Last week I wrote about the reason why Christ had to die for us. Not only did the actual sins that we commit send him to the cross, but so did our original sin, the depravity of our hearts. We are considered completely dead in our sin (Ephesians 2:1) and unable to save ourselves (Romans 9:16). And if that weren’t enough, even the seemingly good things we do are tainted by our sin and are considered as such before God (Isaiah 64:6).
The Active and Passive Obedience of Christ
That does not mean that we are without hope, however, for indeed “Christ has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). This “sacrifice” is often characterized in the Scriptures as being brought about by Christ’s obedience. “For as through the disobedience of the one man many were constituted sinners, even so through the obedience of the one many will be constituted righteous” (Rom. 5:19). “He made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in fashion as a man he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:7). This obedience is typically seen to have two different aspects, his active obedience, and his passive obedience. These terms are used to emphasize the twofold nature of the law. As John Murray points out,
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.
The Passive Obedience of Christ
The passive obedience of Christ refers to his death on the cross and his suffering for us in our place. Christ took upon himself the punishment that we should all endure; he absorbed the wrath of God that was meant for our sin. Paul tells us in Romans 8:3 that it was through Jesus that God “condemned sin in the flesh.” Surely, God put Christ “forward as a propitiation for sins” (Romans 3:25; c.f. 1 John 2:2). When Jesus was on the cross, He became the recipient of the most intense hatred that exists in the universe: God’s hatred of sin. Jesus absorbed the wrath of God on our behalf, so that we might be set free from sin. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The result of all of this is that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Because of the death of Christ on the cross on our behalf, our guilt is taken away and we are no longer condemned before God. Jesus has atoned for original sin in our lives.
The Active Obedience of Christ
But the fact that we are no longer condemned before God is not enough. To have the approval of a holy God, we must not only escape the sentence of condemnation, but we must also merit the status of commendation. We are to reflect the holiness of God (1 Peter 1:16; Leviticus 11:44; 20:26). Obviously, our merits are not sufficient for this task (Isaiah 64:6), but where we have failed, Christ has succeeded on our behalf. The “active obedience” of Christ is Christ’s fulfilling the law for us. “If Christ had only earned forgiveness of sins for us, then we would not merit heaven. Our guilt would have been removed, but we would simply be in the position of Adam and Eve before they fell.” What Grudem means by this is that if Christ had only died for us via His passive obedience and nothing else, then we would only be morally neutral before God. When only our guilt is taken away, we have a clean slate, but we don’t have a positive standing before God. In regards to the law, we are not guilty, but we are not commendable either.
Paul recognized this need for righteousness when he said that he wants to be found in Christ “not having a righteousness of [his] own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9). Jesus also alluded to the fact that He was accomplishing this for us when, in regards to Him being baptized, he told John the Baptist that “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Certainly, Jesus did not need to fulfill all righteousness for His own sake; he always was, always is, and always will be the perfect, sinless, Son of God. No, He was fulfilling all righteousness for our sake. “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4).
This is how Jesus has atoned for actual sin in our lives. Remember, we will all have to stand before God and give an account of the things we have done. If not for the active obedience of Christ, our record of transgressions would condemn us on judgment day. But thanks be to God that through Christ He has “canceled the record of the charges against us and taken it away by nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).
The atonement is much deeper than we can imagine. There have been countless volumes devoted to the discussion of this subject and Christendom is nowhere near being able to claim that we have exhausted it. The atonement is an issue that when studied carefully, gives credence to Paul’s claim that the depths of the riches of His wisdom and knowledge truly are unsearchable (Romans 11:33). May we never grow indifferent towards this wonderful doctrine, for without it we are hopeless.
John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955), 21
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 570.