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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.

On Guard

 

In the opening chapters of the book of Numbers, we find Israel in the wilderness of Sinai.  The LORD is speaking to Moses instructing him to take a census of Israel and to subsequently divide and arrange the 12 tribes.  While these arrangements concerned both the camping and the marching of Israel, it may be properly said that God was forming battalions for war (Numbers 1:3).

As the census of chapter 1 is undertaken, we find the people of Joseph, “namely, of the people of Ephraim,” constituting one tribe, while, “the people of Manassah” constitute another tribe.  On the surface, this would create a problem numbering the tribes- creating an additional tribe – recalling the blessing of Jacob from Genesis 48, unless one of the original twelve were not counted.  This is precisely the case as God commands Moses not to count the tribe of Levi.

“For the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, Only the tribe of Levi you shall not list, and you shall not take a census of them among the people of Israel.” Numbers 1:48

Following this, we see the role that the Levites were to have in the camp of Israel, namely their oversight of the “tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings, and over all that belongs to it.  They are to carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it and shall camp around the tabernacle.  When the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down, and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up.  And if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death.” Numbers 1:49-51

The Levites were the only tribe to whom this responsibility of caring for the tabernacle and all of its appurtenances were given.  In addition to the tasks of oversight of the tabernacle and its furnishings, care and camping around it, and set up and tear down, the Levites were also the guardians of the tabernacle.

52 The people of Israel shall pitch their tents by their companies, each man in his own camp and each man by his own standard. 53 But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel. And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony.” Numbers 1:52-53

The Levites were exempt from day to day military campaigns, but were explicitly charged with guarding the tabernacle.  On the one hand, they guarded the tabernacle from outsiders.  In other words, the access to God was restricted by the Levites, lest those who encroached were to be put to death.  In this light, there is also guardianship to protect the people from the wrath of God.  In this respect, the Levites function as two-way guardians to prevent the common from coming into contact with the holy and also providing protection from the holy, namely God, from coming into contact with the common via His wrath.

As to the particularity of their guardianship, this is the same word used in reference to Adam in Garden.  Recall that in Adam’s Rest, we looked at Genesis 2:15 and determined that Adam was “rested” in the Garden in order to “tend and keep” it.  There we saw that this particularly phrase was priestly and is elsewhere translated in priestly contexts as guard and minister or serve.  Our passage under consideration from Numbers is one such example of this priestly context of guardianship.  This reinforces our conclusions regarding Adam’s role and function as a priest in the garden-temple of God. For the combination of both terms, see Numbers 3:7-8, where the Levitical guardianship and service are further defined.

Flowing out of a passage that discusses the mediation of God’s holiness by a Levitical Priest, one cannot help but see the parallels with the priestly ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ, the One Mediator between God and Man 1 Tim. 2:5).  However, as Hebrews tells us, His priesthood is after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:10; 6:20; 7:17).  Access to God comes only through Christ (John 14:6).  It is through Him that we, the common, have access to the holy, namely the Father (Eph. 2:18).  But also it is through Christ that God’s wrath has been placated, or propitiated, towards us who have repented and placed our God-given faith in Christ (1 John 2:2; Heb. 2:17).  The typological picture painted for us in this Old Testament priestly passage is a picture of Christ.

With this in mind, the imagery of guardianship over God’s dwelling place can be used as an illustration for personal, individual duty of believers to guard God’s dwelling place, though not of a tabernacle made with hands, but the very temple of believer’s bodies in which God’s Spirit indwells (1 Cor. 6:19-20).  Our guardianship is likewise against the common, or profane, to keep it from coming into contact with where the holy dwells.

We are to guard against corruptions, those external and internal that would defile the tabernacle of God.  We are to guard against the placement of idols, high places if you will, that would attempt to subvert the worship of God in our hearts.  We are to guard with a recognition of the fear of God, knowing that the discipline of God is meted out against all unrighteousness.

