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Phil. ii. 12, 13. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.
IN attending to these words, it has been attempted to consider and shew what is intended by Christians working out their own salvation. This has been endeavoured 179 in the preceding discourses. It is now proposed,
II. To consider what is meant by their doing this with fear and trembling.
It is of importance to observe here, and let it be kept in view, that this passage of scripture cannot be understood, and the true sense of it given, unless the real meaning of these words be properly ascertained, and fixed in our minds: for they are really the key by which alone the meaning of the whole passage is opened, and without which the true intent and force of these words of the Apostle cannot be perceived. This, it is expected, will be made to appear before the subject is dismissed; and is a reason why these words should be examined with particular care and attention, that the true import of them may not be overlooked, and they be taken in a wrong sense, but the true meaning of them be known and fixed.
The drift and force of the exhortation of the apostle is not merely to work out their own salvation, but has a principal and chief respect to the manner of doing this, which is expressed in the words, “With fear and trembling.” Therefore in these words is contained an essential part of the exhortation; and to this part, which points out the manner and only way in which they could work out their own salvation, the following words do wholly refer, as an argument to enforce it: “For it is God who worketh in you both to will and to do, of his good pleasure.” This is a reason, not merely why they should work out their own salvation, but why they should do this with fear and trembling, as the only way in which it could be done. Whatever men may do, and however much and great pains and labour they may take in working out their salvation: yet if they do not this with fear and trembling, they will fail of obtaining salvation. This points out the only way to heaven. But this will be more particularly considered and illustrated in the prosecution of this subject.180
The following particulars will serve to lead to the true meaning of fear and trembling.
1. These words must intend something which is right and becoming all Christians at all times, while they are working out their own salvation. It is what is essential to all truly Christian grace and exercises, and belongs to the beauty and excellence of their character: and as they cannot be real Christians and live as such without it, so the more they have of it, the better and more strong and excellent Christians they are. If this were not so, the Apostle would not have exhorted them, and consequently all Christians, at all times and in all ages, thus to work out their own salvation. It would be injurious and absurd to suppose that he exhorted to those exercises and that practice which are not virtuous and excellent, and becoming all Christians, at all times, as their indispensable duty, in which they are bound to excel, and cannot be practised to excess. This observation, of the truth of which none can doubt, will help to shew what is not intended by fear and trembling here, viz. all those exercises which are wrong, or are a blemish and imperfection in the character of a Christian. These must all be excluded, and will lead to the observations following.
2. The Apostle does not exhort Christians to work out their own salvation under the influence of a servile, slavish fear of God, in which no true love is implied, but is contrary to a spirit of love. This is sometimes meant by fear in the scriptures, and is condemned as contrary to a Christian spirit of love and true obedience. This Apostle says to Christians, “Ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba Father. God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, of love and of a sound mind:” [Rom. viii. 15; 2 Tim. i. 7.]44 The word in the original, translated fear, (2 Tim. i. 7,) is deilias, which not the word commonly used for fear; and the most proper meaning of it is cowardice. He therefore certainly did not exhort Christians 181to exercise such fear in working out their salvation. The apostle John says there is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.
3. By fear and trembling here is not meant a constant, trembling fear of falling away and perishing at last. This cannot be the meaning, because this is not the duty of all Christians, and cannot be considered as a Christian virtue, but rather an imperfection, and at least a defect of grace. Christians are directed to make their calling and election sure. The Apostle speaks of those Christians to whom he gave the exhortation under consideration, as those of whom he was confident that God would carry on the work he had begun in them, until the day of Jesus Christ. And how could he direct them to tremble with fear of perishing, when he at the same time had told them he was confident that Christ would save them? Why might not they be as confident of their salvation as he was? He speaks in the language of assurance of his own salvation in this letter. He speaks of his own death as connected with his being with Christ. And he says of himself, with others, “We know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” And no doubt some, if not many, of the Christians at Philippi had a comfortable assurance of their interest in the covenant of grace, and consequently that they should be saved. It is certain that the Apostle did not know that this was not true of them. It is therefore certain that he considered this exhortation to be applicable to the most assured Christian that was then on earth, or ever will live in this world, and pointed out their duty as much as of those who were in doubt whether they should be saved or not. The Apostle himself, and every assured Christian, had as much of this fear and trembling as any Christian whatever; and it was as much his and their duty and privilege, and essential to their 182character, in which they would abound more and more as they advanced in the Christian life and excellent attainments.
