Working out salvation: Philippians

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Today’s reading: Philippians 1-4.

“Am I really saved?”

“It is true that we need to make a one time decision to follow Jesus. But a true one time decision is followed by the every day decision to follow Jesus.” ― Mike McKinley, Am I Really a Christian?

The tension between salvation by faith and the necessity of obedient living is one of the major themes in the New Testament. It’s also a keynote in Philippians. Paul wrote it from a Roman prison thirty years after his conversion, so he spoke from a lifetime of experience with discipleship. I’m sure he had seen true faith, pretend faith, those who had grown steadily in discipleship, and those who had fallen away. Therefore he can say with authority, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” He also says, honestly, that he wants, “somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” He “presses on toward the goal to win the prize.” It almost sounds like Paul was unsure of his salvation. Was he?

Paul’s own words declare his confidence that he was bound for heaven. He told the Philippians that for him to live was Christ and to die was gain. He comforted them by saying that God, who had begun the good work of saving them, would be faithful to complete it. Paul declared in 2 Timothy, “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” In Romans 10 he said, “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” He also declared in Ephesians 2, “by grace you have been saved through faith.” Not much uncertainty in those words.

And Paul went on to say that he had given up everything, including the law (works), in order to gain the righteousness that is by faith.

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. Philippians 3:7-9

Then he continued by describing the ongoing process of his discipleship.

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:10-14

Paul had already stated the certainty of his salvation, so what was he talking about when he said he wanted to “somehow…attain to the resurrection” and that he intended to press on until he took hold of the prize?

  • He was describing sanctification, the growth in holiness that God desires for all believers.
  • He was describing the difficulties all believers face in this world that is now under Satan’s control.
  • He was describing a desire to be more than saved – to be as much as possible like Christ.
  • Though certain of God’s grace, he wanted to know Christ firsthand, by experiencing his suffering and living in his righteousness.
  • Though certain of God’s grace, he was humbled by his own sinfulness and the great blessing which God offered him. “So his apparent uncertainty here of reaching the goal is not distrust of God. It is distrust of himself. It emphasizes the need he feels of watchfulness and constant striving, lest ‘having preached to others’ he ‘be found a castaway.’ ” Expositor’s Greek Testament

The Cambridge Bible sums up this tension well: “The mystery lies, as it were, between two apparently parallel lines; the reality of an omnipotent grace, and the reality of the believer’s duty. As this line or that is regarded, in its entire reality, the language of assurance or of contingency is appropriate. But the parallel lines, as they seem now, prove at last to converge in glory.”


The thrust of Protestant teaching on salvation is that believers can have assurance of salvation because of the certainty of God’s grace. However, some who believe still struggle with assurance:

This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it. Westminster Confession of Faith

Also, some persons delude themselves with a false assurance, believing they are saved when they are not. This does not take away from the reality of assurance that God affirms, through the down payment of the Holy Spirit, to those who are truly saved:

Although temporary believers and other unregenerate men, may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favor of God, and (in a) state of salvation, which hope of theirs shall perish; yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed. Philadelphia Confession of Faith, Chapter XVIII, Article 1.

In contrast the Catholic Church has stated that it is presumptuous to believe in assurance of salvation. Pope Gregory, in the seventh century, wrote that:

The greater our sins, the more we must do to make up for them …whether we have done enough to atone for them we cannot know until after death … We can never be sure of success … assurance of salvation, and the feeling of safety engendered by it is dangerous for anybody and would not be desirable even if possible.

This thinking was confirmed by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent:

Whosoever shall affirm, that when the grace of Justification is received, the offence of the penitent sinner is so forgiven, and the sentence of eternal punishment reversed, that there remains no temporal punishment to be endured, before his entrance into the kingdom of Heaven, either in this world or in the future world, in purgatory, let him be accursed. Council of Trent, January 1547.

The Council’s statement implies that since there is punishment to be meted out after justification, the believer’s right standing with God is not established until that punishment, or penance and atonement, has taken place. Therefore Christ’s death and my repentance is not sufficient to ensure my salvation, and since I can never know if I have done enough penance or atonement, I will remain in a state of uncertainty regarding salvation until death.

