I have written a number of times how the Gospel transforms our fear of God from being scarred, timid, and apprehensive to wonder, awe and amazement. This is why I can always approach my Father with confidence and boldness.
A couple of weeks ago a friend responded, “Yeah but what about Philippians 2:12, ‘Work out your salvation with fear and trembling’?” Great question. This sounds as if our Christian growth should be motivated by a fear of what God will do to us if we don’t meet his standard of effort and progress. It feels like a semi-veiled threat to be faithful or else. This is what I used to think and I had it wrong. For a couple of reasons.
First, we discover that if it is a subtle threat it is an empty threat. In our moments or months or even years of half-heartedness we do not experience a heavenly Father that makes us tremble with fear and duck for cover. Rather our experience is exactly the opposite, we have the experience of the prodigal son being embraced by his father. We don’t have a Father who is trying to move us along with a cattle-prod of fear, rather we have a Father who is wooing us with his love and goodness.
Secondly, the person we are responding to with “fear and trembling” is not God…it is us. Ralph Wardlaw, an early 18th century Scottish Presbyterian wrote, “This fear is self-distrust; it is tenderness of conscience; it is vigilance against temptation…It is taking heed lest we fall…it is the caution and circumspection which timidly shrinks from whatever would offend and dishonor God and the Savior.”
Lastly, the very next verse, verse 13, describes God’s participation in our growth, “For God is working in you, giving you the desire to obey him and the power to do what pleases him” (NLT). God is out in front of us, enabling us to obey and cheering us on–not behind us kicking us in the butt.