4. God Is at Work in You (Philippians 2:12-18)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (21:51)

Caravaggio, 'Conversion of Saint Paul' (1600-01), oil on canvas, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.
Caravaggio, 'Conversion of Saint Paul' (1600-01), oil on canvas, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

Just what does it mean to "continue to work out your own salvation in fear and trembling"? Are we back to salvation by works? What's going on here? The passage has generated lots of controversy, but what does it mean? How should this command affect our living?

Salvation as Reconciliation and Sanctification (2:12)

One key question is: What does salvation refer to here? The Greek noun is sōtēria, "deliverance, preservation." In secular Greek it carries the idea of preservation in danger, deliverance from impending death.[102] But when used in New Testament, this salvation is a rescue by God of his people -- a rescue from the penalty of sin and from the power of sin, begun now in our lives, to be completed when Christ returns (1 Peter 1:3-5).

Other than in 2:12, Paul uses saved/salvation/Savior three times in Philippians:

1:19 - Paul believes that prayer and the Spirit will result in his salvation, that is, deliverance from prison.

1:28 - Don't be frightened by your opponents -- a sign that they will be destroyed, but you will be saved by God.

3:20 - We eagerly await a Savior from heaven.

Notice that none of these uses is about personal salvation from sin, but of deliverance from prison and opponents, and final salvation when Christ comes.

Salvation is complex and the New Testament uses a number of concepts to explain it, such as: adoption, faith, forgiveness of sin, obedience of faith, perseverance, prevenient grace (God's grace working in us before we receive Christ), reconciliation, redemption, regeneration ("new birth"), repentance, and sanctification. Each concept is important. But to simplify, I want to focus on two words:

Reconciliation -- the process of restoring our estranged relationship with God. It refers to that phase when we surrender ourselves to God, when our resistance to him essentially ceases. In this phase our sins are forgiven, we experience the new birth, faith rises, etc. It is sometimes referred to as "getting saved." (Our reconciliation with God, of course, is often a process that takes years.)

Sanctification -- the process by which God works that salvation through and through us so that our character becomes more and more like Christ and the fruit of the Spirit springs up in us. Whereas our initial salvation sometimes feels like an event, sanctification is clearly a process. See, for example, 2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 4:12-16; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4; 2 Timothy 2:21; and many others.

Both reconciliation and sanctification are parts of our overall salvation.

Church-Wide Sanctification

So what kind of salvation is Paul referring to in 2:13?

Is this personal salvation from the guilt of sin? No. That's not the context here. Is it sanctification? Becoming more like Christ and leaving sins behind? Yes, but observe that Paul is not talking here about individuals becoming like Christ, but a whole church!

Look back at the context so far in Philippians. Most of this is written to the church as a body rather than to individuals. Yes, individually they are to conduct themselves appropriately, but the emphasis is on the life of the church -- the life of the community.

Now comes the passage "work out your own salvation," followed by a command for the Philippians to conduct themselves together without complaining or arguing (2:14) so they might be seen as stars in a dark universe (2:15).

Work Out Your Own Salvation (2:12)

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed -- not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence -- continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." (2:12-13)

"Work out" is the Greek verb katergazomai," which means, "achieve, accomplish, do," as well as referring to the fruit of that action, "to cause a state or condition, bring about, produce, create."[103] The Philippians as a body are to work out their problems and come to unity. They are to produce the fruit of their salvation, that is, peace, love, and harmony in the Spirit.

As individuals and a church, they are to work out the implications and lifestyle of salvation in their church community. They have had bickering and selfish ambition, a party spirit. This has to stop! Paul calls on them to obey[104] him in this.

They are to work it out "with fear and trembling," an Old Testament phrase which describes the "fear of human beings in the presence of God and his mighty acts."[105] It implies humility and complete reliance on God for his strength in carrying it out.[106]

Q1. (2:12-13). In this passage, what does it mean to "work out your own salvation"? Is this referring to salvation from sin? If not, what kind of salvation is it referring to?

For God Is at Work in You (2:13)

But we are not left to our own resources. This is a God thing!

"... For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." (2:12-13)

We are to "work it out," but God is "working" too! Notice the play on words. We are to "work out" (katergazomai) and God is at work (energ).[107] They are both from the root ergon, "deed, action, work."

What is God working to produce in the Philippian Church and in your church? Two things:

  1. Will (purpose, resolve), [108] and
  2. Action (accomplish, carry through on).

To what end?

  1. To bring about God's good pleasure[109] for the church.

God helps with both the purpose and the accomplishment of this if we let him. Of course, this is true of an individual's sanctification, but here Paul is speaking of the church's maturing so that it can reflect Christ's glory.

Stop Complaining and Arguing (2:14)

Specifically, Paul commands them:

"Do everything without complaining or arguing...." (2:14)

"Complaining" (NIV) and "murmuring" (KJV, NRSV) is the Greek noun gongusmos, "utterance made in a low tone of voice, behind-the-scenes talk." Here it has a negative connotation -- "complaint, displeasure, expressed in murmuring."[110] "Arguing" (NIV, NRSV) and "disputings" (KJV) is the Greek noun dialogismos. Here it refers to the "verbal exchange that takes place when conflicting ideas are expressed, dispute, argument."[111]

I don't think Paul is trying to stop the free exchange of ideas in love and a spirit of unity. He's not so much against disagreement as disagreeableness. People in our churches think they have a right as members to speak their piece and let the chips fall where they may. No, we are to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), with an emphasis on the love! The unity of the Body of Christ is much more important than our supposed right to have our say!