God knows with certainty whether an individual has received the gift of eternal life by faith in Jesus. Individual’s can test their own salvation by whether their faith meets the tests laid down in scripture (see the references in today’s devotion and especially the letter of I John), and by the witness of the Holy Spirit in their own heart. You and I cannot say with absolute certainty whether another person has eternal life, though the fruit of their life gives strong evidence. Can salvation be lost? I think the question is moot when it comes to other people since we cannot know their present condition with certainty. As for myself, the most important question is not whether I will be saved tomorrow or next year, but whether I am living the life of a born-again disciple of Jesus Christ at this very moment.

Image by @boetter on Flicker, CC by 2.0

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18 thoughts on “Working out salvation: Philippians

  1. Good article, Dad.

    I feel like I come back to Romans 10 whenever the question is raised, “How much right theology do you really need to be saved?” Do you believe in God? Do you believe there is a Jesus, Lord and authority above all creation? Is he, in particular, Lord of you? Did he die, and did God raise him from the dead? Are you willing to claim these things publicly?

    If so, you’re in!

    (It’s also interesting how many related theologies this cuts out: how many “branches” deny the divinity of Christ, or the absolute authority, or that he died and rose, or etc.)

  2. Paul of course was a unique individual, chosen by God for a special purpose, and no doubt given special gifts to complete his assigned task. He also had a unique personal encounter with the Lord on the road to Damascus. When he says “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven”, he was probably talking about himself. So Paul’s assurances may not be necessarily applicable to us. Our conclusions might well be like his, but he may have been given a special gift, perhaps even a supernatural gift that helped him persevere through so many trials. Many saints have been given special gifts and have had special encounters with Jesus, but not everyone has.

    Beyond the subtle semantic distinctions of being self-assured of one’s salvation, what exactly does the act accomplish? Do you know you are saved, or do you have faith you are saved? To know, you have made yourself judge of yourself, and that role is reserved for Christ alone. Not even God determines that, only Christ (John 5:22). So it is in this context that Catholics recoil at the thought of anyone usurping Christ’s authority to make such a proclamation. Yes, we have boundless hope and faith in the ransom Christ has paid for our sins, but we leave it to him alone to proclaim it at the last day.

    And what are the real consequences of these two approaches? If you “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” every day for the rest of your life, what harm comes of it? Does it not make you work harder to run the race and attain the prize? Does that not look exactly like Paul’s life? Or if on the other hand, you become self-assured and place it all on Christ, do we not run the risk of becoming Antinomians? So Catholics do bristle at anything that sounds like knowing the unknowable. I think the standard for the limitation of knowing is well stated in Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Strong indeed, but something just shy of knowing.

    As for Trent, my guess is the Church is stating her belief in the reality of Purgatory, and in the temporal obligations some will face there. She is not saying all will go there, who will go, or how many will go, just that the Protestant rejection of Purgatory is a false teaching. Trent is basically a reaffirmation of Church teachings called into question by the new Protestant theology. Amazingly, the Church has never even expressed an understanding of the fate of Judas. She knows only Christ has knowledge of Judas’, or anyone else’s final judgement.

    Again for Catholics, it is not either/or, but both/and, man cooperating with God’s free gift of grace. James will clearly state how the inseparable mate of faith is works. John Wesley puts it this way:

    “Neither is salvation of the works we do when we believe, for it is then God that worketh in us: and, therefore, that he giveth us a reward for what he himself worketh. …… God works in us — therefore man can work. God works in you — therefore you must work. You must work together with Him, or He will cease working.”

    • Paul of course was a unique individual, chosen by God for a special purpose, and no doubt given special gifts to complete his assigned task.

      Is there any Christian for whom we couldn’t say the same? We’re not all called to be apostles, or given infallible messages – but we were all foreknown as individuals; we were all justified, all glorified.

      Our conclusions might well be like his, but he may have been given a special gift, perhaps even a supernatural gift that helped him persevere through so many trials.

      Perhaps, but is there any reason to believe that this is so? Lacking evidence to the contrary, it would seem that when Paul says to us, “You shall be saved!” we should assume he means it literally – that his conclusions are also ours. (And, indeed, if Paul’s conclusions are for him only – if he writes of his confidence with no expectation that we should be inspired to make it ours as well – then to what end does he write?)

      And in any event, it seems to me that we have been given a special gift, even a supernatural one, to help us persevere, and one that Paul didn’t: namely, we have Paul’s own writings on our salvation! What, then, is lacking?

