James Nisbet Commentary - Philippians 2:12 - 2:13

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James Nisbet Commentary - Philippians 2:12 - 2:13

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This Chapter Verse Commentaries:


‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God Which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.’


You may divide the world roughly into three classes, (a) There are those who are looking for physical, moral, and social salvation solely to human effort, (b) There is the man who grows impatient when he hears about the laws of nature at all. (c) There are those who see nothing inconsistent in combining both ideas. Just as in their spiritual lives they work their hardest by moral effort, by bringing their will-power to bear upon their tempers, so in their social efforts, while they investigate, and learn, and study, they look to God, Whose lesson-book they feel that they are slowly spelling out, with faltering accents, letter by letter; they work out their own salvation, and that of others, with trembling hope, just because it is God that worketh in them both to will and to do of His good pleasure.

Let me take four pressing problems which illustrate my point.

I. We set about discovering the causes of infant mortality.—If the report on physical deterioration is right in its figures, the mortality of infants, which was 154 per 1,000 forty years ago, remains at the same figure to-day. But a number of diseases which attacked children have been greatly diminished, and there ought, therefore, to be among boys in the town districts twenty-eight lives per 1,000 more saved, and twenty-three per 1,000 among girls. The annual waste of child life appears still to be in this country about 140, 000 a year. Now, I feel absolutely certain that in attacking this gigantic evil, when we have discussed and remedied every physical cause, we shall find that more than half, probably three-quarters, of it is due to moral causes; that many deaths are due to the avarice or carelessness of those who take money from property without keeping it in sanitary condition, from the drunken habits of those who overlay their children, from the immorality of men and women who have broken the laws of God, and that, therefore, the social reformer will need the moral help of all religious people of every denomination, who can strengthen and reinforce character. But, further than that, we shall discover, as we go on, that all that any of us can do is to come back and bring others back to the primæval laws of God, ‘without Whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy’—the primaeval laws which are the foundations of the world’s health, as they are the secret of its happiness. ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’ In other words, our only hope is to bring back the world under the rule of God.

II. Take the housing question.—We are all agreed as to the advisability of garden cities. Some have been established; others might be and ought to be. What are we waiting for? For the rich really to care how the poor live, to care enough to run the very moderate risk of investing their money in what might, at first, bring an interest not so great as in other enterprises, but which would have an immediate interest in human lives and human happiness which no gold could buy. And who is to give this love of others, this true Christian charity, but God alone? And who is to bring home the love of God but those who minister to the rich in holy things, and have their confidence, and speak to their souls? And it is here where the Church of the West can help so truly the Church of the East in spreading the kingdom of God, which should at least comprise for every living child of God ‘the common liberty of earth and air.’

III. Or when we glance at the physical effects of certain breaches of the moral law, so terribly familiar to those who have spent years in the rescue and preventive work of our great cities, do we not all know that not all the sanitary laws in the world can by themselves alter character, that as a matter of fact the character of Jesus Christ and the ideal He set the world—as the historian Lecky said—‘has done more to regenerate mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and all the plans of statesmen,’ and that if all the world would obey the royal law ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,’ it would do more to abolish certain forms of disease than all the Public Health Congresses that will ever be held?

IV. And so with the drink question.—We are told, not by so-called temperance fanatics, but by cool-headed magistrates, that nine-tenths of the crime of the country is due to drink. We all know the physical effects of drunkenness, and the effects which it leaves, not only upon children, but upon children’s children. But how are you going to cure it? You can always do something by legislation, and no one has urged legislation on certain points more than the various Christian bodies in the country; but when it comes to the real cure, nothing but the grace of God can change a man’s inner nature, nothing but the love of Christ can give the Divine patience to bear with a drunken man or woman until they are reformed, nothing but the power of the Holy Spirit can really plant in any heart the virtue of self-control.

We come round, then, to the point from which we started—‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God Which worketh in us both to will and to do.’ Study on, investigate on, scrutinise every opening, follow up every clue. God trains our intelligence and our character by making us find His gifts for ourselves. The gifts are there waiting for our work, ready to our hand. We are fellow-workers with God all the time, and our work is only permanent and effective because behind all the human workers in the world ‘It is God that worketh both to will and to do of His good pleasure.’

Bishop A. F. Winnington-Ingram.


‘If it is not inconsistent for a great scientific man to be religious, still less is it inconsistent for the most devout man in the world to be enthusiastically scientific. I believe that it is still a popular idea that the clergy and other religious men are opposed to science, and live in the midst of such transcendental ideas that drainage and insanitary dwellings and infant mortality are beyond their ken. All I can say is that (and any one who knows the real life of the slums would tell you the same) the man who, side by side with the doctor and the sanitary inspector, is fighting the slum-owner, rescuing the children, and denouncing insanitary areas is the slum parson.’



