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Christian saved by grace through faith.

The Active and Passive Obedience of Christ


Recently I was teaching through a passage of Scripture on the active role of believer’s in their sanctification (as opposed to any false notion of passive sanctification), particularly as it pertains to godliness in this life (see 2 Peter 1:3-11).  A question came up whether godliness was the same as being made like Christ, or being conformed to the image of Christ. While the short answer is yes, a fuller answer involves understanding that godliness has to do with “worship rightly directed” in all areas of life.  In other words, godliness is that every aspect of life is humbly and submissively conformed to the will of God. The best example or pattern of this was the life of Christ who through His passive and active obedience humbly submitted Himself to the will of God. This led to a follow-up question as to whether the obedience of Christ was worship.  Answer: yes! In answering, I was reminded of the active and passive obedience of Christ, but was perhaps less clear in my mind on it than I would’ve wished, so I simply mentioned it without further expansion on the concept. In today’s blog, I want to take the time to remind myself and perhaps you the reader of what this obedience of Christ looked like.  

Summarily, the whole of Christ’s work, from His incarnation unto death, has been sometimes divided into His active and passive obedience, however we ought not think of this division as parts of His life, rather that they are more closely two sides of the same coin with various aspects of His obedience belonging to each side of the coin respectively.  John Murray offers a helpful clarification by noting it’s more appropriate not to

“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 perceptive requirements of God’s law. The passive obedience refers to the former and the active obedience to the latter.”

In other words, parsing Murray’s summation, God’s law had two requirements or demands, first it had a requirement to be fully obeyed and second, it had a requirement of punishment when violated.  Christ fulfilled both of these obligations through his active and passive obedience respectively. His obedience was an “obedience unto death.” We find those words in the passage from Philippians 2:8 cited below

 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

In the midst of this glorious passage, which begins in eternity with the Son’s equality with the Father, progresses into His humiliation of the incarnation, thereby “emptying Himself” of divine prerogative NOT of his divinity, then our passage concerning His death on the cross, before highlighting the exaltation of Christ to the right hand of the Father.  All of these serve to remind us of the obedient life that Christ lived, regardless of whether we attempt to parse various aspects of His obedience.

Here we need to be balanced and remind ourselves that all of Christ’s life unto death was a mark of obedience.  John Owen cautions us about becoming too particular in our division of passive and active obedience when he writes,

the Lord Christ fulfilled the whole law for us; he did not only undergo the penalty of it due unto our sins, but also yielded that perfect obedience which it did require. And herein I shall not immix myself in the debate of the distinction between the active and passive obedience of Christ; for he exercised the highest active obedience in his suffering, when he offered himself to God through the eternal Spirit. And all his obedience, considering his person, was mixed with suffering, as a part of his exinanition and humiliation; whence it is said, that “though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.” And however doing and suffering are in various categories of things, yet Scripture testimonies are not to be regulated by philosophical artifices and terms. And it must needs be said, that the sufferings of Christ, as they were purely penal, are imperfectly called his passive righteousness; for all righteousness is either in habit or in action, whereof suffering is neither; nor is any man righteous, or so esteemed, from what he suffers. Neither do sufferings give satisfaction unto the commands of the law, which require only obedience. And hence it will unavoidably follow, that we have need of more than the mere sufferings of Christ, whereby we may be justified before God, if so be that any righteousness be required thereunto; but the whole of what I intend is, that Christ’s fulfilling of the law, in obedience unto its commands, is no less imputed unto us for our justification than his undergoing the penalty of it is.”

Owen’s warning serves to instruct us in the necessity that ALL of Christ’s obedience is necessary for the believer seen in the righteousness that He imputes on our behalf through both His perfect obedience of the law (commonly called active) as well as suffering unto death for the punishment of violation that the law demanded (commonly called passive).  

Perhaps for the sake of clarity in our future discussions we can identify these two aspects, but then quickly advance our conclusion to the necessity of all of our Lord’s obedience unto death on behalf of the sinner.  Therefore, when we say that Christ fulfilled the law of God and satisfied its demands for His elect, let us say with conviction that this fulfillment was through complete obedience and that through His perfect obedience He displayed clear, pure, and resonating worship of God.

The Divine Initiative of Salvation

1 Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:

May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 

In the Second Epistle of Peter, writing under the inspiration of God, we encounter the great depths of the Christian life, both the entrance into salvation and the experience of preserving that salvation all from God’s perspective.  Introducing himself as both an apostle and slave, which shows the dichotomous nature of the Christian life as both exalted ambassadors of the Most High God and the lowliest of slaves in His Kingdom, Peter places himself on the same plane as all other believers, equally called to be a slave of God regardless of function.  As we are told elsewhere, God does not show favoritism. (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11)

This is further emphasized in the opening of the letter which is addressed to, “those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours….”  The word translated obtained by the ESV carries with it the idea of having been divinely allotted, revealing the underlying sovereignty of God in salvation from the beginning.  Clearly then, Peter does not see himself as over or above or superior in anyway to those to whom he writes.  Similarly, it is obvious from this introduction that the addressees of the letter are believers, which of course is an essential fact to establish in order to properly understand, interpret, and apply it’s contents.

