Does Philippians 2:12 mean that you can lose your salvation? No, it doesn’t. This becomes clear when you consider the immediate context and the rest of the Bible.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,-Philippians 2:12
People with a law-based mindset define “fear and trembling” in its most negative connotation. They do it to maintain leverage and control. If a wife fears her husband’s sin, she might be tempted to manipulate him (not in love) by telling him that if he don’t stop sinning, he might lose his salvation.
But this only sets up a state of constant anxiety. Can Paul be writing to Christians with such a positive message in Philippians, but then throw in such a negative statement? Certainly not. The Bible uses the phrase “fear not” (or “be not afraid”) over 100 times. 1 John 4:18 is against this kind of insecurity.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.1 John 4:18
Fear has two different meanings or contexts. You can “fear” when something terrible is likely to happen. This kind of fear occurs as you rely on yourself. You can also “fear” when you are dependent upon someone else. You can fear being abandoned. To not fear in this situation means you must trust.
“Don’t go near the cliff, you might fall.” For the non-Christian, they are already at the bottom in the sense that they don’t have salvation. If they manage to climb up the face of the cliff under their own power, they should fear falling.
However, the Christian, at the point of salvation, gained “anti-gravity boots” that lifted them up out of the canyon. They can walk anywhere and won’t fall (as in losing their salvation, not as in never sin). The boots are powered by faith.
Paul’s use of fear means to pay attention, be alert, take personal interest in, take it seriously. You can only do this if you are humbly dependent upon God. A prideful attitude would be fearless, careless and boastful. But eternal life and its accompanying faith are a free gift so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Let’s return to the main verse in Philippians and read further:
for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.-Philippians 2:13
Therefore, you should be humble as you work out your salvation, as you see it unfold before your eyes, because God is the one who is doing the work, for his great purposes. Don’t take credit for your salvation. Recognize you are dependent upon God. Even though you have eternal security, you aren’t self-sufficient. Your eternal security is possible only because of God’s love and power. Your fear and respect for God should point out you can’t depend upon yourself. This should move you closer to God, to know and receive His love.
Someone who isn’t a Christian might get the wrong idea: I can take my eternal security and abandon God. But eternal security and God are inseparable. You can’t have one without the other. If you have God, you have eternal security; if you have eternal security, you have God.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “You can’t be a little bit pregnant. You’re either pregnant or you’re not.” The same can be said for salvation. “You can’t be a little bit saved. You’re either saved or you’re not.”