As a new believer I found this passage (and a lot of other ones) totally confusing. I was told salvation was “not by works” yet here Paul clearly says work it out. So what’s up with that? I got a better understanding of what this was all about when I saw one thing and learned another.
First I noticed he says work “out” your salvation, not work “for” your salvation. That helped but what really opened up this passage from me was when I discovered that when God speaks of “salvation” He is not just talking about staying out of hell. Salvation includes total, complete deliverance from all our enemies.
Paul is saying, “You are already His children and have been delivered from the future penalty of sin. Now cooperate with the Lord’s work in your life, so you can experience total deliverance from all those things that torment you. God’s salvation does not set us free from hell but leave us to live in hell here on earth-enslaved to our own passions. His salvation is to deliver us from every enemy – bondages, harmful habits, bad attitudes, bitterness, jealousy, unforgiveness, doubt, discouragement, fear, anxiety, stress, sickness, hatred, etc. But that is not instant. That part of our “salvation” is a growing process we “work out” by cooperating with the Lord’s work in our hearts.
I know so many people who just have enough “religion” to make them miserable. They don’t dip a toe into God enough that they can’t enjoy the pleasures of sin but they aren’t submersed in God enough to enjoy the joy that comes from being totally set free as His child. My advice? Get all in or all out. Plunge headlong either into the world so you can enjoy the world for a few short years – or plunge headlong into God so you can enjoy the pleasures of eternity. Trying to walk down the center of the highway gets you hit from both sides.
God has provided salvation from the future PENALTY of sin.
He wants to progressively save us from sin’s present POWER.
And one day He will save us from its PRESENCE forever. (1 John 3:1-3)
A little secret: That day mentioned in 1 John is one I am living for and really looking forward to.
So we do not work for salvation but because we have already been delivered from the penalty of sin we can now cooperate with God’s work in us to see deliverance from sin and its evil tormentors.
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.