It seems natural to cite Philippians 2:12 as a text that supports the need for individual Christians to persevere in faith and thus verify their assurance of salvation. This common interpretation, however, ignores the context, misses the nuances of the grammar and ultimately fails to bring out the importance of communal unity. Verse 12 encourages a “living out” of a heavenly identity that’s been given through grace. In writing this letter, Paul’s not concerned with the Philippians’ eternal destination, but rather the quality of their present lifestyle. Philippians 2:12 is not a verse about obtaining an assurance of eternal salvation; it’s a verse about what to do with an assurance of eternal salvation.
The purpose of verse 12 lies in what Paul’s been trying to say since the outset of the letter. As he writes to the Philippians, he makes it clear that the promulgation of the Gospel is a high priority (1:5, 7, 12-18, 27). This Gospel compels its adherents to live worthy of it (1:27a; cf. Eph. 4:1-3), which is most potently displayed by their unity (1:27b; 2:2) in the face of suffering (1:28-30). Paul uses a unique verb in verse 27 that indicates the idea of “dual citizenship,” essentially alluding to the fact that the Philippians are citizens of both Heaven (see 3:20) and Philippi. Paul is encouraging them to “live” as citizens of Heaven while they struggle with their opponents (1:28; cf. 3:2, 18-19) in Philippi (and possibly elsewhere). After all, Paul later calls the church, “children of God” and “lights” in a “crooked and twisted generation” (2:15), which further illuminates the importance of their lifestyle and the Gospel they proclaim.
In order to proclaim the Gospel effectively, they must be unified (“side by side”; 1:27). How are they unified? By having “one mind” (1:27). How do they obtain this “one mind?” By becoming selfless and seeking the interests of each other (2:4). He grounds the importance of humility in the example of Christ (2:5-11). This example serves two purposes: Christ’s humiliation (and death) illustrates the focus of the Philippians’ selfless lifestyle, while it also provides the foundation of the Gospel itself. This dual-purpose provides the perfect motivation for living selflessly, since it reminds the Philippians of the Lord they serve and the Gospel that proclaims him.
The conjunction, “therefore” (2:12), indicates a strong connection to what Paul’s been saying since 1:27. He’s taking the ideas of “Gospel” (1:5, 7, 12-18, 27), “unity” (1:27; 2:2), “humility” (2:3-4) and “obedience” (2:8) and wrapping them up in the present command in verse 12. He begins this command by recalling the past “obedience” of the Philippians (2:12); since they’ve obeyed in the past, he’s encouraging them to keep obeying. In a sense, “obedience” can be viewed as an “umbrella” that encapsulates and describes the command in verse 12. In other words, to “work out salvation” is a specific application of “obedience.”
This obedience–both theirs and Christ’s (2:8)–is what Paul uses to motivate the Philippians to “work out [their] salvation.” Paul used the same word for “salvation” in 1:28, where he contrasts the salvation of the Philippian church with the destruction of their “opponents.” In 2:12, then, he is alluding back to this salvation, but this time with the establishment of its practical fulfillment by encouraging them to keep “obeying” what they know their salvation to entail: humility and unity.
“Salvation” can be explained in terms of the outworking that stems from their “dual-citizenship” that was implied in 1:27 (he will establish this more fully in 3:20). In verse 12, with his use of “salvation,” Paul’s describing the future culmination of their current status as citizens of Heaven. What, then, does Paul mean by “work out”? The verb, “work out,” has the meaning elsewhere of “produce” (Rom. 7:8; 1 Cor. 4:17; 7:10-11; 9:11; James 1:3), “bring about” (Rom. 5:3; 7:13), “do” (Rom. 2:9; 7:15, 17-18, 20; Eph. 6:13), and even “accomplish” (Rom. 15:18). It’s hard to capture the idea in English, but “live out” or “exercise” are good renderings of the idea expressed here.
