Key biblical texts which contrast filial affection and slavish trepidation are Romans 8:14-15 and 1 John 4:18.

[Romans 8:14-15 reads], “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit who makes you sons.”

[And 1 John 4:18], “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The man who fears is not made perfect in love.”

The word translated “punishment” is kolasis, used only here and at Matthew 25:46. It refers to God’s retributive justice or penal satisfaction (cf. the verb kolaz in2 Peter 2:9). The objects of kolasis are the unrighteous. Consequently, to be motivated by threats of the law is sub-Christian. In the words of Augustus Toplady’s great hymn: “The terrors of law and of God / With me can have nothing to do; / My Saviour’s obedience and blood / Hide all my transgressions from view.”

Fear and Dread versus Veneration and Honor

We should note the Scripture’s use of the word “fear” in two distinct senses. There is the fear of terror and dread, and the fear of veneration and honor. The fear of terror makes us want to run away and hide; the fear of honor leads us to stand in awe and worship. The gospel removes the fear of terror as a source of motivation in the Christian life. Punishment has no power to rehabilitate. As theologian John Murray notes, “Even the infliction of wrath will not create the hatred of sin; it will incite to greater love of sin and enmity against God.”

Fear of punishment must be expelled so that love may reign supreme as the Christian life’s animating principle. Since it is love to God that is in view, it is necessarily a reverent love. God is majestic in His holiness, and His acts of redemptive love are awe-inspiring. The only proper response to the crucifixion of the Lord of glory is, “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” Believers tremble at the righteous judgment of God against sin. They are no longer afraid of punishment, but they are sobered by the awesome transaction: Christ died for our sins; God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us; He bore our sins in His own body on the tree.

The fear of terror makes us want to run away and hide; the fear of honor leads us to stand in awe and worship. The gospel removes the fear of terror as a source of motivation in the Christian life. When the Scripture tells us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), it does not mean that we are to live lives of nervous apprehension because the completion of our salvation is up to us. The reading of the New American Bible, “work with anxious concern to achieve your salvation,” is as misleading as it is common. The full text of Philippians 2:12-13 is as follows: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out (katergazesthe) with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”

The verb translated “work out” is the only New Testament instance of katergazomai in the imperative mood. Although it can mean “to effect or achieve” (cf. Romans 5:3, “tribulation works patience”; 2 Corinthians 7:10, “godly sorrow works repentance”) or “to finish [off] or conquer” (cf. Ephesians 6:16, “after you have done everything”), it can also mean “to practice or work at.” The question is, which is the most likely meaning in this context?