Is Philippians 2:12 telling us we need to work for our salvation?

I believe Philippians 2:12 has been misconstrued by many sincere and well-meaning Christians to mean that as believers, we need to work for our salvation, or that our salvation must be maintained by our works.

Let’s look at Philippians 2:12–13 to uncover what it actually says. The author here is the apostle Paul, who writes:

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure."

First, notice Paul does not say “work for your own salvation” but “work out your own salvation.”

Does the difference really matter?

Yes, it does! You can’t work for your salvation because Scripture is clear that God’s salvation comes solely by grace through faith in Jesus’ finished work, not by our works. It is a gift of God that can only be received by faith (Eph. 2:8–9). When we interpret “work out” to mean “work to secure your salvation,” we are implying that it is not enough to just believe in the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved (see John 3:16, John 6:40, Rom. 10:13). This is serious because the gospel cannot be compromised!

In Philippians 2:12, Paul is addressing believers who are already saved. He’s telling us we can work out our salvation because—look at verse 13—God is supplying us the willingness, the power, and even the pleasure in the doing of it. You see, you cannot work out what has not been worked in. You can only work out what has been worked in by God.

For example, because the Lord first worked in me this understanding of Philippians 12:12–13, now I’m working out my salvation as I write this. Salvation—which includes the blessings of healing, rescuing, delivering, and preserving—is being worked out of me for you as you read this. But I can only do this because the Lord first worked in me.

Let me show you something else that will deeply encourage you: the Greek verb “works” is in the present active continuous form. In other words, it’s actually saying “God who is working in you.” Friend, when you know the Lord is always working in you, you don’t have to depend on your own self-efforts and strength to work out your salvation in the way you treat your family, in the way you live your testimony at work, and in your relationships with others.

In fact, it is the key to living a life of love and honor for His glory. When you find you don’t even have the desire to love your husband or wife, your rebellious child, or a difficult colleague, don’t try to love them in your own strength. You’ll only end up exhausted, frustrated, and feeling worse about them. No, rest in the revelation that your loving and mighty Savior is constantly working in you. Just tell Him, “I cannot, Lord, but You can. I’m trusting You to work it in me.” 

You see, God is not asking you to dredge up what you don’t have and perform what you can’t do. That’s traditional Christianity. What He is saying is, “Be aware and be open to what I’m doing. I’m working in you. I will give you the willingness, and I will give you the performance of My will.”

When you rest in His working in you, the willingness you need will come. In fact, you will find Him supplying you with not just the desire but the energy and divine strength you didn’t have before. And when you perform what He first gave you the grace to do, God rewards you for using the grace that He first gave you (Rev. 22:12)! Isn’t the Lord so good?

Now, you might be wondering why we are to work out salvation with “fear and trembling” if the Lord is the one doing all the work. 

It’s not what most people think—fearing and trembling because you are terrified of God, and terrified that you are not doing enough to please an angry God. The good news is that the phrase “fear and trembling is actually a Hebrew expression for being awed by the goodness of God.

Let me prove this with two scriptures.

Remember the woman with the issue of blood in the gospels who was healed after she touched the hem of Jesus’ garment? Mark 5:33 tells us,

“The woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth.”

The woman was fearing and trembling because of the wonderful miracle of instantaneous healing that had happened to her! She was overwhelmed by the goodness of God in healing her of a debilitating affliction she had lived with for twelve long years!

Let me give you another example, this time, from the Old Testament. In Jeremiah 33:9, God tells the prophet Jeremiah,

“Then it shall be to Me a name of joy, a praise, and an honor before all nations of the earth, who shall hear all the good that I do to them; they shall fear and tremble for all the goodness and all the prosperity that I provide for it.”

Will the people of other nations fear and tremble because of God’s wrath or judgment? No, on the contrary, it is because they will be in awe at all the goodness God will give to His people!

In the same way, we work out our salvation with the sense of how good and gracious the Lord is to us. How it is all about Him first supplying us everything we need, then working it in us and then through us.

When you see all that our Lord Jesus has done for you and what He is doing for you even now, you’ll find it easy to work out your salvation in the way you treat others. You’ll be able to relate to others and carry out your responsibilities with a spirit of love, honor, and humility (Phil. 2:2–4). And you will shine as His light in these last days (Phil. 2:14–15).