Does “Work out your own salvation” mean we have to make it happen?

The phrase, “Work out your own salvation,” in Philippians 2:12, sounds like WE are supposed to make our salvation happen. But hasn’t Jesus already worked out our salvation for us by dying to forgive all our sins? Well, yes, but it sounds like there’s more salvation to come after we’ve been forgiven, which very much depends on what WE do.

Other scriptures seem to back that up too, like Matthew 5:48, when Jesus said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Is that not a clear command from Jesus himself that we should live up to all God’s standards and requirements as perfectly as possible? “Be perfect,” Jesus says. And WHO is he saying be perfect to? To us. So WHO does the perfecting? We do. Who “works out” our salvation? We do. It’s not surprising, then, if Christians get to thinking WE make our perfection and salvation happen.

If it’s true, though, that salvation boils down to how far up the perfection scale of God’s standards we climb by life’s end, then does that mean we should never sin again, and we’d better be fulfilling all our church and Christian duties perfectly? But what if that creates a stress so great that it affects our physical and mental health, which in turn creates a whole new dilemma, of not being able to keep up with all our Christian obligations – because we’re so tired and burnt out? And what will that then do to our final salvation at the resurrection? Imagine lining up to meet Jesus at the resurrection, and all we have to offer him in our response to “being perfect” and “working out our salvation” is a stressed-out life that only made us more weak and vulnerable to sin, not stronger?

Fortunately, Paul didn’t stop at verse 12 in Philippians chapter 2. He went on to say in Philippians 2:13, “for it is God who works in you to will and do what pleases him.” It’s God working in us that enables us to work out our salvation and be perfect. Paul still says, “Be energetic in your life of salvation” (verse 12, The Message), so there’s energy involved all right, but he also says the “energy is GOD’S energy” (verse 13).

Paul doesn’t back down from us needing to be “perfect in Christ,” Colossians 1:28, and Paul worked very hard at making it happen, verse 29, but note that he “struggled with all the energy HE (Christ) so powerfully works in me.”

Paul never stopped aiming at or encouraging perfection, but he was also aware that how straight and true his arrow flew was  totally the work of Christ. Christ was the one who made it happen.


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