By Christopher VanDusen

Those whom God has saved from His wrath, and from their sins, through their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ have a desire to become more like Christ, since they’ve been given a new heart that loves God. The question is, how and why are we to do this? In Philippians 2:12-18, the apostle Paul answers that question by instructing a beloved church that was suffering persecution.

Up to this point in the letter, Paul has expressed his joyful thankfulness for this church’s prayerful and financial support of him in his missionary endeavors, and instructed them on how to live in light of their faith while suffering persecution. In chapter 2 of this letter to the Philippians, Paul begins by explaining that they are to live faithfully to the gospel and Christ by being unified, and by sacrificing themselves in service to one another. He ends this section by describing the ultimate example of self-sacrifice that they are to imitate — Christ Jesus, who gave up His divine rights by becoming a human slave and obeying God by sacrificing Himself on the cross, earning the highest human position in the universe as its King.

Based on all this instruction about gospel-based living, unity, and self-sacrifice, Paul gives yet more practical instruction on how to be more like Christ in Philippians 2:12-18:

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.” (ESV)

In this passage, Paul gives the Philippians five commands and instructions for how to become more like Christ:

  1. Work Out Your Salvation with Reverence and Reason (vss. 12-13)
  2. Withhold Your Tongue from Grumbling and Arguing (v. 14)
  3. Witness to Your Sanctity by Revealing Righteousness (v. 15)
  4. Wrap Your Minds Around the Savior’s Redemption (v. 16)
  5. Worship with Sacrifice and Rejoicing (vss. 17-18)

Work Out Your Salvation with Reverence and Reason

Paul begins this passage by commanding the Philippians to work out their salvation with reverence and reason by saying,

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only 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.”

First, he addresses them as his “beloved”. That is, he loved them dearly. Hence, the command he’s about to give isn’t given out of any sinful motive, but out of love for them. Secondly, he reminds them that they’ve “always obeyed” his commands given by the authority of Jesus “in [his] presence”. Therefore, he urges them to obey “much more in [his] absence“. In other words, he wants them to become more like Christ.

How are they to do this? First, by working “out [their] salvation”. Notice that he doesn’t say, “work out your salvations”. This is salvation that they all share, and it involves all of them. Christ didn’t just save them individually, but He also saved them — and is saving them — as a people. But what does he mean by this? Are they to save themselves? Absolutely not. The Greek that’s translated “work out” was used as an agricultural term at that time for cultivating soil to make it more fruitful. That’s the sense in which Paul is using it here. He’s telling them to take their salvation from enslavement to sin and false beliefs, and to increase it, or grow it. God is the One who saved them, and is saving them, but He uses the human means or instrument of trust in Christ and His Word to accomplish that. If the Philippians work out their salvation by learning more about Christ, believing what they learn, and putting it into practice, then they will be saved in a greater measure from their sins and the world’s lies and snares.

However, Paul further instructs them in what their attitude should be while doing this. He says they’re to work out their salvation “with fear and trembling”. What does this mean? The phrase “fear and trembling” was used to describe the attitude of the true worshiper of God. Fear of God, in this sense, doesn’t mean being afraid of God Himself, but of being afraid of displeasing Him. It describes the response of someone who knows who God is, and the wonderful things He’s doing for him, and is filled with awe and wonder at this. This is why the word “trembling” is added to “fear”. The fear is so great that, if a person was unable to control himself, he would physically tremble. So, the phrase “with fear and trembling” is a figure of speech that means reverent awe toward God.

In addition, Paul gives the Philippians the reason they are to work out their salvation with reverence:

“. . . for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

So, why are they to obey this command? Because God is working in them so they’ll “will” and “work” for His good pleasure. Another way to put this would be to say that they should work out their salvation reverently because God is the One giving them the will to do it (“to will”), as well as the ability to do it (“to work”). They are the ones doing it, but only because God is enabling them to choose it, and do it.

Withhold Your Tongues From Grumbling and Arguing

The second way Paul commands the Philippians to become more like Christ is by withholding their tongues from grumbling and arguing. He says,

“Do all things without grumbling or disputing . . .”

First, notice the great demand this puts on them. They are to do all things without grumbling or disputing. This doesn’t give room for any exceptions. There is absolutely no place for these sins in the Christian life.

But what are these sins? First, there’s “grumbling”. This refers to muffled expressions of displeasure about things that one has no right to complain about. Why? Because they are things that God sovereignly puts in one’s life, and to grumble about them would be grumbling about what God is doing.

The second sin that Paul forbids is “disputing” or “arguing”. This doesn’t mean that Christians aren’t to dispute or argue at all, but aren’t to get into angry disputes among one another. In other words, they aren’t to fight one another.

Witness to Your Sanctity by Revealing Righteousness

The third piece of instruction comes in the form of the purpose behind never grumbling or disputing:

“. . . 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 . . .”

The first reason Paul gives for doing all things with contentment and peace is so the Philippians will be “blameless and innocent”. The word “blameless” refers to the absence of apparent and ongoing sin that an outside observer can point to. This speaks of their reputation with others. On the other hand, the word “innocent” is translated from a Greek word that literally means “unmixed” or “pure”. Hence, this word goes beyond one’s reputation, and describes one’s heart — that they truly love God and want to please Him in all respects by always thinking and doing what’s right.

