What is meant by “work out your own salvation” in Phil. 2:12?

“Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” – Philippians 2:12 KJV

Some believe that justification and salvation is a process instead of a one-time event. To support their belief, they often cite Philippians 2:12 where Paul instructs the believers in Philippi to “work out” their own salvation “with fear and trembling.” Is this verse to suggest that we are responsible for “working out” our own salvation? Or is this an improper way to interpret this verse?

First, it is important to understand how we are saved.

“Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God” – Romans 3:24-25 KJV

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” – Ephesians 2:8-9 KJV

“But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” – Titus 3:4-7 KJV

Scripture is clear that we are not saved by our own works, but rather by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ’s finished work on the cross. So why then would Paul tell the Philippian church to “work out” their own salvation?

In our modern language, we often use the phrase “work out.” For example when presented with a problem, we may say that we will “work it out” meaning that we will find a solution to the problem. To force this usage on Philippians 2:12 would indicate that the Philippian believers were “working out” or “figuring out” their salvation, which we clearly know is not the case. So what does it mean?

The Philippian believers were “working out” their salvation as in the outward expression of good works as a result of their salvation. Consider:

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” – Ephesians 2:10 KJV

“For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” – James 2:26 KJV

To interpret “work out your own salvation” as meaning we are responsible for “figuring out” our own salvation is not only incorrect, but contradicts the very gospel of Christ.