Summary: Paul is not teaching salvation by works. He is teaching that we should work out what God has worked in.
“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, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure”
What is the topic of this passage?
It is sanctification. Growing in likeness to Christ. Growing in holiness. To “work out one’s salvation” is not working for salvation. Paul is not teaching salvation by works. He is teaching that we should work out what God has worked in.
This is similar to the concept that James taught in James 2:14-26 when he taught that good works are the fruit of salvation. Good works are not the root of salvation but the fruit of salvation. Good works are not the cause of salvation but are the effect of salvation. You can profess salvation and not possess salvation if you have no good works to vindicate your faith.
Paul was writing to believers not unbelievers. Paul could not be speaking about working for salvation because that is not consistent with everything else he wrote about salvation. Throughout his writings, he emphasizes that salvation is not by works but by grace through faith. Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” But also in Phil. 3:2-11, he teaches that salvation (righteousness) can only come through faith in Christ not by any human effort such as keeping the Law. 3:9 - “And Be found in him not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
Let me be very clear. No one will go to heaven by their good works. You are not saved because you do right. We can only be saved by realizing we can’t do right. We are sinners. We are not a sinner because we sin. We sin because we are a sinner. So we throw ourselves at the mercy of God and admit our sin and trust in Christ to save us. That is the way a person is saved - by faith, not by good works which we conjure up on our own.
Salvation is from start to finish the work of God. We do not work to be saved. But there are 3 aspects of salvation. We have been saved from the penalty of sin, we are being saved from the power of sin, and we will be saved from the presence of sin. The salvation from the penalty of sin (which is justification) is all God’s doing. But the salvation from the power of sin requires that we labor together with God. We don’t just have a passive approach to “let go and let God." We actively must pursue holiness.
How does this text fit into the the book as a whole?
The main message of this book is to call us to rejoice because of the Gospel. A form of the word “joy” is found 20 times in this little book.
Paul is in prison for preaching the Gospel when he writes this book. And in 1:16 he rejoices that the Gospel is being advanced throughout the imperial guard because He is in prison.
Through this book, Paul is teaching us that our joy is not found in our circumstances. Our joy is found in Christ and in the Gospel being advanced.
But we can rejoice that regardless of our circumstances, God is at work in us making us like Christ. Look at Philippians 1:6 - I am sure of this that he who began a good work in you (justification) will bring it to completion (sanctification) at the day of Jesus Christ.
And the more we learn to rejoice in our conformity to Christ instead of our circumstances the more we grow into the likeness of Christ.
Now, let’s look at what the text says about sanctification.
Sanctification is a result of obedience even when not supervised.
"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed….” Paul connects their obedience to Christ’s obedience in 2:8 and 2:12. Because Christ was obedient to the Father’s will, those who are in Christ (2:1) are to be obedient to the Father’s will. Specifically we are to obey Christ by living in unity. (1:27-2:4). We are to obey His command for us to follow Christ’s example of humbling ourselves.
“So now not only in my presence but much more in my absence…”. Paul wanted their maturity to be such that they did not need to be supervised in their obedience. They would do this because they wanted to please the Lord and not just Paul.