The following is one of those passages wherein translating from the original Greek into the English renders it an enigma to many.
Philippians 2:12-13 states:
“Wherefore, 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.”
It is also a passage that those that would support the heresy that a born-again child of God can lose their salvation, would attempt to use in an effort to support this ungodly presupposition.
Kenneth Wuest says it best in his foundational work concerning this verse:
“The English translation is good, if one uses the words “work out” as one does when referring to the working out of a problem in mathematics, that is, carrying it to its ultimate goal or conclusion. The Greek word here means just this.” (see Endnote #4)
As Kenneth so aptly points out that this phase is synonymous with a teacher who writes out a problem with its conclusions on the blackboard, then instructs the student to go through the problem and work out how the conclusion is achieved in order to understand the problem itself, this is how the phrase “workout” is to be best understood in the English.
The context clearly points this out as it draws the conclusion that in considering the problem of sin and that God had to nail His own Son to the cross to deal with the severity of sin , it should draw us to a place of “fear and trembling” understanding powerful and devastating sin is, and that it is God who works in us to desire and do HIS GOOD WILL.
The following commentary excerpt (I have lost the source information) exemplifies an excellent exegesis of , which states:
This refers to the verses that have preceded. That of having the example of Christ’s humility to guide us and the exaltation of Christ to encourage us.
Keep on working out thoroughly in your own mind, so as to achieve the desired results of understanding. Both freedom and responsibility are implied. In verses 12 and 13, we see divine sovereignty and human freedom in blessed cooperation. Our salvation is worked in by the Holy Spirit in answer to faith in God’s promises and it is worked out by Christ’s atoning death upon the cross.
It is always a matter of trust and obey; which is always based upon Biblical faith as seen in Romans 10:17, which states:
“So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
The verse does NOT say, “work for” your salvation. The Philippians had already been saved. Salvation is all of grace (Eph. 2:8-10), but is to be manifested in the daily life by glorifying Christ in everything.
One must possess salvation first, and then work it out to its ultimate conclusion, namely, Christ-likeness.
No one can live the Christian life until he has Christ. It is not a matter of the imitation of Christ, but the manifestation of Christ, the Holy Spirit reproducing the life of Christ in and through the believers.
“Your Own Salvation”
Salvation is a personal relationship; it is a divine work accomplished at Calvary. Salvation should be viewed in three tenses: past, justification; present, sanctification; and future, glorification.
“With fear and trembling”
These two words describe the anxiety of the person who distrusts his own ability to meet all the requirements, but nevertheless does his best to discharge his duty.
This is not slavish fear, but wholesome, serious caution.
It is the constant apprehension of the deceitfulness of the heart, taking heed lest we fall (I Cor. 10:12); or stop short of the final goal (II Peter 1:1-11).
It is that desirable distrust of our own self-sufficiency and the consciousness that all depends on the grace of God.
It is not fear of being lost, but fear of the failure of not walking in lowliness of mind, in true humility, and in unfailing obedience.
It is fear of all that would rob us of our spiritual vitality and spiritual victory and of shrinking from all carelessness in matters of faith and life.
“For it is God which worketh in you”
For God is the one continually working effectually in you. This word is used in Galatians 2:8 (wrought effectually) and in I Thessalonians 2:13 (effectually worketh). We are God’s workmanship (Eph. 2:10).
“Both to will and to do”
To keep on being willing and to keep on working. God is the source of al we need. The Holy Spirit dwelling within makes the abundant life a reality (not merely a possibility).
“Of his good pleasure”
For the sake of His good pleasure – His sovereign and gracious purpose.
“Do all things without murmurings”
We are to keep on doing all things apart from “murmuring.” “Murmurings” mean to mutter, to murmur, an expression of secret and solemn discontent.
The English word “murmurings” (Gr. gongysmos) appears many times in the LXX (Septuagint) of the children of Israel in the wilderness and refers to their stubborn spirit.
This is a direct action of displaying a lack of faith – the act that will send a person to hell for rejecting the atoning death of Jesus Christ, wherein a person will pay for their own sin.