      Do you know you are saved, or do you have faith you are saved? To know, you have made yourself judge of yourself, and that role is reserved for Christ alone.

      If this is true, shouldn’t we condemn Paul as well for his presumption? If knowing is uniquely the province of God, then that’s pretty rank blasphemy on his part, whatever his circumstances!

      On the other hand, if Paul could know because the truth was revealed to him by God – if his knowing was, in effect, an acknowledgement of God’s revealed judgment, rather than a judgment he made himself – then can’t we do the same? Again, we have in Paul’s writing a statement of God’s judgment on the matter – can’t we, with Paul, say, “I know whom I have believed?”

      And what are the real consequences of these two approaches?

      Well, most pressingly: at most one understands the nature of our salvation truthfully; the other does not. Surely all other consequences are secondary to that?

  3. The evidence comes from Paul himself. He was caught up to the third heaven. I have not been. He dialogued verbally with the risen Lord; I have not. The Church would say we are all called to be saints. Apostles? Probably not. Scripture says we are given different gifts, not the same gifts. What we have, is access to the same salvation. I would say few Christians could lay claim to have had the same experience as Paul, and few have lived the life he lived. That is not to say his life was superlative. Do I rate him above St. Terese of Lisieux? No, only Christ can do that. Would he? I suspect he loves them both equally.

    I do not see in Paul’s life any evidence of one living as one having judged himself saved. I see a man living as one working out his “salvation with fear and trembling”. He also lived his life knowing his salvation depended fully on Christ’s judgement. Listen to his own words:

    “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.” 1 Corinthians 4:4

    “but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” 1 Corinthians 9:27

    Disqualified? The saved disqualified? Potentially, yes, because he had seen this happen again and again to many he had personally brought to Christ. In 2 Timothy he poignantly reflects on his life: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” He took nothing for granted. He knew his entire life would be judged, to the last day. So he persevered to the very end.

    So no, by his own words we know Paul did not judge himself saved. He counted himself unworthy: “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” 1 Corinthians 15:9 But he had undying faith in his salvation. It is that semantic infinity that lies between faith and knowing that makes all the difference.

    • The evidence comes from Paul himself. He was caught up to the third heaven. I have not been. He dialogued verbally with the risen Lord; I have not… I would say few Christians could lay claim to have had the same experience as Paul, and few have lived the life he lived.

      You can certainly point to differences between Paul’s life and mine. The question is, on what grounds do we claim that any of these differences account for his confidence in his salvation? That’s the component that needs to be demonstrated; otherwise, the natural assumption is that the man who called us to “imitate me, as I imitate Christ” intends us to have the same confidence he did!

      And, again: does a divine revelation entitle one to say whether he is saved, or is that for God alone to judge? If the former, well, we have God’s revelation as well – and so there’s no axiomatic reason we cannot have confidence. If the latter, surely we must condemn Paul for his presumption! Which is it?

      I do not see in Paul’s life any evidence of one living as one having judged himself saved.

      What of Paul’s own words on the subject? (Emphasis mine throughout.) Several of them appear upthread: “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed to him against that day.”

      Or emphatic statements in Romans 10:9 that “You will be saved” – not that you may, not that it’s possible, but that it’s a known fact. Or, a few verses later, the repetition that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

      Or his assurance in Romans 5: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

      Or in Romans 6: “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” Or “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.”

      Or in Galatians 5, as you pointed to the other day: “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free.”

      Or, again, Paul’s claim that all those he foreknew he has already glorified: with the implication that we in Christ are already glorified in him?

      To be sure, there are places where Paul speaks with caution, as though overwhelmed by the possibility that such as he could be chosen despite his sin. There are places as well where he speaks of not wanting to lose what he has – but even that is a different matter from knowing whether he has it now! And Paul repeatedly states: You do have salvation. You are alive. You can know this.

      What are we to do with such passages?

      So no, by his own words we know Paul did not judge himself saved. He counted himself unworthy

      What has the second sentence to do with the first? Indeed, he was unworthy; so are we all! But what matters that, when God Himself has said, “You shall be saved?”

