“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” Philippians 2:12-13
The Bible is filled with tough verses to interpret. Many verses are tough even for seasoned Biblical scholars. If you have been a Christian for any length of time you know that we believe that salvation is not works based. Meaning that no matter how hard you try, you cannot work your way into right standing before God. Your good works are as dung before God. He accounts them as nothing. We need the perfect work of Jesus Christ to be counted as holy, so as Christians we put all of our faith in Him and his finished work on the cross of Calvary.
In light of that, this verse in Philippians can be a tough one to figure out. At first it seems to imply that our salvation is based upon what we do. But this is not what Paul is saying at all. If you have read Paul’s letters, he clearly states that salvation is not based on works, but on faith alone in Christ alone.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9
So Paul is not saying that we need to work for our salvation. What he is saying is that our salvation is working in us and it is our responsibility to let that process work through us. It’s not a completed process. So Paul is encouraging us to work out our salvation.
In one sense our salvation is complete. Jesus finished the work of salvation on the cross. He died for our sins. That is complete. But in the sense Paul is speaking of here, our salvation has not worked out completely in us. Salvation is a process. Once the process is started in our lives, salvation links up with sanctification. The reason these two link up is to work in us and to make us more like Jesus. The goal of salvation is not simply to save us, but with the process of sanctification, it is to conform us into the image of Jesus.
“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” – Romans 8:29
Now the question is how are we to work out our salvation? Paul says “with fear and trembling.” Now why do you suppose he uses these two words to describe this process? I believe it is because that is how we enter into the kingdom in the first place. Remember, God does not give grace to the proud. The fear of the Lord produces humility in us and that holy fear is what Paul is referring to in this passage.
Once we are saved, we can become so comfortable with God, that we forget to have reverence toward Him. While the Bible encourages us to approach his throne with confidence, that doesn’t mean that we throw out any reverence for His name and who He is. We must always remember that we are drawing near to a holy and perfect God. He has grace and love towards us, but we show our love toward Him by showing Him respect. So Paul encourages us to work out our salvation with this fear in mind.