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 in order to fulfill His good pleasure.
These two short verses provide what I see as the best description of the mysterious tension that exists in our lives between God’s power and our effort. Paul is challenging his readers to obey God – and his teaching about God – even though he is geographically apart from them and in prison. He offers a kind, yet challenging, word to the believers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
In essence, Paul is telling us that we need to put effort into our life with God. It will not just ‘happen’ without energy expended and time given to the work. Dallas Willard puts it this way: “Grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning. Effort is action. Earning is attitude.” It is not that we earn our salvation. No, we understand from Paul’s writings that salvation is a gift of God’s grace. But working out that gracious gift is something that demands – and deserves – diligence and effort. The tension between grace and effort is something akin to the difference between a Christmas gift of a bicycle and the ensuing effort needed in learning to ride that bicycle. I cannot help but think of Paul’s later encouragement to his young pastoral trainee, Timothy, to “train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7). His comparison in that passage to physical training seems to echo through the current words to the Philippian believers. ‘Get to it! Don’t stop working at it!’ Paul says.
But the other half of the equation is the reality that “it is God who works in you.” Salvation is not something based in human effort. Jesus reminds us in John 15:5, “Apart from Me you can do nothing.” In another place, Paul tells us that the power at work within us is the same as the power God used in raising Christ from death (Ephesians 1:19-20). Our own efforts find their strength and source in the truth that God is at work within us. This should encourage us but also give us that “fear and trembling” Paul references here. Right now and right here in our lives the Living God is at work. He will do His work in our lives. That’s why Paul said that God will “fulfill His good purpose” in us or, as he wrote earlier in this same letter, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Philippians 1:6).
So, we come to salvation-life in this mysterious tension that we are to work out our salvation, while knowing the truth is God is at work in us, even in our best efforts. We cannot wait for God to do something without putting some effort into it. Yet, we cannot believe that our efforts will do a thing apart from the powerful working of God in our lives.