Work out your own salvation: The Apostle Paul, William Tyndale, and the leaven of a phrase

El Greco, Apostle St. Paul

Apostle St. Paul (c. 1612), by El Greco.

One of the most iconic phrases of the English New Testament, one of the Apostle Paul’s great quotes that has always echoed in my ears growing up, is to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). But what does that even mean?

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, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Codex Sinaiticus

A leaf from Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest known Greek uncial manuscript of the entire Bible (c. A.D. 330–360).

As a Protestant, I admit I never thought much about it. I guess I had a vague sense of “working something out” with God, the way one negotiates an agreement or a solution — through a process of trial and error, learning and growing as a Christian, to reach a situation that “worked.” If the verse meant anything to me, it was as an encouraging exhortation: Keep on obeying God, and you and God will “work it out.”

As I’ve been growing as a Catholic, this verse has been an indication that there might be some “work” involved in salvation in Paul’s view, as opposed to the sola fide (by faith alone) interpretation that the Protestant Reformers so ardently expressed. It’s been a handy crutch in presenting the Catholic position. “But, Paul said ‘work out your own salvation’!”

But what did Paul really mean? Recently I decided to delve into the Greek in order to explore this. What I found was a little startling.

Here is the Greek (only the bolded portion from above; Greek text from NA27):

. . . μετὰ φόβου καὶ τρόμου τὴν ἑαυτῶν σωτηρίαν κατεργάζεσθε· θεὸς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ἐνεργῶν ἐν ὑμῖν καὶ τὸ θέλειν καὶ τὸ ἐνεργεῖν ὑπὲρ τῆς εὐδοκίας.

Transliterated into Roman characters, for your benefit:

. . . meta phobou kai tromou tēn heautōn sōtērian katergazesthe, theos gar estin ho energōn en humin kai to thelein kai to energein huper tēs eudokias.

And now broken down:

. . . μετὰ [preposition, with, in the midst of] φόβου [fear] καὶ [and] τρόμου [trembling] τὴν [definite article, accusative singular: goes with σωτηρίαν] ἑαυτῶν [3rd person reflexive pronoun, genitive plural: your own] σωτηρίαν [accusative singular (the direct object, being acted upon): salvation] κατεργάζεσθε [present middle deponent, 2nd person plural imperative: (you) “work out”] · θεὸς [God] γάρ [postpositive particle, for] ἐστιν [3rd person active indicative, impersonal, (it) is] ὁ ἐνεργῶν [present active participle, nominative singular: acting, operating, working, being efficacious] ἐν [preposition, in] ὑμῖν [second person plural personal pronoun, you] καὶ [and (together with other καὶ, both . . . and)] τὸ θέλειν [present active infinitive: to be willing, wish] καὶ [and] τὸ ἐνεργεῖν [present active infinitive, same verb as above: to act, operate, work, be efficacious, effect, execute] ὑπὲρ [preposition, for] τῆς εὐδοκίας [genitive singular, (his) good will].

What startled me is that to “work out” is all contained in the verb κατεργάζομαι. “Work out” is a single action, and “salvation” is the direct object — the object on which the action is performed. But salvation isn’t supposed to be something we act on at all, is it?

The BDAG, the most authoritative lexicon of New Testament Greek, gives four definitions for κατεργάζομαι:

  1. to bring about a result by doing something, achieve, accomplish, do.
    • Romans 7:15-20: For what I do, I do not understand; for I do not practice what I prefer, but I do that thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not prefer, I agree with the Law, that it is good.
    • 1 Corinthians 5:3: . . .  I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.
  2. to cause a state or condition, bring about, produce, create.
    • Romans 4:15: For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
    • Romans 5:3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance  . . .
  3. to cause to be well prepared, prepare someone.
  4. to be successful in the face of obstacles, overpower, subdue, conquer.
    • Ephesians 6:13: Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done [proving victorious over] all, to stand firm.

