Christ’s Active Obedience (his sonship)

Chapter 8 of Systematic Theology: Volume Two - The Beauty of Christ: A Trinitarian Vision by Douglas F. Kelly

In the beginning, God created Adam to be a loving son, and love is always shown by obedience (cf. John 15:10, 14). Adam failed to render loving obedience, and in due time, God raised up Abraham and Israel to live as his obedient sons, but they too failed. So, ‘in the fullness of the time’ (cf. Gal. 4:4), God sent his own Son to live a life of deepest and fullest loving obedience. In so doing, the incarnate Son of God obeyed from the heart, in every thought, word and action, all the holy will of the heavenly Father, thereby fulfilling the original intentions of God in his creation of Adam and his posterity. By his active obedience, Christ fulfills the original purpose of the ‘Adamic Administration’ (or as the Puritans called it, ‘covenant with Adam,’ ‘covenant of life,’ ‘covenant of works.’) 1

Part of the good news of the Gospel is that Jesus has done, as my covenant representative, all that I ever needed, or ever shall need, to be and to do. This is a liberating truth to the human spirit, which can otherwise be oppressed by constantly unmet obligations.

In the previous chapter we saw that the first stage in the Humiliation of Christ was his incarnation. There (in chapter seven) we considered the first aspect of his incarnation: (a) his virgin birth.

Now, in this eighth chapter we must pursue: (b) his active obedience, or his life of sonship, and its meaning for our salvation. We trace obedience and sonship through the Scriptural history of redemption especially in terms of the Two Adams. We think of the First Adam as a son, Israel as a son, and finally Messiah as the true Son.

In this regard, we note (i) the necessity of Christ’s active obedience (or true Sonship) for our salvation, and (ii) the accomplishments of his active obedience (or Sonship) for us. Scriptural evidence will be marshaled to support the concept of Christ’s active obedience (Sonship), in our place, as essential to our salvation, opening us up to God and to others.

Active Obedience (or Life of Sonship)

It would appear that the terminology of ‘active’ and ‘passive’ obedience came to the fore during the seventeenth century, especially among British Puritans. However, the concept of Christ’s life, and not just his death, playing a significant role in our salvation goes far back in Christian theology. Peter Lombard clearly taught in the twelfth century that Christ’s obedient life enters into the salvation of his people. 2 He expounds reasons why ‘Christ merited for himself the same things from his conception as through his passion.’ 3

The Reformed Theology traditionally summarized the experience of Christ’s incarnation under the concepts: active obedience and passive obedience. In order to fit into the scheme of the ‘Two States’ of Christ, one could place his active obedience under his sufferings, as an aspect of them, but the reasoning of John Owen leads me to place it before the sufferings of Christ. He writes, ‘That the obedience of Christ cannot be reckoned amongst his sufferings, but is clearly distinct from it, as to all formalities. Doing is one thing, suffering another; they are in diverse predicaments, and cannot be coincident.’ 4

Suffering and contest were constantly involved in Christ’s life of holy devotion to the Father in our humanity. It is appropriate to consider his active obedience in our humanity as the true Son of the Father immediately after his virgin birth, and prior to the intense sufferings of his final passion, in order the better to see how the miraculous conception and birth prepared the way for the truly cosmic event of the triumphant grace of God, through which Christ as the Last Adam restored all that the first Adam had lost, and thereby fulfilled the original purposes of the creation of humankind in the divine image.

John Calvin expresses it clearly:

Now since someone asks, How has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us? To this we can in general reply that he has achieved this for us by the whole course of his obedience…Thus in his very baptism, also, he asserted that he fulfilled a part of the righteousness in obediently carrying out his Father’s commandment [Matt. 3:15]. In short, from the time when he took on the form of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us. 5

Herman Bavinck also teaches that: ‘...It is totally contrary to Scripture, therefore, to restrict the “satisfactory” (atoning) work of Christ to his suffering...his entire life was...a self offering head in the place of his own.’6 Thomas Goodwin wrote to the same effect: ‘His passive obedience will not suffice unless joined with his active, nor his active do the work, if not followed by his death… since an entire satisfaction of the law is exacted from us, the whole righteousness of Christ, active and passive, ought to be imputed.’ 7

While there can be no strict separation between active and passive obedience, still, for purposes of teaching, it is traditional to look first at the active, and then at the passive obedience. Therefore, in this section we shall concentrate upon Christ’s active obedience. Examination of a crucial biblical theme that runs through both Old and New Testaments, may help us grasp the many-sided significance of his active obedience: the Two Adams.

