Working in Fear


Philippians 2:12-13

There is no doubt that vv. 12-13 are simply the first part of a sub-paragraph that extends to verse 18. In typical fashion Paul makes a general statement that he then follows up with particulars. One old writer characterized this pattern as “breaking grace up small,” following a general statement of the principle with specific applications of it. The entire section from 2:1 is the specific application of the general principle given in 1:27: “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Now, within this larger section we have a sub-section that is organized in the same way: general statement first, then specific applications. We are considering the general statement this morning.

Text Comment

v.13

Several matters deserve comment. First, the phrase “work out your salvation” in v. 12 obviously is another way of saying “obey.” The run of the thought is “as you have always obeyed…continue to work out your salvation…” The accent is plainly falling on our living in obedience to God and serving him by doing his will. To work out one’s salvation is precisely every day to apply oneself to living in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. It is the overarching theme of this whole section. The idea of obedience also connects this statement to the previous verses, in which, you remember, emphasis fell on Christ’s obedience, even unto death. And the stress on obedience ends the statement as well in v. 13: what God and what Paul are after in us is both the will to work and the working itself, both the desire and the commitment to obey and the obedience itself. [Silva, 117]

Second, the “for” with which v. 13 begins, makes it also emphatically clear that our obedience, our “working out our salvation” depends upon God’s prior working. Our working is only made possible by God’s grace. Interestingly, this point has already been made in a quite similar way earlier in the letter in chapter 1, vv. 3 and following. There Paul refers to the Philippians’ gospel work in v. 4 for example, then to the Lord’s working in them in v. 5, and, once again, to the Philippians’ godly living in the following verses. He commends their conduct, acknowledges that it comes from God’s work within them and then moves easily back to commending them once more.

What we have here then is a classic instance of the interplay between God’s grace, God’s sovereign grace, and our accountability or responsibility. And it is left, as it is always left in the Bible, for us not to harmonize the two emphases, still less to choose one over the other, but to receive them both, believe them both, and live in obedience to them both: working to obey to live obedient lives all the while depending upon God’s grace in order to be able to do so.

Third, the term “salvation” as used here in the phrase “work out your salvation” is being used in the broader sense of the term the whole course of our deliverance from sin and death. The term is used in a variety of ways in the New Testament. It can be used of the initial transformation of a person’s life in faith and conversion. This is perhaps the way we typically use the term as when Paul told the Philippian jailer in Acts 16, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household.” But the same word can be used to refer to the consummation of salvation at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the resurrection of the dead, as in Hebrews 9:28, where we read that Jesus will come again to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. As if they didn’t yet have the salvation. They have it and they don’t have it because the term can refer to salvation in many different respects. It would be a mistake to think that Paul would ever say that we are to work out our justification, our forgiveness of sins, our right relationship with God, and our peace with God. He explicitly says, emphatically argues, that we don’t work out those things. God justifies the ungodly, not the obedient, Paul says in Romans 4:5. But there is a great deal that we are called upon to do as Christians and this new life is also part of our salvation as that salvation is described in the bible. It is not Paul’s way of speaking, but it will be true to his thought to say that we are to work out our sanctification, the transformation of our lives because that is also part of salvation. We have been saved, after all, to be conformed to the image of God’s Son, and there is work for us to do to that end, even if it is part of that salvation which from beginning to end is the work and the gift of God.

Fourth, and finally, while there is an emphasis on the individual believer’s working out his own salvation – the your in “work out your salvation” is the reflexive pronoun, that is your own [O’Brien, 279] each of you work out your own salvation – that is, while there is emphasis on the individual believer taking responsible action for himself or herself, the context makes clear enough that this work must be done in and for the community of believers. This working out our salvation will result in our putting the interests of others before our own, in being like-minded, and having the same love as Paul said up the page. And, as Paul said earlier of himself in chapter 1, each Christian will need the help and of his brothers and sisters in order to live in this way. Unity in love in the body of Christ is always the result of Christians working out their own salvation in fear and trembling. So, there is no contradiction between v. 4 – putting the interests of others before your own – and v. 12 – working out your own, your very own, salvation. The latter produces the former and vice versa.

