The Active Obedience of Christ


I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, …For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.” (1 Cor 15:1-3)

According to this passage and many others, we understand that Christ, the Lamb of God, died for our sins. Christ, by his sacrificial death, bore the penalty of our sins and appeased the holy wrath of God (see ‘Passive Obedience‘). Those who have this sacrificial gift imputed to their account stand un-condemned (just) from their legal trespass. But, is that all that is required in Justification? Is a sinless record all that we require to be adopted as sons of God, or must we have a record of positive merit applied to our account also? In other words, does Christ merely purge away our sins by His death, or does He also impute His infinite merit and holy righteousness to our account as well? Was Christ our representative and substitute in both life and death? If so, then every aspect of Christ’s life, obedience, suffering, and battle and victory over sin and temptation are all on our behalf – every aspect of Christ’s life – is an element of the gospel and our justification.

Made Under the Law

  • “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal 4:4)
  • “I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law [is] within my heart.” (Ps 40:8)
  • “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” (Rom 5:10)

J. Gresham Machen

Says J. Gresham Machen –

I have not merited eternal life by any obedience of my own, Christ has merited it for me by His perfect obedience. He was not for Himself subject to the law. No obedience was required of Him for Himself, since He was Lord of all. That obedience, then, which He rendered to the law when He was on earth was rendered by Him as my representative. I have no righteousness of my own, but clad in Christ’s perfect righteousness, imputed to me and received by faith alone, I can glory in the fact that so far as I am concerned the probation has been kept and as God is true there awaits me the glorious reward which Christ thus earned for me. …How gloriously complete is the salvation wrought for us by Christ! Christ paid the penalty, and He merited the reward. Those are the two great things that He has done for us.

Louis Berkhof

From Dr. Berkhof’s ‘Summary of Christian Doctrine‘ –

[Christ’s atonement] included Christ’s active and passive obedience. It is customary to distinguish a twofold obedience of Christ. His active obedience consists in all that He did to observe the law in behalf of sinners, as a condition for obtaining eternal life; and His passive obedience in all that He suffered in paying the penalty of sin and discharging the debt of His people. But while we distinguish these two, we should never separate them. Christ was active also in His suffering, and passive also in His submission to the law. Scripture teaches us that He paid the penalty of the law,

  • Isa. 53:8; “By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who [among them] considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke [was due]? (Isaiah 53:8)”
  • Rom. 4:25; “who was delivered up for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification. (Romans 4:25)”
  • Gal. 3:13; “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: (Galatians 3:13)”
  • I Pet. 2:24, “who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree, that we, having died unto sins, might live unto righteousness; by whose stripes ye were healed. (1 Peter 2:24)”

and merited eternal life for the sinner,

  • “that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Romans 8:4)”
  • “For Christ is the end of the law unto righteousness to every one that believeth. (Romans 10:4)”
  • “Him who knew no sin he made [to be] sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)”
  • “…but when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem them that were under the law…”

Phil Johnson

When a controversy over active obedience arose in the FIRE Fellowship, Phil Johnson wrote a paper to FIRE members addressing the errors of those influenced by Dallas Theological Seminary. That full letter may be found HERE. Segments of Phil’s letter are reproduced below (Full Scripture quotations added by me):

…those who deny Christ’s active obedience are teaching that redemption is accomplished by the setting aside of the law’s absolute demands, not by Christ’s perfectly fulfilling the law on our behalf. That overturns the clear teaching of Christ in Matthew 5:17: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”

2 Cor 5:21 – For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” 

Second Corinthians 5:21 teaches that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers in exactly the same sense that our guilt was imputed to Him. In other words, justification involves a double imputation: Just as our violation of the law was imputed to Christ, His fulfillment of the law is imputed to us. Any other view destroys the parallelism of that verse.

Rom 5:19 – “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.

Romans 5:19 clearly teaches that Christ’s obedience is the ground of our righteous legal standing. …the “obedience” of Christ in this context must include the whole course of His lifetime of obedience to God. …righteousness and obedience are inextricably linked in Scripture. A perfect righteousness clearly requires something more than just the forgiveness of sin.

To deny the role of Christ’s active obedience in justification is to distort what Paul meant when he described believers as “in Christ”—united with Him in such a way that our very life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). We are clothed in His perfect righteousness—not merely stripped of our guilt (Isaiah 61:10). Indeed, Christ is our righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6; 1 Corinthians 1:30). Furthermore, Christ’s “righteousness” consists not merely in His sufferings, but in all his actions (1 John 2:29).

Phil 2:8 – “And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Philippians 2:8 suggests that Christ’s obedience only culminated in His death. The full scope of the obedience He rendered on our behalf was manifest in His whole life, not merely in His dying. See also Romans 8:3-4.
Christ became man for us, not for Himself (2 Corinthians 8:9); and therefore the obedience He owed to the law was for us, not for Himself (Galatians 4:4).

Scripture teaches that God’s own righteousness involves numerous positive elements—His goodness, His love, His mercy, and so on. So God’s righteousness (Romans 10:3) is certainly something more than merely the absence of guilt.

The law’s promise of life to those who obey would seem to be pointless if Christ somehow obtained life for us without obeying the law on our behalf. Why else would the law promise life for obedience (Leviticus 18:5; Ezekiel 20:11; Luke 10:28)? Note that the law promises life not to the one who suffers, but to the one who obeys. If Christ’s active obedience has no relevance to our justification, those promises would add up to nothing but an empty, pointless bluff.

The context of Philippians 3:9 makes clear that the ground of the believer’s justification is an alien righteousness, not any degree of righteousness we obtain for ourselves. To deny that this is the righteousness of Christ is to diminish His unique role as our proxy, our mediator, and our substitute.


If we then, as sinners, stand in need of not only Christ’s vicarious sacrifice, but also his positive righteousness applied to our account, then the Scriptures absolutely exclude any and all merit of our own applied to our account in our justification. Truly, when we consider the full obedience of Christ, it shows us our utter helplessness, complete dependence on Christ for grace and mercy, and it magnifies not only the death and resurrection, but the sinless and perfect life of our Saviour and Lord!

My hope is built on nothing less,
than Jesus’ blood (passive) and righteousness (active).


2 thoughts on “The Active Obedience of Christ

  1. You are probably familiar with the well-known quote of J. Gresham Machen:

    “…New Year’s Day, 1937 – he mustered the strength to send a telegram to John Murray, his friend and colleague at Westminster. It was his last recorded word: “I’m so thankful for [the] active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.””

    Source: John Piper, “J. Gresham Machen’s Response to Modernism” (January 26, 1993), message delivered at the 1993 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors, in desiringGod at [accessed 28 APR 2012].

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s