Paul is dealing with an attitude of rebellion and contentiousness. The Israelites in the wilderness grumbled against Moses (Exodus 16:7-8; Numbers 14:27), but their real quarrel was with the Lord himself. They hadn't learned to trust God. Some people always seem to be spoiling for a fight. Fighting is how they had gotten their way all their lives and they are good at using their contentiousness as a tool. Cut it out! Paul says.

If you've spent time in several churches, you may have learned that each church has its own personality. Some are warm and loving on the surface, but when you learn more, you see the selfish and nasty power plays and backbiting.

So long as the leaders refuse to confront this kind of behavior -- and the people refuse to back their leaders in the confrontation -- this grumbling, complaining spirit will remain alive and well to pollute our churches. Dear friends, God can't do his best work in churches like this. Your church, my church, our churches need to repent and change just like the Philippian church needed to repent and change. No one said this is easy, but it is of vital importance.

Becoming Blameless and Pure in a Crooked Generation (2:15)

Paul first gives the negative command -- stop complaining and arguing! Now he looks at the positive fruit that is God's will for a church -- and for an individual:

"... so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life...." (2:15-16a)

Paul uses three words to state the positive:

  1. "Blameless" is the Greek adjective amemptos, "blameless, faultless."[112]
  2. "Pure" (NIV), "harmless" (KJV), and "innocent" (NRSV) translate the Greek adjective akeraios, literally, "unmixed." Figuratively, "pure, innocent."[113]
  3. "Without fault" (NIV), "without rebuke" (KJV), and "without blemish" (NRSV) translate the Greek adjective amōmos, "pertaining to being without fault and therefore morally blameless."[114]

It's easy for us to throw up our hands with the standard Christian cop-out -- "Nobody's perfect!" But, dear friends, God calls us in our churches to emulate his perfection -- no excuses (Matthew 5:48). Why? Because unless we start reflecting the Lord, we're no different than the world, which Paul characterizes with two additional words:

  1. "Crooked" is the Greek adjective skolios (from which we get our name for curvature of the spine, "scoliosis"). It means "curved, bent, crooked" as opposed to being straight. Figuratively, "pertaining to being morally bent or twisted, crooked, unscrupulous, dishonest."[115]
  2. "Depraved" (NIV) and "perverse" (KJV, NRSV) translate a participle of the Greek verb diastrephō, which basically means "to cause to be distorted, deform." Figuratively, "to cause to depart from an accepted standard of moral or spiritual values, make crooked, pervert."[116]

The world is morally twisted and deformed from God's original creation. The church must not be! It is God's new re-creation in Christ Jesus. God calls us to a higher standard.

Stars Shining in a Black Sky (2:15b).

To emphasize this, he compares the Christians to stars shining in a dark sky.[117]

".... You shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life...." (2:15b-16a)

The world must see a difference in the church from any other kind of human institution. Jesus himself said, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35). What is attractive about your church? The building? Can outsiders sense the presence of Christ among you? Do outsiders see you as lights in a dark world? If not, why not? Jesus said:

"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16)

Q2. (2:14-15) How does ceasing complaining and arguing enable a church to shine as stars in a dark sky? What does this shining as stars signify? Have complaining and arguing compromised your church's witness as a God-place? If so, what can you do to change this?

Holding Forth the Word of Life (2:16a)

But notice that the witness of the church is not just silently living the Christian life together. It is in deed, but no less in word:

".... You shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life...." (2:15b-16a)

"Hold out" (NIV), "holding forth" (KJV), and "holding fast to" (NRSV) is the Greek verb epechō, "to maintain a grasp on someone or something, hold fast."[118] It involves holding the Word fast so that we don't lose it. Sadly, some churches today have left their moorings in Scripture to drift on the seas of liberalism and new ageism. They've become functionally Unitarians and Universalists rather than Christians. But we are also to hold the word out or forth to the world. Our proclamation of the Word is their only hope of eternal life. That is why Paul calls it here "the word of life." In Romans, Paul develops this idea further:

"How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!' ... Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ." (Romans 10:14-15, 17)

Q3. (2:16) In what sense are we Christians to "hold fast" the Word of Life? In what sense are we to "hold forth" this Word of Life? How does this relate to the purpose of the church?

The Philippians Are Paul's Cause for Boasting (2:16b)

Now Paul looks to the Philippians with hope that they will indeed move through this period of contention and disunity to a place of fruitfulness:

"... In order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing." (2:16b)

Paul has already told them that he is convinced "that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion" (1:6). Now he reminds them of the pride he takes in them. The Philippian church is his boast when he gives an account to God on judgment day. "Boast" (NIV, NRSV) or "rejoice" (KJV) is the Greek noun kauchēma, the act of taking pride in something, or that which constitutes a source of pride, "boast."[119] If the Philippian church fails to get its act together, Paul tells them that there is a sense in which he would have run or labored "in vain" -- without purpose or result.[120] You see a similar idea in 1 Corinthians 3:6-15; 9:26; Galatians 2:2; 4:11; and 1 Thessalonians 3:5.

