“…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.”
Many have sought to write off the fear in this passage by calling it “reverence” for God, and by calling reverence for God “respect.” If that’s the case though, why tremble? I have never seen a person tremble out of respect, but I have seen many tremble out of fear.
On the other hand, many have claimed that this passage shows that our continued obedience is on our own shoulders, focusing on the “your own” from “work our your own salvation.” But it doesn’t say, “work for,” it says, “work out.” I believe this view can also be refuted by answering the question: why tremble?
So, why does Paul say we tremble? We are blessed in this passage by one little word that makes a world of difference: “for.” Work out your own salvation. How? With fear and trembling.
And now, for our central question, why? “For it is God who works in you.”
To what end? “Both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
On the one hand, a simple respect makes no sense of the trembling. On the other hand, if we’re trembling because we might not live up to the task of keeping our salvation, verse 13 makes no sense.
What makes a Christian tremble? Is it future punishment? No, there is none for the Christian. Is it the weight of their own goodness? No. Only God is good (Mark 10:18). As my friend Chris has stated in the subtext to his recent book, the Christian trembles before God alone. I like this subtext, and I think it is perfectly in line with Philippians 2:12-13. That little word “for” agrees with me and Chris too. Why tremble? Because this work that I do is not wrought by me. As I work hard to obey God, I recognize that this is the work of Almighty God! This means that I do not tremble because God might damn me. What Paul gives me here speaks only to my salvation. I tremble as I work out my salvation, because I know that anything I do to please God is itself an encounter with a Holy, perfect, awesome, fearsome God. He is acting upon my life to bring about a heart that wants to do His will, and He is acting upon my life to bring about acts that reflect will. The one who created the whole earth with a few words. The one who has thunder and lightning coming from His throne. The one who commands the seas, laughs at the rage of the heathen nations, and conquers death with joy. He is acting upon my life, bringing about the fruit of my salvation. This is why I tremble.