To be truthful, almost no one understands this verse as having anything to do with perseverance, and many aren’t quite sure what to make of it at all. Here it is from the NIV:
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, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
The confusing phrase is “work out your salvation.” What in the galaxy does that mean?
Does it mean that we must “work” for our salvation? Does this mean that we are under “law” and not under grace? Am I responsible for my own salvation? Is my salvation contingent upon my behavior?
This verse can be even more troubling if you look at a cross-reference using “fear and trembling”:
Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment…
Talk about problematic cross-references! It is no wonder that people begin to worry about their salvation when they read such verses.
Is this what Paul had in mind when God inspired him to write Philippians 2:12-13? Surely not! For also from the quill of Paul came the most startling message ever given to mankind—that forgiveness is freely offered to all by God through Jesus Christ. Paul’s declares this as such:
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
But if Philippians 2:12-13 does not mean that we are responsible for our salvation, then how do we understand this difficult passage? What does it mean, and how can we apply it to our lives?
In order to understand this passage, two words/phrases need to be looked at in more detail—“work out,” and “salvation.” These words will hold the key to understanding what Paul meant.
Note that I am proposing a different translation of this verse than what you are used to. Yes, this is a bit radical, but it is also fun to dig beneath the surface and discover keys that unlock a treasure chest of knowledge. So hang on for the ride!
The First Piece To the Puzzle—Understanding “Work Out”
When translating from the New Testament Greek language, it is important, first of all, to understand that a Greek word rarely has a “single” English word equivalent. This is especially true for the Greek word typically translated “work out” in Philippians 2:12-13.
The Greek word here is (when transcribed to English letters) katergazesthe. This word is a contraction of the preposition kata, and an imperative (or command) form of the verb ergazomai, which means “to work.”
The verb ergazomai, used in this context, is a second person plural command. In other words, Paul is commanding “you all” to work. Not only this, but the verb also is of a form in the Greek indicating Paul intends us to continue to work, and not just for a moment. In other words, Paul is not saying “work for a little while,” or “work just for today,” but rather “you all continue to work.”
The kata is where many translators get the word “out” in the “work out” phrase. However, this is not the best translation in this context.
Understanding How “Kata” Modifies A Verb
To begin with, the preposition kata has many meanings, mostly dependent on the context. I’m not going to bore you with all of the possibilities here, but know that whenever a preposition is merged with a verb in a language, it changes the meaning of the verb. This is true in English as well as in Greek. In this case, kata changes the simple meaning of ergazomai. This is very important, as this can greatly affect our understanding of Philippians 2:12-13.
But how does kata affect a verb?
Generally speaking, it has a “completion” effect upon the verb. It changes the verb so that the verb is to be understood as being taken “to its limit” or natural conclusion. Consider some other Greek examples:
|Original Greek Verb||Without Kata||With Kata|
|kleio||shut, close, lock||put in prison|
|kaio||set fire to, burn||burn up utterly|
|esthio||eat||devour, prey upon|
This same idea of kata modifying a word so that it is taken to its “completion” can be seen even in English words today. For example:
|Cataclysm||Any sudden violent, change, as in war.Literally, “to wash” with kata added to it.|
|Catatonic||Designating a state of stupor.A combination of kata with tonos, which means “tension”.|
|Catastrophe||Any sudden, great disaster.Remember strepho above?|
|Catapult||Ancient military device for throwing stones, etc…Combines kata with pallein, which means to hurl.|
|Catacomb||Underground burial place (not just your average one!)Takes kata with xumbos, which means “hollow, or recess”.|
|Catechism||To instruct thoroughly.Combines kata with echein, “to sound.”|
If this is true, then how does this modify our understanding of katergazesthe as used in Philippians 2:12-13?
How “Kata” Modifies The Verb “Work”
Using the understanding that we have just gained, katergazomai could be translated as any of the following:
- work completely
- work thoroughly
- work until the end
- produces in the end
- brings about in the end
To understand this, one can look at all the other places in the New Testament where this Greek word is used. In these verses, take special care to “see” (behind the verse and into the Greek) how kata changes the verb “work” to bring out a nuance of completion or thoroughness to the verse.
Romans 1:27, Romans 2:9, Romans 4:15, Romans 5:3-4, Romans 7:8, Romans 7:13, Romans 7:15, 17, 18b, 20, Romans 15:18, 1 Corinthians 5:3, 2 Corinthians 4:17, 2 Corinthians 5:5, 2 Corinthians 7:10, 11, 2 Corinthians 9:11, 2 Corinthians 12:12, Ephesians 6:13, Philippians 2:12, James 1:3, and 1 Peter 4:3
With this information, we will turn in Part 2 to understanding the word “salvation.”
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Robert Treskillard is a Celtic enthusiast who holds a B.A. in Biblical & Theological Studies from Bethel University, Minnesota. He has been crafting stories from his early youth, is a software developer, graphic artist, and sometime bladesmith. He and his wife have three children and are still homeschooling their youngest. They live in the country outside St. Louis, Missouri.
It all began when Robert’s son wanted to learn blacksmithing and sword-making. The two set out to learn the crafts and in the process were told by a relative that they were descended from a Cornish blacksmith. This lit the fire of Robert’s imagination, and so welding his Celtic research to his love of the legends of King Arthur, a book was forged—Merlin’s Blade, book one of The Merlin Spiral, coming April 2013 from Zondervan.