The word fear is often used in scripture in a sense which denotes that which is a virtue and real piety, and in this sense are fear and trembling used. And the fear of the Lord, or to fear God, commonly means the exercise of true piety. Of this all who read the Bible with attention are sensible.
From the foregoing observations it evidently appears, that by fear and trembling in the text must be intended Christian humility, with all the natural and necessary attendants of it, consisting in a sense of their own depravity and guilt, or ill desert, and of their total moral impotence and insufficiency in themselves, to work out their own salvation, or to will and do any thing towards it; with an entire and constant dependence on and trust in God the Saviour for pardon and acceptance, through his atonement, and the influences of his Spirit to give them moral discerning, strength and ability to work out their own salvation, in a sense of his greatness, majesty, power and sovereignty, who has mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth; and of their own littleness, vileness, and infinite unworthiness of the least favour; while they view destruction, which they deserve, and shall certainly fall into, unless they are rescued by the mighty power and sovereign grace of God, in all the horrors and dreadfulness of it; and the infinite greatness, worth, and importance of that salvation which is given by Christ to all who believe and obey him.
That all this is implied in that humility and faith which is essential to the character of a Christian, and by which he lives, and works out his own salvation, none can doubt who properly attends to the subject. And that the whole of this is implied and expressed in the words fear and trembling, is evident, from the use of those words in other places, and on different occasions, and from what follows in the passage we are upon.183
We find these words used three times, beside that in the text before us, by this apostle. He says to the Corinthians, “I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.” He seems here to set himself designedly in contrast with those whom he calls false apostles, who appeared proud and self-sufficient, and affected a great parade and shew of their own abilities and accomplishments, and boasted great things. On the contrary, when he was with them, and God did great things among them by his ministry, in their conversion, he gloried not in himself, but in the Lord, and laboured among them in fear and much trembling, in a pressing sense of his own weakness, and insufficiency for the great work in which he was engaged; that he was nothing, and that God alone could give the increase and success desired. He expresses the same thing in the following words: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God.” When he speaks of the Corinthians receiving Titus with fear and trembling, the meaning is, that they received him in humility and lowliness of mind, in a sense of their own sinfulness and unworthiness, and readiness to receive instruction from him, sensible of their ignorance and need of being taught; in opposition to self-sufficiency and pride, undervaluing and despising him.
This same Apostle says to servants, “Be obedient unto them who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling.” None can reasonably suppose that servants are here commanded to act from a servile, slavish fear of their masters, doing all and obeying them out of fear of their rod: for this is not a commendable spirit in servants. By fear and trembling is evidently meant a spirit of humility and submission to the will of their masters; willing to take their own proper place; not setting up for themselves, but feeling their dependence upon their masters for all temporal support, realizing the evil consequence of a contrary spirit and conduct, of pride and self-sufficiency. And in Romans xi. 20, he uses the word fear to denote a Christian virtue, in opposition to pride and self-confidence: “Well, because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not high minded, but fear.”
And that the meaning of fear and trembling in the text which has been given is the only true meaning, is evident from the words which immediately follow these: “For it is God which worketh in you, both to will and to do, of his good pleasure.” This is given as the reason why they should work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. And this is a good reason why they should do this, in a humbling sense of their own depravity, unworthiness, and moral inability to work out their own salvation, and continually maintain self-diffidence, in a sense of the greatness of the work, and their own insufficiency, and their entire dependence on God for his powerful influence on their hearts, in order to their willing and doing, and taking one step in their Christian course. But if these words are not taken in this sense, the propriety and force of the argument cannot be discerned, and is lost. But this is to be more fully considered under another head.
Having given a summary of the meaning of fear and trembling in the text, in order more fully to elucidate this point it will be proper, if not necessary, particularly to shew what is implied in this general account; which may be done under the following heads.
1. Fear and trembling implies a trembling conviction and sense of their own weakness, and total insufficiency, in themselves, to work out their own salvation, while they have some true view of the greatness, difficulty, importance and necessity of the work, and that it must be done by them, being most reasonable, and their indispensable duty.