Of these definitions, the BDAG suggests that the second one, to bring about, produce, create, is the appropriate one for our verse, Philippians 2:12.

The Friberg Analytical Lexicon agrees with the definitions of the BDAG. Similarly, the Louw-Nida Lexicon Based on Semantic Domains suggests that the use of κατεργάζομαι in Philippians 2:12 implies a change of state: “to cause to be, to make to be, to make, to result in, to bring upon, to bring about.” Joseph Henry Thayer's Lexicon (1886; revised 1889), which I still rather like, obsolete though it may be, suggests the Latin efficere for the usage of the word in this verse: “to work out, i.e. to do that from which something results.” St. Jerome's Vulgate translates the word operor, which Lewis and Short defines “To work, produce by working, cause.”

So what does all this mean? It means that “work out” in Philippians 2:12 has a much more active meaning than I formerly supposed. There is agreement between all the lexica I consulted: κατεργάζομαι implies a very strong sense of bringing about, producing a state or condition. The result is that the correct understanding of this verse is that with fear and trembling, we are to bring about, produce, effect our own salvation. This seems startlingly un-Pauline, at least according to the Protestant understanding of Paul’s theology.

William Tyndale

William Tyndale, first translator of the Bible from its original languages into English.

But I should remind my Protestant readers that despite how Luther wanted to read Paul, Paul never once says by faith alone. Paul stresses justification by faith in opposition to the Judaizers, who stressed their works and denied that faith had any role, insisting that salvation in Christ came only by the works of the Jewish Law — that being circumcized would in itself bring salvation. Paul denies that works bring salvation; it is faith, the gift of God, that saves us, not the result of our own works. But Paul never denies that works are also important. He in fact writes of the importance of good works: we are “created for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10). God “will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7). The people of God are to devote themselves to good works (Titus 3:8,14).

And now, by obeying Christ, we are to bring about our own salvation — a command, a strong imperative statement in the Greek. And through our working, it is not our own doing or merits that brings this about, but God who works in us by His grace, both to will (wish, want, prefer) to do good, and to work (to be active, effectual, able to bring about). Though at first it appears unlike Paul for him to say that we produce our own salvation, he is here consistent in reminding us that it is not our works that bring about our salvation, but God working in us. This interpretation is consistent in every way with Roman Catholic doctrine.

But in the English — to work out our own salvation — where does this come from? Given this clear, active meaning of κατεργάζομαι, with so strong a sense of working, producing, effecting, why has nearly every major English Bible translation since the sixteenth century — including Catholic ones — translated this phrase “work out your own salvation”?

Tyndale New Testament title page

The title page to Tyndale’s 1534 edition of the New Testament.

I suspected immediately that this was a Tyndalism — a translation first promulgated by William Tyndale in his 1534 English New Testament, that has such a sonorous ring to it, and that, by way of being assumed into the 1611 King James Version (of which Tyndale’s work makes up about 80%), has become so ubiquitous in the English language that no translator dare change it. Examples of the many other Tyndalisms include “Let there be light,” “gave up the ghost,” “my brother’s keeper,” “it came to pass,” and the nearly universal translation of the Our Father or Lord’s Prayer, which even Roman Catholics pronounce according to the King James translation (“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”). Tyndale also coined many words that have enriched the English language, including “scapegoat,” “Passover,” and “Jehovah.”

A little bit of research confirmed that I was correct. Stepping through the history of English Bible translation:

Wycliffe Bible (1380s): worche ye with drede and trembling youre heelthe
Tyndale Bible (1534): worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and tremblynge
Coverdale Bible (1535): worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and tremblynge
Matthew Bible (1537): worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and trembling
Great Bible (1539): worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and tremblyng
Geneva Bible (1560): make an end of youre owne saluation with feare and trembling
Bishop’s Bible (1568): worke out your owne saluation with feare and tremblyng
King James Version (1611): worke out your owne saluation with feare and trembling
KJV Cambridge Edition (1769): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
Young’s Literal Trans. (1862): with fear and trembling your own salvation work out
Revised Version (1885): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
American Std. Version (1901): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
Revised Standard Version (1946): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
New American Standard (1963): work out your salvation with fear and trembling
New Intl. Version (1978): continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling
New Revised Standard (1989): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
Holman Christian Std. (1999): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
English Standard Version (2001): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling

