“…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…” (Philippians 2:12b)
When Paul writes to the church in Philippi to “work out” their own salvation, it sounds like he expects them to excerpt some effort. And he does! They had work to do. And so do we! Until we reach the safety of heaven, we must be kept safe in a dangerous world.
We certainly are saved by grace alone by baptism and conversion. We did not work for it. Christ did. Salvation is now ours as a gift from God, but it must be kept ours. New life is born in us, and God nourishes this life to build up the strength He gives us. We hold on to salvation by faith. This hold must be strengthened, so we “work out” our own salvation.
A Christian who grows lazy and idle in working out their salvation is in danger of losing it. Their hold can become so weak that they eventually let go. You may know of someone like this who has stayed away from church for some reason. They stopped hearing God’s Word, so their sinful flesh was no longer killed by hearing God’s Law. And they no longer received forgiveness, life, and salvation through the Gospel – Christ crucified and risen for them. So, disconnected from the source, without nourishment and working out their salvation, their faith in Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord weakened, maybe even to the point of losing their salvation.
But God wants all to saved. Jesus died for all. We receive Christ and the salvation He won for us through His Word and Sacraments. And it is through these Means of Grace that He strengthens our hold on salvation. So how do we work out our salvation? Through constant and faithful use of His Word and Sacrament, the means by which we receive the Gospel, the power of salvation (Romans 1:16), to renew and increase our hold on salvation.
God’s Word and Sacrament are our spiritual food and strength which bring about our “good works”. We Christians must keep going to God whose continuous grace will move us to will and to work, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil 2:13) We are completely dependent on God for our salvation, and through His Word and Sacrament, He will bring us to keep on willing and working.
There is no uncertainty when we’re holding fast to the Word of life (Phil 2:16a), but only assurance that God is the very One to supply all that we need.