In this post we are going to take up the Defense of Christ's Active obedience. This is an important doctrine for understanding justification by faith alone and there have been some who even claim to be “Reformed” who reject this doctrine. Christ's Active obedience is Christ's perfect obedience with respect to the Law of God and this is imputed to us when we first have saving faith in Christ. This is distinct from but not separate from Christ's passive obedience which is Christ allowing himself to be the just satisfaction for our sins on the cross. Both the active and passive obedience of Christ are given to us in our justification. If we do not have both the passive and active obedience of Christ no one can be saved. The active obedience of Christ is a very important topic because it has to do with the Gospel. It is a sad thing that many in the church are either ignorant of this doctrine or they explicitly reject this doctrine. So it is more than fitting that we look at the scriptures to establish this essential doctrine of the Christian faith.
One way to prove active obedience is to start with the assumption of the truth of the doctrine of justification by faith alone (Rom. 4:1-8). In the Reformed doctrine of justification one is entirely righteousness to inherit eternal life without adding any works of their own to their justification. However, the Bible teaches that one needs to follow the Law perfectly to obtain heaven so this means that when we are justified by faith alone we have to be imputed a persons perfect Law keeping. As the scriptures teach there is only one person who followed the Law of God perfectly and that is Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:19; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15). Therefore, when we are justified by faith we are imputed the perfect law keeping of Jesus Christ. The controversial step in this line of reasoning is that we have to follow the Law perfectly in order to obtain heaven. So let us look to God's word to support that in order to be justified one needs to follow the Law perfectly:
Luke 10:25-28 25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" 26 He said to him, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?" 27 And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." 28 And he said to him, "You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live."
This verse teaches that if we follow God with all our ability then we will inherit eternal life. If we sin just once we have failed to love God with all of our ability and this means that the Law does not just require relative obedience for eternal life but perfect perpetual obedience for eternal life. When Jesus says “do this, and you will live” he does not mean physical life but eternal life because in context that was the question asked to him by the Lawyer (v. 25). Therefore, to enter into heaven one has to be perfectly righteous. Mark 12:28-34 is another passage that is similar to Luke 10 but Mark shows us that the requirement of perfection cannot merely be substituted or satisfied by sacrifices:
“28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, "Which commandment is the most important of all?" 29 Jesus answered, "The most important is, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' 31 The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." 32 And the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.”
This section of scripture sheds light on a very important principle: Obedience is better than sacrifice (v. 33). This means that any sacrifice cannot be a mere replacement of perfect law keeping because obedience to the Law is better than sacrifice. Many people who reject active obedience do so on the basis that we do not need perfect law keeping imputed to us because all we need is Jesus' sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, but verse 33 teaches that sacrifice cannot be a replacement of obedience because obedience is valued more by God. Rather in order for us to be right before God we need sacrifice and perfect obedience to be credited to our account. So we cannot say that the passive obedience can replace the active obedience because both the passive and active obedience are both necessary conditions for us to be right before God. Another passage that shows us that God requires perfection is Matthew 5:48 which says
“48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
There verse could not be any clearer in communicating this: God requires us to be morally perfect just like he is morally perfect. God does not grade on a curve he expects perfect obedience to his Law because his perfect nature demands it. It is therefore, established that to do the Law one needs to follow it perfectly because this is what God requires. In order for a human being to be justified one has to follow the Law as Romans 2:13 teaches
“13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”
In order for a human being to be justified before God he has to do the law and as I have shown to do the Law means to follow it perfectly. However, only one person has followed the Law perfectly and that is Jesus Christ. So the only way for us to be justified is to be imputed Christ's perfect law keeping. This is one clear way to prove active obedience and it is legitimate because it is a clear and necessary inference from the Bible like the Trinity and the two wills of Jesus Christ. But there are actually texts that seem to explicitly affirm that Christ's perfect obedience to the Law is imputed to us, one clear example of this is Romans 5:19:
“19 For 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.”
This is one of the clearest verses on Active obedience. This verse clearly teaches that the basis of us being imputed righteousness is Christ's perfect obedience. In other words, this verse teaches that the ground of our righteousness is the imputation of Christ's obedience to the Law. This cannot be a infused righteousness because of the fact that infused righteousness is logically incompatible with the objection that Paul anticipates in Romans 6:1 “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” This is an objection that could only arise if in fact Paul was teaching a legal imputation of righteousness through grace by faith alone. Lastly, the preceding context also gives us a strong indication that Paul is working with a legal context (Rom. 4:5-8; 5:1). Therefore, this verse clearly is teaching that Christ's obedience is the legal basis by which we are imputed righteousness. Another verse like 1 Corinthians 1:29-31 helps us connect the dots by teaching that Christ's righteousness is our righteousness, it reads as follows:
29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."
This verse is used to show us that the righteousness of Jesus Christ is our righteousness. In other words, this verse shows us that it is Christ's righteousness that makes us righteous. The context suggests this strongly because it emphasizes that we cannot boast before the Lord and the only way this would be true is if the perfect righteousness we had for entering heaven was not our own righteousness but the righteousness of Jesus Christ, then and only then would we not be able to boast in ourselves, but only in the Lord for he is our righteousness. And we receive the righteousness of the Lord by faith as Paul teaches in Philippians 3:8-9
“8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith-”
Paul counts all of his accomplishments and all of his good deeds as loss by only trusting in Christ and receiving the righteousness from God. Paul says that he has no righteousness of his own, but rather he has the righteousness from God by faith in Christ. Paul cannot trust in his active obedience anymore for righteousness but the only active obedience he can trust in for his justification is Christ' righteousness. For if we were to ever trust in our own law keeping for righteousness we would all be doomed. There would be no hope in this life if we did not have Christ's righteousness because we fall into sin every day, we are so very far from perfection. This is why I am so deeply moved by the words of Dr. J. Gresham Machen shortly before he died he sent his final telegram to his friend Professor John Murray. The words of the telegram were these: "I'm so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it." There is so much significance and truth packed into Machen's last words to John Murray. The fact is that without Christ's righteousness there is no hope because our own best righteousness is like fifthly rags. It might not be today and it might not be tomorrow but someday we will all die. And in your last dying breath, the moment right before you go, do you want to die knowing that you are about to go before a holy God with just your daily sins? Or would you rather die knowing that you have been imputed with Christ' perfect righteousness? For the Apostle Paul and Machen the answer to this was clear we must only rely on Christ and his perfect righteousness because without it there is simply no hope in this life.