Edwards: Christ’s Death Was Active Righteousness as Well as Passive

Thanks in large to the influence of Dr. Michael Barrett, I have come to a great appreciation of the role Christ’s active righteousness plays in our salvation. In fact, it was at Dr. Barrett’s suggestion that I added verse two to His Robes for Mine (explained here), focusing on Christ’s fulfilling God’s Law on my behalf (His vicarious life) in addition to bearing God’s wrath in my behalf (His vicarious death):

“His robes for mine: what cause have I for dread?
God’s daunting Law Christ mastered in my stead.
Faultless I stand with righteous works not mine,
Saved by my Lord’s vicarious death and life.”

These are thoughts worthy of our consideration. However, something I read from Jonathan Edwards tonight makes me think that saying that Christ’s life is His active obedience and Christ’s death is His passive obedience may be a little simplistic, though generally accurate. Specifically, in his sermon “Christ Was Worthy of His Exaltation upon the Account of His Being Slain” (available here), Edwards argues that the obedience of Christ’s suffering and death is part of the righteousness credited to the believing sinner via justification. Here’s a germane portion (as edited by Nancy Guthrie for her book, Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross):

“‘Tis commonly said that Christ satisfied justice by his suffering and merited by his righteousness. But then this is to be understood thus—that Christ by his sufferings considered enduring the punishment of the law without any consideration of the holiness and excellency of the act of submitting to those sufferings. Christ’s death thus may be distinguished from his righteousness, but consider it as it was—a holy act of obedience, an expression of love and respect to God and his glory, an act infinitely lovely in the eyes of the Father. So it was not only an expiation for sin but a part, and the principle part, of his righteousness by which he merited.”

Interesting. It is certainly true that Christ’s death included the taking of the sinner’s penalty, thereby propitiating the holy wrath of God. However, it makes sense to see it also as a meritorious work, as the ultimate “obedience” to His Father (Phil 2:8), and therefore part of the righteousness imputed to the repentant and believing sinner.

What a glorious Savior, and what a glorious salvation!

(Note: More on Christ’s active righteousness here.)

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9 Responses

  1. The last words of J. Gresham Machen, one of my heroes, were, “So thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”

    One’s first impression is to think, “That’s so Machen. He lies dying, and his thoughts are about some obscure theological fine-point that only he and nine other people understand.”

    But then more seriously: Machen made a mark on the church and bore a witness that stands to this day. He was vilified, rejected, defrocked, yet he stood firm.

    But what does he think of as he lies on his death-bed? All of his accomplishment, one-third of which would triple our own?

    Nope. He thinks of Christ and His accomplishments, and how they are his only hope.

  2. Great thought, Dan. Were we more mindful of Christ’s obedience, we’d be less impressed by our own (which, alas, is unimpressive anyway).

    Another article in the Guthrie book addressed the song I Am Satisfied, the gist of which is “I am satisfied with Jesus. But the question comes to me, as I think of Calvary, is my Savior satisfied with me?”

    I’ve heard it, and it’s a convicting question. But Barnhouse heard it as a special in his church, then stood up in the pulpit and said “Yes, He is!”

    Reliance on the work of Christ as our only merit will kill both our pride (as your illustration indicates) and our despair (as my illustration indicates).

    Gotta love those Presbys. :)

  3. Speaking of which, Dan, you should find a copy of Michael Barrett’s Complete In Him. Or at least listen to some of the sermons of his I’ve linked to from here. (You can do a search on his name here.) You’d love the guy!

  4. Chris,

    While those two categories (active and passive righteousness) are helpful in some respect so that we understand that it is both the life and of Christ that are necessary for our justification, I agree with your post in that they are somewhat simplistic. To say that Christ was passive in his crosswork seems a bit troubling to say the least.

    (I know this isn’t original with me, but I don’t have time to track it down) — I have found it helpful to think of this in terms of Christ’s obedience as consisting in his perfectly keeping the precepts of the law and also paying the penalty of the broken law for us. I think it was then described as his preceptive obedience and penal obedience or something like that. The point being that we don’t see his obedience so much along the lines of active and passive, rather as his life fulfilled all the commands and teachings of the law and his payed the penalty for for which our breaking the law required. And it is both of these that are necessary in our justification. We need Christ’s perfect obedience as well as his perfect payment. Not sure if I am being as clear as I could be here but I think the general point is there.

    Carson has a great chapter in a book Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates entitled: “The Vindication of Imputation.” That chapter is worth the price of the book alone.

    Commenting on the active/passive obedience as stated most classically by W.G.T. Shedd, Carson makes the point: “however sympathetic one wishes to be with Shedd , however much one wishes to defend the view that the imputed righteousness of Christ is worth defending, however much one acknowledges that the perfection of Christ is something more in Scripture than the set-up that qualifies him for his expiatory , however heuristically useful the distinction between the active and passive righteousness of Christ, one is left with a slightly uneasy feeling that the analytic categories of Shedd have somehow gone beyond the New Testament by the absolute bifurcation they introduce. A passage like the so-called Christ-hymn in Philippians 2 seems to depict Christ’s obedience as all of a piece, including his willingness to become a human being and his progressive self-humiliation, climaxing in his obedience on the cross itself. By virtue of all this obedience, Christ was vindicated and his people are saved. Perhaps it is not that Shedd’s categories have so much gone beyond the sweep of New Testament categories, as they have not come up to them” (p. 55).

    Good thoughts from Carson as usual I think.

  5. Hi, Ryan. Makes sense. Still, the categories are helpful, as long as we understand their limitations. I admit that the word “passive” used to bother me. However, if I understand it not in terms of inactivity but in terms of what was done by Christ (active righteousness) and what was done to Christ (passive righteousness)—that he was on the receiving end of God’s wrath—I have less problem with it.

    Thanks for chiming in. Helpful!

  6. Sure, they are helpful as far as they go, and I don’t have a problem with using them, especially as they help teach the need for the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. But we need to remember (and teach) that the cross involved both active and passive obedience – He was receiving God’s full wrath against our sin, but he was also laying down his life and making a sacrifice for sin. I guess I am saying that I don’t like the categories if we merely conceive of them as active=Christ’s life and passive=Christ’s death. They are helpful to a point, even if just to start the discussion about justification and imputation. And for that I don’t have a problem, just as long as we realize and teach Christ’s death most certainly did involve his active obedience as well.

    Just thought I would chime in since I love talking about justification.

  7. That’s the whole point of the original Edwards essay—that Christ’s death was a positive offering, a “sweetsmelling savor” (Eph 5:2), not just a penal substitution.

  8. Personally, I have tried to keep away from the “active/passive” method of explaning Christ obedience.
    We cannot get past John 10:17-18 – He willingly layed down His life! Can’t get more active than that!

  9. Isaiah 50 is another passage that supports the idea that the Lord’s submission includes his passion.

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