Through this passage, perhaps somewhat obscure in its details of the Levitical guardianship of the tabernacle, we have opened up for us a gateway into meditation on the High Priestly ministry of Christ.  It should draw our hearts and minds unto Christ who stands on guard daily at the right hand of the Father to make intercession for us.  This is the direction that the passage points us.  But we also have a picture drawn for us, one that shows a priestly duty is still required by God’s priests (1 Peter 2:5-9; Heb. 4:16, 10:19), a duty unto holiness in guarding the temple of God from being profaned by the common and unholy.

 

 

Every Advantage

 

In thinking through the circumstances surrounding both Adam and Noah that we’ve seen in recent posts, there is at least one commonality between them that is shared with believers in Christ today, primarily the advantages that they had, and those that we have, which lend themselves towards aiding in our obedience to God.  Yet like them, even with every advantage, we still sin.

Pre-fall Man

Reviewing the case with Adam, we know that God rested him in the garden, which He had ordained to bring forth lush vegetation and food, apart from the efforts of the first man.  His primary duty was obedience and service before the Lord, as a priest, but also as a protector of the garden and all that was in it.  As it is sometimes explained, Adam had the ability to sin and the ability to not sin  (Latin = posse peccare, posse non peccare).  Though he was created sinless, his nature was mutable, or changeable.  He had the moral free agency to choose to sin or choose to not sin.  He was given dominion over creation, abundant food to eat as he pleased, and a wife who came alongside him as a help-mate.  By all accounts Adam was living in perfection.  If anyone could claim to be living their best life now, it was Adam, pre-fall.

Yet despite all of these blessings from God; despite all of the advantages, Adam still succumbed to temptation, that conceived with his inmost desires of discontentment and brought forth sin.  Despite literally having it all, including most importantly, direct communion with God, Adam was dissatisfied and chose to sin.

After Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, man now had the ability to sin, but lost the ability to not sin, thus inheriting the corruption of Adam’s original sin by means of a sinful nature which carried with it the inability to not sin (non posse non peccare).  This is simply referred to as man’s inability.  Instead of retaining the moral free agency that Adam had briefly enjoyed, his offspring -namely all mankind, as was evident with Cain- became enslaved to sin, their wills now held captive to sin.

Post-Fall Man

It was with this sinful nature that Noah entered upon the scene of God’s creation, now with a cursed ground and living among a rebellious people.  However, Noah found favor in God’s sight (even with the presence of a sinful nature, which should be an encouragement to us).  With Noah, God decided to set-apart a new people for Himself and chose Noah and his family out of all the peoples of the earth.  God then rained down judgment upon the earth, because of the sinfulness of man, through a world-wide flood, preserving Noah, his wife, and their sons and wives along with a selection of animals to repopulate the earth.

It was into this new creation, this new garden, that God opened the doors of the ark to complete the rescue of his people.  Noah, as a new priest in a new temple (Genesis 8:20), had, like his great grandfather Adam, every advantage at his fingertips.  No longer was he faced with the ridicule and mockery of a people who doubted the words of his preaching, but it was him alone with his family with a renewed commandment of “be fruitful and multiply” and a new charge to have dominion over creation.  To show His steadfast love and faithfulness, God enters into a covenant with Noah.  This time there is no prohibition of eating from a particular tree, instead there is a prohibition to “not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Gen. 9:4) again carrying with it the consequences of death for its violation.  As God reveals this commandment, we see it specifically applied to the murder of man, who God reminds us, was made in His own image.

Again, despite all of the advantages presented to Noah, just like Adam he too fell, quickly (Genesis 9:21-29).  Despite the flood cleansing the world from its external wickedness, the seed of sin was allowed to germinate in the hearts of the eight who were saved through the waters of judgment.  The ability to sin and the inability to not sin remained.

Until Christ.

