When I was a kid, college students were holding sit-ins on campuses around the country to protest the Vietnam War. They would occupy a campus building, like the administration building – and sit on the floor. Students, and sometimes Profs, filled up every square foot of floor space, disrupting business and making a general nuisance of themselves. Sooner or later the police would come and break it up, maybe arrest a few kids and occasionally sit down next to them.
We even had a sit-in at my high school, though I can’t remember why exactly. I think we might have been protesting cafeteria food. (Our ideals were, I’m afraid, less altruistic than those of others.)
Salvation is not a sit-in. It’s a workout. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you…”
I know that some reader will get jittery, seeing the words “salvation” and “work” in the same sentence, worried that I’m espousing some kind of works salvation. But don’t forget that long before I used those two words in the same sentence, the Apostle Paul did. It was he who wrote, “Work out your salvation.” Salvation is a workout, not a sit-in. If your salvation rouses you to no effort, something is wrong.
When Paul wanted to describe our role in salvation, he chose the word the NIV translates as work out. The Greek word has the idea of working at something until it is finished. So, for example, the Bible uses this word of cultivating the ground and of building a house. The ground is cultivated with intention of planting a vineyard. The house is built with the intention of taking up residence. In both cases, the idea is of working at something so that it will be finished – the vineyard so that you can eat its grapes and drink its wine, the house so that you can move in and live in it.
When the Bible talks about planting a vineyard and building a house, it’s talking about good things, but this same word can be (and is) also used of working evil. In Romans 2:9 Paul writes about people who work – who cultivate, who build – evil. They work evil like a farmer works a field, and one day it will come ripe, and then they will be served evil on a platter. They work at it like a builder builds a house. One day it will be completed, and then they will have to live in what they’ve built.
The NIV translates the Greek of this verse as “Continue to work out your salvation…” That translation attempts to express the ongoing nature of the present tense of the verb. This work is not something you do once and are done. The salvation inside you is so big, it will take a lifetime to work out. There is so much potential in God’s salvation that you cannot unpack it in a few years or even in a lifetime – it will take an eternity.
If you are expending no energy in your salvation workout – if you never break a sweat, never feel a doubt, never strain under temptation – you’re not doing it right. It’s like spending an hour at the gym. If you never break a sweat, never strain against the weights or get your heart rate into triple digits, you’re not doing it right. Paul did not say “Talk out your salvation.” He said, “Work out” (or it could simply be translated work) your salvation.”
The Greek root in this word is erg, which means “work.” We get words like “energy” and “ergonomics” (and even “allergy”) from this root. In the church we often hear that salvation is “by grace” and “not by works,” and that is solid biblical truth. But we need to make sure we are not drawing the wrong conclusion from that truth. We can mistakenly assume that, because salvation does not result from our work, it must not necessitate our work. That is a serious error. Salvation does not result from work but it does result in work. As Philip Melancthon put it, “We are saved by faith alone, but faith that saves is never alone.” It walks in company with its dear friend “work.”