Now that’s staying power. With only one slight exception — the overly Calvinistic Geneva Bible, which changed “work out” to “make an end of” — every English Bible translation since Tyndale’s own has left Tyndale’s wording and phrasing of this verse intact.

I have intentionally not included Roman Catholic translations in the list above, to demonstrate Tyndale’s overpowering influence:

Rheims New Testament (1582): with feare and trembling worke your saluation
Challoner Revision (1752): with fear and trembling work out your salvation
New Jerusalem Bible (1985): work out your salvation in fear and trembling
New American Bible (1970–2011): work out your salvation with fear and trembling

Even into the Catholic mind, Tyndale’s leaven worked through the whole batch. Despite the Rheims translators’ initial attempt to escape Tyndale’s shadow — self-consciously avoiding translations that would appear to support Reformation theology, and replacing work out with work, though retaining Tyndale’s feare and trembling — Bishop Challoner reverted the whole thing to Tyndale’s wording. It has stuck ever since.

So why “work out” — a phrase with such an ambiguous meaning? Was Tyndale trying to obscure a phrase that seemed to cast doubt on Protestant theological suppositions? No, apparently not. Rather, “work out” has an archaic usage that is no longer current in today’s English. According to the Oxford English Dictionary:

work out. II. 6. To bring about, effect, produce, or procure (a result) by labour or effort; to carry out, accomplish (a plan or purpose).

In fact, this is the very meaning of the Greek word. And according to the OED citations, Tyndale’s is the first use of the phrase in this sense on record:

1534 Bible (Tyndale rev. Joye) Phil. ii. 12 Worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and tremblynge.
1600 Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 2 i. i. 181 We..Knew that we ventured on such dangerous seas, That if we wrought out life, twas ten to one.
1805 Wordsworth Waggoner iv. 118 When the malicious Fates are bent On working out an ill intent.
1847 Tennyson Princess ii. 75 O lift your natures up:..work out your freedom.

The last noted use of the phrase by this usage is 1874.

Why did Tyndale choose “work out”? There’s no clear answer. Since κατεργάζομαι is a compound of the prefix κατά and the verb ἐργάζομαι (to work, labor), Tyndale may have added the “out” to reflect the prefix; though he did not translate κατεργάζομαι that way anywhere else. He may have been thinking in Latin: recognizing the meaning of the Greek to approximate the action “to effect,” he may have rendered it first efficere (ex + ficere, to work out) and followed accordingly with the English. Or, he may have just liked the way it sounded. He seems to have had a knack for that.

The Tyndalian wording of this verse, as beautiful and iconic as it is, is now archaic, and tends to obscure the meaning of Paul’s words. Paul clearly was saying that through working — though the praise for our works belongs to God alone, by His grace — we effect our salvation.

I have always admired William Tyndale, first when I was a Protestant and still now that I am a Catholic. Not only was he bold and fearless in his determination to bring the Scriptures into the English language — he ultimately gave his life for that cause — but he was brilliant both as a translator and as a wordsmith. As the first translator of the Bible into English from its original languages, Tyndale has no doubt had more impact on the English Bible than any other single person, and has had an impact on the English language itself to rival that of Shakespeare.

20 thoughts on “Work out your own salvation: The Apostle Paul, William Tyndale, and the leaven of a phrase

      • Yes, I understand – so much better for the spirit. I am so sorry you encounter some of the hostile ones – but you are so helpful to those of us who really do want to know what Catholics really teach. I can only suppose some people find that threatening; I wish they’s just read what you write.