Sinless Man

These principles of the sinful nature, inherent in man after the fall, highlight the supreme importance of the sinlessness of Christ, more specifically that He was born sinless and remained sinless.  Because of the uniqueness of Christ’s birth, the unbroken line of the sinful nature was broken, in Him.  The generational succession of the ability to sin and the inability to not sin was not transmitted to Him.  We say then that Christ was impeccable, or that He was unable to sin (non posse peccare – note the distinction between this an Adam’s original state).  While a minority position has often claimed that Christ did have the ability to sin, all must conclude that He did not actually sin, as Scripture so adamantly asserts (1 Peter 2:22; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 John 3:5).  Christ alone was sinless.

Our Lord, we may be reminded, was not afforded all the advantages of His grandfathers Adam and Noah.  He entered into this world with nothing, literally being born nowhere, coming from nowhere, and then having all of this nothing stripped further away during His own wilderness garden experience.  Here, Christ was not surrounded by lush vegetation bringing forth an abundance of food effortlessly, but He fasted, for 40 days, surrounded by thorns and thistles of a cursed land and subjected to the wild beasts (Mark 1:13).  He then, throughout His ministry, was subjected to every temptation, yet unlike us, did not sin (Hebrews 4:15).  In His next garden experience, this one more lush than His last, He was given the sentence of death. Whereas His grandfather’s were given prohibitions that carried the sentence of death for their violations, Christ was given the sentence of death despite not having a violation of His own.

Renewed Man

The death of the sinless Christ for sinful man and His subseuqent resurrection, attesting to His sinlessness, now made it possible for those who have repented, and been united to Him by faith, to not sin.  Because of Christ, those in Him, given a new nature and a regenerate heart, have returned to the state of the original Adam having now both the ability to sin and the ability to not sin (posse peccare, posse non peccare).  No longer then are our wills enslaved to sin.  No longer do we possess a moral inabiltiy wherein all we do is sin continually.  No, the redeem actually do have the ability to not sin!

Like our forefathers, Adam and Noah, we have even greater advantages.  We are able to live on this side of the cross, this side of our Lord’s resurrection, we know and can see the power of sin, but the greater power of grace.

We are co-heirs with Christ, seated with Him in the heavenly places. We now have access to the Father through the Son and can come freely into His presence at anytime. Not only this but we have been united to Christ, clothed with His righteous, bought by His blood, redeemed from the power of sin, and have had the wrath of God removed from us, by Christ’s propitiation.  Not only this but we have Christ as our Mediator, our High Priest, and the Captain of our salvation.  Not only this, but we have been given His Word as a lamp to our feet and a light to our paths.  Literally the Word of the living God has been made accessible to us, to have, read, and meditate upon at any time.

As if those advantages were not numerous and weighty enough, we have been given a Helper, the Comforter, the Paraclete, God’s Holy Spirit who resides not among us on the outside, but internally in our now regenerate hearts.  All of these advantages working for our good to bring us into conformity with Christ and fulfilling His promise to complete this work until our day of salvation.  Regenerate man reclaimed the ability to not sin while simultaneously retaining the ability to sin.

But herein lies the problem.  Given far more advantages than both Adam and Noah, we still sin.  That ability to sin is still within and is an active, vital force within us until the day we die.  The Apostle Paul laments this very fact as he surveys the duality within his own heart, two laws at is were, warring against one another (Romans 7:21-23).  The flesh vs. the spirit, the former lusting against the latter while the latter wars against the former (Galatians 5:17). If Christ had simply died to return us to the former state of Adam, we would still be damned because of the continual presence of the ability to sin in our natures.

Glorified Man

But thanks be to God He did more than that.  Christ was not content to simply leave us in a pre-fall Adamic state.  No, more than this He was intent to bring us into glory.  The glorified state of man where we will one day have the ability to not sin and likewise the inability to sin, as our Lord did.  Praise be to God as we long for this day when sin is no longer crouching at our door step.  When the war within us has ceased and the spirit is alone without carrying along the rotten carcass of the flesh.  Then in the New Garden, when we return to the restful state intended by God for man, we Will serve God night and day as priests with every advantage at our fingertips, including the renewed communion with God forever to be enjoyed because sin, the devil, and the flesh have been eradicated.

Praise be to God, come quickly Lord Jesus for we long for the day!