Schools of Thought Regarding Philippians 2:12

The book of Philippians is a singular letter written to the church in Philippi divided into five chapters. Throughout the whole book, Paul encourages the people of the church of Philippi to live a Godly life by their actions and behaviors towards one another. Paul writes this letter from prison, alongside Timothy. He opens the letter with encouragement and expresses that he wishes he were with them. It is clear by Paul’s wording that he cares deeply for this group of individuals and writes to them almost as a father would speak to their child or as dear friends. This level of care and his masterful assembly of this letter and the book as a whole gives us the book of Philippians.
Summary of Exegetical Work
In the beginning of the second chapter, we see Paul’s first charge to the people of Philippi. Paul brings a word of correction and shares that instead of finding fault in one another the Philippians should strive for “oneness” in Christ. Paul shares some pitfalls such as complaining and how they contradict the unity Christians should strive for. He closes his argument in the second chapter by reassuring the people of Philippi that he will be sending Timothy to be with them. Paul’s literary strategy of expressing how much he cares for the people of Philippi, encouraging them, and closing his argument by reassuring them shows how invested he was in the church knowing that he cared about them. It appears that Paul placed an emphasis on the way he communicated to ensure the people of Philippi would be engaged and take his words seriously.
There is a literary flow in the second chapter of Philippians. All of the individual sections are interconnected to the overarching theme of the book of Philippians. In the first section of chapter 2 (verses 1-4) Paul encourages his readers to oneness in Christ. He then uses an illustration to show the readers what this oneness looks like in their relationships with one another (verses 5-11). Next, he tells the readers that part of having one spirit, and one mind, is learning to do things without grumbling or complaining (verses 12-18). He opens this section with the charge in verse 12 which is the focus of this paper, to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Lastly, Paul closes the second chapter by encouraging and affirming the church in Philippi that he wishes he could be with them, and he hopes to send Timothy and Epaphroditus back to them that they might be an encouragement to them as well (verses 19-30).
This chapter falls into the bigger picture of this letter very well. Paul’s attention to detail in the craftsmanship of this letter certainly paid off. You can read the text and feel the emotion behind what he wrote. You can see Paul’s heart. I believe Paul’s overarching objective present in the letter of Philippians was to encourage the church. Yes, he commended them for the good things they were doing. He even provided correction in some areas. But the overarching theme of encouragement is present all throughout the entire book. It is in Philippians that Paul exhorts his readers, “I have learned to be content in everything” and “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. The passage in chapter two does not deviate from this overarching theme. As a matter of fact, Paul sandwiched the correction he gave them between two words of encouragement. In his letter, Paul set out to encourage the church in Philippi and did exactly that.
Summary of Schools of Thought
As with anything in life, different people have different perspectives of different things. You may have heard the saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The same is true of the Bible. The different perspectives make way for different doctrines and different theologies. This is why the scripture affirms that we ought to “study and show ourselves approved,” we must know the truth of the scripture for ourselves. There are many methods to uncovering the different levels of meaning inside of the Bible. Here we will address some as they lead to the different schools of thought surrounding Philippians 2:12.
In Philippians 2:12 Paul writes the following to the people of the church in Philippi: “Dear friends, you always followed my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away, it is even more important. Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear.” This charge is placed towards the beginning of the letter and sets the stage for Paul as he urges them not to complain or argue with each other. In another translation, the same verse is written like this “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”. This phrase has been the subject of many theological discussions as it appears as though salvation is something to be worked at or achieved. However, many commentaries side with the belief that that term is not referring to us working out our salvation, but instead urging us to work out our sanctification (i.e. the process of becoming more like Christ in this life). We see the urgency conveyed in Paul’s tone in the way that he tells the Philippians to employ fear and trembling as they work out their salvation. That this process of “working out” is not something that should be done carelessly. There is the greater perspective of salvation as someone’s initial conversion. However, something the New Living Translation highlights well is the school of thought that salvation in this sense almost like a badge of honor for Christians to wear. Christians look past differences and willingly love one another; they demonstrate the fact that they are saved in the way they put the well-being of others first.
The Challenge Study Bible Notes take a unique approach to this passage of scripture. It focuses on the words “working out” and their implication that there is a work to be done unto completion. For example, say you had an issue with someone. That issue is not “worked out” until a resolution has been reached. Furthermore, in the notes the author writes the issues the people of Philippi need to “work out” are their complaining and arguing . This is an interesting and practical perspective of Philippians 2:12.
Another position that author Phillip J. Long takes in his article, relies heavily on the Greek meaning of the words “work out”. The church in Philippi would have been able to determine this level of meaning. Long asserts that “work out” or κατεργάζομαι in Greek, is often used to refer to producing something agriculturally. Furthermore, Long shares “’Working out one’s salvation’ can be understood as cultivating what God has already done so that it yields fruit at the appoint time.” This perspective follows the more accepted interpretation that it is not actually one’s salvation that is being worked out, that this verse merely highlights the role of the sanctification process in salvation.
