Thursday, September 14, 2006

Fear and Trembling in Philippians

The phrase “work out your salvation in fear and trembling” is possibly one of the most contextually abused passages within the history of my tradition (churches of Christ). I remember hearing it in sermons(note: not my father's sermons), at youth rallies, and at church camp. The point was always the same…you’d better be vigilantly making sure that you’ve dotted all your “i”’s and crossed all your “t”’s because God was watching, and that was something to be afraid of. Indeed our disregard for the context of this passage may have contributed greatly to our “once saved, never quite sure you’re saved” theology. Needless to say, this interpretation makes no sense with in even the immediate context of Philippians. Beginning in chapter 1, verse 12, Paul explains his situation. He is “in chains”, but does not despair because the gospel is being advanced through his circumstance. In verses 15-18, he make a very odd point about people who preach the Gospel out of envy and rivalry. He implies that their motivation is irrelevant (at least for the point at hand) because the Gospel is still being preached (an odd point to make, if a few verses later you are going to try to induce a form of theological paranoia). In verse 27, Paul reminds them that they are “citizens of heaven”, which can certainly be read as being in tension with the empire of Rome (both by Paul’s readers and by Rome itself). He follows this up by encouraging them not to be frightened (which would seem to reinforce this interpretation, as it was quite a dangerous thing to be in tension with Rome). In chapter 2, he follows all of this up with the encouragement to have the mind and attitude of Christ. He illustrates this point with an apparent hymn extolling Christ’s attitude and the obedience and death on a cross that were the outworking of that attitude. However, the hymn also makes a point to explain that in God’s reality, the present perceived reality is turned on it’s head with Christ being victorious and the “powers” becoming obedient. It is against this backdrop that Paul inserts the line “work out your salvation in fear and trembling,” although even stating it like that is somewhat misleading, as this isn’t even the whole sentence. It actually states “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 purpose.” Perhaps it could be better translated, “In light of everything we have discussed so far, just as you always have, continue to live out the reality of your salvation in the midst of fear and trembling.” (targum mine ;) ) This interpretation would seem to be confirmed by the following verses in which Paul encourages them to do everything without complaining so that they might become blameless and pure children of God in a warped and crooked generation. (emphasis mine). Once again, the idea seems to be “live out this reality in the midst of another reality.”



Jan said...

Upon reading this I am reminded of John 17:3 "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." Could it be that we are currently living the "eternal life," at the same time we are living in a world with fear and trembling.

Jovan said...

Don't forget about the next verse - verse 13.

"for it is God WHO WORKS IN YOU to will and to act according to his good purpose."

Justin said...


I would say yes, eternal life (also can be stated "abundant life" ) starts as soon as one makes the decision to follow jesus.

Adam, great thoughts... once I started reading about the Kingdom, and I guess, working out my salvation, that verse has made so much more sense.