The Two Adams

The very first chapter of Genesis begins with God’s creation of all things out of nothing, as the crowning act of his creative work, he made and blessed mankind: male and female in his own image (Gen. 1:27). They were given dominion over the rest of the created order (Gen. 1:28-30). Psalm 8:6 says: ‘Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet…’ God breathed directly into them the breath of life (Gen. 2:6). Verse 26 of Genesis 1 indicates that there was something different about the creation of the first human pair from all the rest of the animal creation. That verse shows that God entered into ‘an executive divine counsel’ within himself, since this work was the highest of them all, for humankind alone bore the direct likeness of God. Their creation was a ‘crowning of them with glory and honour’ (Ps. 8:5).

God created Adam and Eve to enjoy fellowship and the joy of life together with him. The Lord God walked with them in the Garden of Eden (specially planted for their delight) ‘in the cool of the day’ (Gen. 3:8). This would indicate that God desired a human son (and daughter), who would abide in sweet fellowship with him, loving and obeying him from the heart. Thus he gives them one clear command to be obeyed (and left the rest of the world free and open to them): not to eat of the fruit of one forbidden tree (Gen. 3:3-13).

Adam and Eve willfully chose to disobey God, and took of the forbidden fruit, thus bringing death into the world, and upon themselves and their descendants (cf. Gen. 3:14-19). In the midst of the curse laid upon Satan, (Gen. 3:14), upon Adam and Eve and their descendants (3:16,19), and upon nature itself (3:17-18), God makes the first promise of the gospel to our mother Eve: ‘And I will put enmity between thee [Satan] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel’ (3:15).

The Seed of the Woman

The rest of the Old Testament traces this ‘seed’ of the woman, who would more than undo the damage wrought by yielding to the serpent’s temptation. This seed would be brought forth through appointed leaders of the overarching ‘Covenant of Grace’ – for Genesis 3:15 is a promise of grace; an opening of the covenant that would run through the whole story of redemption, and reach its final culmination only in the ‘New Covenant,’ whose head, sum, and substance was Christ (cf. Jer. 31; Heb. 8 and 10). 8

The chosen ‘seed of the woman,’ and line of the Gospel, passed through Adam’s son, Seth, through his descendant, Noah, and through Noah’s son, Shem; then through his descendant, Abraham, and onwards through Isaac, Jacob, and the twelve patriarchs, especially Judah (ancestor of David, and through David’s line, of Christ himself). From this point of view one could look upon the history of Israel as the way God chose to form within a particular race a line for his Son; a way to reverse the loss suffered in Adam’s rebellion from the heavenly Father.

Adam and Abraham

One can look at the call of Abraham as the beginning of the covenantal process in which the Lord calls out a people to be his obedient son, where Adam failed. The grace of God will be operative in this relationship (generally called the covenant of grace), and God’s grace reaches its perfect fulfillment in him as ‘the seed of the woman’ and ‘the seed of Abraham.’

It is clear that in one sense Israel was considered ‘the son’ of God. We see that in the threat made to proud Pharaoh by Moses, to whom God had spoken: ‘And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus said the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn’ (Ex. 4:22-23).

Israel as a disobedient son

The first Adam had failed to be God’s loving and obedient son, and so it was with God’s corporate son, Israel. Israel grumbled and distrusted in the wilderness. Soon, after the death of Joshua and the elders of his generation, Israel turned to the false gods of the Canaanite culture, and ‘every man did that which was right in his own eyes’ (Judg. 21:25). There were many times of repentance after seasons of judgment, as we see in the stories related in Judges.

There was a new beginning for Israel when God raised up the prophet Samuel. ‘All Israel … knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the Lord. And the Lord appeared again in Shiloh…’ (I Sam. 3:20, 21). Towards the end of his prophetic career, in which he had gone about the country, judging matters in light of the Word of God (I Sam. 7:15, 16), the people of Israel insisted on having a king. Samuel protested against it, but the Lord told him to give in to their request (I Sam. 8).

The handsome and imposing young man of the tribe of Benjamin, Saul, was chosen and anointed first king of Israel (I Sam. 9). But he was self-willed, and rushed ahead to make the priestly offering, impatient for Samuel’s return. Samuel had to reject Saul from being king (I Sam 13). Eventually Saul suffered sporadic mental derangement, and finally, sought the help of a witch, who was possessed by a familiar spirit (I Sam. 28 and 31). Saul’s disastrous career as king prepared the way for the true king of Israel, who would also be the ancestor of the Messiah.

