by Ed Elliott
?Wherefore, my beloved, as ye 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? (Philippians 2:12).
What does it mean to ?Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling?? Many believers will quote this verse to support the idea that we still have much personal development to do in completing what Jesus started or to make ourselves worthy and acceptable to the Lord. The idea is we need to do ?works? to prove we are saved, and we need to be fearful that if we don?t do and live as God has commanded, we could be tossed into hell. If this were true, I can understand why believers would be trembling in fear while working hard to stay out of hell.
Unfortunately for these types of believers who preach a gospel of performance, this isn?t what this verse means at all. First off, salvation isn?t something you have to work for; it is a free gift from God that is received by faith. You don?t work for salvation; it works for you.
Working out our salvation is very different from working for our salvation. When Paul tells believers they need to work out their salvation, he is simply explaining that the wonderful gift they freely received from God is inside of them. We bring out those beautiful attributes and character traits by faith. Faith is a rest, but it is faith that works, not us. So working out what is on the inside of us happens by faith.
This process can be frightening in the beginning as a new believer discovers how to live and walk by faith. Some strong trepidation may be present at first when a person decides to trust God as his or her source and peace. I remember how scary it was for me to stop trusting in my natural abilities and trust in God?s Word. This is what Paul is referring to when he mentions ?fear and trembling.? He isn?t talking about being afraid of God. Rather, he is helping the new believer to know that in the beginning, it will seem scary to walk by faith. However, it is the only way to see our inner salvation manifest on the outside through our character.
Keep in mind many of the people Paul was writing to came from religions that opposed the type of grace he was preaching. For example, first century Jews who converted to Christianity would have struggled to believe they were in perfect union with God. Moreover, the thought that God was now living in them seemed unreal much less the idea that He could love them unconditionally. They had left a religious system that taught them God was so holy, you couldn?t mention His name. Or, that if you violated His law or did something wrong in His presence, He would strike you down.
Their mindsets needed to be completely renewed. So it is easy to see why living this new life by faith would be scary for them. No one knew it better than Paul who was confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus expecting to be judged harshly for killing and imprisoning God?s children. Yet, instead of receiving the death sentence, which he expected, he was shown unfailing mercy and love that transformed him. He became one of the greatest apostles in the Bible.
John also addressed this idea that God can be scary in 1 John 4:18, ?He that fears hasn?t been made perfect in love because they don?t know God yet.? New believers who don?t know God can be afraid of Him based on wrong information about who He is. To some, learning to trust in God?s love, goodness, and mercy sounds easy at first. However, if a false perspective of God is drilled into you, overcoming those strongholds could take some time. Learning to live by faith and trusting in what Jesus did for you could be a challenging way to live if you always based your righteousness on your own performance.
When Paul told believers to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, he understood perfectly the challenge a new believer would experience. Initially, trusting the work of Christ to change your character and lifestyle without your own efforts can be daunting. It is a challenge to believe you can change without a self-help or sin management program. Notice that Paul emphasises this point in the very next verse.
?For it is God which worketh IN YOU both to will and to do of his good pleasure.? Philippians 2:13
Paul had to learn to trust in God?s grace, goodness, and love for him when he sinned or failed. Before, as a Pharisee, he would run to the temple to offer a sacrifice for his sins. But now, he had to trust Jesus as his sacrifice for sins, and believe they had been removed forever. He had to have faith that God had forgiven him once and for all and that the peace in his heart didn?t come from what he did for God but in what Jesus did for him.
Over time, Paul began to see God?s character known as the ?fruit of love? being birthed in his heart and controlling his life. He was seeing the salvation of God working its way out from the inside to the outside for the world to see. In the beginning, this process was frightening because it was a new way to relate to God. In addition, the very idea his body could be the home for God?s presence was kind of mind-blowing for a Jew who knew that priests who messed up in the Holy of Holies dropped dead.
Now, Paul was the home of God?s precious Holy Spirit, and his body and spirit had become the Holy of Holies. This meant he no longer had to strive for righteousness because in Christ, he was righteous. He didn?t have to try to be holy because as a new creation in Christ, he was made holy.
Paul?s acceptance and journey with God into this new way of life were filled with fear and trepidation. He wasn?t afraid of God; instead, he was learning not to be. His trepidation came from who he had become in Christ, a new creation in Christ, a son of God, holy and as righteous as Jesus is. That was a revolutionary belief for Paul.
Transitioning from a belief system that portrayed God as angry, fault finding and condemning to the truth that revealed He is kind, loving, and merciful is quite the journey. It truly is one that would create fear and trepidation in the hearts of those who choose to walk this new life.
This precious salvation we have received as a gift from God is on the inside of us. However, a lost and dying world is waiting to see it manifest on the outside, so this life-changing love of God touches them through our lives and characters. It can seem scary to love and forgive as Jesus loved and forgave us; it may also be a cause for some trepidation. Nevertheless, in time, as you yield to the salvation you have received, that fear and trepidation will diminish. Keeping yourself in the love of God will become natural to you.
?Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life? (Jude 21).
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