Fear and Trembling

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling… (Php 2:12)

What does it mean to work out your salvation with fear and trembling?

Some say salvation is something to work for, that we must tip-toe fearfully through life lest we upset a wrathful God and find ourselves thrown into hell. It sounds spiritual, but it’s an anti-christ message that insults the Spirit of grace.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Jesus did it all! His work was perfectly perfect and completely complete. Because of his sacrifice you have been made perfect forever. As he is, so are you. Rest in him.

Work out your own salvation…

But what does it mean to work out your own salvation? We have this idea that salvation equals forgiveness, but it is so much more than that.

Salvation is the word soteria which includes “deliverance, preservation, safety, and salvation.” It is a picture of a new life where all your needs – your need for forgiveness, deliverance, healing, provision – are supplied according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus (Ph 4:19).

On the cross Jesus provided for your complete salvation, healing, and deliverance. If your old way of life was characterized by poverty, curses and never enough, then your new life in Christ is one of abundance, blessings and more than enough.

But you might say, I don’t see it. I’m not healthy. I’m not prospering. I’m not overcoming.

Then work it out.

Don’t ask Jesus to come – he already did. Don’t ask him to provide – he’s provided already. He forgave you and healed you at the cross. In him you lack nothing (Eph 1:3).

The problem with asking God to do things he’s already done is that it makes us passive and requires no faith. Paul is not exhorting us to be idle but to work out in our own lives the implications of Christ’s powerful sacrifice.

How do you do it?

It begins by changing the way you think. Renew your mind. Look to the empty tomb, behold the glory of your risen King, and declare his goodness and grace over your situation. Grace and peace will be multiplied to you as you grow in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord (2 Pet 1:2).

…with fear and trembling

I used to think that this phrase was describing our proper state before God – that we should be afraid and tremble because even after a lifetime of service God might judge that we haven’t done enough for him. Well thank God for the cross! God isn’t looking at me but Jesus who is our perfect and acceptable sacrifice.

I no longer fear judgment because my sin has been punished and I am clothed with Christ.

In the passage above, Paul is not talking about judgment at all, but the outworking of our salvation. Surely this is a good thing, seeing the fruit of Gods work in our lives. Why are fear and trembling involved? Because trusting God can be scary.

I recently saw a video of a paralyzed lady who got out of her wheelchair and took her first steps in 23 years. She was trembling when she did it. I can only imagine what was going through her mind.

What if I fail? What if I fall on my face in front of hundreds of people?

Her wheelchair was her comfort zone, but in faith she faced her fears and received a miracle. The healing that Jesus provided for her 2000 years ago was apprehended by faith.

Faith is risky. Faith does not come naturally and is often accompanied by fear and trembling.

How do you think Abraham felt as he was about to plunge the knife into Isaac? We know that Abraham was fully persuaded that God would raise the dead – that’s faith – but he would not have been human if his hand had not trembled.

And do you think Rahab was in a joyful mood when she welcomed the spies of Israel into her home? Her faith meant a death sentence if the soldiers of Jericho discovered her treason.

Or what about Daniel in the lions’ den?

Or David facing the giant?

Or Moses standing up to Pharaoh? Scary moments!

Faith often involves putting something on the line. It might be your comfort, your reputation, your family, your funds, even your life – but something is risked or else it’s not faith.

You may want to run away…

My favorite line in the film Avatar is “Run! Definitely run!” Apparently this is the proper thing to do when you meet one of Pandora’s more aggressive beasts.

Fear often manifests as a desire to run away. Indeed, the words “fear” and “flight” are connected in the Greek language. So our choice is often one of faith versus flight.

I know something about that.

Years ago when Camilla and I learned we were going to be handed the leadership of a church, I said “pack your bags, we’re leaving.” I feared failure. I didn’t want to do it. Paul felt the same way about going to Corinth:

And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. (1 Cor 2:1-3)

Paul was a mighty man of faith, yet he came to Corinth in fear and in much trembling. In other words, he didn’t want to go. In fact, Paul was so fearful that God had to step in and say “do not be afraid” (Acts 18:9).

There’s grace for us here. Paul is saying, “it’s not wrong to be fearful.” But in the presence of these feelings, work out your salvation anyway. Take the faith-risk, because you will be blessed if you do.

I’m not comparing myself to the great apostle Paul, but by the grace of God Camilla and I didn’t run away. We stayed and preached the gospel and for ten years had the awesome privilege of leading Hong Kongers to Christ.

