Agonizomai: The Active and Passive Obedience of Christ Defended (Sort Of)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Active and Passive Obedience of Christ Defended (Sort Of)

The Active and Passive Obedience of Christ Defended (Sort Of)

As I keep telling people, this isn’t a debate blog – it’s a devotional blog, and I’m not interested in the endless discussion of the finer points of theology, nor looking for cheerleaders in the blogosphere. Comments are open in order to keep me honest, but most of the time readers seem to be content to receive the material passively [/ironical smile].

A few days ago in the comments section of this post, my good friend and Christian brother Nick stated that he did not believe in the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ. Normally I wouldn’t bother to pick up on this in a public forum as it isn’t necessarily a matter fundamentally affecting the gospel. I don’t put Nick in the heretic category just because he, like many other Christian brothers and sisters, holds a different view than I on this topic.

But Nick went further by saying that he considered the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ to be “almost heretical”. For myself, I am content to leave room for even this opinion – though I think it wrong, but some readers of this blog might miss the “almost” and think that a perfectly good, historical and orthodox Reformed doctrine was potentially damaging to their beliefs. It isn’t.

Let me start by saying that the doctrine of the active and passive (both) obedience of Christ has been the view of almost all Reformed believers for centuries. Of itself, that proves nothing, of course, but the fact that the teaching has been held by many thoughtful and entirely orthodox believers ought to give pause to anyone who might question it.

The elements of the doctrine, though not mentioned specifically, are contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith. They were held by the Puritans (of whom I mentioned Poole earlier) and by later giants of Reformed theology like Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield. In fact Reformed believers, almost to a man, and down to this very day hold to the doctrine of both the active and passive obedience of Christ. The two teachings are actually considered to be distinct, but inseparable aspects of the same doctrine of redemption/substitution.

Simply put, the passive obedience of Christ involved His enduring all the torments and punishments of the crucifixion and, by them, suffering the just penalties due to we who believe. Reformed folks have also believed that, by His life of perfect obedience, Jesus also fashioned and provided a positive righteousness for His people. John Owen (a Puritan) sums it all up in this short quote from his Works in which we see both the sense of distinction and the unity of these two aspects of the teaching:
“First, By the obedience of the life of Christ you see what is intended, —his willing submission unto, and perfect, complete fulfilling of, every law of God, that any of the saints of God were obliged unto. It is true, every act almost of Christ’s obedience, from the blood of his circumcision to the blood of his cross, was attended with suffering, so that his whole life might, in that regard, be called a death; but yet, looking upon his willingness and obedience in it, it is distinguished from his sufferings peculiarly so called, and termed his active righteousness. This is, then, I say, as was showed, that complete, absolutely perfect accomplishment of the whole law of God by Christ, our mediator; whereby he not only “did no sin, neither was there guile fold in his mouth,” but also most perfectly fulfilled all righteousness, as he affirmed it became him to do. Secondly, That this obedience was performed by Christ not for himself, but for us, and in our stead.”
The main reason given by Nick for rejecting the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ is:

“I don't consider the notion of 'active obedience' Biblical for the very reason you state in your opening paragraphs: The Law was abolished.

The Mosaic Law is not (nor ever was) a standard that must be met for justification, so active obedience is a mistake at the very least, a form of Judaizing the the worst.”
We actually agree here in that my comments about the abrogation of the law were in the context of the law as a means of justification. We even agree that the law never was the means of justification for even Old Covenant believers. But it was most assuredly the standard that had to be met for any person to be acceptable in God’s sight. The fact that no natural man could meet that standard in no way diminished the standard. But the law, by its inflexible and unattainable standard took away all hope of self-justification through works of the law, and cast people upon God for Him to provide another way. That way is Christ. But God’s provision does not come to us without reference to the law. And the moral law was, is and always will be good.

