Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12)
One motive for believers’ working out their sanctification is understanding the consequences of sin. Although God is loving, merciful, and forgiving, He nevertheless holds believers accountable for disobedience. Like John, Paul understood well that “if we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9). Knowing that he serves a holy and just God, the faithful believer will always live with fear and trembling. Fear translates phobos, which describes fright or terror (cf. Matt. 14:26;Luke 21:26; 1 Cor. 2:3) as well as reverential awe (cf. Acts 2:43; 9:31; 2 Cor. 5:11; 7:1). Trembling is from tromos, which refers to shaking and is the word from which the English word tremor derives. Both of those are proper reactions to the awareness of one’s own spiritual weakness and the power of temptation. The Lord seeks such an attitude in His children, as His words in Isaiah 66:2 indicate:“To this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.”
An important Old Testament truth is “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10; cf. Prov. 1:7; 9:10). This is not a fear of being doomed to eternal torment, nor a hopeless dread of judgment that leads to despair. It is rather a reverential fear, a holy concern to give God the honor He deserves and avoid the chastening of His displeasure. Such fear protects against temptation and sin and gives motivation for obedient, righteous living.
Such fear involves self-distrust, a sensitive conscience, and being on guard against temptation. It necessitates opposing pride, and being constantly aware of the deceitfulness of one’s heart, as well as of the subtlety and strength of one’s inner corruption. It is a dread that seeks to avoid anything that would offend and dishonor God.
Believers should have a serious dread of sin and yearning for what is right before God (cf. Rom. 7:14ff.). Aware of their weakness and the power of temptation, they should fear falling into sin and thereby grieving the Lord. Godly fearprotects them from wrongfully influencing fellow believers, compromising their ministry and testimony to the unbelieving world, enduring the Lord’s chastening, and from sacrificing joy.
To have such godly fear and trembling involves more than merely acknowledging one’s sinfulness and spiritual weakness. It is the solemn, reverential fear that springs from deep adoration and love. It acknowledges that every sin is an offense against holy God and produces a sincere desire not to offend and grieve Him, but to obey, honor, please, and glorify Him in all things. Those who fear the Lord willingly accept the Lord’s chastening, knowing that God “disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness” (Heb. 12:10). This fear and trembling will cause believers to pray earnestly for God’s help in avoiding sin, as the Lord taught them:“Do not lead us into temptation, but deliver [rescue] us from evil” (Matt. 6:13). That prayer again reflects the spiritual tension that exists between believers’ duty and God’s power.
Work out translates a present middle imperative of katergazomai and indicates a command that has a continuing emphasis. The idea is, “Keep on working out to completion, to ultimate fulfillment.” Heaut¯on, here rendered your,actually has the more emphatic meaning of “your own.”The command is for believers to make a continuing, sustained effort to work out to ultimate completion their salvation, which has been graciously granted to them by God through their faith in Jesus Christ.