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)
This is a verse that religious-types love to quote. They use it to say that salvation is something we need 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 here 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, your complete healing, and your complete 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’s come already! Don’t ask Him to provide – He’s provided already! He forgave you and healed you at the cross. 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. In Philippians 2 Paul is exhorting us not to be idle but to work out in our own lives the implications of His powerful sacrifice. 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 now clothed with Christ.
In this passage, 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. So why is fear and trembling involved? Because sometimes trusting God can be scary!
The other day I saw a paralyzed lady get out of a wheelchair and take her first tentative steps in 23 years. (You can see it here on YouTube.) She was trembling when she did it. We can only imagine what was going through her mind. What if she tried and failed? What if she rose to her feet and fell on her 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. Or consider Rahab. Do you think she 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. What about Daniel in the lions’ den, or David facing the giant, or Moses standing up to Pharaoh? Is it so hard to imagine that these heroes of faith acted with fear and trembling?
Faith means 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 it became apparent that Camilla and I were going to be handed the leadership of a church, I told her “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)
Would you say that Paul was a mighty man of faith? Definitely! Yet here he is admitting that 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 folks. 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 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 if you’ve been following my series on James, you will know that 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 to believe in Jesus and reveal His finished work in our broken world. Which kind of works do you think Paul was describing here in Philippians 2 – the works of man or the work of God? Take a look at the next verse:
…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? Well we are the ones who decide who gets to see the King! God is sovereign, but in His wisdom He has chosen to reveal Himself through the faith of His saints. We preach and His signs and wonders follow. We lay hands on the sick and His healing is released. So guess what happens if we don’t preach or lay hands on the sick?
Paul didn’t want to go to Corinth but he went anyway. Despite his “fear and much 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 hell-bound sinners 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.