David’s kingship and lineage

God had previously chosen through Samuel the shepherd boy from Bethlehem, David, son of Jesse, of the tribe of Judah, to be king. A somewhat obscure prophecy by the dying Jacob seemed to indicate that the true kingship of Israel would be founded in the tribe of Judah: ‘The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come, and unto him shall the gathering of the people be’ (Gen. 49:10).

David, from Judah, replaced Saul, from Benjamin, and was ‘the man after God’s own heart’ (I Sam. 13:14). God established a firm covenant with David, his chosen, stating: ‘Thy seed will I establish for ever, and build up thy throne to all generations’ (Ps. 89:3-4). God promised that David’s seed would endure forever, and his throne as the days of heaven (Ps. 89:29). God promised through the prophet Nathan that although David’s seed could be chastised for iniquity, still his kingdom would endure forever (II Sam. 7:13-17).

The prophets in later years interpreted the fall and captivity of Israel because of their idolatry as a severe, but not final judgment. There would come a time of release and glorious restoration of the disobedient and corrupt people of Israel (cf. Isa. 62 and Jer. 31). God says that he will have mercy upon his ‘dear son, Ephraim’ (Jer. 31:20). The ‘dear son’ will be restored through none less than a descendant of David; the one who will occupy the throne forever.

Messiah as the True Son

The most quoted Old Testament passage in the New Testament is Psalm 110, which specifically tells us that David’s son is also David’s Lord (Ps. 110:1). Jesus applies this to himself (Matt. 22:41-45; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44), and Acts 2:34, 35 applies it to Jesus, as does Hebrews 1:13, and 10:12, 13.

It should come then as no surprise to those familiar with the history of Israel, that after God’s created son, Adam, failed (for Luke’s genealogy calls Adam ‘the son of God’ – Luke 3:38); after God’s adopted son, Israel, failed; even King David, anointed though he was, was marked by many failures. Then God sent the Son of his own heart: his only begotten Son in the flesh, to carry through with impeccable, obedient devotion everything that he wanted in the others; to fulfill all that he ever desired in and through the new head of the human race: the Last Adam.

History of Israel Recapitulated in Christ

In addition to the accounts of the Virgin Birth in Matthew and Luke, the scene of the baptism of Jesus at the hands of John in the Jordan River shows how he fulfills and surpasses every foreshadowing of sonship from the Old Testament: ‘and lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’ (Matt. 3:17). And the same is true in the transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-5): ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him’ (v. 5). Only by means of the hypostatic union of two natures in one person was Christ able successfully to recapitulate all that sonship toward which the Old Testament was reaching forward in Adam and Israel.

This is also demonstrated in the way Matthew 2:15 interprets the return of Joseph, Mary, and the holy child from Egypt after the death of Herod as a fulfillment of Hosea 11:1, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son.’ In a preliminary sense, Israel was the son of God, brought out of Egypt, but the rest of the Old Testament shows how frequently that son rebelled against the Father. Nevertheless, Israel in its historical life foreshadowed the true Son of God: born of the Virgin Mary. What Israel did not carry through, Christ did carry through.

The temptations of Christ in the wilderness, immediately after his baptism, seem to be a contrast with the temptation which Adam and Eve failed (having thought ‘my will be done’), and that which Israel failed in the wilderness wanderings, questioning the goodness and providence of the Lord (e.g. Exod. 17:1-7).

Synoptic Accounts of the Temptations

Mark’s account of Christ’s temptation is very brief, and does not mention the content of the temptations. He states, as do Matthew and Luke, that Satan was the source of them, and that they lasted forty days (Mark 1:12,13). The two other synoptic Gospels give us the number of the temptations (three), and their content, although there is a difference between the order of the last two temptations as reported by Matthew and Luke. As they relate the Biblical quotations used by Jesus and Satan, both of them quote from the LXX (Greek) version of the Old Testament, rather than from the Hebrew of the Masoretic text – and this is fairly typical of much of the New Testament.

Matthew gives the temptations in this order: (1) Turn the stones into bread (Matt. 4:3); (2) Cast yourself down from the Temple (Matt. 4:6) and (3) Worship me and I will give you the kingdoms of the world (Matt. 4:8,9). Luke gives this order: (1) Turn the stones into bread (Luke 4:3); (2) Worship me and I will give you the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4:5-7), and (3) Cast yourself down from the Temple (Luke 4:9-11).

Hence, the difference in the order is: Matthew places last Satan’s temptation to Christ to worship him in order to receive the kingdoms of the world, whereas Luke places last Satan’s temptation to Christ to cast himself down from the Temple. Following J. Dupont, I will later suggest a possible reason for Luke’s order differing from that of Matthew. But first let us consider the larger biblical context of Christ’s temptations.