Let me summarize the flow of thought as Paul moves from the Hymn of Christ in vv. 6-11 to these two verses we have read this morning. “Therefore, my dear brothers, with Christ’s obedience before you as your example, and with the hope and expectation of his universal triumph before you to nerve and steel you to the work. Be faithful to him, serve him in obedience. Be as faithful as Christians ought to be whether or not I am there to see how you are living. Do not look to me for your strength to go on; it is God with whom you have to do. Therefore, with the confidence that your efforts will have his blessing, and with the reverence and the alert and watchful conscience appropriate to those who know that they are living their lives under the inspection of and for the interests of Almighty God himself, apply yourselves to living a life of faithful service and careful and strict obedience to your calling as the followers of Jesus Christ.

Now there are some highly interesting features of Paul’s exhortation in vv. 12 and 13. These are features that have provoked an immense amount of comment and of controversy. You would, perhaps, feel sorry for me if you knew how many pages in the commentaries I consult and that I had to read just for these two verses. Usually when your text is only two verses you think you are going to have a relatively light assignment for that particular week at least reading the commentaries. Page after page after page because these texts, these verses, short as they are have spawned so much discussion, so much controversy through the ages. First, there is the striking juxtaposition of God’s working and our working. “You work out your salvation…” Paul says, “because God is working in you…” This strikes many as paradoxical, confusing, and even contradictory. How can he command us to work if our working depends entirely upon God’s work in us? And if God is working, why do we need to work? Surely God’s working makes our working superfluous. What are we going to add to his work? Such questions have been asked from time immemorial! But any reader of the Bible knows that this juxtaposition of the indicative – what God is doing – and the imperative – what we are summoned and commanded to do – is entirely characteristic of the bible’s way of presenting to us salvation and the Christian life. That God is at work in our lives, that our salvation depends entirely upon what he does for us and in us, never means that there is nothing for us to do. We work because he is at work in us. God is interested in the transformation of our lives as human beings; his salvation has precisely the purpose that we should think and act differently. And, what is more, he always works through means: he uses our working to accomplish his will and in us. He works by our work.

Then, in the second place, there is the interesting fact that Paul commands us to work out our salvation. There are a great many people through the ages of the church who have thought that salvation is something that happens to a person, it comes of a sudden, and that is that. You are saved; you are in. They see the need to work at their jobs, to work to make money; they admire those who work hard to obtain success, they might well admit that one must work at a marriage or work at raising one’s children, but they see no need to work their salvation. They have that already. They might actually think in fact many have thought that it is a defect in someone who imagines that he must work out his salvation, as if that person didn’t realize that salvation is the gift of God’s grace. You don’t work for a gift. It is given to you, it is not achieved or accomplished or earned. If it is, it is not a gift. It is not, cannot be the result of work.

But, of course, while it is true that one does not and cannot work for one’s forgiveness, does not work for one’s peace with God, cannot work for one’s entrance into God’s family, everywhere in the Bible believers are summoned to work at their salvation. To take steps to transform their lives in ever greater obedience to God and in ever more faithful service. Keep in step with the Spirit; put your sins to death; put on the new man. That work is the hardest work any human being has ever been summoned, but over and over again the Bible says it must be done and that a person who imagines that he can be saved without his or her hard work is deceiving himself or herself. There is no forgiveness of sins that is not followed by the long, hard work of putting on holiness in the fear of God.

But I think for most of us the most interesting and perhaps unexpected feature of the Apostle’s exhortation and the one that most requires explanation is not those first two features of Paul’s statement here, but rather his reference to “fear and trembling.” “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” Paul even throws that phrase, “fear and trembling” to the front of his Greek clause in order to lay special emphases on it – with “fear and trembling” work out your salvation.

