The word for the day is “work.” In today’s reading of Philippians 2:12-16, St. Paul speaks of active striving. We know that to achieve any worthwhile goal, we must make a concerted effort. But the surprise of this reading is the object of our endeavor. Paul writes, “… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (vs. 12). What? Isn’t salvation a “free gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:9?. So is Paul contradicting himself? What indeed is St. Paul saying?
The English phrase “work out” is a good translation of the Greek word that means “to accomplish fully” (Strong’s 2716, 135). The adverbial phrase “with fear and trembling” adds to the idea of effective action. The “fear” in this case is the godly concern that one will not fulfill the requirements of a goal (Strong’s #5401, 265). The “trembling” is the anxiety over the possibility of not completing an action (Strong’s #5156, 253).
Not Yet Fully Grasped
St. Paul returns to this intense concern in Chapter 3. About his goal of the sharing in the resurrection, he writes, “Not that I have already attained or am already perfected, but I press on that I may lay hold of that for which Christ has laid hold of me (vs. 3:23). The word attained” here is derived from the verb “to take” or “to get hold of’ (Strong’s 2983, 149). The word “perfected” here has the sense of “to complete” (Strong’s #5048, 249). Thus, Paul has not yet fully grasped the prize that awaits the faithful. Therefore, he must “press on,” that is he must vigorously pursue his aim (Strong’s # 1377, 71).
If we left our reading here, we would be discouraged that the task seems too much for us and that our striving will never work out. But Paul is not through with the thought. He continues the sentence with the word “for.” It is a conjunction that ties the preceding thought with the one that follows. And it gives a reason or explanation for our striving (Strong’s #1063, 58).
God Active and Effective in Us
Thus, the Apostle writes, “…for it is God who is at work in you to will and to do for His good pleasure” (vs. 13). God is the focus. He is the one who is active and effective in the work of salvation (Strong’s #1754, 88). Note that the word “you” is singular. The Almighty is active in each believer to fulfill “His own good pleasure.” The term “pleasure” is derived from the root “to satisfy” (Strong’s 2107, 105) The thought is that God is the one who is operating in the believer to accomplish His goal. Therefore, the attainment of salvation is wholly by grace. As we “work out” our salvation, the God of mercy not only gives us the power to do it but the will to achieve it.
There is no such thing as passive grace. God the Holy Trinity is active in the whole work of salvation from the incarnation of Christ to His passion, death, and resurrection, His ascension, and His coming again. And God the Holy Spirit is active in His Word, the Holy Mysteries (sacraments), the Church, prayer, and in our serving Christ. Our part is more than to let go and let God do it. Our part is the synergy of being wholly responsive to the work of God, the Holy Spirit. Our role is to participate wholeheartedly in God’s action in us with concern, effort, fear, trembling, and—above all, faith.