Not All Obedience Is Christian

Christian obedience is a special kind of obedience. It involves more than mere external behavior, more even than proper motivation. Christian obedience involves the miraculous and mysterious union of divine action and human action. The apostle Paul lays out this mystery in Philippians 2:

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, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12–13)

As we consider this mystery, it’s crucial that we get our prepositions right. Christians don’t work for their salvation. Salvation is by grace through faith. It’s not of our own doing; “it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9). Elsewhere in Philippians, Paul says that he’s seeking to gain Christ, to be found in him, not having a righteousness of his own that comes from the law, but the righteousness from God that depends on faith (Philippians 3:8–9). So Christians don’t work for our own salvation. We receive salvation as a gift.

But we do work out our own salvation, and we do so because God is at work within us to will and to work for his good pleasure. We are working out what God is working in. And he is working at the level of our will — our desires, our affections, our choices. Fundamental to salvation is heart change, the transformation of our wills by God so that we will and work for his good pleasure.

Working from Within

The same mystery and miracle of Christian obedience is described at the end of the book of Hebrews:

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 us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20–21)

“We don’t work for salvation. We work out salvation because God works in us to will and work for his good pleasure.”

How does the God of peace equip us to do his will? By working in us what is pleasing in his sight. The same elements are present here and in Philippians: God’s work in us, leading to our working out (that is, doing his will), for his good pleasure and glory. Just like in Philippians, he works in us so that we do his will in a way that pleases him.

Therefore, Christian obedience is special because it knows that prepositions matter. We don’t work for salvation. We work out salvation because God works in us to will and work for his good pleasure.

Christian Double Vision

Christian obedience is also special in another way. God’s work in us produces a special kind of mindset. Think of this in terms of double vision. Consider Philippians 2:1–5, noting the use of the word mind:

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s joy will be complete if the Philippians have the same mindset, the same love, the same soul, the same single-mindedness. And in particular, he highlights what they’re keeping an eye on. They look not to their own interests, but to the interests of others. They don’t act from selfish ambition or pride or vainglory, but they count other people more significant than themselves. They place their happiness in the good of other people. That’s the first part of the double vision: looking to the interests of others.

The second part appears in Philippians 2:12: we look for the approval of God. Paul says, “As you have always obeyed . . . not only as in my presence but much more in my absence . . .” The Philippians were not obeying in order to impress Paul; they were obeying in order to please God.

Whose Approval?

In drawing attention to their constant obedience, Paul is actually highlighting a perennial temptation for obedient people. Whose approval do you have your eye on? If it’s fundamentally a human being, then you will obey only as long as they have their eyes on you. You will obey in their presence, but not in their absence. And obedience that appears only in the presence of certain people is not truly Christian obedience. See how Paul echoes this theme elsewhere:

Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:22–24; see also Ephesians 6:5–8)

Of course, it’s not wrong to desire to please the right people with our obedience. We should want to please our boss by doing our job well. Kids should want to please their parents with their obedience. The issue comes when that’s the only reason we obey. If we obey only when our parents are around, or when the pastor is around, or when our spouse is around, or when the boss is around, or when our Christian friends are around, then our obedience is mere people-pleasing eye-service. It does not please God because it’s not done for his sake.

Obedience from the Inside Out

The prepositions and the double vision are connected. Christian obedience is an obedience from the inside out, not from the outside in. It begins with God’s work in the heart and then is worked out in terms of the double vision — looking to the interests of others while looking for the approval of God. I regularly tell my sons that what I want and expect from them is an obedience from the inside out. I don’t want to follow them around to make sure that they follow through. That’s obedience from the outside in. The external pressure of parental eyes drives the obedience (often to the exasperation of both parent and child).

“Christian obedience is an obedience from the inside out, not from the outside in.”

What parents want is obedience from the heart, from the inside out. We want to be able to say, like Paul, “You always obey, not only in my presence but much more in my absence.” We don’t just want our children to meet the standard with their actions; we want them to love the standard from the heart. We want God to work in our kids to will and to work for his good pleasure. That’s an obedience that shines like the stars, that makes parents proud and God happy.

And of course, this special kind of Christian obedience isn’t just for kids, but for all Christians. Christian obedience has a double vision — we look to the interests of others, and we look for the approval of God. We don’t put ourselves first. We don’t turn our desires into demands. We seek the good of other people. We aim to bless them and to bring them joy. And we do so because we’re always in God’s presence, animated by his Spirit, and we want to please him by working out what he is working in.