The Active Obedience of Christ

What is justification?
“Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” (WSC #33)

A necessary part of justification is when the Christian receives the righteousness of Christ by imputation. For those who believe in Christ for salvation, we are counted as righteous in the sight of God, not because of our own works of obedience, but because of the obedient work of Jesus Christ from his birth to the cross.

This month, I’d like to focus on the obedience of Jesus Christ as an essential aspect of the gospel. Remember, the gospel is not merely a word that we tack onto something in order to make it sound “Christian.” For example, the gospel is not a type of music and it’s not a coalition, nor is it something we do.

The gospel is the good news of the incarnation of the Son of God, his perfect life on our behalf, his death on the cross to make atonement for our sin, his resurrection, his ascension, his enthronement, and his return on the clouds – all of this for our salvation, for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life in the Kingdom of God. The gospel is the work of Christ on our behalf – thus, it is the good news.

Last month, we discussed the incarnation as a vital aspect of the gospel. Often, Christians will then skip ahead to the cross and forget that there was a lot that occurred between the birth of Jesus (the incarnation) and the cross.

This month, I’d like to focus on another essential aspect of the gospel (by the way, all parts of the gospel are essential!), and that is the obedience of Christ. In Reformed theology, the obedience of Christ is traditionally looked at in two ways – his active obedience (his fulfilling of the law on our behalf) and his passive obedience (his suffering on our behalf). We will start with his active obedience in February and move on to his passive obedience in March.

First, let us take a look at the Holy Scriptures and make sure that what we are talking about is biblical.

From Scripture

The first fact that we must grasp is that in the sight of God, we are unrighteous and disobedient; and there is nothing that we can do on our own to remedy this. If we want to stand before God, we desperately need a righteousness that comes from someone else. Why are we unrighteous? Because of the sin of Adam.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam was under a Covenant of Works with God (Genesis 2:17; 3:22) and within this covenant, he represented all of humanity. Adam’s obedience would be our righteousness and his disobedience would be our unrighteousness.

We know what happened, don’t we? Adam disobeyed, and this failure led to sin and death entering all mankind. Consider the words of the Apostle Paul:

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned [in Adam].” (Romans 5:12)

In addition to the sin of Adam which is imputed to all who are born of ordinary generation (a man and a woman coming together), we also have our own sins that we are guilty of:

“Indeed, there is no one earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20)

So, because of Adam’s sin in the Garden, wherein he represented us under the Covenant of Works, we are unrighteous; we are sinners. Additionally, because of our own individual disobedience to the law of God, we are unrighteous. Thus, we are guilty of both Adam’s sin (original sin) and our own sins (actual sins).

Therefore, in order to be saved from this sinful, fallen estate, we need someone who represents us covenantally, and who is also not tainted by the sin of Adam. We need another Adam-like figure who will reverse the curse of Adam’s sin and deal with our own sins as well. Could this be why the Son of God came in the flesh? Indeed, as Paul writes:

“When the fulness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who are under the law.” (Galatians 4:4–5a)

According to Paul then, this is why the Son of God came in the flesh – to redeem those who are under the law and the curse that it brings! Unlike any other humans that are born, Jesus was born in an extraordinary way – being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the virgin’s womb. This makes Jesus uniquely qualified to live a perfect life on behalf of those ruined by the sin of Adam. Perhaps that is why the Apostle Paul calls Adam a type of Jesus and why he calls Jesus the Second, or Last Adam:

“Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the One who was to come.” (Romans 5:14)

“‘The first man Adam became a living being,’ the Last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:45)

But in order to be the One whose righteousness would be imputed to those fallen in Adam who repent and believe in him, the Son would not only have to become incarnate, he would also need to remain perfectly obedient to the Law of God all of his life. This is called his “active obedience,” because it takes Jesus’ actively fulfilling the Law, that is, his obedient actions according to the Law of God – the Moral, the Civil, the Ceremonial laws – for him to be the One whose righteous obedience is imputed to those who believe. And that is exactly what he did.

