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
Every parent knows what happens when a child receives a gift that comes with a lengthy set of instructions. There the child sits, staring at the pages, trying to discern how to put the thing together. At that moment, the gift has been received; now the thing is to work out what to do with it.
When we come to faith in Jesus Christ, we receive salvation as a gift—and then we spend the rest of our lives learning by God’s word what to do with it: how to live as new creations. At times, we wish it were an instantaneous transformation, in which everything would become immediately apparent to us. But that is not how God designed it. Instead, the Christian life is a joyful—and at times painful—voyage of discovery.
And so Paul exhorts us to “work out” our salvation. He is not saying that we are to work for our salvation. He is not thinking of good works that we must contribute to gain or maintain salvation but about how we are to respond to the salvation that is already ours in Christ. He is not telling us how to be saved people but how to live as saved people. Once we understand that, we are in a position to act upon Paul’s instruction.
The call to work out our salvation is a call to consistency. Just as we called on the name of the Lord to save us at the start of our Christian lives, so we must continue to call on His name. This takes very ordinary, practical forms in our lives. We continue to come before God in prayer. We continue to gather with fellow believers for worship. We continue to hear from Him in Scripture. We continue to strive to walk in His grace, putting sin to death and growing in spiritual fruit. We work at the Christian life, for we remember that no one matures as a believer by accident.
It is all too common for professing Christians to live however they please six days a week and then to go to church on Sunday to feel better about themselves; or to live obediently in most areas of their lives but reserve one or two for themselves and hold back from placing them under Jesus’ lordship. That is not the Christian life. God’s grace is not meant to free us to live however we please but to fuel consistent lives of godly character. Grace doesn’t relieve us of our responsibility to be obedient; it actually makes our obedience possible. And so it’s by this very grace, and in response to the gift of salvation God has given us in Christ, that we work out our salvation, for our everlasting joy and for His eternal glory. Today, you do not need to work on your salvation—Christ’s finished work has already secured it for you. But today, you are called to work out your salvation, so that it shapes you more and more.