The Bible is not nearly as complicated as people make it out to be. Yet, what I have learned is that it is simple enough that the least astute child can understand it’s depths and deep enough that the most skilled of scholars can never fully grasp it’s implications. This verse from Philippians comes to mind as one of the verses that so perfectly fits that reality.
12Therefore, 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, 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Philippians 2:12-13
On numerous occasions I have had people ask me about this verse and wondering if there is a contradiction here. People think that Paul is saying our salvation depends on our good works. They get the fear and trembling part because they usually start trembling when they realize they are not doing a very good job of it. But Paul is not saying that our good works, or being a good person is was gets you into heaven. The problem is, people usually read verse 12 and forget to read verse 13. The verse divisions are great for finding places in the Bible but terrible as a guide to understanding it. Verses 12 and 13 are a complete sentence. To read verse 12 by itself is to only read one half of the thought. We would never do that with any other piece of literature yet we do it with the Bible all the time. Not a good idea.
What Paul is saying is simply this, “When I was with you, you did a great job of living for Jesus. Keep doing this even though I am not there. Work hard at living out the salvation you have been given by God. Why, Because God is working in you and that should be made evident in the way you live.” Paul is NOT saying that you are saved by being a good person. He is perfectly clear in many other places that we are saved by God’s grace and the faith/trust we have in Jesus Christ. The life we live as followers of Christ does not save us, but it should be a life that is consistent with being a follower of Jesus who is saved by God’s grace.
Paul does not say, “work FOR your salvation” or “work AT your salvation” or “work TOWARD your salvation”. All of those would mean that in some way it is your efforts that gain you admission into eternal life. He says “work OUT your salvation”. In other words, live it out. Plan out your life, live out your life, work out your life in such a way that your salvation is obvious. And you need to be so committed to living out the Christ-like life that you are driven to it with an urgency that makes you tremble.
But why such urgency? Why such desperation to live out your salvation? Paul gives the reason, “For God is at work in you”. Why work out your salvation with fear and trembling? Because God is working in you, giving you the will to follow and obey Him. To fail to live out your life as a radical follower of Jesus is to actually work against what God is doing in you. That should cause fear and trembling in us. When we fail to love others in Jesus name, when we fail to be content with what God has given us, when we long for someone who is not our spouse, when we fail to love God with our entire being, we are not simply ignoring something that God has told us. We are actively opposing God and what He is doing.
To simply ignore God could be seen as a passive thing. It is like failing to exercise. We view that as passive. We are not actively trying to hurt our body, we are just not doing anything to actively help it. I think we often look at our Christian life that way. We are passive in it and think that this is somehow acceptable to God because at least we are not actively opposing God. What Paul is saying is that by NOT actively working at living for Jesus, we are by default, actively opposing what God is doing in our lives. In reality, failing to exercise means that you are actually actively working at getting fatter, weaker, and sicker. You have made a decision to do something that harms you. That something is whatever takes the place of healthy physical activity. The same is true of your spiritual well being. To fail to live a life that is committed to a radical love for God and neighbor is to actively oppose the work that God is doing in you. Every time I fail to love God with all I have and my neighbor as myself, I am actively fighting against what God is doing in me as He works to shape me into a more Christ-like follower.
The fact that God has worked in me to grant me grace and faith should motivate me to live for Him with all I am. The fact that God has worked in such as way as to pay the penalty for my sin should cause me to tremble before Him. The recognition that my sin is great but God’s love for me is greater, should cause me to work at living for Him like nothing else I have ever done in my life. I do it, not to earn salvation, but because I have salvation.