Did Paul tell us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling? Does this passage mean that we will lose our salvation if we are carefree in God’s love? Does it mean that a believer has to live in fear and trembling until we get to heaven?
We will find the truth when we read the context.
The church in Philippi was experiencing strife and division that was related to the Law of Moses. The big problem in those days was that Gentiles were deceived into trusting in the Law by the Judaizers/Pharisees infiltrating the Church.
Philippians 3 “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not tiresome, but for you it is safe. 2 Beware of the dogs; beware of the evil workers; beware of the false circumcision. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh;…..18 For many walk, of whom I told you often, and now tell you even weeping, as the enemies of the cross of Christ, 19 whose end is destruction, whose god is the belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who think about earthly things. “
Paul warned the Philippians about this deception in his epistle. These Judaizers were trusting in the circumcision of the flesh (keeping the law) and they were going to be destroyed in judgment.
But Paul said that the believer is circumcised in the heart through the Holy Spirit and not by works, righteous by faith in Christ as a free gift.
Philippians 3 ” 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith”
Therefore Paul told the people in the Church to follow the example of Christ – by faith, hope and love. He told them to stop arguing over the law because people would be deceived and not saved.
Philippians 2 ” If therefore there is any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassion, 2 make my joy full by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; 3 doing nothing through rivalry or through conceit, but in humility, each counting others better than himself; 4 each of you not just looking to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others. 5 Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, yes, the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
He exhorted the believers to follow Christ’s example of love, unity and humility.
But the unbeliever was told to “work out” salvation with fear and trembling because he was afraid of having preached in vain – if some people in the Church indulged in divisions and factions based on the false gospel of the Law, then they were never saved to begin with!
Philippians 2 “12 So then, my beloved, even as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 For it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure. 14 Do all things without complaining and arguing, 15 that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without defect in the middle of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you are seen as lights in the world, 16 holding up the word of life, that I may have something to boast in the day of Christ, that I didn’t run in vain nor labor in vain.”
The unbeliever has to fear and tremble because he was going to be condemned. Therefore he had to “work out” the salvation by rejecting the Law and truly believing in Christ. The true faith is the “work” – to truly believe in Christ.
John 6 ” 28 They said therefore to him, “What must we do, that we may work the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
This is why Paul was afraid that he may have ran his race in vain – because the people who trusted in the law would prove to be lost in the end.
The believer is not under “fear and trembling” before God because we are His children:
Romans 8 “15 For you didn’t receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
But Paul exhorted unity and love in the Church. That way he would know if these people are truly saved. If they truly believed in Christ then they would stop being divided over the law but be united in faith in Christ.
So then the command to “work out” salvation was for the unbeliever – it was an exhortation to make sure they are saved. If they went back to the Law, then they were not really saved.
But those who rejected the law and believe in Christ for righteousness – will be saved.