"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling"
“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” (Philippians 2:12-13).
The Christian life is a battle that calls for the active and energetic engagement of our minds and our wills. We are not made holy or like Christ at one stroke, instantaneously. It is a process, but one in which we take a very active part. The NT uses a variety of images and metaphors to emphasize the active and rigorous nature of the Christian life. Listen to a couple of them.
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12).
“So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19).
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).
“Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12).
The sanctifying grace of God is not a divine kiss that suddenly transforms a frog into a handsome prince! Holiness is not something that falls from heaven willy-nilly. It is what God produces in us through certain instruments, experiences, and means that he has ordained and it always involves struggle and effort and focus and sacrifice and energetic commitment on our part.
Some in the history of the church have believed that the key to Christian living is, quite simply, to do nothing. Some called this quietism since the idea was to remain silent and passive until the person felt the inner prompting of the Spirit or until they heard the Spirit speak in some way. In other words, these people embraced passivity in their approach to Christian living. Christians should simply “let go and let God.” Quietists insist that we should resist trying to do anything that we believe pleases God until we sense the prompting and urging of the Holy Spirit to act. Otherwise we are acting in the flesh.
But you cannot reconcile a passive and quietistic approach to the Christian life with what Paul says here in v. 12. The verb translated “work out” has the sense of laboring at something until it is brought to completion, hence to accomplish or to achieve. Hence, “produce it,” “bring it about,” “effect it.” This calls for continuous, sustained effort on our part. When it comes to your experience of the saving and sanctifying grace of God, says Paul, unfold it, discover it, make progress in it. When I speak to a young married couple and say, “Work at your marriage,” I’m not telling them to go to a pastor and repeat their vows and sign a certificate. They are already married. I’m calling on them to live in accordance with what is already true.
Take in hand this salvation God has graciously given you in Christ and put it on display. Bring it to consummation. Take the necessary steps in order that the salvation you have received by grace might unfold and flower and take shape in a way that pleases God.
Nowhere is this concept seen more clearly than in Ephesians 2:8-10. So let’s look at this famous passage:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
So how do good works relate to salvation? Clearly, although we are not saved by good works we are saved for good works.
This is what Paul has in mind here in Philippians 2:12. He doesn’t say “work to acquire or obtain or earn your salvation, for God has done all he can and now it is up to you.”
Remember that Paul is addressing Christians. These aren’t unsaved folk whom he commands to work so they might earn or merit acceptance with God. These are believers in Jesus in the church at Philippi. Therefore, he cannot be telling them to get themselves saved. He can’t be saying, “work for your salvation” as if salvation is something they haven’t yet experienced but are to strive to obtain.
There is a vast difference between “work for” and “work out.” Work “for” assumes that “salvation” is a goal or reward for which you are laboring or striving. Work “out” assumes that “salvation” is already in place; salvation has already been accomplished and experienced and you are now unpacking it, exploring it, laboring so that it might come to full flower, as it were.
So, to sum up, Paul is simply calling on all Christians to be diligent in the pursuit and practice of holiness. Be devoted in your Christian walk to becoming ever more like Jesus, conformed to his image, loving what he loves, hating what he hates, thinking and talking and choosing in a way that would please him.
We are to do this with “fear and trembling”? I think by this he has in view our attitude toward God. Perhaps we can catch a glimpse of what Paul had in mind by thinking back on what he’s just said in vv. 9-11. If every being in the universe, whether human or angelic, will one day acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus and bow in his presence, then the only reasonable response to him is humble, reverential fear and a healthy dose of trembling. He is God, and we are accountable to him for every though that passes through our minds and every word that falls from our lips and every action we take, every moment of every day. If that doesn’t cause you to tremble, nothing will.
Perhaps there is also a measure of “fear and trembling” at the prospect that if we fail to “work out” our salvation we will not have lived up to our privileges as God’s children and will suffer the loss of rewards and perhaps the loss of experiential intimacy with God. The bottom line is that diligence in Christian living is no casual or flippant matter. It must be undertaken with urgency and seriousness.
Therefore, the “fear and trembling” of v. 12 comes from our recognition of who Jesus Christ is, as just explained to us in vv. 5-11. The fact that he is Lord, before whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess, awakens us to the magnitude of our responsibility and the awesome majesty of the one whom we obey.
To be continued . . .