If we cannot lose our salvation why then did Paul say Walk out your salvation with fear and trembling.
And why did he say I pummel my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others I myself will not be cast away
It’s in reply to an earlier comment that claims it’s impossible to lose salvation once saved. Numerous Bible verses seem to point in that direction. Numerous other Bible verses seem to say that it’s possible, once saved, to lose salvation. Theologians have been arguing about it for centuries.
I don’t want to get into that argument except to say that it’s bad theology that pits one set of scriptures against another. Leaning too much in either direction leads to serious errors both in Bible interpretation and in decisions we make daily in how to live the Christian life.
That said, the commenter cites two scriptures that raise several issues many of us struggle with:
- What does fear have to do with salvation?
- How much does salvation have to do with works?
- Why did Paul find it necessary to pummel his body?
Working out salvation
The commenter first cites Philippians 2:12. Here it is in context:
5 Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus,
6 who, existing in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God
as something to be exploited.
7 Instead he emptied himself
by assuming the form of a servant,
taking on the likeness of humanity.
And when he had come as a man,
8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death—
even to death on a cross.
9 For this reason God highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow—
in heaven and on earth
and under the earth—
11 and every tongue will confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
12 Therefore, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 For it is God who is working in you both to will and to work according to his good purpose. Philippians 2:5-12 CSB
Commentary on Philippians 2
Verse 12 immediately follows a hymn of praise (verses 5-11). Paul either quoted from a well-known hymn of the day or composed it himself. In either case, it emphasizes Jesus’ obedience in the matter of submitting to crucifixion. We ought to have the same attitude he did. “Therefore” indicates that Paul is urging the Philippian church to practice the same kind of obedience.
He addresses them as “beloved,” so he’s not giving orders like some kind of drill sergeant. In fact, he acknowledges that that have obeyed in that way when he was with them.
But here are two important bits of historical and cultural context: First, he was in prison and could not visit them. Second, there are signs that the Philippian church, like so many others, was beset by rivalries and divisions. The kind of obedience Jesus exemplified is impossible in a state of rivalry and strife. Fighting within the church can only grow from a state of ungodly pride when people compare themselves against each other.
What’s more, salvation in this context can’t mean personal salvation. “You” in both verses 12 and 13 is in the plural and refers to the entire church’s obedience. The modern church seems to regard everything as related to Christians as individuals. Paul’s letters consistently urge churches to get their corporate life in order.
But whether we interpret salvation corporately or individually, Paul never urges anyone to find it through doing works. God has worked salvation in us. Now, we have the task of working it out, bringing it to the surface where others will notice.
As for the fear and trembling, it very certainly does not mean to be afraid that God will get you if you somehow fall short of his demands. God is not an angry taskmaster. The fear of God in the Bible usually means some degree of awe. At the very least, it means fearing God’s grief rather than his wrath.
Salvation and works
People who think they can find contradictions in the Bible love to pit Paul against Peter and James when it comes to the issue of faith and works.
Galatians 2:15-16 is part of Paul’s accusation of hypocrisy against Peter: “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.”
Some people read into the scene that Paul and Peter taught different things. No one could ever read such an idea out of it.
James, on the other hand, wrote:
But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. James 2:20-24
Taken out of context, it appears that Galatians 2:16 and James 2:24 are in direct conflict. On more careful examination, Paul specifies works of the law, that is, circumcision, dietary restrictions, and the like. Nowhere does James ever endorse works of the law as necessary for justification. And nowhere does Paul ever deny the need for works as evidence of faith.
That’s why, in Philippians 2:12, he tells the church to work out its salvation. It has nothing to do with salvation by works.
Disciplining the body
The commenter ends by citing 1 Corinthians 9:27. The chapter is too long to quote in full here.
If we can detect some rivalries and divisions in the church at Philippi, they are front and center in Corinth. Among other things, Paul told them not to be so quick to assert their rights. In 1 Corinthians 9, he shows how he himself had practiced what he preached when he was among them. Specifically, he was willing to forego not only his general rights as a person but even his special rights as an apostle.
The closing of the chapter shows Paul as something of a sports fan. In verse 24, he compares the Christian life to running a race. In the middle of verse 26, he adds the metaphor of boxing.
Running and boxing, and indeed not only any other sport but any other excellence we can pursue, require single-minded discipline. Why is it that we understand that in most contexts, but when we see discipline in the Bible, we read it as if it said punishment?
I recall some famous athlete (I’m sorry, but I don’t remember whom) who said he wasn’t impressed with how many pushups someone could do. How many was he willing to do after it started to hurt?
Boxers, of course, must spar. That is, they have practice fights with someone else. The two pummel each other’s bodies. In a real match, boxers try to inflict brain damage on the other, knocking him unconscious. Sparring matches are less dangerous and intended for educational and training purposes rather than trying to inflict harm. But the two hurt each other in the process.
And why does Paul discipline his body? “. . . so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27 NASB1995).
A runner who makes a false start can be disqualified from running the race. A boxer who carelessly violates a rule can likewise be disqualified.
Note that Paul does not express any concern about his salvation here. He began the chapter saying, in effect, that he would not assert his rights if doing so would hinder him from ministering successfully. He preached to the Corinthian church not to assert their rights, and he practiced what he preached. To do otherwise would disqualify him from winning his race or his fight.
Why the flesh needs discipline
This verse also invites consideration of what Paul means by flesh. Three verses in Roman 7 (quoting from NASB1995) strongly contrast flesh and spirit:
14 For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.
18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.
25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.
Many ancient Greek philosophers—and early Christians under their influence—taught that spirit was good and matter was evil. Paul wrote in Greek, but he was steeped in Hebraic thought. And so that’s not at all what he meant by contrasting flesh and spirit.
But consider the following facts about our flesh:
- Humans are sinful. That is, we fall short of what we ought to be. We even fall short of our own ethical standards and do so with alarming regularity. That’s what Paul meant when he said flesh is in bondage to sin.
- As a result, all flesh, human or animal, will eventually die. In the absence of some kind of embalming, it will rot. That is, it will eventually experience corruption.
- Our bodies are limited by sense knowledge. We can learn from reading, but only if we see the words. Or, in the case of blind people, feel them with their fingers. We can learn from what other people tell us, but only if we can hear them.
- What we can see, hear, or otherwise sense is severely limited by time and space.
- Our bodies have a single viewpoint, and we are personally in the center of our perceptions. Consider a classroom. The teacher sees the faces of a roomful of people. If the room is set in rows, the students see one person’s face and maybe the back of other people’s heads. No one fully experiences everything in the room.
- Not only that, our physical and emotional condition affects what we perceive. A headache or upset stomach will certainly draw attention away from what we would otherwise pay attention to.
We tend to think of spirit as some kind of vague abstraction. We ought to think of it as something more substantial and enduring than matter. What’s more, spirit is incorruptible. God is spirit. God’s perceptions have no limitations of time and place.
Jesus promised that God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—would take up residence within believers. The Holy Spirit gives words of knowledge and words of wisdom—knowledge and wisdom we could never acquire by our own efforts. And no impulse that comes from God is tainted by sin in any way.
Those verses from Romans—and I could have picked several more—explain why Paul had to discipline his body so harshly to avoid disqualification.
And so fear of God is awe that drives out complacency. Works are not prerequisite to salvation but some kinds of works give evidence of it. Sinful flesh wants to make all our decisions, but we mustn’t let it.