What does that mean? Why does Paul speak this way? These are fair questions. Does not the Bible itself say that “perfect love casts out fear”? Doesn’t fear seem out of place in the life of one who has become a child of God, who has God for his father, whose sins have been forgiven and which are remembered no more? They have been cast behind God’s back and buried in the deepest sea. What does he have to fear? Why should we fear God when we have the Holy Spirit – God himself – within us as a seal of our eternal inheritance in heaven? Fair questions.

But, our questions notwithstanding, that is what Paul says: we are to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. And it is hardly only here that we read such a thing. There are many places in the Bible when the entire Christian life is summed up as simply the fear of the Lord. “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man,” says the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. Alright, so it is biblical to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. But what does that mean? How are we to fear and tremble? And to what point?

Well, we begin to answer those questions when we acknowledge that there are good fears and bad fears. Everyone knows that it is a good thing to fear fire or the edge of a cliff. Those kinds of fears protect us. But there are other fears that are unhealthy, irrational, and harmful. People can be paralyzed by fears of various kinds, phobias we call them: fear of the dark, fear of heights, fear of crowds, and so on. There are other fears that are reasonable enough entirely rational and yet they are dark and heavy and add nothing positive to our lives. There is for example fear of death when one is very sick, and the fear of crime when he lives in a difficult neighborhood.

One can have a slavish, destructive, dark and unhelpful fear of God, to be sure. The Bible shows us such fear. Israel cowered before God at Mt. Sinai precisely because she had no faith and God in his holiness posed a threat to her. In Rev. 6:16 we read of the sinners who will first catch sight of the Lamb of God as he prepares to judge the world.

“And they said to the mountains and to the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him that sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!’”

This is not an irrational fear, to be sure; they have every right to be terrified of what is to become of them. They have been rebels and God has now come to bring judgment against them. But, however reasonable the fear, it is not the fear and trembling of which Paul is speaking here in Philippians 2:12 which is an altogether positive, wholesome, helpful, useful thing. No one whose faith is in Christ need ever experience that kind of craven fear and dread, that kind of fear that is experienced by the enemies of God. You remember Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, in his great song which he before the birth of Jesus Christ.

“He will rescue us from our enemies and enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” [Luke 1:74-75]

I don’t say that some Christians, perhaps all of us at one time or another aren’t subject to this kind of fear, this unsettling, disturbing, and darker fear of God. John Bunyan, in the second part of Pilgrim’s Progress has a character, Mr. Fearing, who has a weak faith and was never sure whether God was going to save him or damn him. Of Mr. Fearing Bunyan says, “he was always afraid that he should come short of whither he had a desire to go.” [Works, iii, 213] But Mr. Fearing is not the Bible’s idea or Bunyan’s idea of what a Christian ought to be, but rather of a Christian who had not laid claim to the peace and the confidence that was rightfully his.

In any case, the fear and trembling that Paul is urging upon us is not such a fear or dread. It is not insecurity or alarm at the prospect of failure. Nor is it a fear that drives out as dark and as unhappy and as sinful fears so often do. It is not a fear that drives out all the other emotions displaces all the other spiritual conditions within us.

Worldly fears of the kind I have mentioned often do this. The fear is overwhelming. When one is afraid, really afraid, terrified, some of you know this – for good reasons or for bad it doesn’t make any difference – he can think of nothing else, sometimes he cannot move. He is actually, physically paralyzed by his fear. This has often happened to soldiers. Safety dictates that they move, that they run, or retreat, but they cannot move, they cannot make their bodies obey because fear has literally paralyzed them. But the fear and trembling of which Paul speaks is not like that at all. It is not a paralyzing fear it is an animating fear. It is not a fear that imprisons, it is a fear that liberates and frees.

This fear, amazingly, is congenial to other affections and emotions and convictions at the same time. You can, for example, fear God and be happy at the same time.

“Happy is the man who fears the Lord,” we read in Prov. 28:14.

In the first chapter of his first letter, Peter speaks of his Christian friends’ “inexpressible and glorious joy” in their knowledge of Christ, and then goes on to say to them, “Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.” Reverent fear and inexpressible joy can exist in the same heart at the same time! The world does not know this, but it is true.