If the Philippians were to consider their heavenly citizenship as assurance of their future salvation, then to “work their salvation out” carries the meaning of “living a life that befits the life they await in Heaven.” Just as Christ obeyed God (Phil. 2:8), so the Philippians (and all Christians) must obey him as Lord and adopt a selfless lifestyle because that’s what their heavenly citizenship entails. Perhaps the church in Philippi was not living according to their heavenly citizenship, which was why Paul says what he says in 1:27-2:18. Paul wants them to “obey” what they know to be true and “live it out” until they become unified.
The phrase, “with fear and trembling,” often adds oil to the fire of misinterpretation. This supplemental phrase seems to indicate there’s a possible danger of losing salvation. Yet in light of the context, Paul isn’t applying this phrase to describe a loss of salvation; if the present lifestyle of the Philippians is in view here, then “fear and trembling” is the proper attitude towards the seriousness of their call. After all, the promulgation of the Gospel is vital to what Paul has been saying, so the Philippians must take it seriously by listening to Paul’s command here in verse 12.
Yet “fear and trembling” can also refer to verse 13, since the conjunction, “for,” indicates a logical progression from verse 12 to 13. Verse 13 reads: “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” The word for “work” is used elsewhere to describe the active power of God in miracles (Gal. 3:5; Eph. 1:20) and people (Matt. 14:2; Gal. 2:8; Eph. 3:20; Col. 1:29). Paul could be using the idea of “God working” in verse 13 to establish why the Philippians (“you” is plural) should live out their salvation with “fear and trembling,” since this would be a natural and expected response to the reality of the God of the universe “working” within their community.
Verse 13 provides the Philippians with the assurance that God will provide the ability (both the desire and the actual ability to carry it out) to obey their call to a selfless lifestyle. They are not expected to muster up spiritual strength on their own; as justified sinners, the church in Philippi will always need God’s help to grow in unity. Coupled with their heavenly citizenship, then, verse 13 certainly adds an extra dose of assurance for the Philippian community as they obey Jesus, their Lord, and adopt a lifestyle of selflessness while they await the future culmination of their salvation.
As Paul writes this letter to the Philippians, he has no concerns with the Philippians’ assurance of salvation, otherwise he would have addressed it; their citizenship is said to be “in Heaven” (3:20), which wouldn’t have been stated if their future destination wasn’t assured. To “live their salvation out,” then, is an ethical command with an eschatological foundation. In other words, since the Philippians have their final salvation assured, they must live in the present in such a way that is worthy of this assurance. Ephesians 4:1-3 is a close parallel text (albeit abbreviated) to the idea presented in Philippians 1:12-2:13: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (emphasis added).
Although Philippians 2:12 appears to say that we must “perform” a certain way before we can obtain our final salvation, the grammar and context proves otherwise. It’s also wrong to interpret this verse in terms of faithful perseverance of individual Christians. The focus is on the community as a whole (which certainly consists of individuals). As is implied with a communal command like the one here, the individuals in the church must each do their part to live selflessly and obey their Lord for the sake of the a unified community, which ultimately serves as a “light” (2:15) to the world.
It’s human nature to divide communities. The Church today is so divided it’s only by a miracle that Christianity still thrives. Local churches fester with unrest and dissension, which only sour the Gospel we proclaim. It’s time to take a look at what Paul is saying in Philippians and let it sink into our individual and communal lives. The humility of Christ must be adopted in our hearts if we are to thrive as a part of his “body” (1 Cor. 12:12). Our world groans for the Gospel, and while we divide and split, its pangs are never eased. With “one mind,” then, we are to consider one another in love (John 13:34-35) and “live out” the citizenship we have in Heaven as proof that the Gospel and Lord we proclaim is robust and able to change the world.
Fee, Gordon D. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.
Hawthorne, Gerald F. Philippians Word Biblical Commentary. Waco, TX: Word, Incorporated, 1983.
Thielman, Frank. Philippians The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995.