“Work Out Your Own Salvation With Fear and Trembling”

The relatively familiar verse that is the title of this post comes from Philippians 2:12. I read it recently, and was immediately struck by the comment on it in the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, Second Catholic Edition RSV with commentary by Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch. I really appreciate how much light it sheds on the faith and works discussion between Catholics and Protestants. The following is the commentary:

2:12 Work out your own salvation: I.e., make continued efforts at living the gospel and pursuing your heavenly reward. The statement assumes that while our initial salvation had nothing to do with our works (Eph 2:8-9 “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God- not because of works, lest any man should boast.”), our final salvation depends on a lifetime of keeping the faith (2 Tim 4:7-8 “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”), following the commandments (Mt 19:17 “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”), persevering in good works (Rom 2:7 “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life”), striving for holiness (Heb 12:14 “Strive for peace will all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”), praying in earnest (1 Thess 5:17 “pray constantly”), and fighting against the forces of evil (Eph 6:11 “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”) and the selfish demands of the flesh, which drag us down (Rom 8:13 “for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live”; 1 Cor 9:24-27 “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”). This obligation is so serious that we pursue it with fear and trembling, i.e., with a sense of awe at serving the living God and a sense of dread at the prospect of sinning against him (Ex 20:18-20 “When the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the trumpet blast and the mountain smoking, they all feared and trembled. So they took up a position much further away and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we shall die.’ Moses answered the people, ‘Do not be afraid, for  God has come to you only to test you and put his fear upon you, lest you should sin.'”; Ps 2:11-12 “Serve the Lord with fear; with trembling bow down in homage, lest God be angry and you perish from the way in a sudden blaze of anger. Happy are all who take refuge in God!”). Encouragement comes in the next verse, where Paul reminds readers that God’s grace is working actively within them both to desire (intention) and do (act) what pleases him (Heb 13:20-21 “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”; CCC 308 “The truth that God is at work in all the actions of his creatures is inseparable from faith in God the Creator. God is the first cause who operates in and through secondary causes: “For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Far from diminishing the creature’s dignity, this truth enhances it. Drawn from nothingness by God’s power, wisdom, and goodness, it can do nothing if it is cut off from its origin, for “without a Creator the creature vanishes.” Still less can a creature attain its ultimate end without the help of God’s grace.”) (CCC 1949)


5 thoughts on ““Work Out Your Own Salvation With Fear and Trembling”

  1. This post brings to mind the idea of “progressive justification”. Catholics believe that the role of works in our salvation is not to initially make us righteous or to earn salvation, but to increase our capacity for righteousness — i.e., to make us more like Christ, who is infinitely righteous.

    Progressive justification also helps us to understand what it means to be great in the kingdom of heaven. Although we believe that all those made righteous through Christ will enter heaven, we also believe that through good works and submission to God’s will (to make us perfect), we allow God to increase our capacity for righteousness. Thus, the extent to which we experience the infinite goodness of God in heaven can be influenced by our capacity to experience it.

    This also reminds me of something Lewis talks about in “Mere Christianity”. Lewis says something to the effect of, “the nastier you are to someone, the more you come to hate him, but the nicer you are to someone, the more you come to love him. If you find it hard to generate feelings of love for someone, just begin to act as if you love him, and soon you will.”

    I see now that one of the reasons for this is because by doing the good of loving someone, God rewards us with an increased capacity to love. This capacity to love can be increased indefinitely, since God’s love and righteousness are infinite. So long as we continue to do good, God will continue to increase our capacity for righteousness. He is our loving Father who gives us the good things that we ask for.

  2. Pingback: How to Share the Gospel: For Catholics! | Thoughts from a Catholic

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