It has from ancient times been noted that the answers of Jesus to the temptations of Satan all come from Deuteronomy (8:3; 6:16, and 6:13). As B. Gerhardsson notes, ‘The three decisive replies in the dialogue all are from Deut. 6-8, the deuteronomic exposition of how God allowed his “son” Israel to wander for forty years in the desert that he might discipline and test him.’ 9

Each one of the temptations is related to a specific event in Israel’s history as they came through the desert. J. Dupont shows that the quotations Christ draws from Deuteronomy (8:3; 6:16; 6:13) are used in the inverse position (i.e. from the later to the earlier), but in that ‘backwards’ way, Matthew’s account of the order of these sayings in answer to each of the temptations actually gives the true historical order of what happened in Exodus: the episode of giving the manna, the miracle of water from the rock after bitter complaint, and the entry into Canaan. 10 Later we must consider the possible reason why Luke varies the order of the second and third temptations for the larger purposes of his Gospel.

(1) First temptation

Jesus fasted for forty days (and Matthew adds, forty nights – Matt. 4:2), and at the end of this period was hungry. There is surely an analogy between Israel’s wandering in the desert for forty years, and Jesus’fasting in the desert for forty days. Dupont points out the principle that at times in the Old Testament economy, one day equals a year (as when the spies searched out the Promised Land for forty days - Numbers 14:34; compare Ezekiel 4:1-8). Each of these days stood for a year. 11 This wilderness history is being recapitulated in the temptations of the Messiah of Israel.

The hunger of Christ recalls the distrust and complaining of the Israelites in Exodus 16, after which God started causing the mysterious manna to rain down to serve as the people’s daily bread. In the exhortations given near the end of his life, Moses reminded the people of this incident that introduced the provision of the manna, and draws from it the lesson that ‘man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’(Deut. 8:3). Deuteronomy 8:2 states that God was behind this testing, ‘as a man chastens his son.’ But the ‘son,’ Israel, failed the test by distrust and complaining.

With Israel’s failure in mind, Satan attempted to tempt God’s Son to distrust the Father, by encouraging him to employ his supernatural power to turn the stones into bread to satisfy his hunger immediately, rather than waiting on the Lord in the limits of the humanity he had taken on in order to redeem it from the inside out. But Jesus, God’s eternal Son, now in the flesh, passes this test, and in so doing answers the evil one in the words of Moses: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God’ (Matt. 4:4).

Satan tempted Christ to avoid the sufferings inherent in walking his chosen path as God’s trusting Son, and as our Messiah, but Satan failed then and later, for Christ showed that ‘my meat is to do the will of him that sent me’ (John 4:34). The Son thereby pleased the Father (which was the Son’s greatest delight – cf. Psalm 40:8) and in due time, following the other two temptations, Satan gave up for a season and departed, whereupon the Father sent angels, who ministered unto him (Matt. 4:11).

(2) Second Temptation

In Matthew’s order of the temptations, Satan leads Jesus up to the pinnacle of the Temple, and tells him to cast himself down, for the Lord would send his angels to bear him up, in accordance with the promise of Psalm 91, which Satan duly quotes. This recalls the episode of Massa, reported in Exodus 17:1-17 (and Numbers 20:1-13), where the thirsty people demanded a sign of God’s presence by insisting on an immediate miracle. This incident at Massa seems very different from the call of Satan for Jesus to throw himself down from the Temple, but as Dupont shows, they are alike in that Israel failed in putting God to the test by demanding a miracle, and Satan wanted Jesus also to demand a miracle. 12 The analogy between them is shown in Christ’s quotation from Deuteronomy 6:16 (cf. Matt. 4:7 and Luke 4:12): ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’

In refusing to put God to the test, as did Israel in the wilderness, Jesus as our covenant representative shows us the way of true faith through every earthly wilderness with the demands they can place on our self-life; it is trust in God; it is ‘walking by faith and not by sight’ (cf. II Cor. 5:7). It is utter willingness for God to be God, because he is God, and does not need to keep proving it to us! We frequently fail to trust the Father as we should, but Jesus is our pioneer: ‘the author and finisher of our faith’ (Heb. 12:2). In him we have the victory through the faith that overcomes the world (cf. I John 5:4). He won this gift in our human nature so that he could make it ours in him.

