St. Paul tells us to “Continue to work out your salvation…” The NIV’s translation attempts to express the ongoing nature of the present tense of the verb. This work is not something we do once and are done. The salvation inside us is so big, it will take a lifetime to work out. There is so much potential in God’s salvation that we cannot unpack it in a few years or even in a lifetime – it will take an eternity.
If we are expending no energy in our salvation workout – if we never break a sweat, never feel a doubt, never strain under temptation – we’re not doing it right. It’s like spending an hour at the gym. If we never break a sweat, never strain against the weights or get our heart rate into triple digits, we’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.” Faith always walks in company with its dear friend “work.”
The wall of separation that has been built between salvation and work is founded on a misunderstanding (or at least a too limited understanding) of what biblical salvation is. We misunderstand salvation when we think of it only in future terms – of getting into heaven when we die. If that is all there is to salvation, there is certainly no place for work, because we all know that we cannot work our way into heaven.
But salvation has a past and a present dimension, as well as a future one. Salvation is not just an event in our future, as important as that is. (And I hope it is in our future – but that is only the case if we have received eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.) Salvation is more than getting into heaven when we die.
Salvation has a past dimension: “He saved us, not because of righteous things we have done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5). That’s past tense and refers to what God has done through Christ on the cross. But there is also a present tense: “You are receiving the goal of your faith, even the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:9). That’s present tense, something we are receiving now. Paul wrote: “…the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:18). “Us who are being saved” – that is present tense salvation; something that is happening now.
So salvation is out of eternal death, but it is also into a new kind of life. Too often we miss that. If we make salvation something that happens only at death, we effectively disassociate it from anything that happens in life, leaving it irrelevant. We retain an important truth – we cannot accomplish salvation by doing good works – but we lose an important truth too.
We need to know that our works (religious or otherwise) will not result in salvation, but we also need to know that our salvation will result in works. We are “created in Christ Jesus unto good works” (Ephesians 2:10 KJV). Salvation and work are inextricably bound. If that worries you – if it gives you the theological heebie-jeebies – just remember this: The grace of salvation is not opposed to work – it is the foundation of our works. It is opposed to merit. We cannot earn our way. But if we think that because we can’t work our way to salvation that we won’t have to work out our salvation, we’re badly mistaken. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”