Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, 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 (Philippians 2:12, 13).
We live in a unique time in history. We live in a time of microwave ovens, jet planes, fast food, and high-speed everything, so much so that we by nature expect all things to be done at lightning fast speeds. When our age of microwave ovens encounters the doctrine of salvation, we tend to get a doctrine that is warmed over, but one that has been irradiated of its healthful qualities. Question the typical Christian where the proof of his salvation lies, and he will point to a walking down the aisle during a worship service, or to a prayer he recited as a child, or to the black ink that bears his name on a membership roll. Ask the same man of his fears and uncertainties before a holy and righteous Judge, and he will truthfully say that he has none. He knows that he pressed the button of salvation years ago and that once one is saved he is always saved.
Though orthodox Christianity does indeed hold onto the glorious truth that, “He who began a good work in you will carry it out till the day of Christ Jesus,” something of substance is missing from our doctrine of salvation that was not missing in the doctrine of the saints of old. While the olden saints saw the light of the Gospel, believed upon Jesus, and lived the rest of their lives with holy fear before a holy God, we in the American church repeat a fabricated prayer, claim to believe in Jesus, and go about living our lives in much the same manner as we had before. Some things might change mind you—we may go to church more often, we may switch political parties, we may stop watching particular television shows or movies, but do our lives really change? Do our new lives in Christ genuinely reflect the profundity of being brought from death to life, of being blind and now seeing, of being deaf and now hearing? Would a man raised from the dead simply go to church more often? Would a blind man having gained his sight simply switch political parties? Would a deaf man having gained his hearing simply change the programs that he watches? How much greater then should our transformation be, we who were at one time spiritually dead, blind to the glory of God, and deaf to the call of Christ!
Why do we not respond rightly to the profound change that has been wrought in us by the Triune God? It has much to do with the reason why we cannot make sense of the Apostle’s command to the Philippians: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work his good pleasure.” We simply have no categories in our minds for such things in our microwaved salvation. We claim that we have believed on the Word, yet we cannot make sense of his Word. Perhaps now, for the sake of our soul, we should now make a category for testing and doubting our salvation.
There Is No Fear and Trembling before God
“The fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom,” which is to say that there is no wisdom where there is no fear of God. Consequently, the fear of God is the greatest thing that we lack in the American Church. Preachers and teachers go to great lengths to demonstrate that the word “fear” does not mean “to fear” in Scripture, but it means “to respect.” We are not to fear God, they say, but we are to respect him. Yet these same teachers give no account for the trembling of which the Apostle speaks in Philippians, nor do they give account of Isaiah’s exclamation, “Woe is me!” when he beheld the Almighty.
It is clear by this that we as a people have broken the second commandment. We may not have erected physical idols for our homes and churches, but we have erected them in our minds and hearts. We know this because our bodies do not shake when our minds transcend the temporal and attempt to grasp the Almighty. We instead imagine a very safe God—one whom we have no problem drawing in children’s books, about whom we are quick to make cheesy sayings, and for whom we live lukewarm lives. Our lack of fear and lack of due response demonstrates that we do not know the God of Scripture but a god of our own making.
Work Out Your Salvation
The Apostle Paul in his letter to Romans makes it clear that salvation is a free gift from God. It is neither accomplished by works nor by the will of man, so that no man might boast in his destiny and so that in the work of salvation God will receive all of the glory. We must believe this and cherish this, for this is the clear declaration of Scripture. Scripture also declares through the Apostle in the same letter, “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if you by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body you will live.” Our salvation is not a onetime event, but it is a lifetime of death. It, like every great story, has an introduction, a climax, and a dénouement—all woven together by its Master Author to glorify his name.
This story, spoken of commonly in the theological terms, justification, sanctification, and glorification, is tainted by the American church to be all justification and glorification and no sanctification. How many in the American church love the free gift of justification and the promise of glory but despise holiness! The testimony of the Apostle flies in the face of this false salvation, “Those whom he foreknew, he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” And also in Philippians he writes, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
Our working out our salvation can be described in a number of phrases. It can be described as “our putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit so that we might live;” or as: “we, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree to another;” or as “taking up our cross daily;” or as “losing our life so that we might gain it.” All these things point to a salvation that transforms the entirety of one’s life. Indeed, that is what repentance unto salvation means—to be walking towards hell and destruction and to turn completely around and to be walking toward Christ. There is no standing still in this life. One is either walking toward Christ and holiness, or he is walking toward hell. For this very reason we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that if we are not seeking God and his righteousness, we are walking toward our destruction.
God Sanctifies Us for His Good Pleasure
There is no mystery to the Apostle’s certainty in his statement, “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will perform it till the day of Christ Jesus.” Our sanctification, like our justification and glorification, rests solely in the power of God. It is God who foreknew us, it is God who predestined us, it is God who called us, it is God who justified us, and it is God who will glorify us. In the same way, God will carry us through the good works that he has prepared for us to walk in before the foundation of the world, and he will continue to mold us into the image of Christ. Conversely, if we are not walking in good works or being molded into Christ’s image, regardless of any prayer we might have prayed, or any aisle that we might have walked, or any membership role on which we find our names, we should fear and tremble before God who is the Author of good works and holiness. For a life not characterized by these things is a life that is without God and his power.
If you are not walking in good works, if you are not becoming holy as he is holy, if you not are dying daily to yourself, if you are trying to serve God and money, the appropriate response is to fear for your soul. Your only recourse is to fall on your face before the Holy One, for it is his good pleasure to save those who call upon his name and to do a mighty work in their lives for his name’s sake.