Exegetical Brief: Philippians 2:12b

By Pastor Holger Weiß

Translator’s Preface

This translation is especially unique to the translator in two ways. First, this is the first time he has attempted to translate an article written by someone still living. He met Pastor Weiß at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Mequon during Summer Quarter of 2011. Pastor Weiß is the spiritual shepherd of Emmausgemeinde (Emmaus Church) in Schönfeld by Annaberg-Buchholz, a member congregation of the Evangelisch-Lutherische Freikirche (ELFK; Evangelical Lutheran Free Church) in Germany. He also serves as a professor of New Testament studies at the Lutherisches-Theologishes Seminar (Lutheran Theological Seminary) in Leipzig on the side. In his conversations with Pastor Weiß, it struck the translator that never did the title pastor suit a man better than it did Pastor Weiß.

Secondly, after laboring over the translation and then sending it to Pastor Weiß for approval before publishing it, the translator was amused to learn that Pastor Weiß had originally written it to fulfill an assignment for a class on Philippians during Summer Quarter of 2009. “Just let me know if I should send you the English paper,” he wrote. After all the work and with Pastor Weiß’s blessing, what is presented here is not the original English paper, but an English translation of a German translation by Pastor Weiß of the original English paper by the same.

This article was printed on pages 2-4 of the February 2011 edition of Theologische Handreichung und Information, the theological quarterly of the ELFK, under the title “Schafft, dass ihr selig werdet… Wie ist Philipper 2,12 zu übersetzen und zu verstehen?” (see below for translation).

It is the translator’s prayer that what follows will not only clearly communicate Pastor Weiß’s fine exegesis of Philippians 2:12, but that it will also showcase the unity in the truth that the Holy Spirit, working through Scripture, produces even when the two parties thus united (WELS and ELFK) live thousands of miles away from each other. God grant both these petitions for Jesus’ sake.

Work out your salvation…

How should Philippians 2:12 be translated and understood?

As confessional Lutherans we have been solemnly entrusted with the three solas of the Lutheran Reformation: We are justified by grace alone, through faith in our Savior Jesus Christ alone, and this is communicated to us through Holy Scripture alone (sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura).

Justification by grace alone is the beating heart of the Bible’s teaching. The apostle Paul teaches it in many passages (e.g. Eph 2:8f; Ro 3:23f). Hence it could seem very strange indeed when Paul appeals to his readers, “Work out your salvation…” (Php 2:12). Isn’t he leading us back into Catholicism with its work-righteousness? Or is he suggesting that Jesus’ redeeming work is not sufficient by itself for our redemption? Do we still have to add our own merits (“do” something1) in order to reach heavenly glory one day? Clearly the translation and especially the correct understanding of this apostolic exhortation in the original text is of critical importance.

The original Greek text of this verse reads: τὴν ἑαυτῶν σωτηρίαν κατεργάζεσθε. To translate the verse correctly, we first need to analyze the verb. The predicate κατεργάζεσθε is a present, middle, imperative, second person plural form of κατεργάζομαι. This verb means “to accomplish [something], to carry [something] out.” Paul uses this verb, for example, when he confesses, “For I do not know what I do (ὃ γὰρ κατεργάζομαι οὐ γινώσκω). For I do not do what I want, but what I hate, that I do” (Ro 7:15). The congregation in Corinth had neglected to practice church discipline with a member who had fallen into sexual immorality. To these Christians Paul testifies, “But I, I who am not with you bodily but in spirit, have already decided about the man who has done this, just as if I were with you (ἤδη κέκρικα ὡς παρὼν τὸν οὕτως τοῦτο κατεργασάμενον)” (1 Co 5:3).2 The imperative form expresses a requirement for the readers (second person plural). The readers in this case are primarily the Christians in Philippi. In a wider sense, however, Paul is also addressing all other Christians who read the letter to the Philippians. The present tense expresses a durative aspect. In other words, it does not have to do with a one-time requirement, but with a lasting, continuing one.3 Gordon Fee says about the meaning of κατεργάζομαι:

Its basic sense is to “accomplish” something, not in the sense of “fulfillment,” but of “carrying out”4 a matter… Under no circumstances can it be stretched to mean “work at,” as though salvation were something that needed our work (as in good works) in order for it to be accomplished.5

