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Why Do You Need to 'Work Out Your Salvation in Fear and Trembling'?

| Writer
8 Jul
work out your salvation in fear and trembling

"Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill His purpose." Philippians 2:12-23

Salvation, according to Paul, is to be worked out on this earth with “fear and trembling”. And intriguingly, Jude’s letter that contains warnings about future judgment is addressed not to unbelievers or false teachers, but to the church (Jude 1). Scripture commands fear and trembling for all who believe, and Scripture also provides the means for fulfilling this command — like in its warning passages.

Warnings, such as in Jude, are replete with themes of wrath, eternal fire, condemnation, and destruction. As we explore the character and impact of these themes of Scripture — when we take them to heart in their full potency — we can move past any natural impulse to dilute or rationalize into obscurity Paul’s admonition for fear and trembling. Instead, we can come to want more doses of it.

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work out your salvation in fear and trembling

What Does it Mean to "Work Out Salvation with Fear and Trembling"?

The New Living Translation of Philippians 2:12 reads "Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear." The Message version reads "Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God." Paul is encouraging us to be humble in our salvation and to live in a way that we are fearful and repentant of sin. 

John Gill's Commentary and Exposition of the BIble explains further the original meaning: "The words may be rendered, "work about your salvation"; employ yourselves in things which accompany salvation, and to be performed by all those that expect it, though not to be expected for the performance of them; such as hearing of the word, submission to Gospel ordinances, and a discharge of every branch of moral, spiritual, and evangelical obedience for which the apostle before commends them, and now exhorts them to continue in; to go on in a course of cheerful obedience to the close of their days, believing in Christ, obeying his Gospel, attending constantly to his word and ordinances, and discharging every duty in faith and fear, until at last they should receive the end of their faith, the salvation of their souls: agreeably the Syriac version renders the words, (Nwkyyxd anxlwp wxwlp) , "do the work", or "business of your lives"; the work you are to do in your generation, which God has prescribed and directed you to, which the grace of God teaches, and the love of Christ constrains to. Do all that "with fear and trembling"; not with a slavish fear of hell and damnation, or lest they should fall away, or finally miscarry of heaven and happiness; since this would be a distrust of the power and faithfulness of God, and so criminal in them; nor is it reasonable to suppose, that the apostle would exhort to such a fear, when he himself was so confidently assured, that the good work begun in them would be performed; and besides, the exhortation would be very oddly formed, if this was the sense, "work out your salvation with fear" of damnation: but this fear and trembling spoken of, is such as is consistent with the highest acts of faith, trust, confidence, and joy, and is opposed to pride and vain glory; see ( Psalms 2:11 ) ( 115:11 ) ( Romans 11:20 ) ; and intends modesty and humility, which is what the apostle is pressing for throughout the whole context; and here urges to a cheerful and constant obedience to Christ, with all humility of soul, without dependence on it, or vain glorying in it, but ascribing it wholly to the grace of God, for the following reason."

work out your salvation in fear and trembling

Affectionate Warnings to Fear 

While some might speak words of warning to damage or discourage others — obscuring for hearers God’s purpose, wisdom, and character — Jude’s desires are opposite. “Keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life,” (Jude 21) is part of Jude’s luminous hope of what his warnings will accomplish. He writes words of warning to lead his recipients to the mercy, peace, and love of God (Jude 3).

Early church father Irenaeus describes genuineness of brotherly love, or affection, as his reason for warning against false teaching when he was defending the truth of Christ:

“I shall also endeavour, according to my moderate ability, to furnish the means of overthrowing them [his opponents], by showing how absurd and inconsistent with the truth are their statements. Not that I am practised either in composition or eloquence; but my feeling of affection prompts me to make known to thee and all thy companions those doctrines which have been kept in concealment until now, but which are at last, through the goodness of God, brought to light.”

Scriptural warnings are not gospel-negating accusations that clamor for us to resign ourselves that nothing within us can ever be made clean. They are issued with genuine and evident care — leading us to the mercy of Christ. So, as Scripture’s warnings confront, Scripture’s grace and love give us courage to acknowledge our failures before a holy God. Warnings reveal sin and error; acceptance by God in Christ through the gospel gives freedom to own sin and disown it through repentance. 

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work out your salvation in fear and trembling

The Internal Conflict Scripture’s Warnings May Cause

As Jude’s epistle is studied, he is found alerting his readers to dullness in listening, faithlessness, irreverence, greed, making personal religious experience authoritative, and seeing one’s innate desires as essential to fulfill. Thomas Schreiner teaches in his commentary on Jude: “Those who are God’s people demonstrate the genuineness of their salvation by responding to the warning given.”

