The Passive Obedience of Christ

Most Christians have heard of the term, the “Passion” of Christ, but do we know what it means? Let’s find out!

“Passion” comes from the Latin word “passio” meaning, “suffering.” In theology, this term refers to the suffering of Christ, especially with respect to his crucifixion and the events leading up to it. This same Latin term “passio,” also gives us another important theological term used in Reformed theology – “Passive Obedience.”

The Passive Obedience of Christ refers to his suffering according to the will of the Father, not only during Passion Week, but from his conception all the way to the tomb. Sometimes, in Reformed theology, his Passive Obedience is also referred to as his “humiliation.” Whatever we call it, it is an important aspect of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and without the gospel there is no salvation.

Over the last couple of months, we have considered other vital aspects of the gospel – the Incarnation of the Son of God and most recently, his Active Obedience. Thus, we have been moving chronologically through the life of Christ and have touched on different aspects of the gospel.

With Passion Week coming up, what better time to meditate on the Passive Obedience of Christ than the month in which millions of Christians begin to celebrate it? Therefore, let us consider the Passive Obedience of Christ from the Bible and then in historic Reformed theology.

From Scripture

It may be difficult to grasp, but in Scripture, it is clear that not only must the Son of God suffer on behalf of sinners like ourselves, but this suffering is according to the will of the Father. Furthermore, the Son agrees to suffer according to the will of the Father on behalf of sinners. What good news that those who deserve God’s wrath have a mediator willing to suffer on our behalf!

We begin to see this idea of the Son of God suffering according to the will of the Father in the Old Testament. Consider God’s promise of a Suffering Servant who would redeem his people in Isaiah

“Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. As many were astonished at you – his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind – so shall he sprinkle many nations.” (52:13–14)

The beginning of Isaiah’s prophecy mentions “my servant,” spoken from the perspective of God. Who is this wise and exalted servant? Isaiah tells us that his appearance will be marred and he would be unrecognizable as a man. And in his disfigured condition, he shall “sprinkle many nations.” Who could this be referring to?

This is a reference to Jesus’ being beaten, scourged, and lifted up on the cross from where his blood sprinkles people from all nations, tongues, and tribes. As Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr. writes, “In his passion, Jesus was beaten into a shockingly inhuman mass of wounded flesh…so he will sprinkle many nations to make them clean.” Isaiah continues his prophecy on God’s suffering servant:

“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But 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. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (53:3–6)

As we can see here, Jesus suffering was not for nothing, it was in order to redeem sinners, according to the will of the Father. W.E. Best remarks on this passage:

“The death of Christ was a propitiation for the sins of those the Father gave the Son in the covenant of redemption. Christ’s wounding and suffering were not a possibility but a certainty [for God’s people]. The healing of the elect is also a certainty and not a mere possibility. The Lord Jesus Christ did not die in vain…the Father caused [our] sins to converge on Jesus Christ at Calvary.”

In other words, not only was Christ obedient to the Father’s will, but his passive obedience to the Father had always been part of the plan to redeem God’s elect. Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the Passive Obedience of Christ continues:

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth;like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away… he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people… 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. Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief… yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” (53:7–10, 12)

In this final portion of the prophecy, we see that all of the suffering the Jesus went through, was indeed according to the will of the Father and for the salvation of sinners. John Gill concludes:

“He was bruised in body, when buffeted and scourged, and nailed to the cross; and was bruised and broken in spirit, when the sins of his people were laid on him, and the wrath of God came upon him for them: the Lord had a hand in his sufferings; he not only permitted them, but they were according to the counsel of his will; they were predetermined by him (Acts 2:23), yea, they were pleasing to him, he took a kind of delight and pleasure in them; not in them simply considered as sufferings, but as they were an accomplishment of his purposes, a fulfilment of his covenant and promises, and of the prophecies in his word; and, particularly, as hereby the salvation of his people was brought about.”

According to Isaiah, Jesus’s Passive Obedience, namely his gruesome suffering, was not merely for shock-value. It was according to the will of the Father concerning which, Jesus was perfectly obedient. This is good news for sinners like ourselves who are redeemed by his suffering!

Having considered the Passive Obedience of Christ in the Old Testament, let us turn our attention to the New, where we see that his Passive Obedience was not only on display during “Passion Week,” but in his incarnation as well:

“Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6–8)

Paul is telling us that Christ was an obedient suffering servant from his incarnation all the way to the cross. Indeed, as Sean McDonough writes:

“Christ, who had all the privileges that were rightly his as king of the universe, gave them up to become an ordinary Jewish baby bound for the cross…While he had every right to stay comfortably where he was, in a position of power, his love drove him to a position of weakness for the sake on sinful mankind…No other form of death, no matter how prolonged or physically agonizing, could match crucifixion as an absolute destruction of a person. It was the ultimate counterpoint to the divine majesty of the preexistent Christ, and thus, was the ultimate expression of Christ’s obedience to the Father.”