And not just fear and joy. We know how love and fear can go together. I loved my father, but I feared him too. And that is even more so of the believer’s fear of God. “Let those who fear the Lord say, ‘His love endures forever.’” [Ps. 118:4]

Strangely, even confidence and security can co-exist in the same heart with the fear of the Lord. The world cannot put these two things together. Fear is precisely the absence of calm and security and confidence. Remember David’s lovely remark? “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him and he delivers them.” There is a calm, a peace, an assurance that is the fruit of this fear of the Lord.

Well if it not a bad fear, a craven fear, a dark and paralyzing dread, and if it co-exists with joy, peace, and love, what is this fear and trembling that Paul is speaking of?

Well, it is not easy to answer that question. I’m not sure that anyone has really ever perfectly answered it. It is something I think finally the Christian knows only when he feels and experiences it, or at least knows completely. Typically the commentaries will say that it amounts to reverence, homage, and devotion, and it surely is all of that. But the Bible uses the word “fear” in this positive sense in so many ways that it is impossible adequately to define it with a single word or term.

There is, for example, in this holy fear obviously a spirit of humility and lowliness of heart before God. Paul, in another of his letters [Rom. 11:20] writes, “do not be high-minded or arrogant, but fear.” It is impossible, of course, really to fear something you feel is smaller than yourself. It’s probably impossible to fear, really fear, something you think is equal to yourself. Those who do not fear God invariably have a high view of themselves and a low view of God. Those who fear God do so precisely because they see God as he is and, accordingly, they see their own pitiful smallness in comparison. They can’t help but see it.

In the fear of God there is also a spirit of submission and obedience. It is the mind, the heart, the spirit of a servant. This is obviously present in Paul’s use of “fear and trembling” here. He is talking about our obedience to God and about how complete and unquestioning it ought to be. One does not dare to disobey the living God! Fear and obedience are often linked in the Bible. Moses told Israel at Sinai that the fear of God would keep her from sinning if only she had it. When, in Psalm 34:11-14 David says, “Come my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord…” he goes right on to say, “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies. Turn from evil and do good…” That is the fear of God.

It is not difficult to see the connection between the fear of the Lord and obedience. The knowledge that God is the sovereign ruler of all, that he will punish disobedience, that he will bring every human life into judgment at the end of history, that he will give to every man what he deserves – Christian and non-Christian alike – all of this ought to make a man or woman tremble and it ought to make us obey. The fear of the Lord is the conviction that we cannot pull the wool over God’s eyes, however we might be able to do that with others we cannot do it with him, that God will not be mocked, that whatsoever a man sows that shall he also reap. There is no escaping God! The fear of the Lord is the certainty that in all of our living it is Almighty God with whom we have to do.

When William Farel wrote to John Calvin to urge him to return to Geneva to continue the work of the Reformation there, Calvin was reluctant to go. He had tried to lead the Genevan reformation before and it had ended badly. What is more his three years in Strasbourg had been very happy and he was getting a lot of good and valuable work done there. Why go back to the bickering, the opposition, and the antagonism he faced before in Geneva? He explained all of that in his letter back to Farel, but he finished his reply with these words: “I am well aware that it is with God that I have to do.” There is the fear of the Lord: the recognition that one must do God’s will come wind, come weather because he is the High God, because he is the judge of all men, because he has summoned his people to obedience and he will not tolerate disobedience. There are other reasons for Christians to obey the Lord – love and gratitude, for example, or the prospect of reward, the Bible sets those reasons out before us as well – but the fear of the Lord is another motive and a very powerful one indeed.

But in addition to humility and a spirit of obedience and submission the fear of the Lord is also I think what we might describe as awe tinged with dread. Perhaps the addition of “trembling” adds this sense particularly. Perhaps this is first and last why the Bible uses a term that ordinarily in human life has such negative connotations to describe what is unquestionably a very holy and proper state of mind. When most people hear the word fear they don’t think of a good thing, they think of a bad thing. Yet the Bible chose that word to describe this state in a believer’s heart so important to his obedience and his life. There is more than something breathtaking, something awe-inspiring, something overwhelming in God and when we see men coming face to face with the divine presence as we do from time to time in Holy Scripture we always see them shattered, silenced, and dumbstruck. The fear of the Lord is a consciousness of the Lord’s terrible majesty and of his limitless power. It is the recognition in the heart that even thought he is our heavenly Father and loves us with an everlasting love we cannot see his glory and survive. He inhabits eternity and dwells in unapproachable light.