That which should be carried out is expressed by the accusative object. The noun σωτηρία is occasionally used in the New Testament for preservation in danger or deliverance from deadly peril. So Paul, for example, appeals to his traveling companions in the ship, “Therefore I urge you to eat something, for this will serve to preserve you (τοῦτο γὰρ πρὸς τῆς ὑμετέρας σωτηρίας ὑπάρχει)” (Ac 27:34). But it predominantly refers to our eternal salvation and can be joined with various verbs. Hebrews 1:14, for example, says about the angels: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation (κληρονομεῖν σωτηρίαν)?” The accusative object is modified by a genitive, masculine, plural pronoun, ἑαυτῶν. Exegetes variously interpret it as reflexive or possessive. Both are grammatically possible. Gordon Fee, however, makes it clear that, when the pronoun should be understood reflexively, it usually arises from an inherent contrast in the sentence:

While the reflexive at times does stress what belongs especially to the subject of a sentence (cf. e.g., [Php 2:]3-4 above), that is usually made clear by some inherent contrast in the sentence. In other cases it functions very close to a normal possessive, except that by use of the reflexive it slightly intensifies the possessive as being one’s own.6

Hence one could render the exhortation from Philippians 2:12 as, “Work out your salvation” – not in the sense of achievement or completion, but in the sense of the “carrying out [Durchführung]” of salvation.

How are we to understand this apostolic exhortation to work out or carry out our salvation? We must first note that Paul begins the entire statement in Philippians 2:12 with the conjunction “so” or “therefore” (ὥστε), which connects the exhortation with the section that precedes. That entire section, Philippians 2:5-11, forms the essential basis for the requirement in Philippians 2:12. In it Paul praises our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who humbled himself and became obedient to death. Through his obedience Jesus has won our eternal salvation, which God gives us as a gift of his grace through faith in Jesus Christ. “Therefore,” because Jesus has humbled himself and become obedient in order to redeem us, Paul now urges us to “carry out” this salvation.

We must also note that the exhortation from Philippians 2:12 is inserted into an even greater context. In Philippians 1:27—2:30, Paul is encouraging his readers to live in a manner worthy of the gospel about Christ.

And finally, we should not overlook the fact that the apostolic exhortation in Philippians 2:12 follows two prepositional phrases in the dative which refer to the Philippians’ obedience. Paul here uses the verb ὑπακούω, which means “to listen to” in the sense of “obey, follow.”7

All these observations make it clear that the apostolic exhortation from Philippians 2:12 does not belong in the realm of justification, but in the realm of sanctification, which flows from justification. In this passage Paul is not addressing how people are saved. His concern is how saved people “live out” the salvation that God has given them solely out of his grace through faith in Christ, that is, how their salvation is realized in everyday life.8

Paul makes this exhortation as a result of the serious dangers that threaten our faith on a daily basis. He exhorts us as those who are already on the path to heaven, but still have to conduct our lives as Christians in this world. We face temptations from the devil, the unbelieving world, and our own sinful flesh. False teachers are spreading in our midst and have already become a serious spiritual challenge [Anfechtung] for many Christians. Satan wants to lead us astray so that we turn our backs on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

As believers we must be vigilant so that we do not lose the eternal salvation that God has given to us through baptism out of his grace. We have this salvation only through faith in our redeemer Jesus Christ. If we fall away from the faith and die as unbelievers, we will suffer the punishment for our sins in hell for all eternity. Lenski’s explanation of σωτηρίαν in Philippians 2:12 is worth noting:

The saving effected by God at the time of our conversion does not place us into the salvation of heaven at one stroke; it makes us σεσῳσμένοι, “those who have been saved” (Eph 2:5). But until we attain the safety of heaven we must be kept safe in this dangerous world; the great salvation that is now ours must be kept ours, our heart’s hold upon it must be made ever stronger.9

We certainly cannot manage this with our own strength. So just as the Holy Spirit alone can bring us to faith through the means of grace, so also only the Holy Spirit can keep us in the faith through Word and sacrament. Hence Lenski rightly explains:

Paul refers to the constant, faithful use of Word and Sacrament (“life’s word,” v. 16). These means of grace renew and increase our hold on salvation, for the gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16). This use of the means is the vital part of the working.10

Thus to “work out” or “carry out” one’s salvation means, first of all, that one makes regular use of the means of grace. Through them the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith and enables us to lead a way of life worthy of the gospel. Strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit we will then, in “fear and trembling,” do our level best not to do anything which God forbids or to omit anything which God commands, since we jeopardize our salvation through such misbehavior. By conducting ourselves in this way, we follow Paul’s exhortation and live out the salvation that God has given to us by grace alone through faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


