Fear and Trembling – September 28, 2008

Exodus 17:1-7, Philippians 2:1-13

September 28, 2008

We know this phrase. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” But what does it mean?

Well, I am sure – from the evidence of scripture – that it doesn’t mean that we are responsible for our own salvation. That’s God’s job, of course. The message of Grace, the Atonement of Christ, the suffering he endured for our sake, all of that points to the fact that the work of our salvation was accomplished by God. So “work out your own salvation” does not mean we are to achieve our own salvation. And I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. ‘Cause, I wouldn’t make it! Maybe you would, but I know I wouldn’t!

However, we do need to remember that Paul was writing to a different crowd. He was writing to an audience that had a theologically Jewish, Old Testament background. And in that world, people were used to thinking about following the Law, the Ten Commandments, in order to “achieve their salvation.” Actually it wasn’t that simple. They did have their version of atonement. But this would have sounded a little like achieving their own salvation, if you think about it. Even so, I don’t think that’s what Paul was getting at here.

As this chapter begins, he’s telling them of important life-oriented things they need to do in the living out of the faith. He is telling them things like ‘be of the same mind,” “do nothing from selfishness,” “look to the interests of others,” “have the mind of Christ.” Those are important things. But doing them in order to achieve salvation” is not what he was getting at! “Work out” your salvation means more along the lines of “figure out,” or “think about” your salvation. Work it out so that it makes sense in your mind. And in that respect, know that it is God’s doing!

I think that’s an important place for us to start as well. We need to think about that. We need to have that figured out in our minds, too. We need to be sure of that, because there are going to be times in our lives when things are tough, and when we don’t feel particularly good about ourselves, when we might forget all that!

Then we need to take a look at the next two words here. “Work out your own salvation…” I think that would have hit home with those people back then, too. They believed in what we might call “Salvation by legacy.” That is, they believed they were saved as a people. They were saved because they were “children of Abraham.” Well, maybe you remember what John the Baptist had to say about that. He blew that whole notion away by saying, “Don’t think you’re ok because you have Abraham as your faith. I tell you, God can raise up from the stones children to Abraham!” (Matthew 3:9) It is each of our lives that matters to God – individually!

Maybe you’ve heard the statement, “God has no grandchildren.” It took me a while to figure out what that meant. But what it means is that we are not God’s people simply because our parents were! The relationship with God is individual in nature. Our relationship with God does not exist simply through those who came before us. God wants us to be in relationship with him ourselves. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” means in a sense “Be concerned about – work out in your mind – your own relationship with God.” And that’s important. Because there are many in our world who are not the least bit concerned about their relationship with God! We should be. In fact, we should be concerned about that constantly!

Notice, when I say that phrase “Be concerned about,” it doesn’t just mean “concern” as in we’re “thinking about it.” The word is sometimes used that way. “You just be concerned with your own business.” That word can have a deeper meaning. It can mean “apprehension” and even “worry.” “I’m concerned about your problem.” I think that’s what we’re talking about here – having deep concern! That’s so important. And that’s where the last part of this comes in. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”

We need to recognize here that the word “Fear” doesn’t just mean “fright.” It can also mean “awesome respect” for something. It can mean “to take something very seriously.” The psalmist tells us in the very first psalm, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That doesn’t mean we are to “be afraid of” God. It means to have that awesome respect for God. It means that we are to “take God very seriously.” So, to work out your salvation “with fear” means to take it our salvation very seriously. It means to have an awesome respect for if. It even means to be affected so much as to be moved emotionally.

Here in Pennsylvania we’re familiar with the Quakers. This was once “Quaker Territory!” When I first heard about the Quakers, that was the story I got. They were people who were very much moved by their faith. In fact, they would get to the place that they were so deeply and emotionally moved by it, they would get so intense about it, that they would actually “quake.”

I tried to look that up this past week. I went to several sources and I found that George Fox, (1624-1691) was the founder of that group in England, where it was known as the “Religious Society of Friends.” Fox was greatly persecuted during his life and imprisoned many times. And once, when he was hauled into court, he suggested that the judge should “tremble at the Word of the Lord.” The judge sarcastically referred to Fox as a Quaker! Well, the term stuck, and it has become the popular name for the group ever since.

So, I was actually kind of disappointed that there may not have been any actual “quaking” going on with the Quakers. (And that my Third Grade teacher would had told me something that wasn’t true!!) But I still eat their oatmeal! And it’s still true that the idea of trembling at the word of the Lord, in other words, having that kind of high respect and deep emotional involvement in the faith, was certainly part of their experience. And I think it should be part of our faith as well! You see, this phrase “fear and trembling” gives us a better idea just how serious this whole business is!

The Bible makes that clear. The psalmist captures this well in the 99th psalm.

The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble!

He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!

The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples.

Let them praise his great and awesome name!

Holy is he! (Psalm 99:1-3)

There’s that idea of fear and trembling described so vividly! And I believe we need to take our faith that seriously. We need to be taking it in so deeply that it touches our hearts and our emotions! We need to be so intense in our worship, so devoted in our religious practices, so connected to God in prayer, that it moves us in the deepest part of our being. Otherwise, our faith will not make any difference to us.

The sad fact is, that there are way too many people in way too many churches who are exactly like that! They put so little effort into their faith, so little trust in God, so little stake in their salvation, that it has no affect on their life whatsoever! They hold God at arms length, and don’t allow that deeper level of commitment and trust to take place within them. Then they wonder why their faith “doesn’t work” in the times when they need it most!

Let that not be said of us. In fact, let us pledge to live in such a way that, when people talk about our church, they will say, “Those people at Eddington really take their faith seriously!” “Yes, it’s evident in everything they do and say!” Will they do that? Does your faith make that much of a difference to you? Does it change everything? Are you ready to “tremble at the Word of God?”

Paul told the Philippians “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

Let God be at work in you. Know he is beyond a doubt. Take your faith seriously! Be aware of all that God has done for you – for his glory!


Eternal God, you have made us, you have called us, and you desire to live in us and through us. Help us to know the power of your spirit in our lives. Give us the faith we need to love you with all of our heart, our soul, our mind, and our strength! For these things we pray in Jesus’ name, and for the sake of his kingdom, Amen.