This self-diffidence every Christian feels and constantly exercises in disclaiming all moral power and ability to do any thing towards his salvation, if left to himself, and is necessarily implied in that humility denoted by fear and trembling. 185
2. This is attended with a thorough conviction, and sensible acknowledgment, that this their weakness and utter insufficiency is wholly their own fault; that it consists in their moral depravity, and the inexcusable wickedness of their own hearts. This conviction and view of themselves strikes death to their pride, and is an essential ingredient in Christian humility, and in fear and trembling.
3. Consequently, fear and trembling includes in it an affecting conviction of their own unworthiness and ill desert; that they are utterly unworthy of salvation, and of that assistance and grace by which alone they can obtain it, and deserve to be left of God to fall into destruction; which would certainly be the case, in a moment, if God should deal with them according to their folly and crimes, and withhold from them that assistance and sovereign goodness which they are constantly forfeiting, and pour that evil on their heads which they are provoking him to inflict; that they are therefore in the hands of a sovereign God, who has mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. This view and sense of the truth will not be in the least removed or abated by the strongest well grounded hope and confidence that this sovereign God has had mercy on them; and therefore does not in any degree exclude the humility, the fear and trembling, implied in a real and constant conviction of these truths.
4. Fear and trembling implies a fearful and trembling sense of the infinite and amazing dreadfulness of endless destruction, which the Christian considers and dreads as his certain portion, if he should have his desert, and not be rescued and saved from it, by the constant exertion of the mighty power and sovereign grace of Jesus Christ. The strongest Christian hope and assurance that they have a divine promise that they shall escape this evil, and be kept by the mighty power of Christ, through faith, unto salvation, will not remove or abate this awful view of destruction: but they who have the 186highest well-grounded confidence of their salvation, will have the greatest sense of the evil implied in perishing forever.
5. A belief and sense of the infinite greatness, power and terrible majesty of God, and a correspondent conviction of their own littleness and nothingness in his sight, impressing an awe of his displeasure, and dread of sinning against him, is implied in fear and trembling. This sense and feeling will increase, as Christians grow in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, whatever evidence and assurance they may have of the favour and love of God.
6. The Christian works out his own salvation with fear and trembling, while he constantly views and feels the dangers with which he is surrounded, by which he is liable to fall and perish, and against which he has no strength and security in himself; that he is always surrounded by innumerable hosts of invisible, subtle, potent enemies, who are seeking his eternal ruin, and doing all they can to prevent his salvation; while he has no more power or skill in himself to resist or escape their rage, and destruction by them, than an infant has to conquer a roaring lion.
This is the representation which Christ himself gives of the state and circumstances of a Christian, while in this world. He speaks to every Christian of which his church is composed in the following language: “Look unto me from the lions’ dens, from the mountains of the leopards.” [Solomon’s Song, iv. 8.] He speaks to his church, and to every believer of which it is composed, as dwelling among lions, even in their dens, continually exposed to be devoured by them; and in the midst of leopards, beasts of prey, who conceal themselves in thickets and on trees, from which they suddenly dart themselves, seize and devour men as they pass: denoting that they are in such a dangerous state in this world, and continually exposed to be destroyed by powerful, invisible enemies, which is fully represented by persons lying in the dens of hungry, devouring lions, or on 187mountains haunted by leopards, every moment exposed to be destroyed by them, having nothing to defend themselves from them. He calls to them to look to him as their only refuge and deliverer, letting them know their dangerous, helpless situation, and that in him alone their help is found.
7. This is attended with a constant and increasing view and sense of the dangerous enemies which they have within themselves, consisting in their moral depravity and evil propensities; that if Christ should leave them to themselves, they should immediately turn his enemies, and join with the devil, and be on his side and espouse his cause in opposition to Jesus Christ, and finally fall with him into eternal destruction.
8. Fear and trembling is not only consistent with, but necessarily implies, a humble and constant dependence on Jesus Christ alone for grace and strength to follow him through all these dangers and difficulties, leaning on his almighty arm, his infinite wisdom, goodness, truth and faithfulness, for pardon of their sins through his atonement, and deliverance from moral depravity; for power and skill to restrain and conquer their own lusts, and escape everlasting destruction; trusting in him to work in them both to will and to do all that is implied in their working out their own salvation. This, and all which has been mentioned in the above particulars, is implied in fear and trembling; in that humility and saving faith by which the Christian lives, and works out his own salvation. By this he becomes strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. His grace is sufficient for him, and by it he overcomes.
