DEAR FATHER PAUL: Philippians 2:12 & 13 has always been a puzzling mystery scripture for me. I hear it quoted from time-to-time and each time I promise myself that I’m going to unravel this verse, but somehow I never do. It seems to say that we have to struggle and work for our eternal salvation … and that, if we do have eternal salvation, we can easily lose it. I’m confused. This seems contrary to what the Bible says in other places. Please explain Philippians 2;12 & 13. Thank you. Ronnie.
DEAR RONNIE: Thank you for your question. The author of the letter to the church at Philippi (which he started) was the apostle Paul. This church, in what is now Greece, was started sometime around A.D. 61 and was the first Christian Church on the continent of Europe. Paul writes this brief four chapter letter to the church at Philippi from his prison cell in Rome to express his appreciation and joy for the financial gift that the church had sent to him in support of his work, and to point out the joy that comes from living a devoted Christian life.
Philippians 2:12 & 13 which I now quote from the (1611) King James Version of the Bible (KJV) reads like this, “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.”
To some Bible critics this “negative language” seems to contradict Paul’s many other positive New Testament scriptures in which he promises that Christians will have peace of mind, and in which he exhorts them to have courage and to have full confidence in the God who is the author and finisher of their salvation.
So which is it? Is Paul saying, “Sorry guys, you are on your own. Work out your salvation for yourself. You can expect no help from God.” Or is he saying? “Persevere until the end … Keep on keeping on … Build upon what faith you already have … You are more than conquers … Nothing can separate you from the love of God?”
Maybe some of the newer Bible translations can help shed some of the light of truth on these two verses.
The Amplified Bible, which I use a lot for my own personal Bible study and which was first published in 1955, translates these two verses from the original Greek like this: (12) “Therefore, my dear ones, as you have always obeyed my suggestions, so now, not only with the enthusiasm you would show in my presence, but much more because I am absent, work out, cultivate, carry out to the goal and fully complete your own salvation with reverence and awe and trembling (self distrust), that is, with serious caution, tenderness of conscience, watchfulness against temptation; timidly shrinking from whatever might offend God and discredit the name of Christ. (13) Not in your own strength for it is God who is all the while effectually at work in you – energizing and creating in you the power and the desire both to will and to work for His good pleasure and satisfaction and delight.”
The New Living Translation (1996) puts it this way. “Dear Friends … now that I am away you must be even more careful to put into action God’s saving work in your lives, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.”
So a correct understanding is simply that believers are to continually keep on working to bring our already existing salvation into greater fruition and greater maturity, and that God himself will help us in this effort. In the next chapter, chapter three of Philippians, Paul tells the church at Philippi that they are to be “straining” and “pressing on” toward the ultimate goal of Christlikeness. The “trembling” they will experience is the healthy fear of somehow offending God through disobedience or failing to show the required awe and respect for his majesty and holiness.
Bottom Line … Paul is saying to the believers in the ancient Philippi Church, and to us today, “you have always loved and obeyed God. NOW KEEP ON LOVING AND OBEYING HIM EVEN MORE. God himself will help you keep this command.”
DO YOU HAVE A QUESTION? Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will try to answer your question in the paper.
Father Paul Massey, is Canon to the Bishop of the Mid-South Diocese of the International Communion of the Charismatic Episcopal Church and is assigned to the Cathedral of Christ The King in Sharpsburg, Georgia.