      It seems to me that the framing of “Paul judging himself” is just not the right way to look at assurance of salvation. Paul didn’t have confidence because of his self-evaluation; his self-evaluation was that he was the worst of all sinners! Paul’s confidence stems from God’s revelation of the truth – and it’s to that same revelation that we appeal today.

      • So Paul knows who is and who isn’t saved? We aren’t talking about confidence (which is faith), we are talking about knowing, certainly, proof positive.

        Once saved always saved? Do you believe that to be true? It all hinges on this.

        These are the pivotal questions. The Church would respond, no. Only Christ knows, for he alone is the judge. We can have faith in his promises, but he alone names the saved.

        Do you know who in your current faith circle is saved? Do you presume to pronounce salvation for your brethren? Do you presume to pronounce it for yourself? No, that is for Christ alone to decide. What we have is faith. What Paul is saying, is have faith. Is it a done deal? No. Why else would he be working out his “salvation with fear and trembling”?

        The difference in Paul’s life was his encounter with Christ, and being caught up the the third heaven. Others have had encounters with the risen Lord as well, e.g. Saint Faustina. But Paul’s personal encounter may have given him a special revelation beyond what the rest of us have. A foretaste of glory to power him through the trials that awaited him.

      • So Paul knows who is and who isn’t saved? We aren’t talking about confidence (which is faith), we are talking about knowing, certainly, proof positive.

        In a name-by-name sense? Certainly not. Paul barely knows the church in Rome at the time that he writes Romans.

        But in a more practical sense, Paul certainly does know, descriptively, who is saved: those who confess with their mouths, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in their heart that God raised him from the dead. These are Paul’s audience, and his writing is unambiguous that those of his listeners who satisfy those criteria can know that they do.

        Once saved always saved? Do you believe that to be true? It all hinges on this.

        I do, because it seems to me that Scripture teaches it. But I fundamentally disagree with your “hinge”: one can disagree on the persistence of salvation without disagreeing on the knowability of salvation.

        These are the pivotal questions. The Church would respond, no. Only Christ knows, for he alone is the judge.

        Is Christ, then, incapable of revealing this information to us? I’ve asked this a couple of times now, and it seems to be overlooked. Can Christ reveal his judgment on the matter to us, or not?

        Because if he can, then I claim Scripture as that revelation; and if he cannot or will not, then Paul is a blasphemer and a heretic. Which is it?

        Do you know who in your current faith circle is saved? Do you presume to pronounce salvation for your brethren? Do you presume to pronounce it for yourself?

        No! But I am adopted unworthily into a royal priesthood – and in that role, I absolutely presume to repeat God’s pronouncement: that as one who believes and confesses, I am saved. It’s by his judgment that this is so; I only repeat what he’s said on the matter.

        What Paul is saying, is have faith.

        And faith is sureness and certainty, even in the things unseen. If Paul has faith in his salvation, then Paul is certain of it!

  4. Rather than getting lost in the weeds, debating the semantic distinction between faith and knowing, just look at Paul’s life. What does his behavior suggest?

    I think he knows, like we all know, that he is a sinner in need of redemption. He takes nothing for granted. In his runners analogy, he knows he can be disqualified. He feels a supreme guilt for having persecuted the Church. He has supreme faith. He knows his final judgement will come at the Day. He imitates Christ until the day the Romans separate his head from his body. It is by grace through faith we are save, not grace through knowing.

    Oh, and interesting is it not, that this great man of faith, never once mentioned being born again. The essential act of salvation mentioned by our Lord, and Paul never once talks about it. But he sure had a lot to say about baptism. 🙂

    • Rather than getting lost in the weeds, debating the semantic distinction between faith and knowing, just look at Paul’s life. What does his behavior suggest?

      I think he knows, like we all know, that he is a sinner in need of redemption. He takes nothing for granted. In his runners analogy, he knows he can be disqualified. He feels a supreme guilt for having persecuted the Church. He has supreme faith. He knows his final judgement will come at the Day. He imitates Christ until the day the Romans separate his head from his body. It is by grace through faith we are save, not grace through knowing.

      Which of these traits do you consider incompatible with surety of salvation?

  5. Judgement comes at the last day, which has not yet occurred. So how can you know what has not happened? And how can you presume to know what only Christ knows?

