The difficulty of Philippians 2:12 is seen in the appearance of this text in many a "hard saying of the Bible" book.1 At first glance, the text seems to imply that we can bring about our salvation and many have used this text in this manner.2 However, a natural reading of the pericope in both the micro and macro context makes the meaning of St. Paul clear.
As the context makes clear, what St. Paul is discussing here is both soteriological and ethical,3
"Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, 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...this is a clear omen to them of their destruction, but of your salvation and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake," (RSVCE 1:27-29). 4
Thus here, we have in an expanded form what St. Paul would narrow down upon more in (2:12). It matters not whether Paul is there or not, the lives of the Philippians should always mirror their God given salvation, through their manner of living, their works and obedience. This train of thought is not unusual or new with Paul, it is the unanimous testimony of all of Sacred Scripture both Old and New as well as the wintess of the Catholic orthodox fathers.
Our text then reads,
Ὥστε, ἀγαπητοί μου, καθὼς πάντοτε ὑπηκούσατε, μὴ ὡς ἐν τῇ παρουσίᾳ μου μόνον ἀλλὰ νῦν πολλῷ μᾶλλον ἐν τῇ ἀπουσίᾳ μου, μετὰ φόβου καὶ τρόμου τὴν ἑαυτῶν σωτηρίαν κατεργάζεσθε· 5
Hence again, we have what St. Paul admonished the Philippians to do above. Whether he is there or not, it matters little, they should remain steadfast in their manifestation of their salvation through their lives, in works, obedience and so forth. Furthermore, contra all Pelagians - the very reason that we can perform this fidelity is as the very next verse shows,
"For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (RSVCE 2:13).6
God given obedience exemplified in time and space - as a working out of salvation7. Notice the verb κατεργάζεσθε (back in 2:12) which has the basic meaning of "accomplish" with a connotation of "carrying out."8 There is no textual or grammatical reason to take this verb in a metaphoric sense, St. Paul is clear, work out your salvation.
Futhermore, the apodosis clause Ὥστε is best understood as a comparative sentence, thus making the imperative very strong, the protasis πάντοτε in summary giving us then the entire sequence of thought, that the Philippians continue working out their salvation in obedience to Jesus Christ. The next clause giving us the foundation for all this, namely God granting them the ability to obey in the first place.
St. Augustine, thoroughly in line with the Catholic regula fidei before him comments on this passage,
"For it is God who works in us both the will and the performance, for His good will. If we ask whether a good will be the gift of God, it were remarkable if anyone would dare answer in the negative. But because good will does not precede the call, whereas the call does precede a good will, that we do have a good will is rightly attributed to God, and that we are called cannot be attributed to ourselves."9
1. For apparent reasons, these 'hard sayings' books are usually Protestant, i.e., R. Stein, (Difficult Passages in the Epistles).
2. As interpreted by Pelagius and others.
3. Pace many (usually Protestant) commentators (such as Dibelius ad loc) that have argued the text in question is not speaking about salvation at all, but rather strictly moral obediance to Paul. But that this is a swift acrobatic leap over the plain reading of the text is clear to all.
4. The Protestant Reformed translation ESV gives the same rendering.
5. Greek text, UBS(4). Which is translated, "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work our your own salvation with fear and trembling" (RSVCE, 2:12). The Protestant translations render it the same for the most part.
6. Whenever I read this particular text, the voice of St. Augustine rings in my ears. It has been called Augustine's entire soteriological theology in a nutshell. For we see all the familiar landmarks of the bishop of Hippo. 1. God is the great initiator. 2. He renews our fallen will to work and cooperate with Him, why? 3. For the ultimate glory of God. All of our works are even a gift of God, Augustine writes, these works He crowns Himself with.
7. In line with this motif, (Rom 1:5, 15:18, 16:19, etc) come to mind. It is true obedience which characterizes true faith in the believer. To divorce or downplay one from the other is to micromanage and truncate the gospel. The exact opposite is that those who disobey reject the gospel and already stand condemned (by their workings in life), Cf. 2 Thess 1:8, John 3:36.
8. Romans 7:18 comes to mind where the verb has the sense of carrying out.
9. (De diversis quaestionibus as Simplicianum. 1, 2, 12).
R.E. Aguirre, Anno Domini MMVIII.
-ab umbra ad veritatem