This passage from Phil. 2:12 is frequently misunderstood because the context is overlooked and due to a lack of precision in word meanings.

The English words “work out” are from the Greek word katergazomai which means: “to do work fully; to finish or complete; to carry out to a final conclusion.” To work out a math problem is to work through all the equations to reach a final answer and fully resolve the problem.

Paul is not promoting salvation by works nor is he advocating a customized plan of salvation – you decide what’s right for you and I’ll decide what’s right for me. Rather he is exhorting the Philippians and us to finish, to complete, and to carry out to its final conclusion the redemptive work that God has begun in us.

This theme is introduced in Phil 1:6: “… he who has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” The word “perform” is from the word epiteleo, meaning “to finish.” Paul said, “I am confident that the God who started a good work in you can be trusted to complete it.”

In 2:12, Paul is weaning them away from dependence upon him: “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 …”

In essence: “God has begun a good work in you and He is faithful to complete it … while I’ve been with you, I’ve encouraged you and you have leaned upon me … but I am going away (Paul was executed shortly after Philippians was written) … and now you must assume personal responsibility for your salvation and run the race to its finish, not with a nonchalant, cavalier attitude but with seriousness and due reverence (‘fear and trembling’).”

Paul quickly moves to assure them that though he will be absent, the God who began His work in them is continually working in them to finish it: “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (2:13).

1:6 and 2:13 are like “bookends.” In between what God initiated (v. 6) and what He is continuing (v. 13), we are to partner with Him (synergy), with earnestness and sober mindedness, and follow through to the end, until God’s purpose is fulfilled and His work in us is completed.

TODAY’S ENGLISH VERSION captures the meaning clearly:

“So then, dear friends, as you always obeyed me when I was with you, it is even more important that you obey me now while I am away from you. Keep on working with fear and trembling to complete your salvation, because God is always at work in you to make you willing and able to obey his own purpose.”