A third perspective in support of the sanctification theory comes from the New Living Translation, Life Application Study Bible. I included Philippians 2:12 in the New Living Translation earlier. The text and corresponding argue that Paul is telling the church in Philippi to “Work hard to show the results of your salvation.” This assertion is what the scholars who created the New Living Translation believe would be the best contemporary representation of what Paul was actually communicating to the Philippians. The notes go on to explain that the Philippians “needed to be especially careful to obey Christ, now that Paul wasn’t there.”
A final perspective in line with the sanctification theory is that of Grant Osborne. He argues that because of Paul’s other admonitions that salvation was a free gift from God and not a reward for good deeds . Osborne also consults the Greek and shares that the word for salvation (soteria) may even be referring to the health or well being of a group of people . This implication is very plausible as Paul is addressing the church as a whole.
Lastly in contrast, I wanted to offer one interpretation that offered a perspective different to the general “sanctification” message. Believe it or not, it was challenging to find. However, in his article titled Interpreting Philippians 2:12,12 Using the Great Controversy Metanarrative, the author argues that man has a level of individual agency that in turn causes man to play a role in the process of salvation . This claim is significantly different to the previous assertions which were all a different angle of the “sanctification” theory. However, it is clear that the idea proposed in this article does not have a lot of backing.
Personal Analysis
This particular verse, Philippians 2:12, has always caught my eye. I have had the inclination to find the text’s meaning for myself in the past and brushed it off or simply forgot. I know the scriptures never contradict themselves and there had to be some kind of consolation to the concern I felt as I read over this passage for the first time. Salvation is described in Ephesians 2:8-9 as being a gift from God. I had been told my whole Christian life that there was nothing I could do to earn salvation apart from Jesus Christ. So, I am sure it is evident why this verse would cause some concern. The consolation I spoke was found in my ability to conclude that Paul is indeed not referring to someone earning their salvation with good works.
I interpret this verse as Paul speaking to the process of sanctification and I have dubbed my argument for this interpretation the sanctification message. Most scholars support this claim in some form or fashion. It was difficult to find a source that had a different theory actually. There is also scholarly evidence that supports the claim that Paul is not referring to an individual’s salvation being earned with merit as we can see in the Osborne text. Looking back as well to the claim Paul makes in Ephesians 2:8-9, we can conclude that Paul would not have strayed from his previous statement that salvation is indeed a gift from God. In Ephesians 2:10 Paul follows up his statement of salvation being a gift by saying we were created to do good works. But even in this, we see that salvation is the hinge which these good works (sanctification) swing on. The sanctification process brings us to our full potential as followers of Christ. So, if Paul is indeed talking about sanctification, then focusing on sanctification needs to be an important part of our lives as Christians.
The purpose, or intention, behind the correction Paul gives in verse 12 is to see the people of Philippi go to the next level in their relationship with God, and with the people around them. It is Paul’s intention that the Philippian church would be an example to others by the way they do not complain or grumble, by the way they bear with one another, and by the way they live their lives for God. Paul’s emphasis on working out their salvation implies he wants them to take their eyes off the things around them and instead look inwardly to see how they can improve. That Paul, at the end of his life, would be able to look on them and say my time spent with them was not in vain.
Contemporary Application
This particular verse has a wealth of contemporary application that is relevant to everyone today. People in society today have only grown in things to complain about. How much more are we in need of this word? In today’s society there is more division, more distraction, more things to find fault in. There are more things to grab our attention away from “working out our own salvation.” Taking much of what is going on in todays society aside, we live in a time where people are afraid to challenge one another in fear of offending them. For some, as soon as an offense arises, they are out looking for a new Church to fellowship with. This sharply contradicts Paul’s character and heart towards how we ought to live amongst one another. There are many churches in this day and age that would boo Paul off the pulpit for the message he shared to the Philippians. People unwilling to forgive, unwilling to look past offense, and unwilling to face the slightest discomfort for the sake of someone else’s well-being.
We can even look at the situation our country is in now with COVID-19. Now it is more important than ever for the body of Christ to be one. Now it is more important than ever to guard our heart from complaining and to train ourselves to look inwardly at how we can do better as individuals. I can almost hear the words of Paul ringing in my ear for today’s church, “Be one in Christ, do not complain, don’t worry yourself with the things around you. Work out your own salvation, deal with your own issues.” How much more should we be charged to obey in the absence of our spiritual leaders and in the absence of Christian fellowship. In a time where people are gripped with fear and feeling alone, the challenge to “be one” and Paul’s message to the church of Philippi has multiplied in importance.
A pastor friend of mine once shared an illustration with me that studying the Bible is much like digging for treasure. The more you dig, the more you find. You may start with specks of gold dust, then smaller nuggets of gold. This continues on until you are pulling huge pieces of gold up from the hole you have dug. It was truly faith-building to put to rest some of my curiosities surrounding Philippians 2:12. It was a sobering example of what my friend was speaking about in the sense that I was pretty intimidated at the thought of writing an entire research paper only using one verse. But looking back it is incredible to see just how much I was able to pull out of this one verse and its context, and the thought that I could keep going! The Bible is truly depthless and there are layers upon layers of meaning in every sentence, just waiting to be discovered.

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