So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work, for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13, NASB).
My study of Philippians has been in progress for some time now, and having reached chapter 2:12-13, I have found some ideas that may be of interest to SI readers.
The general lack of fear and trembling
Many of the problems in our Lord’s church arise from a lack of proper fear and trembling when people work out their salvation (by which I mean they are attempting to make right decisions in light of their understanding of God and His purposes).
Despite this plea of Paul, many people overlook the second half of the phrase, while acknowledging the first. I suspect that most of the people filling the churches in America, if asked whether they are working out their salvation, would affirm that they feel they are on the right path, moving forward spiritually, in tune with God, doing what they feel is right, etc. If asked, however, about daily fear and trembling before God, honesty would compel most to admit that they have little or none.
Christians make decisions of all sorts every day about music, activities, food and drink, clothing, manner of speech, attitude, deportment, ministry, schooling, entertainment, destinations, goals, and many other things. How many of those decisions really reflect proper fear and trembling before God? Do people show fear of abusing God’s grace and patience in American church business meetings? How many decisions are made with selfish, pragmatic or economic motives? Though failure to fear God is associated with wicked persons (Rom. 3:18, Ps. 36, etc.) the church is rife with people who make countless decisions with no fear of God before their eyes.
Both Bible and church history are full of examples to teach us what it looks like when people gain proper fear of God. From the Old Testament we easily remember the people of Nineveh after Jonah’s preaching, or Isaiah’s vision of Christ on the throne. In the New Testament the early church following the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), and Saul on the ground near Damascus spring to mind. Later in church history we remember the reformers, who feared God more than men though their bodies were sacrificed, and Jonathan Edwards’s famous preaching. Many more illustrations could be found. How different are the reactions, thoughts, and plans of people who come to understand truths about God’s power and presence.
Philippians 2:13 answers two questions which, in order, are these: “Why should we act with fear and trembling?” and, by implication, “Why is there no fear and trembling?”
Answer 1: An acute awareness of the presence of God within us causes us to act with fear and trembling. We are not concentrating enough on the closeness of Deity to ourselves. This is the instruction of Paul—Think about how Christ is in us. Think about our proximity to the eternal and omnipotent Deity. Consider that the eternal God is as close to us as our own heart and mind. Meditate on His works as He enables and motivates His purchased possession from the inside. Contemplate what it would mean to have the holy God in the same room, when decisions are made. Remember the ability of God to record every event, choice, and thought, and bring them to account at a later time. Think of the necessity of not getting in the way of God’s plans by choices made unwisely. Consider the possibilities if we cooperate fully with God-in-us, and then think of the alternatives and consider the end results of each path.
Paul identified the lack of understanding and meditation about the presence and work of God as a reason why people would not be careful enough in their decision making. If I read Philippians 2:12-13 correctly, then a renewed emphasis and study of the indwelling of the believer can have the effect of increasing the appropriate fear of God. Increased understanding of God at work in us results in an increased fear of disappointing God. This is the human aspect of the answer, since it is within our control. Whether increased preaching and teaching on the indwelling Holy Spirit is needful or not, increased fear of God certainly is.
Answer 2: There is no fear and trembling because (in part) God is sovereign over choices. The very verse that tells us to fear and tremble before God also indicates that the desire and capability to do so are part of His own work. If we ask “Why aren’t people as fearful of God today as they have been in the past or in another country or situation?” and consult Phillipians 2:13, the answer comes back twofold—because of lack of awareness of God’s presence in us and secondly, because God Himself is not providing the willingness and ability today that He has in prior times or with other people. There is both a human aspect and a divine aspect to the answer. As we have seen from the earliest chapters of Genesis to the end of Revelation, both God and man are making choices simultaneously. People do things, and God does things. They are both correct answers when the question is “Why do things happen the way they do?”
The second point to the answer may not be as pleasant a thought as one might have hoped. Nevertheless God, through Paul, provides no others here. What we are left with, from verse 13, is one course of action only—to re-emphasize Christ-in-me, to plumb the terror and joy that such closeness to Deity should inspire. Doing that seems to constitute obedience to the verse, and may move God to do those things which only He can do in the soul and mind. Follow the verse’s instruction to study God at work in us, and He may be pleased to bring about truly useful and constructive fears and tremblings. By following Paul’s admonition and doing what is possible, we may gain the impossible.
Fear and spiritual maturity
No definition of spiritual maturity can fail to address the need for a person to have these highly emotional responses to God. It is not spiritual maturity to have only intellectual response to Him. It may seem strange to think of quaking fear as a mature response to anything, but God affirms that it is so; and when we see those throughout the Bible and church history who have been brought to the dust before God we see the right choices have been made every time. Even the demons—who cannot be redeemed—when brought face to face with Christ made the right, indeed the only, choice that they could make. How many of our decisions would be utterly different if we had to make them before the throne of God, in His presence? And how is it really any different now? Are we not before His gaze? Is His presence not as fully here now as it will be in the future in heaven? Is making careless decisions completely apart from concern over what God wants and thinks really spiritual maturity?
The desirability of fear and trembling
Since fear and trembling is recommended by God and Paul, this response is both desirable and useful and is not inconsistent with joyfulness.
It has been strange to me, as I have mentioned these conclusions to others in my acquaintance, how quickly they want to bend the reasonable reading of fear and trembling (φόβος/phobos and τρόμος/tromos) into merely intellectual awe of God. As if the full weight of the words given in the New Testament would be a hard saying, or worse, something wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As I understand Philipians 2, it is highly desirable to have these emotions, not least because it would represent obedience to this passage, but also because it would seem to be a condition that promotes right response to God’s plans for our lives. Sadly, American Christians seem bent on removing the fear of God. How useless a desire that is. God is fearful, and full of power, holiness, righteousness, and wrath. How does ignoring truths help in any way? It seems to me that only desiring truth and knowledge of God is safe and practical. God’s word commands what is best for us, and it will prove to be so in the future. Those who go to some lengths to gain a proper fear of God through studying Him and His work, will undoubtedly have less to answer for than those who don’t, and assuredly, a greater reward on that Day.
We live in a society that will never see Paul’s challenge to increase our fear of God as a desirable goal. In fact, our society works daily to make different emotions preeminent. Sadly, there are many churches that likewise provide little or no support for those who want this level of humbling relationship with God. In spite of these things, Paul found a way in his day and in a society no better than ours (1 Cor. 2:3). It is possible, or God would not have instructed it. It may or may not be harder in our day to be properly fearful of God; I don’t know. Probably it is. But whether or not others will support you, He and His Word are the supports He recommends the most (Phil. 2:1).