  1. I’m confused… I thought you were taking a breather? Because this sounds like your usual informative, fascinating and charitable self! :p

    Thanks for a great post! It really shows you the staying power of language.

      • The Eucharist is the real body and blood of our Lord. How should I interpret then
        the last supper when He has not yet dye but He is offering his real body and blood?
        Is He doing here a double miracle of dying before his actual death? Or offering himself
        before his actual death?
        Cecil

        • Cecilia, thanks for the comment. The Eucharist is a great mystery and a miracle; and if we are going to believe that the very incarnate God would come down from heaven to give Himself for us, that He can forgive our sins, heal the sick and raise the dead, and that even He can die and be raised again — then it’s not a far stretch to believe that the Eucharist can defy the bounds of human time and reason. But a few things to think about:

          1. Dead men can’t offer their body and blood to anybody. Jesus could only offer us His Body and Blood because He was living and willfully gave Himself up for us — and because He lives again and forevermore.

          2. Jesus had full control of His being, and the divine intention to give His own living flesh and blood for the sake of humanity. Just as Jesus is sacramentally present in the Eucharist today, He was truly present then at the Last Supper.

          3. Jesus was already giving Himself up for us at the Last Supper — His Passion had already begun. During His discourse at the meal He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee, since thou hast given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him” (John 17:1–2). During the Supper, Judas His betrayer left to do his work (Matthew 26:20–25, Mark 14:17–21, Luke 22:21–23, John 13:21–26). Following the Supper, Jesus suffered his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36–46, Mark 14:32–42, Luke 22:40–46, John 18:1–2), where he was “greatly distressed and troubled” and “sorrowful even unto death”: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” The Passion of the Lord can be considered as all part of the same extended event.

          4. The Eucharist is only salvific — it only gives us eternal life — because Jesus was a living and willing victim.

          5. The Lord’s Supper and the Eucharist is a fulfilment of the Passover meal and sacrifice. Just as under the Old Covenant, the Passover Lamb was offered at the meal the evening before the Passover, before the Jews were protected from the Angel of Death and set free from the bondage of slavery, Jesus offered Himself at the Paschal meal as our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7), the evening before He was to set us free from the bondage of sin. The Passover meal of the Old Testament was a memorial of the Lord’s redemption, instituted before it actually happened (Exodus 12:14) — and just so, evoking the very same language, Jesus instituted the Eucharist as a memorial of His suffering and death, before it actually happened (Luke 22:19).

          5. As St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and others have noted, the Last Supper was the last time Jesus had to spend with his disciples before His Crucifixion — and as such His words and actions would be forever burned into their memory. “Because last words, chiefly such as are spoken by departing friends, are committed most deeply to memory; since then especially affection for friends is more enkindled, and the things which affect us most are impressed the deepest in the soul” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, STh., III q.73 a.5 resp.). “In order to commend more earnestly the depth of this mystery, Our Saviour willed this last act to be fixed in the hearts and memories of the disciples whom He was about to quit for the Passion” (Augustine, Respons. ad Januar. i).

          6. We believe as Catholics that the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passion is made present for all people and all times (Hebrews 7:25–27). Just as when we celebrate the Mass, it is Jesus’s one and the same sacrifice that is again and again made present for us and for all future times — not a different, repeated sacrifice — then I see no reason why that sacrifice could not have been made present for His disciples the evening before.

          There is a lot more we could reflect on, but I hope this is food for some thought.

  2. Yes. Greek. Yes. Much of that lingual bit was far over my head. Still, what I could understand is very good. And it was nice to see the Wycliffe translation and read some Middle English once again. Maybe I need to pull out some Chaucer and a tea…

    I’m glad you pointed out that fact about Martin Luther translating Paul. Luther added in the German word “allein (alone).” That word is not in the original text. The Lutherbibel still contains that word. And while I’m certainly not a Bible-onlyist (or whatever you could call it), this certainly seems to me to be changing the faith to fit your own understanding. I hesitate to say it, but that’s part of the classical definition of heresy–making a choice for one aspect of the faith and then distorting it all by that choice.