Regarding the will of God the Father and Christ’s obedient suffering, consider what our Lord Jesus said on the night he was betrayed as he prayed to his Father in Gethsemane, knowing what would soon take place:

“He knelt down and prayed, saying, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.’ And there appeared an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:41–44)

Being sent according the will of the Father, Jesus is about to accomplish that which he came to do: redemption by his blood being poured out. Knowing that this “cup” was overwhelming, God the Father sent an angel to strengthen his Son, enabling him to obediently suffer on behalf of sinners. This is the quintessential example of the Passive Obedience of Jesus Christ.

Additionally, one of the most well-known passages in all of Scripture demonstrates the Passive Obedience of Christ, although you may have never noticed it. The Apostle John records the words of Jesus to Nicodemus thus:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16–17)

Implied in God the Father’s “giving” and “sending” of his Son, are two things: first, the “giving” and “sending” is according to the will of God the Father; and second, that God the Son obediently comes into the world to save sinners through his suffering.

Having considered the Passive Obedience of Christ from Scripture, let us turn our attention to Reformed theology and consider this important aspect of the gospel.

From Reformed Theology

Here are a few examples of the Passive Obedience of Christ from the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms:

The Belgic Confession (1561)
“We confess that God fulfilled the promise which he had made to the early fathers by the mouth of his holy prophets when he sent his only and eternal Son into the world at the time set by him. The Son took the ‘form of a servant’ and was made in the ‘likeness of man,’ truly assuming a real human nature, with all its weaknesses, except for sin...” (Article 18: “The Incarnation”)

“We believe that God – who is perfectly merciful and also very just – sent his Son to assume the nature in which the disobedience had been committed, in order to bear in it the punishment of sin by his most bitter passion and death…” (Article 20: “The Justice and Mercy of God in Christ”)

The Canons of Dort (1618-19)
“For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son’s costly death should work itself out in all his chosen ones, in order that he might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation. In other words, it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father; that he should grant them faith (which, like the Holy Spirit’s other saving gifts, he acquired for them by his death); that he should cleanse them by his blood from all their sins, both original and actual, whether committed before or after their coming to faith; that he should faithfully preserve them to the very end; and that he should finally present them to himself, a glorious people, without spot or wrinkle.” (Article 8: “The Saving Effectiveness of Christ’s Death”)

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646)
“This office [of mediator] the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertake, which, that he might discharge, he was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfill it; endured most grievous torments immediately in his soul, and most painful sufferings in his body; was crucified, and died; was buried, and remained under the power of death, yet saw no corruption.

“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)

The Westminster Larger Catechism (1646)
“It was requisite that the Mediator should be man, that he might advance our nature, perform obedience to the law, suffer and make intercession for us in our nature, have a fellow-feeling of our infirmities; that we might receive the adoption of sons, and have comfort and access with boldness unto the throne of grace.” (Q. 39)

“The estate of Christ’s humiliation was that low condition, wherein he, for our sakes, emptying himself of his glory, took upon him the form of a servant, in his conception and birth, life, death, and after his death, until his resurrection.” (Q. 46)

“Christ humbled himself in his conception and birth, in that, being from all eternity the Son of God, in the bosom of the Father, he was pleased in the fullness of time to become the son of man, made of a woman of low estate, and to be born of her; with diverse circumstances of more than ordinary abasement.” (Q. 47)

“Christ humbled himself in his life, by subjecting himself to the law, which he perfectly fulfilled; and by conflicting with the indignities of the world, temptations of Satan, and infirmities in his flesh, whether common to the nature of man, or particularly accompanying that his low condition.” (Q. 48)

“Christ humbled himself in his death, in that having been betrayed by Judas, forsaken by his disciples, scorned and rejected by the world, condemned by Pilate, and tormented by his persecutors; having also conflicted with the terrors of death, and the powers of darkness, felt and borne the weight of God’s wrath, he laid down his life an offering for sin, enduring the painful, shameful, and cursed death of the cross.” (Q. 49)

“Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried; and continuing in the state of the dead and under the power of death till the third day, which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.” (Q. 50)

As you can see, the Passive Obedience of Jesus Christ is prominent not only in the Bible, but also in the confessions, and catechisms of the Reformed churches. From all of this, we can conclude, that since the Passive Obedience of Christ for our salvation is prominent in Scripture and in Reformed theology, it is essential to the gospel.

As you meditate on these truths, it is my prayer that it will give you a greater appreciation for what God has done for us in his Son, Jesus Christ. As we have for the last two years, we will be remembering Christ’s Passive Obedience in our Passion Week Devotions and Services from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We hope to see you there!