I questioned Nick to be sure I understood him, since Reformed believers almost all hold to the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ. This was the response, in part:

My point about the Law was that, as you said, it was abolished. For Christ to impute his perfect obedience to the Law to us is illogical and even heresy for it makes the abolished remain as a standard we must meet (even vicariously).”
What Nick seems to miss is that the reason there is righteousness apart from law for those who have faith in Christ is on account of what Christ did. Yes, our righteousness is “apart from law” for we fallen beings could never attain to perfect obedience. But that righteousness which we now enjoy through faith as attributed to us was not rendered in a vacuum as a diffusion of God’s character without intermediation.

Christ was a fully human being. He lived a fully human life in which he fully kept the law of God in Spirit and deed, including not only the moral, but also the ceremonial and civil laws. It is the fruit of that human obedience that we appropriate through faith, along with the covering of our sin debt.

The view that denies the active obedience of Christ ignores the Federal nature of God’s dealings with men. In Adam all mankind sinned and therefore all died. In Christ all the redeemed are counted righteous through faith in God's provision, and therefore all have eternal life.
If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Rom 5:17
Don’t overlook the use of the descriptor “man” here. Jesus was representative man. He is the man – the only man – who ever lived a life entirely conformed to God’s law ab ovo. He had no original sin because of the virgin birth, and lived an impeccable life as a fully human being fashioning for us a life pleasing to God – His life – to be appropriated by faith alone. And don’t overlook the word “righteousness” either. It doesn’t say sinlessness, but righteousness. Sinlessness is a passive condition whereas righteousness is an active, living condition. A rock is sinless. A cow is sinless. But only a man can be righteous because, made in the image of God, he was intended to be active and interactive with God and his fellows. Righteousness is a positive attribute displayed through conformity with God's will. Because Christ's absolute conformity to the will of God (His precepts and ordinances) that we are accepted and empowered to live sanctified lives, loving and revering God's precepts, just like the writer of Psalm 119.

I am rambling on now. I tend to do that. And there are points I haven't addressed. But I wanted to show that belief in the passive and active obedience of Christ together is not "almost heretical" and is, in fact, orthodox Reformed theology. But neither do I go so far as to call "almost heretics" those who hold only to the passive obedience of Christ (or else many of our Dispensationalist brothers would also be condemned in a swoop [/aside]) I encourage all to look into the matter themselves, which is easily begun by Googling the phrase "active and passive obedience".

Blessings to all,


Blogger Nick said...

Ok, this isn't a debate blog, so I'll keep things short.

1) I'm glad you don't put me in the heretic category for this issue, but most 'classically' minded Reformed would. The London Baptist Confession expressly states one must believe in active obedience, as do the great Reformed teachers. Some have pointed out to me that the Westminster was divided on this issue, so the WCF wording was deliberately 'loose' enough to allow either view. While you might not like it, I fail to see how two different Gospels don't result from the affirming or denying of active obedience. It certainly cannot be optional, for it determines two different ways of salvation.

2) You get on the point of "standards" but the Sermon on the Mount is clear that Christ's New Standards surpass the Mosaic standards ("Moses said, but I say"). Mark 10:2-12 is especially enlightening, for it showed one could be righteous under the Law while divorcing their wife (which was allowed), yet for Christ divorce was unacceptable (and thus holds believers to a higher standard). So the Law, while still good, isn't even a perfect standard.

3) But even that's not the 'problem' I envision, as you rightly point out my reasoning: If the Law was abolished, then keeping it as a standard to be met is implicitly denying it was abolished.
You really should be saying the Law was not abolished, because sinners are in fact justified through a vicarious keeping of it.
For example, when the Colonialists rebelled against British authority, the Colonialists were no longer under English law, they didn't have to keep English law as a standard of what made an 'upright English citizen.' For someone to vicariously keep the English law for the Colonialists is illogical.

4) You mention Adam and Romans 5:17, but the key here is that Adam was not under the Law, the Law didn't exist until 450 years after Abraham (Gal 3:15-18). Rom 5:13-14 says "before the law was given, sin was in the world." This again affirms the Law wasn't God's standard but rather a temporary appendage of God's salvation plan (for 5:20 says the Law was "added").

This is all I will say, since this isn't a debate blog. However, I do look forward to your answer(s).

2:51 pm  
Blogger agonizomai said...


I'll get back to you with a reply in due course.



4:08 pm  

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