    • Greek is fun! And not as hard as it looks. Though tricky to master, and I can’t say that I have.

      Everybody needs more Middle English in their lives. Mmm, Chaucer. And tea!

      Yes, I knew that about Luther, but wasn’t familiar with the German (German is Greek to me. About as much as Greek is). And I like the term “Sola-Scripturist.” 😀 I hesitate to bandy the word “heresy” around these days… but, yes.

  3. “He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.” In Orthodoxy we speak of “synergeia,” or cooperation, even though this cooperation is not equal (God having done much more for us than we can ever do for ourselves). “We are fellow-workers with God,” Paul writes. We find the greatest example of synergeia in the life of the Most Holy Theotokos.

    • Protestants, especially Calvinists, have proudly adopted the label of “monergism” for themselves. And they accuse us of “synergism.” I knew the term fit, but I didn’t know it actually had a history. Protestant interpretation of the Bible is all rather selective.

      • Do you think that Phil 2:12-13 is related to Phil 1:6? It always seemed to jump out to me as “work, for it is God who works in you!” As if my good works were actually being done through me by God, and also in response to his already given salvation (if read with phil 1:6 in mind).

        • Oh, yes, certainly those verses are related. For somebody who, according to the Protestant interpretation, promoted salvation by grace alone, Paul talks quite a bit about “works.” This is the same Greek root, ἔργον, that he uses in the other verse — the common Greek word for “a work.” God is working in us and through us. Both of these verses also indicate, I think, that God’s work of salvation in the believer isn’t a one-time-and-then-it’s-finished moment, but a lifelong journey. (Protestants make the distinction between justification, which is once-and-for-all, and sanctification, which continues. Catholics believe those are both part of the same process.)

        • It is, but it should be goal to reduce selectivity as much as possible. A fully-informed interpretation strives to take into context all of Scripture — to build an argument that is consistent throughout all of Scripture, and doesn’t rest only on a contentious interpretation of a few verses. The sola fide interpretation appears consistent only if one presumes beforehand that Paul holds sola fide. He does, most certainly, downplay the role of works, and says that it’s not our works that save us; but he never says that human will and work don’t have a role to play.

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  7. That word for ‘salvation’ only appears only three times in Philippians. The other two times it is referring to temporal, not eternal, salvation. Why do you take it to mean eternal salvation in this context.

    • Hi, Nate. Welcome, and thanks for the comment. While it’s true that the first use of σωτηρία (soteria) in Philippians 1:19, translated “deliverance” in most recent English translations, refers to temporal salvation (specifically Paul’s deliverance from prison), supposing that the other two uses in Philippians also refer to temporal salvation does not fit the context.

      Philippians 1:27–30: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear omen to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict which you saw and now hear to be mine.”

      With specific reference to living a “manner of life worthy of the gospel of Christ,” and “striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,” and “omens of destruction” juxtaposed with “salvation from God,” there can be no doubt that this refers to eternal, spiritual salvation and not temporal deliverance.

      Likewise, our passage in Philippians 2 leaves no question:

      “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
      
      “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; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

      The “obedience” to which Paul refers here is with clear reference to Christ’s humility and obedience, “even to death on a cross.” God has exalted Christ in His humility, so that every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord — and therefore, in that submission, we, Paul’s beloved, should obey Christ, and in so doing “work out our own salvation”; for God is at work in us, both to will to do good, and to do good works, for God’s good pleasure. In the following passage Paul goes on to talk about being “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish,” “shining as lights in the world,” and “holding fast the word of life” in hope of a good judgment on the day of Christ. There can be no question that all of this refers to eternal things.

      (For what it’s worth, the BDAG references both the verses above as examples of the second definition of σωτηρία, “salvation, w. focus on transcendent aspects.”)

      What faith background are you coming from, Nate? What brings you by here?

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