So far from there being any contradiction in this text in its relation to others which show salvation to be a free gift, there is complete harmony.

I. The work we have to do.—‘Work out,’ says the Apostle, ‘your own salvation.’ If we were to give the command its full force we should be content to use two words: confession and completeness.

(a) Confession. I like to lay a little emphasis upon our translation here, ‘work out.’ I am not prepared to say that the primary idea in the original language is that of making work conspicuous, but yet the thought is fairly deducible from it, and there is no more important injunction to any Christian than that which bids him let his light shine before men. It is our duty, not only to be Christians, but to let it be known that we are such. We are to work out our salvation. Lay stress upon the little word out. It is well enough to have our religion beneath the surface, but God wants it known and read of all men.

(b) The further thought undoubtedly, however, in the passage is completeness. Salvation is a mighty word. Observe the Apostle does not say, ‘Work for your salvation’; he says, ‘Work out your salvation.’ The two things are quite distinct. It is as if God said to us, ‘You have an estate now, develop its resources.’

II. The spirit in which it should be done.

(a) In sincerity—the same at all times and in all places.

(b) Submissively—avoid the assertion of self-will.

(c) Sensitively—‘with fear and trembling.’

(d) Strenuously—‘work out.’

III. The encouragements to do the work.

(a) The Divine pattern.

(b) The Divine power.

(c) The Divine pleasure.

Rev. E. W. Moore.


‘Very great is the blessing of work done for Jesus Christ in sincerity and simplicity and love. Every Christian ought to have some work of which he says, “I do this for Christ’s sake.” It is a glorious opportunity that we can and may work for God. Very blessed is it to seek lost souls and bring them near for the Saviour’s blessing, and to spare no pains to lay the sick brother at the feet of the heavenly Physician. For Christ’s Gospel insists on good works, but only as a thank-offering, only as the outcome and evidence of faith. And lo! He cometh, and His reward is with Him to render (i.e. to pay it off—even to the uttermost farthing) to each man according as his work is (Rev_22:12). And I am sure, if you first receive Christ yourself, and then

‘Do all the good you can,

In all the ways you can,

At all the times you can,

To all the people you can,

With all the love you can,

you will be working out your own salvation.’



The important question for each one of us is, ‘How shall I work out my own salvation? What shall I do?’ Begin by asking God to make it quite plain what your work is—what your work is that He has given you to do.

I. A ‘work’ in your own heart.—To obey inwardly; to cherish and cultivate those good feelings which are now in you; to discipline your thoughts; to rule your temper; to keep your own heart in good order; to form right habits of daily life; to struggle against your besetting sin; to maintain a Christian spirit in all your daily intercourse; to carry out at once every good emotion and desire which God has put into your heart.

II. A ‘work’ in the secret chamber.—Every one knows that it is very definite and difficult work to fulfil faithfully the duties of private prayer and self-examination and meditation; to maintain the habit regularly and to do it spiritually; to get rid of wandering thoughts; not to slide into reverie; to make his own room a little sanctuary which he never leaves without carrying from it a better mind, a holier frame, a higher aim, and a blessing.

III. A ‘work’ in your own sphere in which it has pleased God to place you.—In the family and home circle, try to act lovingly; try to be faithful and useful; to be ready to sympathise with the joys and sorrows of every one; with the little troubles and the great troubles. Live to be a true friend; a wise counsellor; a ready helper; to live for the Christ you profess; everywhere to speak the truth candidly; to sit in the lowest seat, and yet to take the lead without showing it, or without yourself knowing that you do take the lead.

IV. A ‘work’ outside.—No Christian should be without some work which is done definitely for Christ. It may be for the body; it may be for the mind; it may be for the soul. It should be a ‘work,’ not an amusement; not playwork, but earnest, self-denying, and religious, done with a distinct object, in Christ, for Christ.

In so doing you are ‘working out your own salvation’—the salvation you have received.

Rev. James Vaughan.


‘When a man receives Christ, and with Christ and in Christ a new life, he enters on a new work. He has been saved to serve: “Let My people go”—there is liberty; “that they may serve Me”—there is service. God has joined together salvation and service, and no man may put them asunder. It is the very law of life, as God has made it, that everything that has life in it must be working. It cannot stop. If your heart stops it is death. Therefore living souls must work.’