In connection with this matter, the reader might be interested in knowing how the newer German Bible translations render this passage (Php 2:12b). Here is a brief sampling:

  • The way the Gute-Nachricht-Bibel (GNB; “Good News Bible”) renders this phrase appears to be unsuitable: “Work on yourselves with fear and trembling, so that you are saved.” It makes the requirement to work on oneself a prerequisite for salvation. Yet Holy Scripture plainly says in many passages that we do not actively cooperate in our salvation, but receive our redemption by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ.
  • The Hoffnung für alle (Hfa; “Hope for all”) seems much better here: “You are saved, and this should show itself in your life. Therefore also live now in reverence for God and in complete devotion to him.” Here it is first established as a fact that we are already saved. From this then proceeds the encouragement to live in reverence for God and in complete devotion to him.
  • On the other hand, the Neues-Leben-Bibel (NL; “New Life Bible”) shows itself even more removed from the original text: “Now, in my absence, you must see to it even more that God’s love is on display in your life. Therefore obey God with full respect and reverence.” Here it is certainly mentioned that God’s love should be on display in our lives. The reference to salvation is completely cut out though, so that it is not at all clear why we should obey God with full respect and reverence.
  • The Neue Genfer Übersetzung (NGÜ; “New Geneva Translation”) seems quite acceptable at first glance: “So, as you have always been obedient to God up till now, you should also continue to submit yourselves to him (Christ) with respect and deep reverence and to do everything in your power so that your salvation works itself out in your life fully and completely.” The note added to this translation, however, is highly problematic: “Literally: ‘So, as you have always been obedient, you should complete your salvation with fear and trembling.’ ” What is well rendered in the actual translation – that salvation should work itself out in life – is completely ruined by this note. For the note says that the Christian should “complete” his salvation. But if this is true, then salvation would be at least partially an achievement of man that he still has to produce.
  • The same goes for the new Basis-Bibel (“Basic Bible”) from Stuttgart: “Your salvation is at stake. Put all you have into it—even if you are overcome with fear and trembling in the process.” Here too the impression is given that man should work on his salvation, and that he should do so full of anxiety, with “fear and trembling.”
  • The Neue evangelistische Übersetzung (NeÜ; “New Evangelist’s Translation”) by K. Vanheiden appears to be more useful: “Now, in my absence, you must see to it even more that you work hard with all reverence and conscientiousness so that your salvation works itself out.” He makes clear that Philippians 2:12b has to do with salvation working itself out in the Christian’s life and not with prerequisites which people have to fulfill themselves in order to be redeemed.


  • Bauer, Walter. Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der frühchristlichen Literatur, 6th ed. Ed. Kurt und Barbara Aland. Berlin und New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1988.
  • Hoffmann, Ernst G. and Heinrich von Siebenthal. Griechische Grammatik zum Neuen Testament, 2nd ed. Riehen/Basel: Immanuel-Verlag, 1990.
  • Fee, Gordon D. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Ed. Ned B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, G. Fee. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.
  • Lenski, R. C. H. The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Galatians, to the Ephesians and to the Philippians. Columbus, OH: Wartburg Press, 1946.


1 Luther translated the passage under discussion: “Schafft, daß ihr selig werdet” (the German title of this article), literally, “Make [it] so that you are saved,” or more freely, “Do what needs to be done so that you are saved.” It is this meaning of schaffen, make or do, that Pastor Weiss is working with in this parenthetical comment.

2 Walter Bauer, Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der frühchristlichen Literatur, 6th ed., ed. Kurt und Barbara Aland, (Berlin und New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1988), p. 857.

3 Ernst G. Hoffmann und Heinrich von Siebenthal, Griechische Grammatik zum Neuen Testament, 2nd ed. (Riehen/Basel: Immanuel-Verlag, 1990), §194a.

4 Pastor Weiss translated this for his German readers as durchführen. He refers back to this word a little later when talking about how to translate the passage. The German word has been included in brackets there to make this connection clear.

5 Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Ned B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, G. Fee (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), p. 234.

6 Fee, op. cit., 234.

7 Bauer, op. cit., 1668.

8 Fee, op. cit., 235.

9 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Galatians, to the Ephesians and to the Philippians (Columbus, OH: Wartburg Press, 1946), p. 798.

10 Ibid., 798f.