Faith, Works, Suffering, and Salvation
Q: What does it mean, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12)”? A friend is struggling, insisting that Paul promotes works’ righteousness. Besides this, she can’t understand why God doesn’t do everything she asks Him to do in prayer. She also is angry with Him, and has been for years, because He allows suffering. What can I tell her that will help her? She will want Scripture to back up what I say.
A: Since I’ve written recently about suffering, I’ll only touch briefly on it and will send you more details. The short answer is that while our Father allows suffering as a consequence of our inborn sinfulness, He also took human suffering upon Himself in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ in order to ultimately free us from all pain and sorrow.
While it may serve as a punishment or discipline, God often uses suffering to point sinful mankind to its need for redemption and healing in Christ. At times, He also wields suffering as a scalpel, cutting away “every weight, and sin which clings so closely” to us, enabling us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2)” Compare also 2 Corinthians 7:1, “Since we have these promises ... let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement ... bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”
Judging by her reaction to suffering and her understanding of Philippians 2, I can see how your friend misunderstands prayer. If our salvation is self-service, then we are encouraged to be self-serving. We start treating God like a vending machine, figuring that if we put enough in, He’ll give plenty back out. Similarly, if we fail to see God’s purposeful yet loving hand behind suffering, we may ask Him to remove the very pain that He intends for our great benefit. Either of these will lead us to ask for things different from those God desires to give.
Let’s now focus on Philippians 2. Your friend seems unaware of one of the cardinal rules for Scriptural interpretation. Similar to valuing and selling real estate according to “location, location, location,” we need to read sections of the Bible according to their “location” — that is, their context. Good theology lets Scripture interpret Scripture. We gain understanding of any passage by seeing how it relates to all of God’s Word. Specific to Philippians 2:12, we then compare it to the New Testament, to other apostolic writings, to Paul’s other epistles, to the rest of Philippians, and to the surrounding verses. We also try to determine historical and social context; i.e., what life and the church were like in 1st Century Philippi.
Furthermore, we who believe in justification by grace through faith read the Bible through the “lens” of Jesus’ meritorious suffering and death. Therefore, we look to see if we are reading about God’s grace in Christ Jesus or about the Law’s accusations. A quick glance brings us to “work,” an imperative of the Law. However, verse twelve’s demand is met by God’s grace in verse 13, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (emphasis added)” In other words, our good works are actually Christ’s works enacted in our own bodies.
Even when we read Philippians 2:12 in context and through the lens of Christ, we cannot ignore the Law’s demand for perfection as a condition of salvation. However, the Holy Spirit moved Paul to add the depth of interpretation of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Truly, you cannot “work out” the accomplishment of “your own salvation.” However, because “it is God who works in you,” you are empowered to “work out” the results of “your own salvation.”
Now read Ephesians 2:8-10. These verses confess the accomplishment of our salvation before spelling out its earthly purpose: “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (v. 10)” Then remind your friend that she is saved and that her works are sign of — and a thank-offering for — her salvation.
See also Sanctification: God’s Work or Man’s as well as Second-guessing God, plus columns linked from them.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.
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Newspaper column #575:2