9. As every Christian is coming vastly short in his duty in every thing which he does, and is constantly guilty of much sin, so he is in danger of unthought of deviations from his duty, and by temptations to fall into particular gross sins, against which he has no security but the promises of the covenant of grace; and to escape these he depends upon the sovereign will of God, who 188 worketh in him both to will and to do, of his own good pleasure. This is the ground of a constant dread of every sin of omission or commission, and continual care and watching against all sin, and fear of displeasing God, so as to leave him to commit some particular sin, in a trembling sense of his own weakness, and the certainty that he shall not avoid it unless God be pleased to prevent it, by working in him to will and do the contrary. With this view and feeling the Christian ought daily to walk while he is working out his own salvation, however assured he may be that he shall not fall away finally and miss of salvation. And this is implied in the fear and trembling recommended in the text.
10. While Christians are working out their own salvation with fear and trembling, they are sensible and acknowledge that by their own works, and the utmost they can do, they do not in the least recommend themselves to God as deserving any favour on this account; but are infinitely ill deserving as sinners, for which all they do makes not the least atonement; and so much depravity and sin constantly attends them in all they will and do, that they are continually adding to their guilt and ill desert. They therefore utterly renounce all dependence on their own righteousness, and trust wholly to the atonement and righteousness of Jesus Christ for the pardon of their sins, and for all the favour and blessings they want and hope for, willing and rejoicing to receive all this purely for the sake of his atonement and worthiness, while they are considered in themselves as infinitely unworthy of the least favour, and deserving of endless destruction. This view of themselves, and cordial acknowledgment of it, is agreeably to truth, and essential to Christian humility, while they live by faith on Jesus Christ, and “walk humbly with God.” Thus the Christian saith, (it is the constant language of his heart,) “In the Lord have I righteousness and strength;” strength to work out my own salvation, and righteousness to recommend me to pardon and the favour of God. In the exercise of this fear and trembling the 189apostle Paul renounced all dependence on his own works, desiring to be found in Christ, not having any righteousness of his own, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith. Such only are of a contrite and humble spirit, who tremble at the word of God; constantly flying for refuge from the wrath to come, and laying hold on the hope set before them in Christ Jesus. He who trusts to himself that he is righteous, and attempts to recommend himself to God, or thinks he deserveth any favour for his own works, exerciseth that pride and self confidence which excludes fear and trembling, and is contrary to living by faith.
What has been now said, in the description of fear and trembling, may be in a partial and imperfect manner represented by the following similitude.
A person finds himself in the midst of a hideous forest and thicket, in which are impassable mountains, swamps and dreadful precipices; he himself is sick unto death, and not able to walk a step, while he sees himself surrounded by hungry lions, and innumerable other beasts of prey, threatening to rush upon him and devour him. And on consideration he finds he has brought himself into this dangerous, wretched state by his own inexcusable folly, and that his disorders and weakness are really his own fault; that he has greatly abused the Lord and owner of the territory in which he is, and all things in it; that he might therefore justly in his displeasure deliver him to the tormentors, and to be miserably devoured by the fierce beasts of prey. While he is in this situation, giving himself up to despair, as wholly lost and doomed to inevitable destruction, the great personage, the owner of the forest and all that it contained, appears to him, and tells him that though he had abused him, and had ruined himself, by his own inexcusable folly, yet he was ready to forgive him, and was able and disposed to cure him of his disorders, and give him strength to walk, and to extricate him from the evil and dangerous state in which he was, and make him happy in the 190most agreeable circumstances. Upon this he stretched out his hand, and bid him take hold of it, and he should be safely led out of this horrid place. The poor man felt an invisible energy accompanying this proposal and command, by which he was strengthened and willing to lay fast hold of the nobleman’s hand, and to trust wholly in him as his deliverer, pleased to be wholly dependent on him for all the good he wanted, having in himself not the least sufficiency to help himself, and being utterly unworthy of the favour now offered to him, firmly believing the truth and ability of his patron to accomplish all he had promised.
The nobleman told him, that though he depended wholly on him for all his strength to act and walk, and every volition to exert himself in order to escape the dangers of this wilderness, resist the wild beasts, pass through the swamps and miry marshes, ascend the steep mountains, and stand firm on the brink and side of dreadful precipices, and arrive to the promised land; yet he must be active, and work out this his salvation in the exercise of his own care and constant labor; he must resist the beasts of prey, and by his watchfulness and exertions in every step of the dangerous, difficult way he had to go, he must persevere in his work, and in obedience to him, till he should bring him to a place of safety and rest; that, in a sense of his own insufficiency to will or do any thing in this travel in order to his salvation, and his total and constant dependence on his patron, for disposition and strength to will and do, and persevere in the work before him, he must keep his eye upon him, and place all his trust in him, keeping hold of his hand, or of a strong cord which should be fastened to himself, his patron, and always be in his reach, when his hand was not. And in this way he should be carried safely on to the land of promise.