Building upon this common faith and standing, Peter indicates the source of both, namely via the “righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.”  There is a bit of a difficulty with determining what exactly is meant by righteousness here, whether this means the righteousness which is imputed by Christ to all who believe therefore providing a link between faith and the righteousness of God or whether this is simply a reference to the justice of God in saving those whom He has called and elected (1 Peter 1:10).  Both are true and either would make sense contextually, but perhaps the latter is more appropriate here, particularly when remembering the no partiality with God which we established earlier.  In other words, God is just in extending salvation to all, Jew and Gentile alike.

The phrase, “of our God and Savior Jesus Christ,” in the original Koine Greek provides for us an interesting truth concerning our Lord, namely His deity.  As Kistemaker notes, “when one definite article ‘connects two nouns of the same case,’ it relates to the same person.”  In other words, Peter’s sentence construction here was meant to highlight that Christ is both God and Savior.

Before entering into the substance of the letter, we arrive at one final note of salutation, common among New Testament epistles, grace and peace, or that God would be gracious and extend peace to those whom the letter is written.  Peter’s petition is that grace and peace be multiplied to his audience, “in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.”  Essentially, he is asking that through the increase of the knowledge of God, the believers would have (sanctifying) grace and peace (with God/others/life) multiplied to them.

What may we summarily say regarding the knowledge of God?

The word for knowledge here is not the usual gnosis, rather it is epignosis.  Instead of general knowledge, such as a collation of gathered facts, or even applied knowledge, such as wisdom, similar to what we will see later, this is a specific, more complete knowledge that implies an intimate relationship.  Wuest observes that this knowledge, “speaks of experiential knowledge, that is, knowledge gained by experience.  This knowledge of the Lord Jesus possessed by the believer therefore, is not a mere intellectual knowledge of the facts concerning Him acquired by a study of the Gospels, for instance, but a heart experience of what and who He is gained by such a study plus a personal association with Him by means of the Word and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.”  While noting this, we may also add that knowledge of God becomes a central theme throughout the letter.

Having now introduced the letter, we turn to the substance, which is grounded in the divine work of God in the lives of those whom He has called and elected.  First, we see that God’s “divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.”  Here we see that God’s divine power which is limitless and unhindered by any power or authority let alone the “will” of man, has granted, or bestowed all that we need to live a godly Christian life.  There is nothing else that we need to hold out for, nothing else we need to hope for or look for nor is there any hint that we should feel inadequate or incomplete.  God has granted to us all things, in Christ we might add.  “Granted“, so translated by the ESV, is noted by Wuest to mean, “speaking of the past completed act of presenting the gift with the present result that it is in the possession of the believer with no strings tied to it.  It is his permanent possession, having been giving by pure grace.” (emphasis mine)

Turning now to the goal of those things granted, namely life and godliness, it will do us well to pause for a moment.  Godliness is one of those Christianese words which are liberally used but rarely defined and properly understood.  Admittedly, I likely would have glossed over it and moved on as well had it not been for a side note on the origin of eusebeia.  This word translated as godliness, is a compound of eu, meaning “well” and sebomai, meaning “to worship” which together means “worship rightly directed,” as per Weust.  He goes on to collate some different views on the word which we will summarize as “human dependence, tribute of homage, and expectation of favor, manifest in conduct and conversation, in sacrifice and prayer.”  In reality we may further press home the idea as worship of God in all of life.

Next we have the means through which this divine power has operated in order to bring us all things, namely through, “the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.”  Again we have our word epignosis and again we have our meaning of a complete and experiential intimate knowledge of God.  How, or by what means, has God granted us all things which pertain to life and godliness?  By bringing us into a personal relationship with Him through His Son Jesus Christ, a relationship closer than an earthly father to his children.  In this personal relationship we have this epignosis inherent in our God-given faith and it is through this knowledge that all things have been granted to us.  As an aside, which we will not develop further here, is that by means of the New Covenant, God promises this universal knowledge Himself, “for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD.” Jeremiah 31:34

This relationship, one in which we just described as closer than a father to his children, is so because by faith we have become “partakers of the divine nature.” All of the promises of God are yes and amen in Christ and these gospel promises we might say, culminate in the death, resurrection, and ascension of His Son Jesus Christ, seating Him at His right hand now to reign as King and intercede as High Priest, allowing us to become partakers of the divine nature.  Not only that, but through His vicarious substitutionary (and penal) atonement, He has redeemed us from slavery to sin, ransomed us from the power of death, atoned for the guilt of our sins, become a propitiation – bearing God’s wrath on our behalf, promised a new, regenerate heart to all those who believe, clothed us with His own righteousness, and even now intercedes on our behalf in the presence of the Father as our representative High Priest.  Not only have those glorious promises found their yes in Christ and been extended to believers, but the knowledge of God, as we mentioned, and the indwelling of His Holy Spirit within believers have as well. The all things and promises of God, book-ended around knowledge of God, are truly inexhaustible.

What more can we say to this glorious divine initiative in our salvation than Soli Deo Gloria!