How should a Christian understand the phrase “with fear and trembling” in Philippians 2:12? Answered by Jimmy Buehler
Hey everybody, this is Jimmy, and on today’s episode of ask Theocast, we’re going to seek to answer Matthew’s question, and his question is this, “How should a Christian understand the phrase ‘with fear and trembling’ in Philippians chapter two, verse 12?”, and so I’m going to go ahead and read that entire verse and then see if I can offer some helpful thoughts on it.
The apostle Paul writes to the Philippian church in chapter two, verse 12, “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.”
I’m going to take a stab in the dark here and assume that the question that’s being asked by Matthew has more to do with our posture before God, in terms of our sanctification, in that, isn’t it fear of judgment and isn’t it fear of condemnation that kind of drives us towards holy living in this life?
I don’t think that’s actually what Paul had in mind when he wrote this passage. Philippians chapter two is a beautiful passage, and in the beginning 10 or 11 or so verses, what is Paul talking about? He’s actually talking about the humility of Christ, in that Christ did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but rather emptied himself, becoming a servant on our behalf, and then later on in verse 12 and on, what Paul points to is us as Christians to live in light of that. To also be those who do not grumble, who don’t complain, who do all things without selfishness tainting it, and so even as we think about “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”, I think we need to keep in mind the greater context, that Paul is actually talking about humility.
He’s talking about what the gospel does in us, in that it produces a life of love, it produces a life of good works, it does not produce a posture of fear, and so when we look at the gospel, and we look at the ways that Jesus sacrificed himself for us, that Jesus, though he was God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but rather became a servant on our behalf, Paul then looks at us after proclaiming the status that we have in Christ, forgiven sinners now saints in the eyes of God, he says, man, don’t you think in light of this, that we, in fear and trembling – and I want you to hear his tone here, I think the tone he has is just in awe of everything that God has done – shouldn’t we in awe look at one another within the church, those who suffer with sin, those who are sinner-saints around us, shouldn’t we have a posture of humble service of loving the saints around us?
I also want to point you to chapter two verse 13, it says, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” I think that’s something that can bring us profound comfort, that as we continue as bodies of Christ in different contexts, in different places around the world, as we continue to go to church on Sundays to have Christ heralded to our sinful and weary hearts, to participate in the sacraments of the church, to see how the church continues to build itself up in love, we understand that God uses these ordinary means to draw us into union with Christ and with one another, and it is God who mysteriously does this, and so even as we think about working out our own salvation, I don’t think that means Paul is saying, you know, God did his part, now it’s your part, you go do your thing.
I think what Paul is saying is, standing in awe of the good news of the gospel, we now look at one another differently. We can put on this posture of humility as Christ has done for us, and look at one another in love. So this fear and trembling is not a fear of condemnation, it’s not a fear of guilt, and it’s not a fear of shame, but rather it is this right sense of fear and trembling and awe. I think awe is the right word here, awe of a holy God, that he has sent his one and only son Jesus Christ, to live a perfect life on our behalf, to die a sacrificial death, but then to be rising again, to be risen again for our justification.
So, we’re not working out our own salvation in a workspace way, but rather we are putting on a posture of humility, and grace, and kindness because of what Christ has done for us. It is that status forward mentality, that Christ has called us his own, and we live in light of that truth.
So, hopefully you found this answer helpful. I invite you to check out other resources at theocast.org. You can check out our main podcast there, where we seek to tackle a lot of topics like this at greater length. Thanks for listening, and we hope to see you and that you tune in to future episodes of ask Theocast soon. Thanks.