The Passive Obedience of Christ


The great question of religion is how can a fallen man stand justified before his God? Can a just and holy God wink at sin? There are two things that man lacks: payment for his debt of sin and a positive righteousness. Modern conservative religion places (rightly) an emphasis on man’s need for forgiveness, but what of his lack of righteousness? According to John Murray, “…the law of God has both penal sanctions and positive demands. It demands not only the full discharge of its precepts but also the infliction of penalty for all infractions and shortcomings.”

In my last post on the atonement provided by Christ (The Obedience of Christ), I looked at what John Murray defines as the central rubric by which the atonement can be summarized: obedience. In this post, we look at the passive element of Christ’s obedience. In the next post, we will consider the active aspect of Christ’s obedience. Again, we turn to John Murray to define the precise terms we use to describe Christ’s work on our behalf:

Christ as the vicar of his people came under the curse and condemnation due to sin and he also fulfilled the law of God in all its positive requirements. In other words, he took care of the guilt of sin and perfectly fulfilled the demands of righteousness. He perfectly met both the penal and the preceptive requirements of God’s law. The passive obedience refers to the former and active obedience to the latter. …His obedience becomes the ground of the remission of sin and of actual justification.

Passive Obedience

The passive obedience of Christ is His willingly submitting himself as the sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the church in order to propitiate the righteousness of God on her behalf.

Jesus said to the Pharisees:

I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. …But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, [and] one shepherd. Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father. (John 10:11,14-18)

Christ Died for the Church

“I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep…and I lay down my life for the sheep”

  • The flock is the church of Christ – see Acts 20:28.
  • Christ is the Shepherd of the flock – versus 2-4, 11, 14
  • Christ lays his life down for the sheep (the church) – verses 11 and 15

There is One People of God

“other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, …and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”

  • Christ will bring other sheep [gentiles] into his fold
  • There is one fold – one people of God – One Church

Christ Died for the Church

“I lay down my life…No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.

  • Christ laid down His own life
  • Christ’s life was not taken from Him, but He laid it down of His own power.

Was Christ Really ‘Passive’ in His Death?

Christ’s atonement is not called passive in the sense that his death is something that was done ‘to’ Him by the forces of evil. Christ stated plainly that he was to lay it down of His own will and power. Rather, Christ’s death is referred to as passive obedience in the sense that Christ willingly subjected Himself ‘in perfect obedience’ to suffering and death.

See Webster’s 1828 Dictionary entry for ‘Passive’ -

1. Suffering…

2. Unresisting; not opposing; receiving or suffering without resistance; as passive obedience…

Other Aspects of Passive Obedience

It would be a mistake to think that only Christ’s death is included in His passive (or suffering) obedience. In fact, everything Christ suffered in His state of humiliation on Earth was a part of his suffering obedience: lowly birth, rejection by men, ‘many sorrows’, Garden of Gethsemane, etc. The cross, however, was the culmination of Christ’s humble obedience and as such, is the central focus of the Gospel message and Christian piety and adoration.

From the 1677 Baptist Catechism:

Q. Wherein did Christ’s humiliation consist?

A. Christ’s humiliation consisted in His being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross, in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.

(Luke 2:7; Gal. 4:4; Is. 53:3; Luke 22:44; Matt. 27:46; Phil. 2:8; Matt. 12:40; Mark 15:45,46)

Click HERE for Benjamin Beddome’s exposition of this question and answer.

Scriptural Support Related to Christ’s Suffering Obedience

  • For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. (Rom 5:19)
  • [Christ] in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared; Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation… (Heb 5:7-9)
  • [Christ] made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. (Phil 2:7-8)
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1 Comment

Filed under Atonement, Calvinism

One response to “The Passive Obedience of Christ

  1. Pingback: The Active Obedience of Christ | Abraham's Seed

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