…but you will be blessed if you stay

A preacher of works will use Philippians 2:12 to motivate you to perform out of fear. But there is a big difference between works done under law and works done under grace.

Under law we work for God, but under grace we do the work of God. The work of God is believing in Jesus and revealing his finished work in our broken world. Which kind of works do you think Paul was describing here in Philippians 2?

…for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure. (Php 2:13)

If God is the one working, what part do we play? We are the ones who decide who gets to see his work.

God is God, but in his wisdom he has chosen to reveal himself through the faith of his saints. We preach with our mouths and his signs and wonders follow. We lay our hands on the sick and his healing is released.

Paul didn’t want to go to Corinth but he went anyway. Despite his fear and trembling he preached Christ crucified and the result was that many Corinthians believed and were baptized (Acts 18:8).

Jonah didn’t want to preach in Nineveh but he did and an entire city was saved. Both Jonah and Paul took faith-risks despite their fears. As a result, the kingdom of God came to two cities and thousands of people were saved.

Fear and trembling are normal. What you do with fear is the thing. We can live afraid and see nothing change, or we can face our fears and see the kingdom come.

Working out our salvation means that at some point we’re going to have to get out of the boat and take a risk. God won’t punish us if we hold back – this has nothing to do with punishment.

But we will blessed, and the nations will be blessed through us, when we reveal Jesus.

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42 Comments on Fear and Trembling

  1. So glad that your life has room in it for sharing these things online! I’m thanking God for you.

  2. shirley jenkins // October 21, 2010 at 12:03 am // Reply

    THANK YOU for this Paul…You were always instrumental in getting my head around problem areas for me and praise God and how amazing that you are continuing to do so..Don’t think I ever thanked you enough an doubt that you even knew so I am thanking you now ..much love to you and camilla and the girls and guy xxx

  3. Awesome stuff Paul! This must be one of the most powerful revelations I have received to date. My prayer is that God will reveal to me what His will is for my life so I know when to ‘get out of the boat’. I am done with my own initiatives and ideas, the time has come to wait for God’s clear guideance and then to respond.

  4. Good stuff bud, good stuff! Salvation ALSO includes an inheritance, it’s not just a Heaven and hell issue. Im going to Heaven (HeeeHaa) that’s settled, FOREVER, BUT what I take with me or how I get there isn’t. “Well done good servant , go and rule 10 cities OR “you smell abit like hell mate!(fleeing through the fire!). Keep going Paul!!

    Dian Botha

  5. Thank you Paul, I am blessed and those I shared with will also be blessed. Keep doing the work of God 🙂

  6. Could Mark 5:33-34 also help interpret what this means?

  7. Bertha Harmon // April 13, 2011 at 5:32 am // Reply

    WOW!!!!! RICH, RICH, RICH!!!!!

  8. Richard Williamson // June 28, 2011 at 1:04 am // Reply

    Hi Paul,
    Just found your site….really sense God leading me down the path of what grace is really all about. Loved this article!! Keep it up!
    Richard Williamson (ex- fellow Cantabrian)

  9. Thanks and God bless you Paul for enlightening me on ‘Working out our salvation’

  10. This was exactly what I needed! Praise God for helping me find it and inspiring you to write it, and thank you for answering the call and not staying in your boat! 🙂

  11. salvation = yeshua in hebrew = Jesus…
    so you could say “work out Jesus…”

  12. Dear Paul I thank you for this but I still need help. I need to learn more about the word of God. I went through a horrible experience with a church leader that almost destroyed my life and now I’m trying to find the truth about truly receiving Jesus as my Savior.

  13. Thank God for this message .God bless u.I think wat you are saying is really connected to “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling ” which differs from “your salvation with fear and trembling .my emphasis is on in fear and with fear.pls need insight

  14. thanks, needed a refresher course,its been a while.

  15. Paul, as always, an awesome word, Thanks by the way again for the insight on the footprint post from Facebook.

  16. Michael Jenkins // November 24, 2013 at 4:11 pm // Reply

    This really helped me, thanks for the clarification.

  17. yes that’s true, grace is truely wat saves…I ve experienced it in my life

  18. Paul I am blessed a lot by all your articles. Just wanted to thank you for being a light in the dark religious world. I am using your posts
    To generate discussion and encourage others in our bible study group. Thanks brother.

  19. Another excellent post. I love to read your writings. Thank you so much for your blog posts.

  20. Matthew Turner // August 15, 2014 at 3:26 am // Reply

    Thank you very much. I’m sharing this and reading it over and over so it’ll soak my soul.

