First, I would like to point out that the opening of Chapter 2 of the letter to the Philippians is one of the most moving pieces of prose ever penned. It’s worth reading again, no commentary is needed:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Second, we address the famous verse, Paul writes:
12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
We’ve had some tangential discussion about this before and now we can address the passage directly. First, what is clear is that something that must be worked out is something that is not finished. It salvation is something that we can and should work out it follows that it is not something that is done and completed at some past point. Again, we can accept that stylistically we may refer to these two aspects of salvation as justification (an initial moment of salvation in the past) and sanctification (the working out unto perfection of the human person).
Also, notice that this working out is tied to obedience. Paul basically says you have always been obedient so continue to be so even when I am not there. In fact, one translation for the word faith in Hebrew is obedience. This implies that there is a supplication aspect to faith, the humbling of oneself. In the old covenant this obedience was to the law. In the New Covenant this is a different type of obedience, it is obedience to the demands of love.
Next, notice what the passage says about works, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Notice what this short sentence is saying. It shows that the will, the desire to do good works, is itself a grace given to you by God. This helps address the question of why works can be meritorious. Even the desire to do them is a gift of grace from God. At all points we are being held up by Him, we are being moved forward by him. Notice also, he gives us the desire to do works but the verse does not go so far as to say that he causes us to do these works. Although the verse does not establish free will it implies it.
Finally, notice the amazing consistency we have seen in Paul’s theology on works in the last few days. He teaches that we are one body of Christ. He says that he makes up what is lacking in Christ’s suffering with his own body. He says that God “began a good work in us” and that “we suffer for his sake” and finally that we must “work out our own salvation”. All this fits together to show that our suffering / good works are meritorious because as we are part of the body of Christ our suffering were gathered together by Jesus when he was on the cross. In gathering them to himself Jesus transforms all things from finite merit less actions into infinitely holy works. I want to stress that this is literally anything and everything we do. My writing this blog out of love for others is obedience and faith is a good work that is united to Jesus on the cross. Tonight when I cook dinner for my kids, that is a suffering (albeit a small one) that again is made meritorious because of my connection to the body of Christ. We as brothers and sisters in the body are truly God’s co-workers when we live out the Christian life which is another reason why Paul repeatedly implores all people he writes to to do so.