I am revising this post a bit after some helpful critique I received on it. When I first published this there was some important context to the passage I left out, and I didn’t make it clear enough when I switched to hermenuetics. So my intent now is to address both of those.
Another difficult passage is a verse in Philippians that is often quoted by those advocating for works righteousness. SDA in particular quote this one quite frequently because they seem to think Paul is saying “keep the Sabbath with fear and trembling”.
Take a look for yourself and then I will see if we cannot understand it’s meaning.
Before weighing in I am going to appeal to the Kretzmann Commentary, which can be found free online HERE.
“The apostle here draws a conclusion and makes a practical application: Wherefore, my beloved, as you have always been obedient, not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence, with fear and trembling work out your own salvation. In accordance with all these considerations that urge Christians to walk and have their conversation, lead their life, in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they should continue in their obedience as heretofore. Paul gives them the testimony of having been obedient both when he was present with them and when he was absent. And with the full knowledge of this, with a willingness to pursue the course marked out before them also in the future, he urges them to feel the responsibility of their salvation before God. The salvation, complete and ready for all, they should strive after, make it their business to obtain that. It is true, of course, that salvation is not earned by obedience, it is complete and perfect in Christ. But it may so easily be lost through disobedience, and therefore striving after it with fear and trembling, with the consciousness of inherent weakness and of the dreadful power of temptation, is essential in sanctification. There is here no contradiction of chap. 1, 6, where Paul states that he was sure that God would continue the good work to the end. A Christian must be sure that God will give him firmness and confidence and faithfulness, keep him from falling from grace, and he must still be in fear, lest he lose his salvation by his own foolishness. If a Christian looks upon his own flesh, he may well tremble, because it is weak and a willing ally of all enemies; but if a Christian looks to God, he is sure that he will remain in the faith, that he will overcome all the dangers which threaten his faith, that he will finally be victorious over world, flesh, and Satan. This admonition in itself is a means and instrument in the hands of God to keep the Christian in the way of sanctification.” – Kretzmann Commentaries
What does it mean?
As the commentator above pointed out I am going to present the text once again and then highlight in red the area that some seem to ignore.
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, ; 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, ; 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. ; 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. ; 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, ; 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ; 12 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, ; 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. ; 14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, ; 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, ; 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. ; 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.” Php 2:5-18 ESV
Notice in the context that Paul is teaching in verse 12 a response to the humility of Christ that we are instructed to keep in mind in verse 5. And in verse 13 this is taught to be a work of God that is done in us.
This text is actually a good example of the distinction between law and gospel. I don’t find it to be a particularly difficult passage it just needs to be read as part of the whole. For example, is Paul contradicting his teachings from the very next chapter?
Of course Paul is speaking of Good works in this passage, but notice that he ascribes the credit to God’s work rather than man. In the context one must accept both Php 3:9 and 2:12 as being true at the same time. It is disingenuous to privilege one over the other. Fortunately, 2:13 clears this up for us by ascribing the work to God.
A friend of mine online made some good points on this passage and I would like to quote his analysis:
“Philippians 2:1-11 is necessary to the context because it establishes Christ’s humility and our need to be humble ourselves, and the tragic effects of not being humble. Because of the foregoing–“therefore”–work out your salvation with fear and trembling.Fear of what? Fear of not having humility ourselves. The ultimate lack of humility is thinking you contribute to your own salvation. This results in the divisiveness, rivalry, conceit and self interest Paul warns against in Philippians 2:1-11.Why stay humble? Because God Himself works in you, and what do you think you would contribute to that? Sanctification is not us working harder to be holy, because that’s law and we’ll fail and become worse. Sanctification is God working in us the gradual changing of our will to no longer want our sinfulness and sinful ways, but to will and work as He wants.We can resist God’s work in us. We can resist the humility by being synergists. We can resist sanctification by remaining self-willed, self-interested, conceited, sin-seeking, etc. Our resistance is not futile; if we want to unwittingly declare ourselves greater than the God who desires to work within us, we can easily lose faith in a God we place below ourselves. (This is, more or less, what liberal Christianity has done to itself.)” – Reese Currie
In Philippians 2 in notice that Paul is speaking to the Church as a whole. I would understand this work of God in us as being the same thing as “obey[ing] the gospel” (2 Thes 1:8) in the sense of the Great Commission (Matt 28:9-20). While Php 2:13 does identify the work as being performed in us by God, scripture as a whole teaches that this work is received by means.
Thus, appealing to hermeneutics from prior studies on Justification and Grace I would argue that this passage in Philippians is speaking to monergistic Grace through means. And in this sense we are to obey the gospel by word and sacrament.
Do Churches fail in proclaiming the Word and administering the sacraments today?
The answer is no, and that is because those who don’t do these things anymore are not really Churches. If your “pastor” isn’t preaching the Gospel, and only gives motivational seminars on finances and how the Bible is a parable of your life then you’re not hearing the Word preached. If your pastor performs non-trinitarian baptisms while Hillsong plays over the speakers then you’re just getting wet. Absent the Word there is no sacrament and absent both there is no faith.
The warning in this passage is real and couldn’t be more relevant today. I would read it more as a warning to the Church at large than to an individual sitting in a pew though. How are we as laity to respond to this passage? I would say it is a good reason why we should take great care in which Church we take our families to. If the pastor isn’t preaching Christ and him crucified it’s time to go.