Discussions between Catholics and Protestants about the topic of salvation sometimes involve a reference to Philippians 2:12, a passage often quoted by Catholics in support of their view that good works play a role in achieving our final salvation and that it’s possible for a Christian to lose his salvation. Paul writes, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
“What else could Paul mean?” the Catholic asks.
Well, Protestant apologist Ron Rhodes has an answer. Rather than speaking of an individual’s salvation in the eternal sense, Rhodes asserts Paul is speaking of a corporate salvation that’s temporal and experiential. He writes,
This church as a unit was in need of “salvation” (that is, salvation in the temporal, experiential sense, not in the eternal sense). It is critical to recognize that salvation in this context is referring to the community of believers in Philippi and not to individual believers. Salvation is spoken of in a corporate sense in this verse. The Philippians were called by the apostle Paul to “keep on working out” (continuously) the “deliverance of the church into a state of Christian maturity” (emphasis in original).
Since Paul intends salvation to be taken in a temporal sense (a “deliverance of the church into a state of Christian maturity”), Rhodes believes, he can’t possibly mean salvation for believers in an eternal sense.
How can we respond?
The first thing to point out is that Rhodes is going against the grain in the New Testament by reading salvation in a temporal sense. Throughout the New Testament, including Paul’s writings, the Greek word translated here as “salvation,” sōtēria, is normally used in reference to eternal salvation. So, a natural reading of Philippians 2:12 would be to read it as such.
For Rhodes to interpret sōtēria in a temporal sense—an unusual interpretation, to say the least—he needs to shoulder the burden of proof. But he does not succeed in this attempt.
Rhodes argues that the exhortation to “work out your salvation” is a response to what he describes as “the particular situation of the church in Phillipi.” Rhodes describes the church’s situation as being
plagued by 1) rivalries and personal ambitions (Phil. 2:3,4; 4:2), 2) the teaching of Judaizers (who said that circumcision was necessary for salvation—3:1-3), 3) perfectionism (attain sinless perfection in this life—3:12-14), and 4) influence of “antinomian libertines” (people who took excessive liberty in how they lived their lives, ignoring or going against God’s law—3:18, 19).
The problem here is that each item listed above doesn’t prove what Rhodes wants it to prove.
Take rivalries and personal ambitions, for example. Here’s what Philippians 2:3-4 says: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
That Paul exhorts the Philippians to refrain from sinful behavior doesn’t mean they’re actually guilty of it. It’s simply a part of Paul’s general moral exhortation that begins in Philippians 1:27—“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that . . . I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” Any type of moral exhortation is going to involve an exhortation to avoid sin, regardless if a person is guilty of that sin or not.
Philippians 4:2 reads, “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord.” This is as close as Rhodes gets to identifying problems in the Philippian church. But notice it’s only directed to two people. It’s not the whole church “as a unit,” to use the words of Rhodes.
Next, Rhodes appeals to the teaching of the Judaizers, whom Paul identifies as those “who mutilate the flesh” (Phil. 3:2). But he warns the Philippians in verse 2, “Look out . . . for those who mutilate the flesh,” implying they’re not numbered among the Judaizers. Then, in verse 3, he writes, “For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put not confidence in the flesh” (emphasis added). The Philippians are numbered with Paul among those of the true circumcision, not the Judaizers.
Rhodes then turns to Philippians 3:12-14, in which Paul acknowledges that he has not yet attained the resurrection of the dead and that he is not yet perfect, although he still presses on to make the resurrection of the dead and perfection his own, looking forward “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” That Rhodes sees perfectionism as an active problem in the Philippian community from Paul’s acknowledgement that he’s not perfect yet is a stretch, to say the least.
The purpose of Paul’s statements is to remind the Philippians that they too haven’t yet attained the resurrection of the dead or perfection, and that they too should be pressing forward to make it their own. This is an exhortation to be holy and a sober reminder that they could fail to acheive salvation, not an identification of church problems that they need to be saved from.
The last passage Rhodes cites is Philippians 3:18-19, “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”
Rhodes thinks this refers to Christians in the Philippian community, but the next verse shows this is not so. Paul writes, “But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (v.20; emphasis added). Christians in the Philippian community are not the ones identified as the “enemies of the cross of Christ,” they are clearly distinguished from them.
So, the evidence that Rhodes appeals to fails to support his temporal view of salvation for the Philippian church. But is there any positive evidence that Paul intended to speak of salvation in Philippians 2:12 in the eternal sense?
In both the preceding and subsequent context of Philippians 2:12 Paul speaks of eternal salvation.
Consider, for example, the preceding context in Philippians 1:27-28, where Paul contrasts the “salvation” that the Philippians receive from God and the “destruction” of their enemies:
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ . . . not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear omen [Greek, endeixis—demonstration, proof, or sign] to them of their destruction, but of your salvation [Greek, sōtērias], and that from God.
The destruction that Paul speaks of can’t refer to a temporal destruction that the Philippians might bring upon their enemies, since Paul is exhorting the Philippians to have no fear and remain faithful when their enemies persecute them. Therefore, the destruction of their enemies must refer to an eternal destruction—their damnation.
Also, Paul speaks of the Philippians’ salvation as coming “from God.” That would seem to indicate Paul is speaking of eternal salvation here.
Now, if Paul contrasts the Philippians’ salvation with their enemies’ destruction, and that destruction refers to eternal damnation, then it follows that Paul intends salvation to be understood in the eternal sense. And it’s that salvation that Paul speaks of in Philippians 2:12 when he says, “work out your salvation.”
We can also look to Philippians 2:14-16, where Paul identifies what “working out your own salvation” involves: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation . . . holding fast the word of life.”
Paul then gives the reason why he exhorts the Philippians to do such things in verse 16: “So that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.” The implication is that if on the day of Christ, the Philippians are found to be blameworthy, not innocent, and with blemish, then he would have run in vain. In other words, his preaching would have been for nothing.
Paul is not exhorting the Philippians to be “blameless and innocent” and “without blemish” merely in the sight of men. Rather, he’s calling them to a state of holiness that is a condition to receive their salvation at the Final Judgment. If that’s not a reference to eternal salvation for believers, then nothing is.
So, not only does Rhodes’s evidence fail to support his temporal view of salvation in Philippians 2:12, we have contextual evidence that Paul did not intend salvation to be taken in a temporal sense. Paul was speaking of our final salvation to be received at the Final Judgment. And 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 and that it’s possible to lose it in the end.