My need for mercy is no more apparent than when I read of various examples in Scripture of those who did not escape condemnation for their sins, and then notice the same strains of sin within me. If I studied Jude and did not wince at my corruptions made painfully evident by the Scripture’s stripping words, I would only deceive myself — and I have.

When I was a young Christian, I read books like Psalms and Proverbs with inward battle, specifically due to the wisdom literature’s juxtaposition of the wicked and the righteous. Too often, I embellished my righteousness in my mind so that I could consider myself in that latter group. But, the warnings of Scripture removed my pretense. What remains is this: only Christ is the bridge from wickedness to righteousness — and He is the bridge I need for all of my hours.

Righteousness for a sinner only comes through faith in Christ, by admission of neediness in bowing before the able Savior and Lord. I see Him swap places with me — becoming my substitute in wrath, by whom I have salvation from eternal fire, condemnation, and destruction. These days, I am unable to read the Psalms and Proverbs, or any of the Scriptures, without the mediating truth of Christ and His gospel at the forefront of my mind — as is right! 

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work out your salvation in fear and trembling

Not Only a Sinner

When reading the Scriptures with the awareness of Christ’s gospel love for me (Jude 1), I also recognize that I am not only a sinner (1 Timothy 1:15). I must agree with the writers of Scripture and with reverence for what Christ has accomplished on the cross that I am a saint (Jude 3). God has positionally made me righteous by crediting Christ’s righteousness to my account. God is also remaking me with increasing righteousness by the Holy Spirit within me. Affirming the truth of what Christ has done in me gives me hope about what more He can do, and how He empowers me through the Word and Holy Spirit to take actions of living in closer step with Him. 

As I continue reading the wisdom literature of Scripture, I am able to not only accept the contrast between the wicked and the righteous because of my faith in Christ — because I am declared righteous only by faith in Him. I am also able to see the implications of this juxtaposition for living.

A stark difference indeed exists between the saint — reborn of the Holy Spirit — who is battling remaining sin with faith in Jesus Christ and love for Him, versus the person lost in sin without reverence for Christ as God who is sinking in wickedness by living only for self. Grace alone, and no works of any mere person, separates believer from unbeliever. Yet, what a difference grace makes in the life of the person who has been reborn! 

He is making me increasingly righteous, by His grace and to His glory. It is not a righteousness that I seek to embellish for the purposes of self-justification; it is a righteousness wrought by Christ in me that makes me give glory to God alone. So, the believer agrees readily that he is a needy sinner; he also concurs wholeheartedly that he is a righteous saint. 

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work out your salvation in fear and trembling

Warnings Applied to the Believer

The practice of fear and trembling, according Paul’s command for believers (Philippians 2:12), leads to greater glory in that which we are called to work out — our salvation. Rebirth by the Spirit happens at one time by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And, that salvation becomes a lived reality in the true believer’s life; we work out in our practice what has already been pronounced about us in Christ.

Warnings, like in Jude or in the wisdom literature’s contrasts, help us as believers in this work. They cause us to have humility before God and contrition before Christ as the just Judge of the world. That humility and contrition, in turn, widen the believer’s view of God’s grace and strengthen our faith as we see more of what Christ has done for our souls.

As the affectionate, fiery truths of the Bible straighten me within, I can know more of God’s holiness. As I become convicted by the truth, a fear of Him grows in my spirit. I become more awed at the gift of my salvation and more sensitive to my sins. I see a sharper contrast between the things of God and the things of the world, and I have a greater yearning to see a lost world saved.

Through Scripture’s warnings, my posture grows increasingly fitting before the God who is both love (1 John 4:8) and a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). He is the humble God who came to earth to mercifully serve and save (Luke 19:10), and He is the high and holy God before whom the foundations of the earth tremble (Psalm 18:7). 

Professing that I love the themes of warning in Scripture is no hurdle for me. I crave them. For by them, I resonate with who I was rebirthed to be, and the way is further and further cleared within me to better know, in all of who I am, my great and glorious God. 

Saints, be warned. 


Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1 The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Philip Schaff, ed. (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.), 843,

Thomas R. Schreiner 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003), Logos ed., 446.

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Lianna Davis is author of Keeping the Faith: A Study in Jude and Made for a Different Land: Eternal Hope for Baby Loss. She and her husband, Tyler, live outside of Dallas, Texas and have two dear daughters.

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