Thus the poor man set out, confiding in the power, truth and faithfulness of his patron, and disclaiming all confidence in himself; continuing his course through hideous swamps, and over high and steep mountains, 191and on the edge of dreadful precipices, when, by losing his hold or taking one wrong step he should fall and be dashed in pieces in a moment, unless prevented by his guide, making use of the strong cord when his patron was out of sight. Thus he went on in the exercise of constant care and watchfulness, and incessant exertion, taking heed that every step of his should be according to the direction of his leader; and found that the efforts which he made to resist the wild beasts of prey, which continually sought to devour him, were effectual to make them fly from him, and thus he kept himself from their deadly touch. And the farther he went, he became more afraid of displeasing his guide, who was so worthy, kind and condescending; and increased in a sense of his danger if left to himself, and the certainty and dreadfulness of the destruction which would in that case await him; confiding altogether in the power, wisdom, truth and goodness of his patron. He sometimes in a measure forgot his own weakness, and constant dependence on his patron, and attempted to stand and walk in his own strength; but this always cost him dear, for when he thought thus to stand, he certainly fell, and it proved the occasion of shame and humiliation. And he made many wrong steps, which he knew was offensive to his patron, which filled him with shame and pain, and served to increase self-abhorrence and diffidence in himself. Thus he went on through all the difficulties and dangers of the way, in fear and trembling, increasing in self-diffidence and humility, and in his humble dependence and trust in his able, faithful patron, till he came to the promised land of safety and rest, where he is to live a happy and endless life.
From the whole which has been said in the description of fear and trembling, the result is, that it consists most essentially in Christian humility and poverty of spirit, in a sense of their own weakness and insufficiency to work out their own salvation, and a humble trust in God for his constant, powerful energy on their hearts, disposing and prompting them effectually to will and to 192 do all that they must will and do in order to be saved; together with all those views and exercises which are implied in this, according to the various objects in their sight, and the circumstances with which they are attended. This is essential to the life of all Christians, and to the exercise of every Christian grace; and the more they have of this, the stronger and more beautiful Christians they are. Thus the apostle Paul worked out his own salvation with fear and trembling, while confident and assured of the favour and love of God, and of eternal life. He felt himself to be nothing but weakness, while he was strong in the Lord; to be less than the least of all saints, and that he was nothing, and the chief of sinners. He felt that all his sufficiency was of God; that by his grace working effectually in him, he was what he was, and did what he did in the Christian life. Well might he then recommend this fear and trembling to all Christians, as essential to their character, without which all their attempts to work out their own salvation would be in vain, and end in sad disappointment.
And if this Apostle did work out his salvation with fear and trembling, then the greatest and most assured Christian does not get beyond or above this; but the more he has of it, the greater is his strength and excellence. This has been in some measure kept in view through the whole of this description of fear and trembling. And the Christian who has not an assurance of his salvation, but at times is in great doubts whether he be a real Christian or not; though he may differ in some respects in his views, feelings and exercises from the assured Christian, yet he is working out his own salvation with this same fear and trembling which the assured Christian has, while he is attended with many doubts and fears, which perfect, or a more strong love would cast out.
From the foregoing view of fear and trembling, it appears to consist in a disposition and exercises of heart which are in direct opposition to a self-righteous spirit, 193or a trust and confidence in ourselves, relying on our own strength and sufficiency to work out our own salvation, depending on this as a righteousness to recommend to divine favour. They who are of this disposition depend on themselves to move first, and set themselves to work out their own salvation, hoping for all the favour they think they want, as the consequence of their thus working, and out of regard to it. This evil disposition, which is contrary to the nature of Christian exercises, our Saviour sets in a clear and striking light in the character and conduct of the pharisee, who applies to God in a confidence in his own sufficiency and righteousness, trusting in himself that he is righteous, valuing himself on his own supposed good character, and despising others. The publican is an instance of humble fear and trembling.
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