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A common mistake is to gloss Jesus’ “active obedience” as his “sinless life,” and his “passive obedience” as his “atoning death.” In other words, Jesus was active in his living and suffered in his dying.

But that’s not historically what the terms mean—though some popular defenders of the Reformed view occasionally make this mistake, whether through ignorance or oversimplification.

Historically, the Reformed understanding is that Christ’s “passive obedience” and his “active obedience” both refer to the whole of Christ’s work. The distinction highlights different aspects, not periods, of Christ’s work in paying the penalty for sin (“passive obedience”) and fulfilling the precepts of the law (“active obedience”).

Louis Berkhof puts it in his standard Systematic Theology:

The two accompany each other at every point in the Saviour’s life. There is a constant interpretation of the two. . . .

Christ’s active and passive obedience should be regarded as complementary parts of an organic whole. (pp. 379, 380)

John Murray, in Redemption—Accomplished and Applied, expresses it quite clearly and goes into more detail:

[We cannot] allocate certain phases or acts of our Lord’s life on earth to the active obedience and certain other phases and acts to the passive obedience. The distinction between the active and passive obedience is not a distinction of periods. It is our Lord’s whole work of obedience in every phase and period that is described as active and passive, and we must avoid the mistake of thinking that the active obedience applies to the obedience of his life and the passive obedience to the obedience of his final sufferings and death.

The real use and purpose of the formula is to emphasize the two distinct aspects of our Lord’s vicarious obedience. The truth expressed rests upon the recognition that 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. It is this twofold demand of the law of God which is taken into account when we speak of the active and passive obedience of Christ. 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 the active obedience to the latter. (pp. 20-22)

Put another way, Jesus’ so-called “passive” and “active” obedience were lifelong endeavors as he fulfilled the demands and suffered the penalties of God’s law, and both culminated in the cross. I would argue that the New Testament clearly teaches the lifelong passive obedience of Christ (his penalty-bearing work) and the lifelong active obedience of Christ (his will-of-God-obeying work), culminating in the cross. We then receive the benefit of this through the imputation of the obedience of Christ (the reckoning of Christ’s complete work to our account when we trust in him for salvation and are united to him).

But it’s not uncommon to hear some people say, “Scripture only teaches the imputation of Christ’s passive obedience, not his active obedience.” Another complaint goes like this: “Such fine distinctions are owing more to systematic theology than to the authorial intent we’re after in exegetical theology.”

But here’s the irony in it all. By arguing that it is only Christ’s passive obedience that is imputed to our account, they are the ones making a distinction that can’t be found in the biblical text.

The Reformed folks argue for both-and, not either-or. In the NT Christ’s righteous work is of one cloth: it’s always “obedience unto death.” In other words, one cannot separate Christ’s fulfillment of God’s precepts from Christ’s payment of the penalty for failing to obey God’s precepts.

What God has joined together, let no man separate!

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7 thoughts on “What Is the Difference between the “Active” and the “Passive” Obedience of Christ?”

  1. Brandon E says:

    Good post. I agree that the Lord Jesus’ perfect obedience should not be divided into two separate sections or periods.

    However, I’m not as familiar with persons claiming “Scripture only teaches the imputation of Christ’s passive obedience, not his active obedience” as I am with the belief among Protestants and evangelicals that Christ’s obedience or righteous work during His earthly life is not what is imputed to us for our justification. This is where a difference between what we might call “active” righteousness (the Lord Jesus’ perfect law-keeping, righteous acts, and obedience even unto death on a cross during His life on earth) and “passive” righteousness (not Christ’s passive righteousness or obedience, but the righteousness imputed to us by virtue of His sin-bearing death) comes into play.

    I personally believe that Christ’s perfect obedience (both active and passive) culminating in His work of the cross is what qualified Him to be our Savior and belongs to Him alone, and is not what is imputed or accredited to our account for our justification. That is, although we surely receive the judicial benefit of the Lord Jesus’ perfect obedience unto His death on a cross (Rom. 5:12-21) that perfect obedience itself is not what is imputed or accredit to our account to make us justified. Rather, righteousness is imputed or accredited to us (our debt of sins is forgiven and wiped clean, cf. Rom. 4:2-8) once we are in “in Christ,” united with “Christ our righteousness” (1 Cor. 1:30) by grace through faith.

    1. Bruce Russell says:

      I think the reason these qualification are necessary is that it is assumed that Salvation is oriented around providing a remedy for individual moral depravity and alienation from God…Salvation certainly does provide this remedy. But our moral depravity and alienation flow from broken covenants. Jesus endures the curses pronounced against Adam and Israel, and thus secures New Covenant identity, blessing and reward for all who believe and obey him. Believers are propelled to glory not by some combination of imputed and imparted righteousness, but by embracing the Vision of Eternal Life in Jesus Christ, and pursuing the Reward unto death or His coming.

