Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling… (Philippians 2:12).
This verse is troublesome to many Christians. It can sound as though we’re saved by our works. But note what Paul doesn’t say. He did not phrase it to read, “Work for your own salvation…” No, he said, “Work out your own salvation…”
Turn the words “work out” around. It is the outworking of our salvation; making it real and practical in everyday life. We could liken it to working a field or working a mine. In other words, we are to diligently endeavor to get everything we can out of it, not in a selfish sort of way, but as a steward.
The context is obedience and also fear and trembling. We’re not to give a half-hearted effort. The outworking (working out) of our salvation requires obedience motivated, at least in part, by a strong reverence for God.
The next verse, though, puts it into a proper framework. “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). All our best efforts—our obedience, our fear and trembling—ultimately are God’s work in us. Certainly we can cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit, but in reality the work is still His.