“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13, ESV).
Many of us are familiar with the challenge of this passage (“Work with fear and trembling!”) without the comfort of its promise (“for it is God who works in you”). Perhaps we had well-meaning parents, pastors and teachers who tried to inspire us to do our best through the motivation of guilt, shame or fear. But teaching the duty of verse 12 without the comfort of verse 13 amounts to spiritual abuse.
Those who ministered such abuse may have been doing the best they knew. Rather than condemning them, we can pray with Jesus: “Father forgive them, for they knew not what they did.” Even so, the fact remains that damage was done through inflicting shame, guilt and fear—from which some of us have been in recovery for decades.
Speaking personally, I’ve learned the need for grace—undeserved favor—to be foundational in my relationship with God. In love He invites us to “come boldly unto the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). Actually I don’t just “come” to God’s throne of grace—day by day I “have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us” within the shelter of heaven’s sanctuary (Heb. 6:18).
The undeserved favor that God graciously gives me also empowers me to do His will. Delivered from the burden of trying to prove myself to others, to myself or even to God, grace sets me free to live my life in grateful ministry:
Like Zacchaeus, entrapped by greed yet accepted by Christ into fellowship—and immediately set free to offer gracious generosity (far more than the written code required).
Like Peter the cowardly denier, restored by grace to bear courageous witness before the same intimidating enemies who had murdered his Lord.
Like . . . you, upon discovering the energizing power of God’s grace. Though deeply flawed, you and I enjoy access to God (always and only) through His undeserved favor.
And that brings a test. What will we do with this liberating grace? How shall we then live?
Remember the 10 lepers healed by Jesus (Luke 17:12ff). Nine of them just went back to business as usual, not caring to go out of their way even to say “thank you!” But one of them—a despised Samaritan—sought out the Lord’s presence to fall at His feet and express grateful love. This man was not only healed, but saved.
It may have taken some diligence for the ex-leper to locate Jesus after having been certified by the priests as a legitimate member of the community. But gratitude for salvation from his alienating disease made him willing to discipline himself to do his part in having a connection with Christ. God’s grace likewise compels us, in grateful love, to work out God’s gift of salvation in daily living.
But where does the “fear and trembling” come in (Phil 2:12)? God doesn’t want us to be afraid, does He? Certainly not in the sense of being frightened of Abba Father and His Son, our savior. Rather, we fear the thought of drifting back into the old life and forfeiting our new life in Christ, like the nine healthy ingrates who just slipped back into business as usual. We tremble at the possibility of living selfishly in the aftermath of God’s mercy. We are afraid of just enjoying our own salvation while lost souls around us are going to hell, unloved and unwarned by the church.
Indeed, without daily discipline (“working out our salvation”), we will suffer a loss of purpose and sink back into the aimless existence of our old life BC (before Christ). We then inevitably squander God’s blessings upon our own cravings and imagined needs. Hence God’s call to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” rather than to be “conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2). How? “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1).
But some may wonder, isn’t it legalistic to sacrifice ourselves in serving God? Not when motivated “by the mercies of God” (verse 1). In light of God’s grace, it’s only reasonable to be radical in our devotion to God and His mission for our lives.
When we come to Jesus and find rest in His grace and love, we find that His yoke of service is easy and light. For us the promise is fulfilled: “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
To summarize: It takes discipline to be Christ’s disciple amid the distractions of this world. Such grace-based radical commitment is nothing more (and nothing less) than normal Christian living. Though conscious of our flaws we are also confident of God’s mercy. Thus we are set free to serve Him without fear, shame, guilt and pride.
So please join me in praying: “Lord, please optimize me to radically serve you—whatever that might mean in Your plan for my life today.