 2 is closer to what Paul is saying compared to perspective 1.

The preceding verses, Phil 2:9-11, we read that Jesus

  1. was highly exalted by God
  2. given a name above all others by God
  3. every knee will bow to Him
  4. every tongue will agree that He is Lord

In verses Phil 2:9-11, it appears that Paul is attempting to get his readers to reflect on how awesome, powerful, etc that Jesus Christ is.. the terms that Paul uses in 2:9-11 to describe Jesus should cause the believing reader to reflect that Jesus wasn't just a good guy, but rather the one and only being that all else is subject to his power.

With that in mind, Paul continues on by saying - because of who Jesus Christ is, you need to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling".

In light of Phil 2:9-11, it appears safe to infer that Paul is not trying to stress that we need to "earn a salvation that we don't already have", but rather we need to work out what we already do have (in Christ) with fear and trembling - as if to imply that due to the fact that Jesus Christ is the one that every knee will bow to, live out the salvation that you already have with a mindset of awe toward Christ.

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I see what you mean, but I'm not convinced the Greek verb (κατεργαζομαι) can bear that meaning. It very much has the sense of fully achieving something. –  lonesomeday Nov 16 '11 at 16:53
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I wonder if thinking about "free Will" is a partial solution to the question. I have taken a paragraph from Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology Vol.2. But to be fair, it is best to read all of Hodges' chapter on this point to come to your own conclusion.

Briefly, In Christ, the new man has a new character that can choose to do good. But since we carry about in us the dregs of sin still, we need God, (the Holy Spirit), to effect this new work in us. Does that make sense? Hope Hodge does if I don't.

Liberty and Ability.

Confusion of thought and language, however, is not the principal evil which arises from making liberty and ability identical. It necessarily brings us into conflict with the truth, and with the moral judgments of men. There are three truths of which every man is convinced from the very constitution of his nature. (1.) That he is a free agent. (2.) That none but free agents can be accountable for their character or conduct. (3.) That he does not possess ability to change his moral state by an act of the will. Now, if in order to express the fact of his inability, we say, that he is not a free agent, we contradict his consciousness; or, if he believe what we say, we destroy his sense of responsibility. Or it we tell him that because he is a free agent, he has power to change his heart at will, we again bring ourselves into conflict with his convictions. He knows he is a free agent, and yet he knows that he has not the power to make himself holy. Free agency is the power to decide according to our character; ability is the power to change our character by a volition. The former, the Bible and consciousness affirm belongs to man in every condition of his being. The latter, the Bible and consciousness teach with equal explicitness does not belong to fallen man. The two things, therefore, ought not to be confounded.

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Perhaps a slight (grammatically sound) rearranging of the phrase might help clarify:

let the outworking of your salvation be with fear and trembling,

A few clues from the context tell us this phrasing (and hence meaning) are correct:

"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed.."

Paul was directing this letter to those who had "always obeyed" and were his beloved. In other words, it is directed to believers in the church at Philippi. If there is confusion as to whether he is referring to "working towards" your salvation, the next verse (which is still the same sentence, by the way) clarifies that right away:

Philippians 2:13 for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.

So, "work out(wardly) what God is working in you" is perhaps the simplest way to understand the meaning Paul was trying to convey. If that is still not clear enough, we can always go to the previous chapter where we find this:

Philippians 1:6 being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ;

In other words, it is God who begins, and completes the "good" work (ie, salvation and sanctification) in believers. So, again, the "working out" of a believer's salvation is the "outworking" of something that has been done in them. Hope that helps.

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Phil 2:12 must never be analyzed outside of verse thirteen! Verse 12 can never be possible without verse 13. In fact, verse thirteen is the unseen foundation upon which verse twelve stands.

The key to understanding both verses is in the word work. Behind the word Work in these two verses are two completely different Greek words! Works in verse twelve is from the Greek word which gives the meaning energy or to energize. This is the same word used in verse thirteen translated as do! Verse thirteen is saying that God incessantly energizes the Christian's WILL and ACTIONS or ACTIVITIES so that His fruit can be fully expressed through us (Gal. 5: 16-18,22-25). This is what Paul was trying to show when he talked about the humility (fruit) of Jesus in Phil. 2: 5-9. God finds pleasure in this.

Jesus was used as an example of a life of selflessness in Phil.2:2-5. It talks about how he did NOT CONTEST HIS DIVINITY (Self confidence borne out of love), how he GAVE UP HIS DIVINITY (Selflessness borne out of love), how he BECAME LIKE MAN (Condescension borne out of love), How he BECAME OBEDIENT TO THE CROSS (Obedience, humility and longsuffering borne out of love)..... Paul admonishes them to WORK OUT these FRUITS in there own life by making them realise that God WORKS (Energises) them to achieve this purpose.

The SALVATION to 'work out' here is the fruit of the spirit as exemplified by Jesus.

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