Poured Out Like a Drink Offering (2:17a)

Finally, he turns to a beautiful, if confusing, expression of his partnership with the Philippians in the Gospel:

"But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you." (2:17-18a)

The imagery comes from Hebrew sacrifices, with two aspects:

  1. Philippians' faith - Spiritual sacrifice before God and a service of worship[121]
  2. Paul's life - Drink offering, poured out at the time of the sacrifice.

Paul may be referring to the possibility of his martyrdom here. To those steeped in Old Testament Jewish worship, it is a touching picture of loving worship before God -- Paul and the Philippians together. 

Q4. (2:17) You have gone through struggles and obstacles to your faith. If you were to look at your sufferings as a "drink offering" poured out before God, how does that honor God? How does that bring value to your struggles?

Gladness and Rejoicing with One Another (2:17b-18)

Finally, he calls them to rejoicing. He has just said a hard word to them -- stop complaining and murmuring, stop your dissention, repent of the selfish ambition that is tearing you apart. Now he reassures them:

"I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me." (2:17b-18)

Joy and rejoicing, of course, are one of the main themes of Philippians. (You can see more in the word studies in the Introduction.) Paul calls them from conflict to mutual rejoicing.[122]

Philippians: Discipleship Lessons, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, JesusWalk Bible Study Series
Available in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats

Paul is like a compassionate surgeon in this letter. Praising and encouraging while he wields his knife to cut the cancer of disunity out of this Christian body that he loves. Christ loves your congregation and mine, too. Oh, how he longs to perform this surgery in us that we might shine again, as is our destiny in Christ.


Father, you know the confusion and disarray of many of our congregations. We so desperately need to hear this Word in a way that will heal us. Work it into our hearts, we pray, that we might be agents of healing. Work in our leaders a holy intolerance of disunity, pride, and selfishness in the body. Where it exists in our own hearts as leaders, we repent. Strip it from us. In Jesus' holy name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." (Philippians 2:12b-13)

"Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life." (Philippians 2:14-16a)


[102] Sōtēria, BDAG 985-986.

[103] Katergazomai, BDAG 531.

[104] "Obeyed" is the Greek verb hypakouō, "to follow instructions, obey, follow, be subject to" (BDAG 1028-1029).

[105] O'Brien 282.

[106] Martin 116.

[107] God who "works" (NIV) or "is at work" (NRSV) is the Greek verb energeō (from which we get our English word "energize"). Here it has the connotation, "to bring something about through use of capability -- work, produce, effect." The phrase in 2:13a is "the one who produces the will in you." An infinitive of this same verb occurs later in the phrase, "to will and to act...." It has an intransitive connotation, "to put one's capabilities into operation, work, be at work, be active, operate, be effective." The phrase in 2:13b then refers to "the will and the action" (BDAG 335).

[108] "Will" is the Greek verb thelō, "to have something in mind for oneself, of purpose, resolve, will, wish, want, be ready to do something" (BDAG 4480.

[109] "Good purpose" (NIV) or "good pleasure" (KJV, NRSV) is the Greek noun eudokia, "the state or condition of being kindly disposed, good will" (BDAG 404-405).

[110] Gongusmos, BDAG 204.

[111] Dialogismos, BDAG 232-233.

[112] Amemptos, BDAG 52.

[113] Akeraios, BDAG 35.

[114] Amōmos, BDAG 56.

[115] Skolios, BDAG 980.

[116] Diastrephō, BDAG 237.

[117] "Shine" is the Greek verb phainō, "to shine or to produce light" (BDAG 1046-1047). "Stars" (NIV, NRSV) or "lights" (KJV) is the Greek noun phōstēr, "light-giving body," especially of heavenly bodies, specifically, "star" (BDAG 1073). "Universe" (NIV) or "world" (KJV, NRSV) is the Greek noun kosmos (from which we get our word "cosmic"). It means, "the sum total of everything here and now, the world, the (orderly) universe" (BDAG 561-562).

[118] Epechō, BDAG 362.

[119] Kauchēma, BDAG 536-537.

[120] "For nothing" (NIV) or "in vain" (KJV, NRSV) translate a prepositional phrase with the Greek noun kenos, "pertaining to be without purpose or result, in vain" (BDAG 539).

[121] "Service" (NIV, KJV) or "offering" (NRSV) is the Greek noun leitourgia (from which get our English words "liturgy" and "liturgical"), "service of a formal or public type" (BDAG 591).

[122] "Be glad" (NIV, NRSV) and "do ye joy" (KJV) is the Greek verb chairō, "to be in a state of happiness and well-being, rejoice, be glad" (BDAG 1074-1075). "Rejoice" is the Greek verb sygchairō, "to experience joy in conjunction with someone, rejoice with" (BDAG 953).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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