The second reason Paul wants the Philippians to avoid grumbling and disputing is so they’ll show that they’re “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation”. Now, Paul says that the result of being blameless and innocent will be that they’ll be “without blemish” or “stain”. Why is this important? Because they’re living among “a crooked and twisted generation”. If they’re stainless, then they’ll stand out in stark contrast to people who are wicked and perverted.

Paul gives the result of this by saying that they “shine as lights in the world”. Among the dark world of twisted people, they shine as bright lights to show them what God is like, and to cause some of them to turn from darkness to light.

Wrap Your Minds Around the Savior’s Redemption

The fourth instruction Paul gives the Philippians specifies how they are to stand out in the world, and gives them another reason to do so. The right way is by,

“. . . 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.”

So, first Paul says that they’ll shine as lights in the world by “holding fast to the word of life”. What is “the word of life”? One could translate this term as “the message about life”. There’s only one message about true life — the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the message that our Creator sent His eternal and divine Son to earth by becoming a man, Jesus of Nazareth; who lived the perfect life; suffered on a cross to take God’s punishment for our rebellion against Him; rose from the dead; went into heaven as our King; and forgives all the sins of everyone who changes their mind and trusts in Him alone as their King and Savior from God’s wrath and their sins. Jesus said that He Himself is “the Way and the Truth and the Life”, so the word of life is the message about Him.

But what does Paul mean by “holding fast to the word of life”? He means that the Philippians continue to believe it, study it, learn it, live in light of its implications for them, and to share it with those who don’t know it.

And why does Paul want the Philippians to do this? In this case, so he’ll be “proud” “in the day of Christ” because he “did not run in vain or labor in vain”. “The day of Christ” is the same thing as “the day of the Lord” that he speaks of in such letters as 1 and 2 Thessalonians. It’s the day when Christ will come back to earth as the Judge of everyone, and give to all in accordance with what they’ve done. So, if the Philippians hold fast to the gospel, then Paul will be proud of them because he didn’t “run”, or live his life, nor “labor”, or exhaust himself in serving others, for nothing. In other words, if the Philippians live blameless lives, and are shining witnesses to the gospel and to Christ, then Paul will have accomplished what Christ sent him to do when he planted the church at Philippi, and taught them God’s Word.

Worship with Sacrifice and Rejoicing

Finally, Paul ends this passage by instructing the Philippians to worship with sacrifice and rejoicing:

“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. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.”

Here, Paul references the Old Testament Jewish rituals that were prescribed by the Law of Moses. He pictures himself as a “drink offering”, which was the very last offering to be made in a particular ceremony. By doing this, he’s saying that he’s willing to die while serving the Philippians. This is clear by the fact that he says he could be “poured out . . . upon the sacrificial offering of [their] faith”. The “sacrificial offering” refers to the Philippians’ Christian life in serving one another, and spreading the gospel. By serving them by being “poured out” on their life, he would complete their offering, and make it more acceptable to God. This idea of completion brings to mind Paul’s goal for the Philippians that they will be spiritually mature, and have no sin or belief issues to fix. Even if that requires him to die in service to them, he’s “glad” and rejoices with them. Why? Because he’s helping them to please God.

By calling the Philippians’ faith, or life of faith, a “sacrificial offering”, Paul is telling them that their life is a sacrifice to God. However, it’s not enough that they sacrifice themselves for God, but Paul says they “also should be glad and rejoice with [him]”. Why? Again, because Paul is making them more pleasing to God by instructing them, and giving them an example to follow. By doing so, he’s preparing them to be ready as blameless and pure people who can joyfully greet Christ when He comes as Judge on “the day of Christ” to reward them for their faithfulness to Him. Therefore, they should be glad and rejoice with Paul.

Reverently Work Out Your Salvation Through Peaceful Righteousness, Faithfulness, and Joy

So, how does this passage apply to you? First, do you obey the teaching of the apostles, like the Philippians? This is the mark of those who have been saved from their sins, because the main sin of all natural people is rebellion against God. To rebel against God’s representatives, the apostles, is to rebel against God Himself, because Christ Himself commissioned them to speak for Him. And the most important command the apostles gave is “change your mind and believe the gospel”. So, if you aren’t seeking to obey the New Testament rule of life, and actually doing it in any degree, then please change your mind about Christ and trust in Him alone as your King and Savior from God’s wrath and your sins.

If you are obeying the teaching of the apostles, namely the command of the gospel to follow Christ as your Master, then are you increasingly working out your salvation with fear and trembling because God is working in you to will and work for Him? Are you striving to be saved in greater measure from your sins?

Do you do everything without grumbling or disputing?

Are you blameless and pure and without blemish, so you shine as a light in this world because you hold fast to the gospel?

Are you striving to run your life, and to labor, to the fullest, to glorify Christ by serving others?

Are you willing and happy to die in service to your brothers and sisters in Christ?

All Scripture quotations taken from the:

English Standard Version (ESV)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.