But what did this substitution involve? If you were to ask many if not most Christians today, “What did Jesus Christ do for you?” there is a good chance they might say something like, “He died for me on the cross.” And how right they would be! He did suffer and die for the sins of His people. This is what theologians sometimes call the passive obedience of Jesus.
The Passive Obedience of Jesus
The passive obedience of Jesus Christ was his lifelong and willing subjection to the penalties of our sin, his suffering and dying in our place. Jesus took our sinful record—its guilt, shame, and condemnation—upon himself as our substitute.
Several passages of Scripture reveal this aspect of his redemptive work. For example, the Apostle Paul taught that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). To the Philippians he wrote that, “being found in human form, [Jesus] humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:8). The Apostle Peter joined with Paul in his testimony to the passive obedience of Jesus when he declared that “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). Examples could be multiplied.
This passive obedience of Jesus Christ is a marvelous and foundational truth of the Scriptures and the Christian faith. However, it is only part of the picture. Tragically, many popular understandings of Christianity and the work of Jesus stop here, resulting in a limited understanding and enjoyment of the Christian faith.
The Active Obedience of Jesus
To better understand Christianity, we must realize that Jesus not only suffered and died for our sins; He also lived for our righteousness! Jesus offered a lifelong record of perfect obedience to the law of God. As our substitute, he also fulfilled the law in our place. This is what theologians often call the active obedience of Jesus.
The writer of Hebrews described the sinless life of Jesus Christ saying, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The Apostle Paul also testified to Christ’s sinless life, saying that it was for our benefit. In his letter to the Romans, Paul noted that “as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (5:19). As Jesus obeyed the moral law of God, his desire was to “fulfill all righteousness” as our substitute (Matthew 3:14). This is why Paul later said that Jesus became our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30).
A Fuller Picture: The Great Exchange
Only when we bring these two doctrines together, both the passive and active obedience of Jesus Christ, do we gain a fuller picture of the marvelous grace and peace offered in the gospel. We see that Christ’s substitution was not just in his death, but also in his life. Theologians call this transfer of our sinful record to Jesus Christ and His righteous record back to us the doctrine of double imputation, “imputation” meaning “reckoned to another.”
If our understanding of Christ’s work stops with his passive obedience, we’ll tend to see the gospel as the way in which we gain initial forgiveness before God, but not necessarily lasting righteousness. We’ll take comfort in the truth that Jesus Christ took our old record of sin—its guilt, shame, and condemnation—and cancelled it on the cross. However, we’ll be left without a new record of righteousness to replace it, and thereby think it’s up to us to build and maintain one. We’ll think that while the performance of Jesus Christ was sufficient to get us into the Kingdom, it will be our continued moral performance that keeps us in. This will leave us restless and neurotic, always wondering if we’re doing enough good to atone for our sins and keep God happy with us.
Cleansed and Clothed
Thankfully, Jesus went beyond simply canceling our debt and bringing us back to zero before God. He also enriched us with his righteousness.
Because of the active obedience of Jesus, we’re not just pardoned criminals given a clean slate. We’re now also adopted children given a righteous record. We’ve not only been cleansed by the blood of Jesus. We’re also clothed in the robes and riches of Christ’s righteousness. Cleansed and clothed, that’s what you are in Christ.
Part One of this article can be found here.
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.