There is more to the Christian life than passively receiving God’s grace. Too easily we reduce salvation down to nothing more than a free ticket to heaven ignoring God’s plans for us here and now. His desire is that we be transformed becoming more like Jesus entering into the fullness of all we were created to be. It is this transformation process that Paul says we are to work at in fear and trembling.
US author Dallas Willard explains it this way: “The idea that God has done everything and you are essentially left to be a consumer of the grace of God and that the only thing you have to do is find out how to do that . . . is a terrible mistake . . . It is crucial to realise that grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning. Earning is an attitude, effort is action. Without effort, we would be nowhere.”
In other words, grace and effort work hand in hand.
In the same way that mastering a musical instrument, or a new sport or even a new language requires effort, I am called to master what it is to be a follower of Jesus. Time and effort is required to master a new instrument or sport, the same is true with any deep relationship. The same is true in our relationship with Jesus.
This is what Paul means to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” He reminds us that following Christ takes effort. It is not a passive journey where we sit back and bathe in the beauty of grace but a very active one where we daily work at what it means to follow Christ and become more and more like him. There are attitudes to develop, disciplines to master and standards of living to aspire to. Although we are saved by grace and God is at work in our lives, there is much that is required by us in response.
Who we are and who we will become is not left to chance. God is powerfully at work within us, yet we are to work too. It is only as we work together that we will become who God has called us to be. This is one of the wonderful mysteries of the Christian life.
Stephen L Baxter