Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
It’s easy to see how this verse could be confusing. You might be thinking, ‘What do you mean with fear and trembling? The Bible says that God is love, and there is no fear in love.’
That’s what 1 John 4:18 says, and on this basis, a lot of people will reject any notion that fear can be good. But Paul wrote the above verse in his letter to the Philippians and is known as the apostle of grace and a huge proponent of the love of God (1 Cor. 13). I don’t think that he was contradicting his other letters when he wrote this one or that he was suggesting you should pick and choose which parts of his letters to believe. Can you imagine Paul saying, “If something I wrote doesn’t agree with your theology, just rip that part out of your Bible and believe what you want”? I sure can’t.
So, what does Philippians 2:12 mean? Well, it doesn’t mean you should be afraid of God! You can have fear in your relationship with God without being afraid of Him. After doing a double-take, you might ask, “How does that work?” A lot of scriptures explain this, but what God has been speaking to me lately is from Proverbs 9:10, which says,
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
The word “fear” in that verse can also mean “reverence” (Strong’s Concordance). What helped me understand the fear of the Lord is understanding that it is humility toward God. Andrew talks about the correlation between fear and humility in his book Proverbs: Timeless Wisdom for a Life of Blessing:
Part of fearing the Lord is hating pride, hating self-promotion, hating doing our own thing. We love God and would rather live for God than live for ourselves. Most people would love to have honor. They would love to have trophies and have people acclaim all the things that are happening in their lives, but they don’t want to humble themselves. Outside of the Lord, there are people in this world who are promoted and who receive honor from others that doesn’t come through humility.
Look at this verse:
By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, and honour, and life.
Riches and honor and life sound good to me. I believe this is part of what Paul was talking about in Philippians 2:12 when he used the word soteria, translated “salvation.” Salvation is everything that pertains to life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3), and life and godliness come through walking humbly with God (Mic. 6:8).
Humility does not mean to think little of yourself. It means that you agree with what God thinks about you. Andrew says:
True humility is not having an opinion of yourself. It means you don’t promote or debase yourself. If God says you are the meekest person on the face of the earth, then you’d say it, too, because you don’t care what people think. You aren’t trying to promote yourself nor are you trying to debase yourself. You aren’t self-centered. You aren’t focused on yourself.
I believe this explains Philippians 2:12. This is how fear can be good, and it’s what I’ve been striving to walk out in my life. To walk in humility toward God, you have to see yourself the way that He sees you. What do you think? How do you work out your salvation with fear and trembling?