Thinking of his life and ministry, we can embrace many instances of his perfect obedience. For example, we are reminded of what Luke tells us about young Jesus after his parents found him in the temple teaching the teachers of Israel:

“Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. And his mother treasured all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:51)

Luke’s word choice is meant to remind us of the 5th Commandment – “Honor your mother and your Father,” demonstrating the obedience of Jesus of Nazareth and tying it to his childhood. Luke is telling us that Jesus was always perfectly obedient, from his birth to the cross. We see examples of this obedience of Christ on our behalf all throughout his ministry. For example, the Lord Jesus says this about himself:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17)

The Temptation of Jesus in the desert wilderness by the devil (Luke 4:1–13) is another lesson in the active obedience of Christ. In the wilderness, Jesus recapitulates the temptation of the first Adam in the Garden. Here however, Jesus shows that he is the true Adam, the Last Adam who came to crush the serpent’s head through his obedience to the Law. Jesus did all of this, on our behalf, as our sinless covenantal representative:

“One who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

This sinlessness made Jesus the only person qualified to pay the debt owed to God for sin (Rom. 5:23). He pays the great ransom price for our redemption on the cross – the price was his own life:

“You were ransomed…not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Jesus, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1:18–19)

In his death, our sin was imputed to Jesus, which is why we hear Jesus cry out with a loud voice on the cross:

“‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34)

Because our sin and the punishment due for our sin, was transferred to Jesus, as Paul teaches us, it was nailed to the cross and canceled:

“Having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13b–14)

Therefore, the righteousness of Jesus – insofar as we repent and believe – is imputed to us:

“For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” (1 Peter 2:24)

Just as our sin is nailed to the cross with Jesus, and we are buried with him in his death, and we now have the righteousness of God. Thus, the obedience of Christ, results in our justification. His righteousness is our righteousness. We see this promised in the Old Testament as well:

“He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed…And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:5, 9)

This is about the perfectly obedient suffering servant who died for the sins of others. And because of his perfect active obedience, God says this to those who trust in Jesus:

“I have blotted out your transgression like a cloud and your sins like mist…for I have redeemed you.” (Isaiah 44:22)

Therefore, we can say with confidence, that the active obedience of Christ is certainly biblical. Without it, we have no imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and without that, we are dead in our sin.

From Reformed Theology

In addition to the imputation of the active obedience of Christ clearly taught in the Holy Scriptures, we also find it taught all throughout Reformed theology. Here are some examples from the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms:

The Belgic Confession (1561)
“We believe that for us to acquire the true knowledge of this great mystery [of justification by faith], the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith that embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him…Jesus Christ is our righteousness, crediting to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place.” (Article 22, “The Righteousness of Faith”)

“Recognizing ourselves as we are; not claiming a thing for ourselves or our merits, and leaning and resting only on the obedience of Christ crucified, which is ours when we believe in him. That is enough to cover all our sins.” (Article 23, “The Justification of Sinners”)

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
“I believe that God, because of Christ’s satisfaction, will no longer remember any of my sins or my sinful nature which I need to struggle against all my life. Rather, by his grace God grants me the righteousness of Christ that I may never come into judgment.” (Q. 56)

“Without any merit of my own, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I have had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me – if only I accept this gift with a believing heart.” (Q. 60)

“Only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness are my righteousness before God, and I can receive this righteousness and make it mine no other way than by faith alone.” (Q. 61)

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646)
“The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself, which he through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father, and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him.” (Chapter 8.5, “Of Christ the Mediator)

“Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justified…by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.” (Chapter 11.1, “Of Justification”)

The Westminster Larger Catechism (1646)
“Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.” (Q. 70)

“Although Christ, by his obedience and death, did make a proper, real and full satisfaction to God’s justice in the behalf of them that are justified…imputing his righteousness to them, and requiring nothing of them for their justification.” (Q. 71)

“Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner, by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.” (Q. 72)

“Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and his righteousness.” (Q. 73)

As you can see, the perfect active obedience of Jesus Christ is prominent in the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the Christian church. Without the obedience of Christ, there is no imputation of Christ’s righteousness for our salvation. As J. Gresham Machen said in his final correspondence before his death, “So thankful for the active obedience of Christ…No hope without it.”