12 May 2007

Working Out Salvation

One of my colleagues, Fr Patrick Henry Reardon, writes a weekly meditation which he calls "Pastoral Ponderings." Fr. Pat posts these on his parish's website and distributes them via email. I find them to be both thoughtful and thought-provoking.

The "Pondering" for this week touches on a statement from St. Paul concerning which I was often confused. I especially appreciated the distinctions made in the opening paragraphs.

It was somewhat late in Christian history, I believe, when certain believers were made nervous by Paul's exhortation to the Philippians, "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (2:12). I suppose this anxiety was occasioned by the proximity of the noun "salvation" to the verb "work," a juxtaposition that might lead to heaven knows what sorts of heresies. Indeed, one suspects that the decision to translate katergazesthe as "work out," instead of the more usual meanings of the verb (such as "achieve," "accomplish," "bring about," or "be engaged in") was prompted in some measure by the same apprehension.

Anyway, commentators were quick to mention that the expression "work out" means something different from "work for." This distinction, however, though it is certainly valid (in the sense that salvation can never be earned), is also something of a distraction from what the apostle has in mind to say. Paul does not mean, "Work out the consequences of being saved." That is to say, there is nothing in the passage to suggest that this working out is the fruit of a salvation already accomplished. On the contrary, in telling the Philippians to "work out" their salvation, Paul is thinking of salvation as something ongoing, not yet achieved, still to be accomplished. Salvation remains to be . . . well, "worked out." The tense implied in the text is the future.

If you'd like to read the full meditation, visit the All Saints Orthodox Church website this coming week. And if you'd like to receive these by email, click on this link and then type "subscribe" on the subject line. You can also listen to Fr Pat's Pastoral Ponderings by podcast at Ancient Faith Radio.

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