“So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
This passage when read at a cursory level seems to say a person must work to earn salvation. That understanding is far from the truth Paul meant. Earlier in this chapter in verse four, Paul told the people of Philippi, “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” He then spoke of Jesus Christ’s humility and servanthood for humankind in obedience to God so that all people on earth could come to be in a saving relationship with Him. Jesus, Paul said, is the ultimate example of servanthood. His willingness to obey the Father even to the point of death is the prime example.
With this thought, Paul then made his statement in verses twelve and thirteen. He asked the Philippian Christians to obey his teaching and Christ’s command to love the LORD and love their neighbor as their own selves. Whether Jesus and Paul were there or not, they were to love people and tell them about God’s love shown through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The “working out” their salvation Paul compelled them to do was to show the world Christ’s love for them by humbling themselves and serving the people around them. The Philippian Christians were to do this out of their returned love to Christ for His love to them. The ultimate expression of love for the Father and Jesus Christ is returned love through obedience to their commands.
Through fear and trembling, Paul said, they were to show the salvation Christ gave them. This fear Paul spoke of is awe. It is awe are the immensity of Christ’s humility to the point of death for them and at His greatness – that God loves them so much He would choose to be with them and die for their sins so they could live. That is where awe comes from – the amazing depth of God’s love. The trembling Paul spoke of comes from the level of awe the people have and anxiety that they could not adequately express their love for God and obey His commands sufficiently. The trembling comes from knowing their own inadequacy to be all Christ was and all they want to be in comparison for the love they received from Him because of the salvation He provided.
This passage is not about earning or working towards acquiring one’s salvation from their personal sins. Paul meant the work they do should show they and we should do should show the salvation that Christ bought and gave to us. It should show His love and obedience to His commands. We should show His humility by serving anyone and everyone so that all people will hear about Jesus Christ and His love for them and have an opportunity to receive Him and His salvation. With awe and trembling, Christ’s salvation for us should impel us to tell others about Him and to serve them with humility, just as Christ humbled Himself and served us with His life, death, and resurrection.
This brings us back to ourselves. Are you working out your salvation? Are you intentionally humbling yourself to follow the commands of the Lord and serving other people so that the salvation and love He put in your heart draws other people to Him? Are you showing Christ’s love through your actions so that you can share in words about God’s love and salvation plan for all people? Awe of the Lord should be impelling you to do this. If it is not, you have walked too far away from God and are serving only yourself.
Now is the time to turn back to Jesus. Walk toward Him and let Him renew you. Will you make that choice for yourself? Will you work out the salvation Christ gave you? When you do, you not only share the love of God, but you can rejoice and share in the joy with Christ and all Christians who have gone before you, just like Paul said in verses 17 and 18. Receive salvation from Jesus Christ and work out that salvation in fear and trembling having the mind of Christ – as a humble servant.