You have heard, I’m sure, of the Pistol Star that the Hubble telescope got evidence of a few years back. One of the millions upon millions of stars in our own galaxy, the nearest of which, by the way, would take 100,000 years to reach at the speed at which our space probes travel today. The Pistol Star, they tell us, is 10 million times brighter than our own sun. I say those words and repeat those numbers, but we have hardly any sense of what they mean. Numbers like those beggar the imagination. And that is but one star in a galaxy of millions, among millions of stars among millions of galaxies in this immense universe, spread over distances we can compute but scarcely begin to comprehend. And God brought all of that into being by the mere utterance of his mouth and he effortlessly controls the motion of every particle of intergalactic dust in all the vastnesses of those wheeling galaxies. The vastness is nothing to him. The universe in all its immensity is a drop in the bucket.

Spurgeon, while still a very young preacher, put this question to his congregation at New Park Street.

“Did you never, in the silence of the night, look up and view the stars, feeding like sheep, on the azure pastures of the sky? Have you never thought of those great worlds, far, far away, divided from us by almost illimitable leagues of space? Did you never, [while] musing on the starry heavens, lose yourself in thoughts of God; and have you never felt, at such a time, that you could say with Jacob, ‘How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and the very gate of heaven.’ Have you never seen the craggy hills lift their summits to the skies? Have you never marked the tempests sailing o’er them, and seen the thundercloud burst upon the mountain, and heard the heavens shake beneath the tramp of the Most High, and seen the skies all glaring red with fire, when God hath sent his thunderbolts abroad; and have you not trembled that God was there, and in other happier seasons have you not in your chamber been so wrapt in devotion, have you not so manifestly known the presence of God that you were filled with trembling? Fear took hold upon you and made your bones to shake, not because you dreaded God, but because you then saw some of his greatness…. God is so great a being that the rightly constituted mind must always fear when it approaches into his presence.” [NPSP, iii, 331-332]

There is far too little reverential fear of God in the church today and far, far too little in your heart and in mine. If you or I were informed for the first time, today, that the angels of God had six wings and then were asked how they used those six wings, we would say, would we not, that they used them to fly, going this way and that in the service of God. We would not imagine that these angels who always live before the face of God and are familiar with his divine glory nevertheless use two of their wings to cover their faces – as unworthy to look upon God – and two of their wings to cover their feet – as unworthy to stand in his present – and use only the remaining two to fly.

It is this sense of the impenetrable majesty and glory of God that is also meant by the fear of the Lord that Paul commends to us here. Be mindful of that dreadful glory, of your own smallness and ill-desert before the Judge of all the earth, and accept your proper place as a servant before your high God and Master, and then give yourself to obedience with all your heart and mind and strength.

George Bernard Shaw, the English playwright, once made the comment that it would have been a better world if Paul had never been born. It is not hard to know why a man like Shaw would make a preposterous statement like that. Paul took God seriously, he took the gospel seriously, and he took the divine summons issued to men seriously. He was before anything else deadly serious about God and man. Shaw wanted liberalism’s god, a god of good humor not a fearful and dreadful god.

But that sort of god is not only uninteresting – nothing is more insipid as indiscriminate good humor: cheerful and uncaring no matter what – he is of no use and no consequence to human beings. Only a God of impenetrable majesty and awful holiness can both explain this world in which we live and which we observe and at the same time satisfy our soul. We have been made for that God, the living God, and none other. Such is the God we have been summoned to serve.

“Fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing.”

“From everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him.”

“The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.”

No wonder Paul should tell us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling because it is God with whom we have to do.