What does God mean when the Bible says that we are to work out our own salvation and to do it with fear and trembling? What is the meaning of the words fear and trembling?
Fearing God is True Wisdom
For one thing, fear of God is a reverential, holy, deep respect of God and honoring Him and His Word, the Bible. To fear God is really the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10; Prov 9:10) because those who fear God read and obey His written Word. Anyone that takes to heart what God says takes to him or herself true wisdom because God’s ways are past finding out (Rom 11:33) and the wisdom of man is foolishness to God (1 Cor 1:25; 1 Cor 3:19). The point is that you will find true wisdom in the Bible and a man or woman who reads the Bible daily will begin to understand, to at least a certain extent, the mind of God and what God’s will is for us. That is a wise thing to do.
Trembling before God
Isaiah 66:2 “this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”
God actually looks at those or gives regard to those who are humble and contrite (broken) in their human spirit and that tremble at His Word which is revealed in the Bible. God resists anyone that is proud but will give grace only to those who are humble (James 4:6) so if you are a proud person God will not regard you, nor will He look at, and the word says that “God is opposed to” or literally, “at war with” the proud (James 4:6). For those who “tremble in their flesh before God and stand in awe of His laws” (Psalm 119:12) He will have regard for because “Pride brings a person low, but the lowly in spirit gain honor” (Prov 29:23). If you fear and tremble before God and have such a high regard for His Word, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). This is because God says “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15) for “They will follow the LORD; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west” (Hosea 11:10). God tells His children to “Hear the word of the Lord, you who tremble at his word: “Your brothers who hate you and cast you out for my name’s sake have said, ‘Let the Lord be glorified, that we may see your joy’; but it is they who shall be put to shame” (Isaiah 66:5).
Fear and Trembling
For those who fear God and tremble at His Word God will look upon, give regard to, save those, provide grace to, and be near to. Fearing God is taking God seriously as He speaks in the pages of the Bible and then fearing the consequences of disobedience to His Word. Trembling at His Word is to have the utmost regard for Scripture so submit and “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Pet 5:6). If you exalt yourselves, God will humble you but if you humble yourselves, God will exalt you someday (James 4:10). Fear and trembling before God acknowledge that He is the Almighty and we are His children and children need to have a reverential respect and regard for Him and natural children should have for their parents.
Working Out Our Own Salvation
Philippians 2:12-13 “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.”
Paul ties in fear and trembling with the effort that we must pour into our sanctification or salvation. He is not saying that we contribute to or add to our salvation but we work it out as he indicated, “as you have always obeyed” so this obedience is a “working out” due to a healthy fear of disobedience because we tremble at His Word. Paul was well acquainted with the Scriptures and certainly knew what fearing God meant and what it meant to tremble before God. He knew the Scriptures well enough to have read in the Old Testament that the fear of God equated to wisdom and that trembling represented humility or being humble. Someone who is proud doesn’t fear God and will lack godly wisdom and someone who doesn’t tremble at His Word doesn’t take the Bible seriously. These are two grave mistakes that will ensure that God is going to resist them (James 4:6).
There is no fear of a person’s losing their salvation being written about here. It is not in the context of this book or in this chapter (2) of Philippians. The Book of Philippians is considered by many Bible scholars as the Book of Joy and the church at Philippi may well have been Paul’s favorite so he was not writing this working out of salvation with fear and trembling in the sense that he was worrying about the Philippian’s losing their salvation because they weren’t working hard enough. He was exhorting them by telling them that they should be “holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (Phil 2:16). This “holding fast to the word of life” can mean none other than holding on to the Word of God, the Scriptures, and may have meant, in a duel way, the Word of God in Jesus Christ (John 1).
There is no need to fear for those who have been saved but for those who are not saved, they have every good reason to fear for their day of judgment is coming because they have an appointed day to die and be judged (Heb 9:27). At that time, there will be fear and trembling for a much more terrifying reason (Rev 20:12-15). Decide today to be saved (2 Cor 6:2) because if He returns today or tonight and you are not saved, you will perish in your sins and forevermore be separated from God in a Christ-less eternity from which there is no escape nor can any repentance be sought at that time. Then, there will be real fear and trembling that will never subside and you will have reached a point of no return.
Another Reading on Patheos to Check Out: What Did Jesus Really Look Like: A Look at the Bible Facts
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is also the Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Blind Chance or Intelligent Design available on Amazon