Misquoting Paul: Work Out Your Own Salvation
Scripture: Philippians 2:12-13
When you examine major world religions, a few things stick out. One of the more prominent things that sticks out is that every other major world religion is based largely on a system of works. According to Hinduism, for example, those who do good in this life will be reincarnated at a higher caste than they are in during this life. In Islam, it is taught that there is are two angels standing next to each person. One angel records that person's good deeds, while the angel on the other side records the person's bad deeds. It is important for the sake of salvation that a person's good deeds outweigh his or her bad deeds. Of course, none of these other faiths have a solid ground for objective good and evil. Christianity is the notable exception to this, with salvation being purely by God's grace through faith in Christ. This is the clear teaching of the New Testament, that salvation is by grace and not by works. Yet there are some who cite the text in front of us today as an example of how Christians can somehow merit salvation. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
"Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life." (CCC, p.487).
Furthermore, Karlo Broussard of Catholic Answers argues that the very passage in front of us "is an exhortation to be holy and a sober reminder that they could fail to achieve salvation, not an identification of church problems that they need to be saved from.......since Paul says we need to put effort into bringing about that salvation, and that we should do so with fear and trembling, Catholics are justified in appealing to this passage for support of their belief that good works do play a role in our final salvation."
This teaching is simply a misquoting of Paul. I will first address the biblical argument from the passage in front of us, and then I will address additional issues with this interpretation.
I would like to begin with the points on which I agree with Karlo Broussard. I agree that this passage is talking about working out our eternal salvation. That is, Ron Rhodes is wrong about attributing this to a specific context. However, this does not mean that Mr. Broussard is correct in his final conclusion. As we will see, he is not. The problem with Mr. Broussard's interpretation is that he reads soteriological significance into the passage that cannot be reasonably deduced from the passage. When he tries to do this, it ultimately falls flat on its face. The word translated "work out" does not always have a causal connotation to when used elsewhere by Paul, so it is not safe ground to read such a thing into the passage here. The more proper understanding is summed up by Gordon Fee when he writes, "The context makes it clear that this is not a soteriological text per se, dealing with “people getting saved” or “saved people persevering.” Rather it is an ethical text, dealing with “how saved people live out their salvation” in the context of the believing community and the world. What Paul is referring to, therefore, is the present “outworking” of their eschatological salvation within the believing community in Philippi." In short, Mr. Broussard's underlying assumptions are wrong.
To adopt Mr. Broussard's interpretation would also place Paul at odds with himself. Paul elsewhere makes it abundantly clear that salvation is purely by grace, and that no works are involved (see, for example, Ephesians 2:8-9). This is significant since some of the passages that clearly teach salvation by grace through faith and not by works were written at approximately the same time as Philippians (see Ephesians, for example). Thus, it helps us to look at the theology of these books, as well.
A final argument against Broussard's interpretation is that it cuts against God's Justice. If Christ has already paid the full penalty for our sins, then it is by grace and not by works that we are saved. If we need works for our salvation, then this implies that Christ left something unpaid, which is unthinkable! At the end of the day, our good works do not merit us anything. Rather, we are saved by grace through faith. The main point that Paul was addressing in this passage was how we live among one another as a result of our living in a community that has experienced salvation. He was not implying that our good works somehow play a part in our salvation.