The Bible says that we are to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12-13). But wait a minute, isn't this a contradiction to accepting Christ's work for us by faith? Actually, no, but it's all about handling Scripture correctly.
The Bible doesn't contradict itself. If we properly look at it, there is a clear understanding of faith and works.
Although some denominations believe we need both have faith and work for our salvation, the Bible clearly says "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, NOT BY WORKS, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9) So there should be no more discussion on this point.
I like what Scotty Smith says, "believing our holiness can add to Christ's holiness for us, is like believing our spit can add depth to the ocean" (see Isaiah 64:6). We humans like to think too highly of ourselves, but the closer we get to God, the more we see his holiness and our own depravity without his grace (see Isaiah 6:5). There is no hope for any of us other than Jesus Christ, and what he did on the cross for us (see Ephesians 2:12).
However, just mentally assenting to this knowledge does nothing for us. We must receive Christ's free gift by faith. We must put our trust in him (see Romans 10:9).
And here is where works come in. While some Christians would say we need faith and works to be saved (and we have already shown God to clearly say our works can add nothing to the Work of Christ), other Christians I have come across say that even once we are saved by faith, we need only faith to live the Christian life. They believe we simply trust in Christ and God will work in us to grow in holiness. While there is some truth to this, the Bible also clearly calls us to "work out our salvation." As Jerry Bridges puts it in his groundbreaking work The Pursuit of Holiness, "God has made definite provision for us to live holy, but He has also given us definite responsibilities to pursue holiness."
But wait a minute, I thought our salvation was by faith in Christ's work alone? It is. Again, the Bible doesn't contradict itself, so look at it this way: we are called to work out our salvation, FROM our salvation. (Not FOR our salvation, because that would negate other Scripture), and that "FOR our salvation" has already been bought solely on the basis of the blood of Christ. We can do nothing to save ourselves, apart from trusting in Christ's saving work.
Not only are we to work out our salvation from our salvation, but this very same passage shows that we work it out, as Christ works it in us. So we are not living for God on our own effort, but his gracious power and energy is working in us to draw us closer to him.
James 2 takes faith and works the furthest, showing that working FROM our salvation is a necessary indicator to show us that our faith in Christ is genuine. The Bible tells us that when we come to Christ by faith, we no longer live for ourselves (2 Cor. 5:15), we were bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20), we are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), we were dead, but now made alive (Colossians 2:13; Ephesians 2:5; Romans 5:6). Our works in no way save us, but they show us that we have genuine faith, and that Christ really is doing something different inside of us. For as James 2:19 puts it, even demons "believe" yet do not submit to Christ's lordship in their lives. As Dallas Willard puts it "grace is not opposed to effort, grace is opposed to earning." Repentance will always be a necessary part of the message of the gospel. This "turn from your sins, and turn to God" is the way Jesus preached it (Matthew 4:17) and the way the Apostle Paul preached it (Acts 20:21). The main thing God calls every one of us to in this life, is to repent and believe the Good News. After all, God doesn't just save our souls, and leave us to live a pitiful, broken, shameful or wicked life. He saves us to draw us to Himself, and guides us to live on the path of godly wisdom all our days. He wants us to follow him, and to walk with him.
So the clearest way to explain it may be:
- We are saved BY faith in Christ's work alone (Ephesians 2:8-9; on that Scripture is clear in many places)
- God saves us FOR the express purpose of good works which he has prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10; this should excite us)
- We work OUT our salvation FROM our salvation, as God works IN us (Philippians 2:12-13; God's grace and power in our lives does an amazing work inside of us).
Because of Christ's amazing work for and in us, let's get to work!