Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:12-13 is sometimes regarded as a difficult passage. People are troubled by the phrase, work out. Doesn’t Paul say we can’t be saved by works of the law (Romans 3:20) or that the one who works, his wages are counted as his due rather than as a gift (Romans 4:4)? The answer is yes, but Paul can use the word, work, in more than one way. It can mean merit, and Paul clearly teaches we can’t merit or earn our salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9) . But it can also be a way of talking about deeds of obedience (Ephesians 2:10). Faith clearly leads to obedience (Romans 1:5), so Christians are created for good works. What does Paul want us to learn from this statement?
Paul wants us to lead a life of obedience (work out) because we are Christians. Obedience is our God-given purpose (see Philippians 1:9-11, 1:27). We were always meant to let God be Lord in our lives. We were always meant to obey. By the way, obedience isn’t tested when what God wants and what we want are the same. Obedience is true obedience when we are willing to say with Jesus, not my will but yours be done. Obedience is also tested by the people around us. Obedience shouldn’t depend on our human audience. Paul indicates that when he says “in my presence, but much more in my absence.”
Paul wants us to accept and live a life of individual responsibility — “work out your own salvation.” Paul is reminding them of their individual responsibility to continue in the path to salvation. There are things others can’t do for you. I can’t build your character for you. I can’t make your moral choices for you. Yes, each of us can receive guidance, but even that is something we must choose to accept or reject.
Paul wants us to live a life of perseverance (work out your own salvation). Louw and Nida give this insight into the word: “to do something with success and/or thoroughness.” A.T. Robertson in his, Word Pictures in the New Testament, notes for this passage to “work on to the finish.” We see this even in Paul’s example:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:12, ESV)
Paul’s statement is consistent with grace. Work out has to do with the obedience which is our purpose. Because of our status as Christians, Paul wants us to live lives of obedience, responsibility, and perseverance.