  2. Thomas Y. says:

    Thank you for this post Justin.

    Throughout the years of looking into this reformed doctrine, I’ve also come to not see any exegetical warrant to pose an active obedience, distinct from passive obedience. In my understanding, his obedience is simply what any 1st century reader would have understood coming to Rom 5:19, Phil 2:9-11, that obedience is following through with what God had commanded Him to do. To search for areas of distinction in this in order to fill it with systematic ideas is just not warranted, exegetically anyway.

    But one thing that I don’t agree with is when a person arguing for the traditional reformed understanding of passive/active obedience, is when they try to hold both active/passive in theory, but want to espouse the obedience as containing both in yet one form of obedience.

    The active obedience of Christ is His submission to fulfill all righteousness throughout His life on the earth. This was done by obeying all the precepts of the Law of God, without any failure to do so. His passive obedience is His falling under the penalty for the sin of God’s people. They are not the same thing in theory or explanation. So there is no ground to try and try to unify these concepts when they are always distinct in theory. This would be like looking at a car and seeing it’s distinct parts under the hood and then being uncomfortable with someone making a distinction between the motor and the engine, and then trying to show how it is just one machine working together.

    In the same way, reformed people have made the distinction in the first place, no matter how much they want to unify it after explaining their distinct functions. And so they are the ones left with explaining the exegesis of that.

    I personally believe that by our union with Jesus Christ, our sins and our persons (thus Paul says “I” have died) have been put to death and our persons are now made “new” because of our union with Him who God raised from the dead. This transition from death to new indestructible life which happened physically in the body of Jesus (his earthly body, resurrected body) become our new identity.

    Under this larger structure, we are found to be with a righteousness which is not our own, but that which comes through faith, and also we are sanctified for the property of God, we are renewed to walking in newness of life, etc,etc.

    It is possible, even scripturally warranted, to believe that our sins and persons being put to death and then subsequently being raised (In Principle, or Forensic identification with Christ)we are then counted having “righteousness”, in the sense of a quality-status. Because our sins are forgiven and there is no guilt for sin to be found in us anymore, we are righteous in God’s sight.

    This would explain why Jesus’ death is what Paul speaks about when it comes to us being justified.

    Warrant for this would be Romans 4:6-8. Paul is reading Psalm 32 where David describes THE BLESSEDNESS of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works. Paul understands that David really does see David actually DESCRIBING the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works. And this is understood in terms of “Blessed it the man to whom God does not impute iniquity” (Psalm 32:1).

  3. Bethany says:

    This is helpful. It is true that his active and passive obedience were “lifelong endeavors.”

    This has both encouraging and challenging implications for how we are to live our lives!

  4. John Thomson says:

    Hmmm. I suspect this distinction as Justin defines it is not universal. Personally, I have often read ‘authorities’ define ‘active’ as life and ‘passive’ as ‘death’.

    Further, I do not concur that Christ’s life is his ‘penalty-bearing work’. In fact, I think this is quite unbiblical and a product of dogmatics. Scripture with one voice tells us he ‘bore our sins on his own body on the tree’.

    Christ was not a propitiation in the womb, nor as a child growing up, nor when he attended the wedding at Cana, nor when he enjoyed daily communion with his father, nor when he was transfigured… His life was not vicariously wrath-bearing. He did not vicariously bear the curse of a broken law in his life but in his death… the curse involved hanging on a tree. It was there he ‘became a curse’ (Gals 3:13). In life (and especially in the garden) he anticipated ‘the cup’ but he did not drink it. Christ was not forsaken by the father in life, rather he knew perfect communion with him.

    In life he experienced the opposition and wrath of men and suffered at their hands for righteousness sake, he learned obedience and all it cost in a fallen world, but it is only in death he suffers at the hand of God and bears divine wrath for sins. It is shed blood that atones. A fact the Lord deeply engraved on the hearts of Israel through the sacrificial system.

    Brandon’s comments regarding the obedient life of Christ and all that it costs as that which gives value to his penalty/sin/wrath/curse-bearing death are important. It is here the connection lies. However, in my view, the sufferings of Christ in life are no more penalty-bearing than are the sufferings of the godly believer.

  5. Bruce Russell says:

    Thanks John.

    John 1:29

  6. Brian Borgman says:

    See the same train of thought in J Gresham Machen, God Transcendent, pgs. 190-191 in the chapter “The Active Obedience of Christ.”

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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