    Do you know the sun will rise tomorrow? It sure seems like it will from past experience, but do you know for sure? Actually, no, you do not. A meteor could destroy the earth, the sun could nova, God could stop the rotation of the earth at midnight, preventing the sun from “rising”. This is the semantic sense in which you cannot know the sun will rise, or salvation will be yours, until it happens. This is why Paul works out his “salvation with fear and trembling”, why he runs his race to the end. He rightly assumes nothing, and in fact knows he could be “disqualified”.

    Then there is this. If “once saved, always saved” is true, then you have lost free will. You no longer have a choice of your own, you only have robotic allegiance to a cause. But from Eden to the end of time it is clear man has been given free will, so “once saved, always saved” is rejected by simple logical reasoning. Just as the unrighteous can be made righteous, so the reverse is true, unless you are willing to abandon free will. And I have given multiple scriptural references that support the rejection of that idea.

    What if you knew the fate of your salvation? What if you knew you were damned? How cruel the weight of that knowledge would be. Thankfully God spares us the desolation of such revelation. But neither do we know that we are saved. What we have is hope in a promise, and faith in a Father who keeps his promises.

    Then there is this:

    “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’”

    Clearly, many are mistaken about their own salvation. I would never presume to judge anyone’s salvation. Why would I presume to judge my own? Who is worthy to be their own judge? That is for Christ alone.

    “Is Christ, then, incapable of revealing this information to us?” I am not sure what you mean. Has he revealed the path of righteousness, and the necessary elements of salvation? Yes. Have the criteria for exclusion also been revealed? Yes. Have the names written in the Book of LIfe been revealed? No. So again, the semantic distinction is this, we can have faith, confidence, assuredness. What we do not have is the knowledge that our name is written in the book of life, or that the sun will rise in the morning. The latter comes in the morning, the other at the day of judgement.

    • There are dangers here. One, that we will forget our need to persevere in our faith, to be obedient as evidence of our state of grace. The other, that we will belittle the finished work of Jesus Christ and consider it insufficient to save us.

    • And how can you presume to know what only Christ knows?

      Well, because Christ has revealed some of his knowledge to us.

      This is the semantic sense in which you cannot know the sun will rise, or salvation will be yours, until it happens.

      This is a semantic sense in which “knowledge” is not a word that applies to any human endeavor. In this sense of the word, I can’t know if the sun rose even after it happened; perhaps I’m hallucinating, or in the Matrix.

      We can, of course, define words however we like – but the sense of “know” in which we only know a thing when we have received incontrovertible proof is a sense of “know” that is useless to any discussion about human beings.

      More to the point, this isn’t the way the writers of Scripture tend to use the word – when Job says: “I know that my Redeemer lives… and after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God,” he’s not using “know” in the sense you indicate above. He’s indicating an absolute confidence – a certainty, even without unarguable fact. And it’s in that sense that assurance of salvation is defined: we are to be sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see.

      So no, of course I don’t “know” in your original sense. I don’t claim to. I can, nonetheless, be certain.

      If “once saved, always saved” is true, then you have lost free will.

      That depends entirely on what we mean by “free will!” I use the phrase in Harry Frankfurt’s sense: my will is free if I am able to want the things I want to want, and not otherwise. This is a sense consistent with even strong determinism, and not imperiled by persistence of salvation.

      What do you mean when you use the phrase?

      Clearly, many are mistaken about their own salvation.

      Yes. But the presence of people making mistakes does not eliminate the possibility of certainty. I see students use modus ponens incorrectly all the time; I am no less certain of how it functions.

      Why would I presume to judge my own? Who is worthy to be their own judge? That is for Christ alone.

      Again, this is not a point on which we disagree; we disagree, I think, only on whether Christ has revealed that judgment to us.

      “Is Christ, then, incapable of revealing this information to us?” I am not sure what you mean. Has he revealed the path of righteousness, and the necessary elements of salvation? Yes. Have the names written in the Book of LIfe been revealed? No.

      Then Paul can’t know that he has salvation, either, can he? So must we not denounce Paul as a heretic?

      I assume your answer is, “No, because Paul had a special revelation from God that let him know he was saved” – right? But we have a special Revelation from God: Paul wrote much of it! And I contend that it lets us know whether we’re saved. Why does God’s word to us not suffice for certainty when God’s word to Paul did?

  6. Pingback: Bible Daily Devotional – Working out salvation: Philippians | ChristianBlessings

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