Some Assembly Required
What did the Apostle Paul mean when he said we should work out our salvation with fear and trembling? Was he saying we secure our salvation through our own efforts? If so, how do we explain the Apostle's assertion we are saved by grace through faith and not by works? The answer is really quite simple; salvation is a gift that requires assembly. Let me explain.
As a child I once received a model airplane as a gift. I didn't do anything to earn that model airplane; it was freely given to me by someone who loved me. Once I received the model it was mine, one hundred percent. However, in order to fully enjoy the gift I needed to put it together. If I failed to do so, all I would have would be the picture on the front of the box to remind me of what my airplane should look like. If the airplane remained disassembled in the box, I would never have been able to enjoy it as it should have been enjoyed, my friends would miss out and the person who gave me the gift would be disappointed as well.
That's what salvation is like. We receive the gift of salvation freely. We don't do anything to earn it. At the same time, we cannot enjoy the full benefit of our salvation unless we work it out - assemble it, so to speak.
The idea Paul wants to convey is that we Christians are called to confirm our salvation by cultivating the law which has been written upon our heart (Jer. 31:31-34, Heb. 8:7-13). Indeed, Paul says in another place, the purpose of Christ's sacrifice was to insure the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:4). And again, he says that we have been created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).
But what about this "fear and trembling" stuff? Well, it seems Paul liked to use that phrase to let his readers know they should take the task of Christ-like living very seriously. He uses the same phrase when he instructs servants to work for their masters as unto the Lord. In other words, we are to cultivate the new creation in a serious and careful manner, recognizing the profound importance of the task. Not that we should run around wringing our hands, but that we must be careful to follow the instructions so that we don't put the wings on upside down.
I think this is one of the critical issues facing the Church today. There are too few Christians who are working to bring their sphere of influence under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ; too few who are actively cultivating the new creation, working to live their life in obedience to God's word - that same word written upon their heart. There is no excuse for this. As F. F. Bruce wrote, "the superiority of the New Covenant lies partly in this, that those who enter into it receive into their own lives the life of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, a life which knows and desires the will of God and a power which is able to do it."
The bottom line is, there is no reason that we should not be working out our salvation in a serious, careful fashion. We are a new creation in Christ, and the new creation requires cultivation: Until we do so (according to the objective standards of the Bible), we will fail to enjoy the full benefit of salvation and this world will be a poorer place because of it.
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