Christ’s Active and Passive Obedience

by W. G. T. Shedd

A distinction is made between Christ's active and passive obedience. The latter denotes Christ's sufferings of every kind—the sum total of the sorrow and pain which he endured in his estate of humiliation. The term passive is used etymologically. His suffering is denominated "obedience" because it came by reason of his submission to the conditions under which he voluntarily placed himself when he consented to be the sinner's substitute. He vicariously submitted to the sentence "the soul that sins, it shall die" and was "obedient unto death" (Phil. 2:8).

Christ's passive or suffering obedience is not to be confined to what he experienced in the garden and on the cross. This suffering was the culmination of his piacular sorrow, but not the whole of it. Everything in his human and earthly career that was distressing belongs to his passive obedience. It is a true remark of Edwards that the blood of Christ's circumcision was as really a part of his vicarious atonement as the blood that flowed from his pierced side. And not only his suffering proper, but his humiliation, also, was expiatory, because this was a kind of suffering. Says Edwards (Redemption 2.1.2):

The satisfaction or propitiation of Christ consists either in his suffering evil or his being subject to abasement. Thus Christ made satisfaction for sin by continuing under the power of death while he lay buried in the grave, though neither his body nor soul properly endured any suffering after he was dead. Whatever Christ was subject to that was the judicial fruit of sin had the nature of satisfaction for sin. But not only proper suffering, but all abasement and depression of the state and circumstances of mankind [human nature] below its primitive honor and dignity, such as his body remaining under death, and body and soul remaining separate, and other things that might be mentioned, are the judicial fruits of sin.

Christ's active obedience is his perfect performance of the requirements of the moral law. He obeyed this law in heart and in conduct, without a single slip or failure. He was "holy, harmless, and undefiled" (Heb. 7:26). Some theologians confine Christ's atonement to his passive obedience, in such sense that his active obedience does not enter into it and make a part of it. Since atonement consists in suffering and since obedience of the divine law is not suffering but happiness, they contend that Christ's active obedience cannot contribute anything that is strictly piacular or atoning. This would be true in reference to the active obedience of a mere creature, but not in reference to the active obedience of the God-man. It is no humiliation for a created being to be a citizen of divine government, to be made under the law, and to be required to obey it. But it is humiliation for the Son of God to be so made and to be so required to obey. It is stooping down when the Ruler of the universe becomes a subject and renders obedience to a superior. Insofar as Christ's active obedience was an element in his humiliation, it was an element also in his expiation. Consequently, we must say that both the active and the passive obedience enter into the sum total of Christ's atoning work. Christ's humiliation confessedly was atoning, and his obedience of the law was a part of his humiliation. The two forms of Christ's obedience cannot therefore be so entirely separated from each other as is implied in this theory which confines the piacular agency of the mediator to his passive obedience.

But while there is this atoning element in Christ's active obedience, it is yet true that the principal reference of the active obedience is to the law as precept, rather than to the law as penalty. It is more meritorious of reward than it is piacular of guilt. The chief function of Christ's obedience of the moral law is to earn a title for the believer to the rewards of heaven. This part of Christ's agency is necessary, because merely to atone for past transgression would not be a complete salvation. It would, indeed, save man from hell, but it would not introduce him into heaven. He would be delivered from the law's punishment, but would not be entitled to the law's reward: "The man which does the things of the law shall live by them" (Rom. 10:5). Mere innocence is not entitled to a reward. Obedience is requisite in order to this. Adam was not meritorious until he had obeyed the commandment, "Do this." Before he could "enter into life," he must "keep the commandment," like every subject of divine government and candidate for heavenly reward. The mediator, therefore, must not only suffer for man, but must obey for him, if he would do for man everything that the law requires. Accordingly, Christ is said to be made of God unto the believer "wisdom" and "sanctification" as well as "righteousness" and "redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30). Believers are described as "complete" in Christ (Col. 1:10); that is, they are entitled to eternal blessedness as well as delivered from eternal misery. Christ is said to be "the end (telos) of the law for righteousness to everyone that believes" (Rom. 10:4). This means that Christ completely fulfills the law for the believer; but the law requires obedience to its precept as well as endurance of its penalty. Complete righteousness is conformity to the law in both respects: "By his obedience shall many be made righteous" (Rom. 5:19); "by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many" (Isa. 53:11); "the Lord our righteousness" (Jer. 23:6); "in the Lord have I righteousness" (45:24; Rom. 8:4; Phil. 3:9; 2 Cor. 5:21).

The imputation of Christ's active obedience is necessary, also, in order to hope and confidence respecting the endless future. If the believer founds his expectation of an eternity of blessedness upon the amount of obedience which he has himself rendered to the law and the degree of holiness which he has personally attained here upon earth, he is filled with doubt and fear respecting the final recompense. He knows that he has not, by his own work, earned and merited such an infinite reward as "glory, honor, and immortality": "We cannot by our best works merit eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion between them and the glory to come" (Westminster Confession 16.5). But if he founds his title to eternal life and his expectation of it upon the obedience of Christ for him, his anxiety disappears. (See supplement 6.2.6.)

A distinction is made by some theologians between "satisfaction" and "atonement." Christ's satisfaction is his fulfilling the law both as precept and penalty. Christ's atonement, as antithetic to satisfaction, includes only what Christ does to fulfill the law as penalty. According to this distinction, Christ's atonement would be a part of his satisfaction. The objections to this mode of distinguishing are that (a) satisfaction is better fitted to denote Christ's piacular work than his whole work of redemption; in theological literature, it is more commonly the synonym of atonement; (b) by this distinction, atonement may be made to rest upon the passive obedience alone to the exclusion of the active. This will depend upon whether "obedience" is employed in the comprehensive sense of including all that Christ underwent in his estate of humiliation, both in obeying and suffering.

Another distinction is made by some between "satisfaction" and "merit." In this case, "satisfaction" is employed in a restricted signification. It denotes the satisfaction of retributive justice and has respect to the law as penalty. Thus employed, the term is equivalent to "atonement." "Merit" as antithetic to "satisfaction" has respect to the law as precept and is founded upon Christ's active obedience. Christ vicariously obeys the law and so vicariously merits for the believer the reward of eternal life. Respecting this distinction, Turretin (14.13.12) remarks that the two things are not to be separated from each other. We are not to say as some do that the "satisfaction" is by the passive work of Christ alone and that the "merit" is by the active work alone. The satisfaction and the merit are not to be thus viewed in isolation, each by itself, because the benefit in each depends upon the total work of Christ. For sin cannot be expiated until the law as precept has been perfectly fulfilled; nor can a title to eternal life be merited before the guilt of sin has been atoned for. Meruit ergo satisfaciendo, et merendo satisfecit.

There is some ambiguity in this distinction, also. The term merit is often applied to Christ's passive obedience as well as to his active. The "merit of Christ's blood" is a familiar phrase. The mediator was meritorious in reference to the law's penalty as well as to the law's precept.


Shedd, W. G. T., Dogmatic theology.

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