  21. Sean Corkery // August 15, 2014 at 4:08 am // Reply

    Note in the Greek and Pauline scriptures there was not a word for excitement…. What Paul is saying here is much of what we say today: ‘Get Excited Folks …. Get very excited’ … so much for not living by our emotions…

    • This is interesting. When I lived in Thailand, when I would tell someone there I was excited in Thai, they would put their hand on me and say, it’s ok, there’s nothing to be scared of. The English word excited translated over into the Thai language has an element of fear in it. I never knew how to explain to them the feeling of excitement. This could very well be what is happening here.

  22. Beth Mallory // August 15, 2014 at 7:10 am // Reply

    Always encouraged and enlightened by your posts, Paul. There’s always an “ah ha” moment with I’m thankful for😄

  23. Nigel Gwynne // July 10, 2015 at 7:31 pm // Reply

    Fear and tremble at/because of the GOODNESS of God Jer 33:9.

  24. Naty M. Cardenas // September 22, 2015 at 6:59 am // Reply

    I love to read anything that would help my spiritual growth. This morning I was browsing and found this blog. I thank God for your blog. NICE and RICH. Close to Joseph Prince and Creflo Dollar teachings. Be richly blessed Paul Ellis.

  25. Isaac Pedroza // February 26, 2016 at 7:49 pm // Reply

    Good stuff brother.. You should have added that we must let the BIBLE INTERPRET THE BIBLE!! For example, in Jeremiah 33:9, the Lord speaks directly to us and says: “.. they shall fear and tremble for all the GOODNESS and all the PROSPERITY that I provide”..
    This is sick a clear example of how fear and trembling is used in a positive context!!! God bless my brother, keep doing what you’re doing…

  26. Amen.

    The word translated “work out” is one word, and is different than the one used for “it is God who works…” I like to translate it as “cooperate.” He is doing all the real work in me. I liken it to when my work with me in the garden; we all know who is doing the real work.

    The “fear and trembling” part is interesting. I don’t even think of “fear” as in be afraid. It makes me think of just being aware of how awesome my “partner” is. I think of it as though I was playing 2 on 2 basketball, and my partner is Kobe Bryant, or Steph Curry. I would be trembling and awesomely amazed and would let him do most of the work. Sometimes when I see God working through me, there is definitely some trembling.

  27. Great explanation. Probably the most balanced understanding of ‘ fear and trembling’ I’ve heard.
    Thanks, Paul

  28. Praveen Lobo // November 30, 2016 at 4:22 pm // Reply

    I loved this post. The way you connected Paul’s fear and trembling with the title verse of this passage!. Your posts are such a blessing. Keep up the good work bro 🙂

  29. Shittu Isaiah Gaude // December 30, 2016 at 3:21 am // Reply

    Wow! This is beautifully explained. Thank you sir.

  30. This is quite revealing, awesome. Thanks Paul

  31. This is so beautifully written and clearly reveals the communication of the Spirit, it’s so liberating. Thank you, Paul.

  32. Grace tionson // July 14, 2017 at 6:04 pm // Reply

    Praise God for revealing the truth of finished work of our savior Jesus Christ thru your life pastor Paul…it helps me a lot to focus on Jesus and His finished work..

  33. Thank you for posting this — It has definitely given me a proper Biblical understanding of:
    – Phillipians 2:12, as well as
    – the first part of Hebrews 4:10,11 which says “…anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest…”

    However, can you help me with the last part of Hebrews 4:11 which says “…, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.” Here “their example” refers to the Israelites who were delivered from Egypt, yet wandered for 40 years in the wilderness and then died before the new generation entered the promised land.

    Also a somewhat related verse that I’d appreciate help understanding is Matthew 10:28 which is Jesus’ words to his disciples “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

    In each of these two passages NT believers are being warned that there are consequences to disobedience or to not living by faith. Your help in shedding light on this would be much appreciated.

    • Hi Dennis, I have written articles on both those passages. You can find them in the Archives > Scripture Index. Hopefully they will shed light. Thanks.

  34. Sarthak Alya // January 28, 2019 at 7:57 pm // Reply

    Thank you so much..
    I tried connecting Abraham & Rahab but couldn’t because situations were not same. One worked being God’s own & other to become God’s own.
    Last few paragraphs gave a clear message & I pray that God may give you revelations in abundance & use you to feed many. To God be the Glory.

  35. In case anyone wants a verse to back up specifically the part where Paul Ellis said “he (Jesus) has made you perfect forever” ….
    Hebrews 10:14. My favorite verse:
    “For by One sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”


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