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.

About the author

Christian saved by grace through faith.


  1. I think dividing the Lord’s obedience into passive and active is artificial just as dividing the Law of Moses into moral, civil, and ceremonial. Both are useful in making theological constructs that sound good but, in fact, erect systems that obscure Christ and His completed work.

  2. I would tend to agree. Without pressing the issue further in this post, I’d hoped the Owen quote would at least cause us to pause and think about the division (artificial as though it may be) and then quickly move ourselves to the necessity of ALL of our Lord’s obedience.

    Thanks for the comment and willingness to offer correction and pushback.

    Grace and Peace,


Click in the box below to subscribe and get new content delivered straight to your inbox. Or leave a comment to join the discussion.

%d bloggers like this: