If we are to be reconciled to God, we need more than forgiveness for breaking His law. We also require the righteousness of One who has kept God’s law perfectly. Today, Barry Cooper explains the critical distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience for our salvation.


Shortly before his death on January 1, 1937, the theologian Dr. J. Gresham Machen dictated a final telegram to one of his friends. It was very short; only thirteen words. He wrote: ”I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”

“The active obedience of Christ.” What did he mean by that?

Well, let me ask you a question. If Christ had come to earth and simply earned forgiveness for our sin, would that have been enough to reconcile us to God forever?

Many of us, instinctively, would say: “Of course! What more could we possibly need?”

But the great Reformers would have said: “No. We need more than forgiveness for breaking God’s law. We also need to have perfectly obeyed God’s law. It’s one thing to have our guilt removed, but we also need to be credited with perfect righteousness.”

That’s why the Reformers talked about what’s called the active and passive obedience of Christ. Both are essential parts of Christ’s work on earth, because both are needed if you and I are to have any hope of salvation.

Jesus’ active obedience is His perfect obedience to God’s law. Jesus’ passive obedience is His paying the penalty for our failure to obey God’s law.

Some people stumble at this point, because they imagine that the bulk of Jesus’ life was occupied with obeying God’s law for us—active obedience—and then in dying, Jesus paid the penalty for us—passive obedience. As if His life was all active obedience, with a tiny bit of passive obedience at the end as He pays the penalty for our sin on the cross.

But actually, Jesus is demonstrating both passive and active obedience together throughout His life. As theologian Herman Bavinck says, Jesus’ “entire life and work, from his conception to his death, was substitutionary in nature.”

Christ’s passive obedience, His paying the penalty for our breaking God’s law, culminates on the cross but was not restricted to the cross. Just think of the daily, minute-by-minute suffering Christ experienced as He was immersed for thirty or so years in a world that was in constant rebellion against His Father and being a part of this world as it staggered under the weight of sin’s curse and its effects on creation. We can assume that His heartbreak over Jerusalem, for example, or His bitter weeping at the death of Lazarus, were not isolated moments of pain.

Similarly, His active obedience, His perfect obedience to His Father’s will, certainly isn’t done once we reach Gethsemane. On the contrary, His obedience to His Father—“not my will but yours”—carried Him into Gethsemane and beyond. His death on the cross itself is an example of His active (as well as passive) obedience—satisfying, as it did, the righteous requirements of God’s law.

John Murray puts it like this: “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.”

Now, why is this so important to understand?

Because God’s law, like any law, has both demands and penalties. For example, U.S. law demands that I don’t murder people or break the speed limit, and if I do, the law demands a penalty in keeping with the severity of those offenses.

So it is with God’s law. It makes demands of me, and if I fail to meet those demands—which I do, every day—then it prescribes a penalty in keeping with the severity of those offenses, which is death.

It’s that double demand of God’s law that makes Christ’s active and passive obedience necessary. He both fulfills the law’s demands and pays its penalty. He perfectly obeyed His Father’s law as our previous representative, Adam, had failed to do, and—as our new representative, the final Adam—He took the penalty prescribed by God’s law for our disobedience.

If He had not done both, we would still be under condemnation. But because He did do both, we can say with joy and relief, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ.”

Thank God for both the passive and the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.