Work out your salvation with fear?

Beautiful Bride

“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.” Philippians 2:12, 13, NASB.

In a discussion on a recent blog post around this verse, a fellow I know only as “PGM” posted a response; here is an excerpt:

It is easy to confuse the necessity of effort on the part of self with the need to still our self-efforts. Effort is important. Yet it is a narrow way, a pilgrimage, which must be traveled carefully. It can be likened to a road with ditches on both sides. The ditch on the right represents manipulation with our own efforts, and the ditch on the left passive idleness or no effort at all.

I’m afraid a lot of the talk about sanctification and justification, and how “the gospel’s” main work is to produce virtue from a new mechanism, ends up sounding like an appeasement to the community of people clamoring for balance. I don’t want to water down the gospel with ‘balance.’ Real grace is scandalous, everything Jesus said and did was colored not only by grace but by the scandal of it. He was unbalanced when it came to granting forgiveness and extending grace and favor to sinners. I am fairly certain that when Jesus said that if the Son shall make you free, you will be free indeed, that He did not mean that it would be like walking a tightrope or driving down a dangerous road with ditches on either side.

Yes, we are to work, to exert effort. Because of love, I am inspired to excellence, the door is open to succeed. No one wants to be saved to live like a dying fish. What a waste of freedom! We work like the guy who found his treasure and FROM JOY OVER IT went and sold all he had to buy the field that contained it. Was that guy’s focus on the sacrifice, the ‘sanctification’, or the TREASURE? He had joy OVER IT. Our work is not the like the sullen kid who has to be forced to practice the piano and quits as soon as he is allowed. Our ‘work’ is the work of a gifted musician who loves music and is constantly inspired to practice and press harder for new skills from love of the art. It is the work of a bride getting everything together for her wedding.

I can also say pretty well that if I begin to build my relationship with my wife based on the evidence of her progressive sanctification, I am probably not going to get lucky at the end of the day! If I express LOVE and affection and respect and admiration through conversation and real relationship and companionship then we have the makings of romance. When there is romance I have noticed that she will move the world for me and I for her. Some legalistic ‘Christian’ marriage counselor type may look at me doing the dishes and make a formula out of that, but there is something very different going on. Focusing on sanctification, looking at our own improvement, is like stomping around an orchard demanding fruit. One day in September you walk out and notice that the apples are turning ripe. I can say that years ago I was wrapped up in many sins that have truly lost their hold on me, and I am not exactly sure how or when that happened. I still have far to go. But I am going to focus on His love for me, and living from that purify myself.

“Yes,” you may say, “but we are to WORK out our salvation with FEAR AND TREMBLING! You glossed over that little phrase real easily didn’t you? What about that Mr. Gracey Pants?” The marriage analogy is very relevant here. Isn’t there a difference between really being in love and simply going through the motions and living a life of quiet desperation because “God hates divorce?” Aren’t we asked to love our wives as Christ loved the Church? If our marriage is not based on love, isn’t that the real tragedy? Don’t all married people kind of have that fear? The fear in working out our salvation, is that we don’t lapse into the very thing the fake-sanctification fruit-checker pseudo-freedom types are trying to push us into. It is all important that we do what we do as Christians because we are IN LOVE. Is it really so weird to think that Christianity is primarily about love?

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. FOR THIS CAUSE A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER, AND SHALL CLEAVE TO HIS WIFE; AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:25-32, NASB).

So, is there fear that a marriage might not last? Is there work in a marriage? Yes, absolutely, but the danger isn’t some lukewarm checklist of behaviors. The root issue is that there is not love there. Look at the quote above: what is it that sanctifies, cleanses, and causes her to have no spot or wrinkle? It is LOVE. What is the husband primarily asked to do in this passage? Check for sanctification? NO! He is asked to LOVE! When the wife no longer believes that her husband loves her, then things go astray – this is the fear. Why is it that the sins listed in Col 3:5, immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, amount to idolatry? Because they represent OTHER LOVES. They are affairs of the heart. The marriage lives or dies at its root, not because of porn addictions and frumpiness and money and laziness. It dies because of a lack of love; lack of love drives us to satiate our thirst in other damaging and strange ways. The same is true in our relationship with Jesus.

Look at Jesus’ message to the Ephesian church:

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this: ‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot endure evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. ‘But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. ‘Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you, and will remove your lampstand out of its place–unless you repent. ‘Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God.’ (Revelation 2:1-7, NASB).

They did everything right except that one little crucial piece: they had fallen out of love! What was the nature of the deeds they did at first? They had a first love, an intense passionate relationship with Christ. He doesn’t really care about all that other stuff as much. He doesn’t want an adequate slave, He wants a passionate wife. I maintain that very often focusing on changed lives, sanctification, etc. amount to idolization of the self, while the real engine of such change is the belief that I am the beloved bride of Christ. He is crazy about us, He really does love us. He wants that kind of love, real love, love without pretense, from us. This is the fire of ‘sanctification’ and ‘justification.’

Posted in Scandalous Grace and tagged , , , , .


  1. Jim,
    Great article! However, I was wondering as I read “… sometimes I don’t love so well either.” Can’t we make even love another mechanism of virtue. I mean on the days when I don’t love (and they happen more than i would like to admit) isn’t it better to simply trust and believe in the objective work of Christ for me. That when I fail to love those around me who I have a hard time truly caring about I’m still in the grips of God’s grace and not reliant on my ability to love Him consistently. Sometimes I love out of duty with no heart in it… which really isn’t love at all… I’m spurred more by knowing it’s simply the right thing to do. But other times even knowing the right thing to do isn’t enough. Did I make that as clear as muddy water?

    • Absolutely right, Mitchell, I agree.

      “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” 1 John 4:10, NASB.

      If even the pressure to love God is off, there is in fact no pressure! We love in response to a greater love.

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