Therefore, 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, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
We struggle over these words because they appear to say something that seems incongruous with the rest of his writing. This passage sounds like we should be in perpetual worry about our salvation. He seems to be saying that salvation is something to be earned, yet we are taught throughout scripture that salvation comes through faith in God. Two Hebraic concepts Paul might have had in mind may shed some light on this verse.
Salvation is a relationship with God
First, in Hebraic understanding, salvation begins during our lives. It is not just something to look forward to after death. Someone who is not saved is estranged from the family of God — wandering from the flock — “lost.” Salvation comes through restoring a relationship with God by believing in the atoning work of his Son; it is to be rescued from a life separated from God.
The phrase “eternal life” is sometimes used to describe life in relationship with God here on earth that extends into eternity, and not just after our death. We can hear this understanding coming through in John’s writing:
Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3)
Unless we understand eternal life as life in relationship with God, both now and in the future, this verse makes no sense to us. It is true that there are many places where the scriptures speak of salvation in the future, in terms of being saved from judgment. So, of course salvation in that sense is something in the future.
It is clear from John 17:3 that in some sense, eternal life begins the moment we repented and believed in Christ. As Paul says, “By grace you have been saved…” (Eph. 2: 5, 8), using the past tense, not the future tense. In that sense, our salvation has already happened, and we are new creatures!
The Fear of God
The second Hebraic concept that may have been in the background of Paul’s saying is the concept of “the fear of the Lord,” yireh adonai. This is an often-used phrase of the scriptures which means an awe and reverence of God that causes us to want to do his will. It does mean to respect God, who will discipline those whom he loves (Rev. 3:19). The emphasis is on a positive, respectful relationship with God, not in terms of being terrified by him. Moses says to Israel:
And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul? (Deut. 10:12)
Also, as we read Proverbs this week, we will often hear about the wonderful benefits of “the fear of the Lord”:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Prov. 9:10)
In the fear of the LORD there is strong confidence,
And his children will have refuge.
The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life,
That one may avoid the snares of death. (Prov. 14:26-27)
If having a “fear” of the Lord causes us to live with integrity and wisdom about God’s ways, it will ultimately transform us. Paul was using the word “fear” in this sense: having awe and respect for the Lord.
He is exhorting us to live new (eternal) lives in obedient relationship with God, so that we can see him working out his plans to redeem every aspect of our lives. We may be looking forward to a future in heaven, but we will be enjoying the richness of our relationship with the Lord on this earth as well.
[For more on this topic, see “Does God Want Us to Fear Him?“]