What does St. Paul mean when he says we should work out our salvation with fear and trepidation?
There is an interesting dance regarding Faith Alone, vs. Faith Plus Works, and it surrounds this verse from Philippians 2:12-13. Having looked at various evangelical treatments of this passage, most of which seem to delicately echo the Catholic understanding that works are an important part of the sanctification process (i.e., somehow the marriage of Faith PLUS Works is essential in the ongoing journey toward the end goal), one wonders why the huge difference in interpretation.
So why, then, is there a consistent battle cry of "Sola Fide" among those who rail against Catholicism? Perhaps it is because when looking at scriptures on salvation throughout the New Testament, there seem to be contradictory directives.
In Romans 3:28 and Galatians 3:10, we are told that we are justified by faith, apart from works of the law. In order to discern this verse, it is important to understand exactly what works of the law were. To know this, we must first let go of our 21st Century mindset, and remember the time frame, who St. Paul was, and who his audience was. The time was the early Church. However, St. Paul was alluding to Deuteronomy in Galatians 3:10… because remember he was a Jew, and speaking to Jews. So what did the Deuteronomy passage mean in works of the law? Circumcision. Food laws. Sabbath…and all other things written as necessary in Mosaic Law.
And therein lies the confusion. When our 21st Century ears hear “we are justified by faith, apart from works,” we go to the works we know in our lifetime. Since we never lived in the culture that was bound by the ‘law’ (Jewish Law), we have no frame of reference. Instead, we think of works as what we do as the hands and feet of Jesus. This is poor exegesis, and consequently offers a skewed understanding of what is meant by faith being apart from works. We need to separate the ‘works of the law’ from the works Christ gives and expects us to accomplish.
Then in James, we are told that faith without works is dead (seemingly contradictory to the above verses if we have misinterpreted ‘works of the law.’) But in light of understanding the Romans and Galatians verses correctly, think about the statement of faith being dead unless accompanied by works…good works of mercy & Spirit (feeding and clothing the poor, admonishing the sinner, etc.). Something that is dead is no longer viable; it does not exist. And so, if a person says they have faith, but does not perform spiritual or corporal acts of mercy, does he really have faith? According to James, he does not. In fact, James says his faith, which may have at one time been alive, is now dead. This brings up a whole other question of whether a person can lose salvation if he stops accomplishing these faith-works acts of mercy…but we can save that for another discussion.
Now, as we consider the question posed regarding Philippians 2:12-13, we can view it in concert with the teachings throughout the New Testament. St. Paul has given us a picture of how the salvation process should look. While we are no longer bound by Mosaic works of the Law (Romans, Galatians above), Christ set forth a new ‘works’ ethic for us to follow: Spiritual and Corporal Acts of Mercy (James). As believers in Christ, we are told by St. Paul that in order to move towards the prize of salvation, we are expected to ‘work out’ the process by having a healthy tension between heaven and earth that plays out in our continued good works…and as James warns, to not participate in this manner our faith no longer lives in us; it is dead, and sanctification no longer on the table.
In Ephesians 2:8-9 we see that we are only saved by grace through our faith (not by our good works.) Salvation comes through the gift of God in Christ’s death and resurrection. However, the free gift does not preclude the need for our cooperation in the sanctification process by our works. It merely means that the good works are not the method of salvation. Yet as evidenced throughout scripture, they are a necessary component of the process. And it is only God who ultimately will know the outcome for our souls in the end. That is why Jesus said that not all who call him Lord will enter heaven, BUT only those who do the will of His Father in heaven (Matthew 7:21). This statement by Jesus pulls together all of the New Testament statements on the tension between faith and works.
The sanctification process begins at Baptism and is not complete until death. Even Martin Luther affirmed that baptism was necessary: “Moreover it is solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we shall not be saved” (Martin Luther’s Large Catechism 4:6). Evidence of the necessity for Baptism is found in Romans 6, Colossians 2, and Acts 2. But the understanding of the salvific nature of Baptism is in 1 Peter 3, where Noah’s Ark is called a ‘type’ of baptism. St. Peter states, “…and this water of baptism that now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). However, there is more to final salvation:
“Holy Scripture further teaches that final determination of salvation depends on the state of one’s soul at death, “But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13)” (95 Questions for Protestants. Salstrom, Dr. Roger and Karen. Leonine Publishers, Phoenix, AR, 2017. P. 53.)
This verse indicates that there is an ongoing process of sanctification, and more importantly that our ultimate place in heaven is determined by perseverance. That, along with Jesus’ earlier admonition in Matthew 7 to do the Father’s will (good works), gives the understanding that in fact we can possibly lose the salvation promised by not participating in ‘fear and trepidation’ as St. Paul directs us in Philippians 2.
This is a more complete picture of salvation. Be careful not to take one isolated verse in order to understand God’s blueprint through Christ.