Work Out Your Own Salvation?

By Jennifer Woodruff Tait

September 27, 2023

Scripture — Philippians 2:1-13 (NRSV)

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he existed in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    assuming human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human,
     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God exalted him even more highly
    and gave him the name
    that is above every other name,
 so that at the name given to Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Focus

As we live a humble life of self-giving for others, we don’t have to do it on our own; God will be at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work.

Devotion

How did the early church worship? There are things we don’t know about their worship, but there are quite a lot of things that we do know, and one of them is that early Christians sang hymns. And one of the reasons we know this is that some of these hymns show up in the New Testament. Perhaps the most famous is in Philippians 2. Most translations help you see this by, as the NRSV does above, switching to poetry while Paul is quoting from this early Christian hymn and then back to prose when the words are once again Paul’s.

Some of Paul’s letters, as you probably know, are written to Christian churches with whom he was struggling over theology or practice. Philippians is not one of those. Though Paul cautions the Philippians against opposition, this opposition seems to be coming from others outside the community, not from within the community itself. Even though he is speaking out of his own suffering and imprisonment (Philippians 1:12-26), his love for this particular group of Christians, and his awareness of their support, is evident (1:3-11, 27). Just as they have encouraged him, he wants to encourage them in their time of need (1:29, 2:14-20). Thus in Philippians 2 he reminds them to, as Stephen Covey once famously said, “keep the main thing the main thing.”

What is that main thing? The Philippians should live together in community and they should be humble and self-giving towards each other—just as Christ did. Jesus had all the authority in the world (as we’ll discuss tomorrow) but he did not claim that authority in the way that people in first-century Palestine and in the Roman Empire usually did (as we’ll also discuss tomorrow.) Just as Jesus did not throw his weight around, neither should the Christian community throw its weight around. Ever.

That in itself is a pretty big concept to take on board, so I almost left off the end of this coming Sunday’s Epistle reading. But it contains one of my favorite quotes from Paul, so I couldn’t resist: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12b-13).

So many debates down through the Christian centuries have focused on the relationship of our (good) works to our salvation. Should we do something to pursue salvation? Should we just sit still? What about the needs of the world? What about the grace of God?

Paul seems pretty clear here that the answer is both/and, not either/or. In my own Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, the teaching has been that we should attend to the places where we know God is to be found (according to John Wesley, these places were prayer, searching the Scriptures, fasting, Christian community, the Eucharist, and works of mercy), but when we have found God in those places we will discover that God was at work in us to bring us to those places all along.

And that isn’t a bad thought to hold onto in combination with the first part of Philippians 2. As we live a humble life of self-giving for others, we don’t have to do it on our own. God will be at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work. That’s a comforting thought.

Reflect

How can you humble yourself?

How can you give to others?

Where do you need Christ’s help to do so?

Act

That early Christian hymn in Philippians 2 has inspired many hymns in the past two thousand years, and one of my favorites is “O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High.” This recording was made earlier this year at a church that one of my friends attends—I even spotted him on the video! You can read the lyrics here. Let these rich words lead you into an appreciation of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

Pray

Lord, help me both to will and to work for your good pleasure. Amen.

Banner image by E Vitka on Unsplash.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Do Your Work in a Worthy Manner (Philippians 1:27–2:11).


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Jennifer Woodruff Tait

Editorial Coordinator

Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the

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