It is perhaps the most insulting act against God, it is to say with their actions that God is not faithful, and trustworthy.
“Disputings” refer to the thinking of a man deliberately with himself, rationalizing and calculating.
This word is translated “imagination” in Romans 1:21. It has two distinct meanings:
1) inward questionings; and
2) outward disputings or discussions.
Used here in the first since it implies a doubtful spirit. We get our word dialogue from this word. The Christian is called to unquestioned submission to God’s will (see Endnote #1).
Concerning the part of the passage: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;” the Greek word for “work out” is katergazomai. The make-up of this verb is (see Endnote #2).
1. Its mood is an Imperative
2. Its tense is Present
3. Its voice is Middle (or Passive Deponent)
4. Its person is Second Person
5. Its number is Plural
1. What this means is that the word “work out” is an imperative mood, which means it is a command, God demands for us to do something.
2. It is in the present tense, which means that the action is continuous - It never stops.
3. It is in the middle (or passive) voice, meaning that we have something to do, but the main action is done by the one sending the message - God.
4. It is in the second person, meaning what is being said is intended for the reader, the person who is reading this passage is the one God means it for.
5. It is plural in number, meaning what is being said is meant for all who read it, God wants all of those who read this passage, to understand, and constantly reflect on how God, using Jesus worked out (paid the price for) our salvation.
Main Grammatical Insight
This is why an understanding of the Grammar is so important.
If the word katergazomai was in the active voice (which it is NOT), then the subject (the person it is written too) does (or is told to do) the action of the verb (work out their own salvation).
If it was in the passive voice (which is NOT), the subject would not need to do anything at all.
BUT IT IS IN THE middle voice, this means God does the major action of redeeming the reader – He does the salvation, however, God intends for the reader to do something less as powerful (indicated by the passive deponent voice), which is to examine how God has worked out their salvation.
We are to keep examining this sacrifice, to keep reading God’s Word, to keep our eyes focused on God’s Son who died for us (see Endnote #4).
Warren Wiersbe states:
“The Greek word, katergazomai, which is rendered “work out” in the English was first used as a mathematical term, in the context of a teacher writing out an equation along with the answer, and then have the pupil (TO “work out”) go over the problem and answer so that he would understand the process. It was done to reinforce an understanding of the process.”
“Work out your own salvation” (Phil. 2:12) does not suggest, “Work for your own salvation.” To begin with, Paul is writing to people who are already “saints” (Phil. 1:1), which means they have trusted Christ and have been set apart for Him. The verb “work out” carries the meaning of “work to full completion,” such as working out a problem in mathematics.”
“In Paul’s day it was also used for “working a mine,” that is, getting out of the mine all the valuable ore possible; or “working a field” so as to get the greatest harvest possible. The purpose God wants us to achieve is Christlikeness, “to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29). There are problems in life, but God will help us to “work them out.” Our lives have tremendous potential, like a mine or a field, and He wants to help us fulfill that potential.”
“This is why we are to review and keep reviewing how God saved us “with fear and trembling,” because God had to nail His own Son to the cross to save us, and we better hold that with the utmost respect and Godly fear.” There is a minor action for the hearer, that of the function in accordance with this insight, to: “do for His good pleasure,” meaning God’s Will. Therefore, the hearer does not create or add to his salvation, but does obey God according to God working in the hearer, to desire to do God’s Will, and enables him to be able to achieve God’s Will” (see Endnote #3).
1. THE KJV PARALLEL BIBLE COMMENTARY, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN, 37234, USA, 1990.
2. THE COMPLETE WORD STUDY NEW TESTAMENT WITH GREEK PARALLEL, Spiros Zodhiates, PH T., AMG Publications, Chattanooga, TN 37422, USA, 1990.
3. WIERSBE BIBLE COMMENTARY: NEW TESTAMENT, Warren Wiersbe
4. WORD SRUDIES OF THE GREEK NEW TESTAMENT, Kenneth Wuest