Who accomplishes our salvation?

A post from my previous blog:


Yesterday I posted about contradictions in exegesis and how they can actually guide our understanding to improve. What had spurred my thinking was a verse we covered recently in my NT103 class at DTS. Philippians 2:12 reads as follows:

So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence.

We focused carefully on the main clause of the sentence: "continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence." On an initial reading one could argue that this verse means we must accomplish our own salvation, that the completion of it rests now in our hands. For this to be true, the verb would have to mean only "complete, accomplish" and the word salvation would have to refer to our relationship as a whole before God. The verb κατεργάζομαι (katergazomai) in certain contexts does mean to produce or accomplish. Take, for example, James 1:3:

because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.

In this passage the verb most naturally means to produce, create, or bring about, so it would not be unreasonable to see the same idea present in Philippians 2:12. The noun σωτηρία (soteria), usually translated salvation, often references the complete package of our relationship with God, a very well-known example being another passage from Paul, Romans 1:16:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

The obvious problem, though, is that if this understanding is correct it creates a contradiction on two levels. Understanding that here Paul argues we are responsible for our salvation runs contrary to his theology about our salvation as a whole. It also contradicts the very next verse in the chapter. Philippians 2:13 reads as follows:

for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort—for the sake of his good pleasure—is God.

So I am forced to rethink what might be my initial understanding of v. 12. Can the verb and noun in question mean something different here which would then be in concert with Paul's theology elsewhere, and the idea in v. 13 that it is God who is at work behind the scenes? Yes on both counts. The verb κατεργάζομαι can mean produce in a final and complete sense, but it can also mean bring about, realize, or work out, which is the meaning represented in most all English translations of 2:13. The sense then would not be to produce finally but to bring about in one's present experience. And the noun σωτηρία sometimes refers to a subset of the total package. Paul uses it to refer to physical deliverance in Philippians 1:19, for example, but more to the point, within Philippians Paul operates from the viewpoint that initial salvation has already been accomplished in their lives and the current concern is the present outworking of that very salvation. See, for example, Philippians 1:6:

For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.

So there are good exegetical grounds to change my initial judgment about this verse. Instead of seeing this as mandate to complete my salvation, I should understand the verse to affirm instead my participation in the process of sanctification which God started and God is committed to complete.