We have been schooled (and rightly so) that as true believers we have nothing to fear and, in fact, should not fear anything. John sets forth this undeniable truth forcefully: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love” (I John 4:18). Paul concurs: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (II Tim. 1:7); “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15). What, then, should we make of Paul’s injunction to the church at Philippi to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12)?
First, we should recognize that Scripture contains no contradiction. In passages where the Scripture enjoins courage and confidence, two things primarily are in view. One has to do with our eternal standing before God: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). We are assured, in other words, that God has been satisfied regarding our sin through the vicarious death of His Son, and we are secure in Him. The other has to do with external circumstances such as trials: “In God have I put my trust: I will not be afraid what man can do unto me” (Psa. 56:11). Our text, on the other hand, addresses neither our response to external trials nor our standing with God; rather, it has in view our present moment-by-moment state before God, our ongoing sanctification.
Second, we should realize that this scripture is clear. It will not do to attempt to explain away this term as something less than or other than it is. The word in our text translates the Greek word phobon from which derives our English word phobia. It is a strong word that means “fear,” “alarm,” and “fright.” It is sometimes translated “terror” (e.g., I Pet. 3:14). In our text, the noun associated with fear—“trembling”—underscores the meaning of the word and removes any doubt regarding its force. Paul is telling us in the most unequivocal terms that our sanctification is no casual matter; we have no right to be casual before God about sin. Because God is absolutely holy, we should maintain a spirit of the utmost reverence before Him. A careless or even casual attitude toward sin displays a disrespect for Him and the work of His Son that God neither can nor will tolerate. Love for Him, confidence in Him, and peace in His presence must never devolve into a presumptuous attitude about sin. The faithful believer maintains a sober and vigilant attitude against the heinousness of sin in his life.
Third, we should respond to this scripture with conviction. We should believe every word of God. God speaks without guile. He intends for us to believe Him implicitly and entirely. We should hold the truth of our text in a spirit of faith and earnest obedience. We should recognize the tendency of our flesh to embrace sin and explain away its negative consequences. We should understand that we must not create our own fictional god—one whose love dilutes His holiness, one who is not truly concerned about the destructive nature of sin, one who does not really care if the ones for whom Christ died manifest His character. We have been saved for the purpose of glorifying God. Ultimately, our vocation is not to be pastors, or missionaries, or parents, etc., but to be godly pastors, godly missionaries, godly parents. One measure of faith and mark of the faithful is our attitude toward such words from God as those found in our text. Will we explain them away? Water them down? Ignore them? Or will we take God at His word and be sober about avoiding sin or digging it out where it has already taken root? God, who loves us, demands nothing less of us.
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