Q & R with Greg Albrecht – “Can I work out my own salvation?”
If our focus ought to be on God’s grace, expecting works to follow automatically from a life transformed by grace, what does the Bible mean when it tells us to “work out” our salvation? Are we not expected to perfect the salvation we have received and grow to be more and more like him?
It’s the ever-present question—if grace really is too good to be true, then won’t Christians just become slackers, goofing their way into God’s kingdom of heaven, expecting God to do everything for them?
The major problem with this line of questioning is that it comes from our human experience/expectation/perspective. From our perspective, we understand cause and effect. We understand the basic bartering system. You give someone something, you do something for someone, and in return they respond. That’s the way humans work. But that’s not the way God works. We cannot mow God’s lawn and then expect him to pay us. We cannot rake the leaves in his backyard, we can’t dust or clean heaven, or make him a wonderful dinner. When we read and understand God’s revelation, the gospel of Jesus Christ, we know that our relationship with God is not based on human interactions. But we think, given the way our world works, that if we do things for him then he will be happier with us than he would have otherwise been.
On the one hand, God is happier with us if we do our best not to lie, not to steal and not to gossip. However, doing and not doing things does not earn us credit or demerits with God. That’s where our reasoning often leaves the track, and we wind up locked into a performance-based relationship with God.
God’s relationship with us is not conditional. He loves us because he is good, not because or when we are good. Given that eternal reality, given the gospel of Jesus Christ, given the fact that God loves us in spite of who we are, we must understand that while we should try to be good, all of our doing does not alter or modify our relationship with God. Further, it is helpful to realize that the power and often the motivation to do the right thing comes from Jesus Christ who lives his life within us.
Should we do good things? Of course. Should we exhort and encourage one another to do the right things? Yes. Should we browbeat and threaten one another about the consequences of not doing the right things? Should we imply that doing right things gains us some standing with God that we would have not otherwise enjoyed? No. Do many in Christendom promise that our reward, our standing with God and God’s opinion of us will increase if we do more of the right things? Yes. Should they, according to the gospel? No.
Jesus is both our Savior, and our Lord. That means that he saves us, giving us eternal life, by God’s grace, and because of his cross. He freely gives us eternal life that we can never earn. It means that he is our Lord, that because he has saved us we obey him, we follow him, we dedicate our lives to him. Christians are, by definition, obedient people. We are obedient to Jesus Christ because we have been saved. Christians are not obedient so that they can become saved; they are obedient because they have been. Obedience is a consequence of salvation—it is not a causal agent of salvation.
What does it mean to “work out” your salvation? I believe you have Philippians 2:12 in mind. Here’s what it says, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” That’s the end of verse 12, but the sentence does not end. Verse 12 ends with a comma and the sentence continues in verse 13. And what does verse 13 say? “…for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
The fact is that many, in the name of God, most probably with sincere and good intentions, wrench this verse out of its context. Read the first 11 verses of the chapter. This passage is all about Jesus, all about what he has done for our salvation. Yet, Philippians 2:12 is often used as the basis of a works-based theology, wherein people slave away thinking that at any moment they can lose their salvation. Paul, the author of Philippians, uses the term “work out”—and it’s a key to understanding this passage. We are to “work out” what God has already “worked in.” If God has not already saved us, if he has not already “worked in” our salvation, there is nothing inside us to be “worked out.” God places his grace in us so that it might flow out of us into the lives of others. Finally, you wonder whether we are expected to “perfect” our salvation? Let’s pause and consider how we might do such a thing? How could we ever, being given the treasure of salvation, the indwelling of our risen Lord, as “jars of clay” (see 2 Corinthians 4:7) be expected to perfect the eternal riches we have been given? How can we—the perishable and imperfect and sinful—improve the imperishable, perfect and holy? We don’t perfect what is already perfect. We have been made perfect by Jesus. We are perfected by the atoning work of the cross of the Lamb of God if we accept his sacrifice, completely, without reservation. Hebrews 10:14 says, “by one sacrifice he has made perfect those who are being made holy.” Ephesians 4:12-13 tells us that Jesus did what he did “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Who perfects whom? How do we become perfect? By Jesus, through Jesus, because of Jesus.
For more answers to tough questions, check out our book:
Between Religious Rocks and Life’s Hard Places—101 Answers to Tough Questions About What You Believe.