New Testament authors often talk about obedience to the gospel (Rom. 1:5; 6:16; 15:18; 16:19, 26; 2 Cor. 7:15; 10:6; Philemon 21; 1 Pet. 1:2, 22). On the one hand, the New Testament clearly states God saves sinners by grace through faith and not by works (Eph. 2:8-9), that one is justified by faith in Christ apart from the works of the law (Gal. 2:16), and that Jesus died for our sins to reconcile sinners to God and to deliver us from God’s wrath (Rom. 5:8-9). On the other hand, the New Testament clearly teaches Christian obedience to the gospel is necessary for us to inherit final salvation (Eph. 2:10; 1 Cor. 15:1-2; Gal. 5:16-21; Heb. 6:1-20; James 2:14-26; 1 Pet. 3:17; Rev. 2-3).
Christian obedience to the gospel is not optional (see 1 Pet. 1:13-5:11). The New Testament nowhere promises that disobedience to the gospel leads to eternal life. Instead, those who walk in the Spirit will inherit the kingdom of God. As Paul says, “You may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (ESV, Eph. 5:5).
But why? Why do the New Testament authors speak of the necessity of Christian obedience for final salvation while at the same time speaking so clearly about justification by faith alone and salvation by grace through faith?
This is a very complex question. Interpreters have provided many answers. Space allows me only to answer this question with a short exposition of Paul’s remarks in Phil. 2:12-13.
God’s Action in Us Creates Christian Obedience
The Christians in Philippi seem to be experiencing disunity (Phil. 4:2). Perhaps, they were grumbling and disputing with one another instead of shining as bright lights in a dark world as blameless children of God (Phil. 2:14-15). Paul urges the Philippians to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel in a crooked and corrupt world (Phil. 1:27; 4:15), because our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20).
Paul first presents Christ as the perfect example of walking in a manner worthy of the gospel (Phil. 2:1-11). He, then, commands the Philippians to “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). The “fear” and “trembling” are directed toward God, for Paul refers to salvation in v. 12 and eternal life and Jesus’ Second Coming in v. 16.
“Salvation” in Phil. 2:12 refers to deliverance from God’s wrath to be poured out against those who oppose the gospel when Jesus returns, for Paul has already mentioned the future destruction of those who oppose Christians. He also mentions the future salvation that will come to Christians who receive opposition from antagonists of the gospel (Phil. 1:28; also 2:16). In Paul’s writings, salvation is primarily a future hope that has invaded this present evil age (Rom. 1:16; 11:11; 13:11; 2 Cor. 1:6; 6:2; 7:10; Eph. 1:13; 6:17; Phil. 1:28; 1 Thess. 5:8; 2 Tim. 2:10; 3:15; Titus 2:11).
The verb “work out” in Phil. 2:12 is another way of saying obey the gospel (Phil. 1:27). In Phil. 2:13, Paul provides the reason: “Because the one who works in you both to will and to work for good pleasure is God.”
If you think Paul is talking about bootstrap religion here, think again! The ground of Christian obedience to the gospel is always God’s action in us (Phil. 2:12-13). But the motivation for Christian obedience to the gospel in this text is the threat of God’s future wrath against those who don’t obey the gospel, wrath which he will pour out when Jesus, our Savior, returns to bring salvation to the citizens of heaven and to bring eternal destruction against those who oppose the gospel and against those who antagonize those who obey the gospel (Phil. 1:27-28; 3:20). If those who profess faith in Christ live in disobedience to the gospel, and antagonize those who obey the gospel instead of living as blameless children of God in a crooked and corrupt world, they are not holding forth the word (=the gospel) of eternal life (Phil. 2:16).
Christian obedience is both God’s action in us and human action as a result. Christians can live in obedience to the gospel, because God has worked in and enables us to obey (Phil. 2:13). Obedience to the gospel in a dark and crooked world should be the Christian’s “pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
God’s Work in Us and Christian Opposition to Racism
Paul’s remarks provide helpful instructions for Christian opposition to racism and racial injustice.
1. Because God has worked in us, opposing racism is an act of Christian obedience. Of course, there are those who oppose racism who want nothing to do with Christ. And there are those who profess Christ but don’t want anything to do with opposing racism. However, all Christians should oppose racism in the power of the Spirit, because racism opposes the gospel. God works in and commands Christians to obey the gospel.
2. Because God has worked in us, Christians should oppose racism with Christ-like sacrificial love and humility. Speaking truth to power doesn’t mean we speak and act as though we are children of darkness instead of children of the light. Christ is our example (Phil. 2:1-11).
3. Because God has worked in us, opposing racism is just one (but an important) aspect of Christian obedience. Christians should see opposition to racism as an act of Christian obedience that proves we have tasted the salvation of the one God. In fact, opposition to racism in response to God’s work in us is one way, amongst many, that we manifest the virtues Paul mentions in the letter. Christian opposition to racism is an act of Christian obedience that shows gentleness to all image-bearers (Phil. 4:5), and shows a commitment to “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is lovely, and whatever is admirable… excellent or praiseworthy” (NIV, Phil. 4:8).
4. Because God has worked in us, we must oppose racism as children of light in ways that show we are friends of the gospel instead of enemies of the cross (Phil. 3:18). As we obey the gospel in opposition to racism, we should use common grace resources and common sense under the authority of Scripture in the power of the Spirit, always seeking to honor Jesus with our words and deeds in our efforts to push against the sin of personal and structural racism.