Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
“Fear and trembling”?
Thank you for asking!
Over the centuries, there have been some preachers and some commentators who have a field day with these verses. What they often do is to quote them something like this: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, lest…”
Do you see a problem? When you read the verses and compare them with the “quote” is something missing? Was something added? By the way, don’t forget you must deal with the “therefore” that is the first word in verse 12. What does it refer to? It refers to 2:1-11; are these verses about going to hell? No way! They are about humility, godliness and the example of Christ which results in salvation… but don’t forget that section also begins with “therefore” so we need to go all the way back to chapter 1, where Paul set the context, which is rejoicing in suffering because God’s purpose is being advanced. Dear reader, these verses are not a threat that God is waiting for an excuse to smite somebody and ship them off to hell, they are about His purpose. As you will see shortly, this view is confirmed in the verses that follow, so fear not.
Let’s start over: verse 12…
Notice how Paul’s tone is one of encouragement; “…as you have always obeyed”, keep it up: Continue “to work out your salvation” yes, you’ve been doing fine, keep it up! Also, let’s not forget that he isn’t talking about earning salvation, for salvation is by grace through faith in Christ, even more remember that salvation isn’t the end of the story, it’s the beginning. Nobody is talking about going to hell here; Paul is encouraging the people to live lives “worthy of the Gospel”, “or it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”
“Fear and trembling” is another way of saying “reverent awe” and in this context, the reverent awe isn’t about God’s wrath, it is referring to God working out His purpose through you and me.
The God of all creation has a purpose. He is working at accomplishing this great purpose day and night, and He wants you to be involved so that He can work His purpose through you. What is His purpose? It’s redemption, for His love for all people is so great that He wants to redeem them to Himself, and He wants you and I to be agents of His love. No sir, these verses are not scary threats, they are wonderful encouragement! That encouragement will continue in the verses that follow.
How very sad it is that so many have taken a phrase out of context to scare people: May God have mercy…