How We Misunderstand the Command to “Work Out Your Own Salvation”

Once we become Christians and study the Bible and learn the Christian faith, we begin to think more about the depth of our sin. We begin to contemplate what a great price the Lord Jesus paid to cover our sins. We are overwhelmed with a sense of thankfulness for what Christ has done on our behalf.

As we get to know the Bible better, we find two seemingly competing concepts. On the one hand, we find passages that tell us that the work Christ has done in saving us is his work, not ours, and we don't do anything to merit our salvation. On the other hand, we find passages that seem to instruct us in holy and righteous living. So, we might conclude from the latter that there must be something we must do toward our salvation as well.

In Psalm 44:3 we read how it was not the Israelites fighting with strong arm and sword that won them the battle, but God. Their salvation from their enemies was the work of God. On the other hand, we find in Hebrews 4:11, “Let us, therefore, strive to enter that (God’s) rest.” This seems to be a work for us to do to attain salvation.

Further, we find passages that seem to combine both of these concepts, such as Philippians 2:12-13: “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.” So what is our role in salvation? Do we sit back and do nothing since it is all the work of God? Or do the works we perform merit even part of our salvation?

The Bible is balanced and clear on this subject. Paul’s command to “work out your own salvation” and then “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work,” is precisely the answer we are looking for. It may seem like a riddle, but it is not. It is very clear if we know how to read this passage and then couple it with those other passages in the Bible that speak about God’s work and ours.

John Calvin says of this passage in Philippians 2, “This is the true engine for bringing down all haughtiness—this the sword for putting an end to all pride, when we are taught that we are utterly nothing, and can do nothing, except through the grace of God alone. I mean supernatural grace, which comes forth from the spirit of regeneration.”[1]

As Calvin notes there, we do in fact “do things,” just not without the grace of God empowering us. Moreover, the works that we do perform by God’s grace are not meritorious toward our salvation.

Calvin goes on to say that there are two ingredients at work in this formula. There is the inclination to do something and there is the power to carry it out. Both of these, he says, are ascribed to God. We do have the inclination and the desire naturally, but the effects of sin corrupt that desire.

So even our good works are tainted by sin and are far from meriting salvation. What God requires for our salvation is more than any of us can give. God requires perfect obedience and sinlessness. We do not possess these by nature.

Once we are baptized and the Holy Spirit regenerates us, we are forever changed. We then are empowered by the Holy Spirit to work out our own salvation. God brings us new life, and this is to be a life of holiness. Calvin says, “He brings, therefore, to perfection those pious dispositions which he has implanted in us, that they may not be unproductive.”[2]

To know this is not to take anything from us, except the temptation to think we have contributed to our salvation and to boast about it.

Though we may with good intentions want to make a contribution to what God has already done for us, we cannot. We would be better off resting in the fact that God has done the work of salvation for us and that our “work” is to receive it by faith and rest in that fact. We should let the works we do reflect the gratitude we owe God for what he has done for us in Jesus Christ.

 


[1] Calvin, J., & Pringle, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (p. 65). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[2] Calvin, J., & Pringle, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (p. 66). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

Photo of Neil Edlin

Neil Edlin

Neil Edlin is the rector of St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Catholic Church in Orange, California.

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