The issue in temptation is that we should remember who God is. As Gerhardsson wrote:

The acts of JHWH can never be questioned, his way of fulfilling his covenant ‘obligations’ is in the end above human criticism; man simply has to accept his division of good and evil in trust and obedience; knowing that God is ‘righteous’ and does not forsake ‘the righteous man’… The covenant son will bow before JHWH in love, trust, and obedience, regarding him not as a capricious god of fate, but as a loving Father who, while he can chastise his son with much severity, will never permanently reject him. 13

(3) Third Temptation

Following at this point Matthew’s order, the last temptation is when Satan takes Jesus up to a very high mountain, shows him all the kingdoms of the world with their glory, and says he will give them all to Jesus if he will bow down and worship this evil one (Matt. 4:8,9). It is of no consequence for our faith where this ‘exceeding high mountain’ was located. Many have suggested a connection between Moses being shown by the Lord on Mount Nebo the Promised Land that he was not allowed to enter into, and Christ being shown not just the Promised Land, but all nations of the world (cf. Deut. 34:1-4). 14

Again, Jesus goes back to Moses’ preaching in Deuteronomy to answer Satan. He orders the devil to leave, and then quotes Deuteronomy 6:13: ‘Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name’ (though Matthew and Luke vary the words slightly from the original Hebrew text – without any change of meaning – as they follow the Greek Version). Verse 13 comes in the midst of a text where Moses is warning the children of Israel as they enter the land, not to worship the false gods of that land:

Then beware lest thou forget the Lord, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt…Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name. Ye shall not go after other gods, gods of the people which are round about you: (For the Lord thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the Lord thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth (Deut. 6:12-15).

The New Testament saw Satan behind the gods of this world (2 Cor. 4:4 and Rev. 13:2), so when Moses warned the Israelites not to worship the gods of the Land they were entering, Satan was behind the whole polytheistic system. Thus, Jesus successfully passes the final test that Israel failed, and he does so by rejecting Satan and all the lesser powers he manipulates, in order to worship the Father, and him alone. The success of Jesus in overcoming the last temptation gloriously fulfills the first commandment.

Luke places the second temptation in third place

Luke’s order of the temptations puts as the last one, Satan’s calling on Christ to throw himself down from the temple (which is second in Matthew’s order). The content and conclusions of the temptations in both Gospels is precisely the same, only the order of the second and third ones is different. Why the difference? Most scholars have assumed that the order in Matthew is more likely to be the original one, since it follows so closely the events in Exodus (as conveyed in Jesus’ quotations from Deuteronomy). These three quotations by Christ of Moses, as we saw, are in inverse order, so as to fit correctly the historical events set forth in Exodus). This harmony of orders between Matthew’s account of the temptations, and the testings related in Exodus does not provide final proof of Matthew’s priority, but does seem a reasonable possibility.

If that is correct, then why does Luke put what Matthew listed as the second temptation in third place? J. Dupont has suggested that Luke wishes to tie in very clearly the temptations to the final passion of Christ, and does so by putting the call of the evil one for him to jump from the temple as the last test. Dupont writes:

Luke explicitly presents the devil as an actor in the passion. The history of the passion begins with the betrayal by Judas…Luke adds a significant detail: ‘Satan then entered into Judas…’ (22:3). [Jesus refers to ‘your hour and the power of darkness in Luke 22:53]. ‘The hour’ of the enemies of Jesus is in reality that of the power of darkness of which they are mere instruments; it is the Kairos of Satan.’

Dupont adds that ‘Luke sees in the temptations the prelude to the Passion…that Jesus is not merely taken by hostile men, but by the prince of darkness in person.’ 15

Dupont believes that the crucial role Jerusalem played in fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies in the history of redemption is the reason why Luke placed Christ’s temptation on the temple in final place. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah had spoken with Jesus of the ‘Exodus’ [or ‘Decease’] which he should accomplish at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31), and as Jesus was on his way to the holy city, Luke reports that he said: ‘…it cannot be that a prophet should perish out of Jerusalem’ (Luke 13:33). Later, Jesus says in Luke 18:31: ‘…Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished.’

Hence, Dupont concludes that Luke lists the temptation to jump from the Temple last, so as to connect it with the city where Jesus would be crucified, thus fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies:

Jerusalem is the city where Jesus must ‘accomplish his decease’ [‘exodus’] (Luke 9:31), where he must suffer his passion. It was appropriate that it should be in that place where the temptations concluded and Satan fled from him. It was also there that the devil reappeared, not to further tempt Jesus, but to provoke the ultimate test, of which the temptations were only forerunners. 16

In all of the temptations (whichever order one follows), Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, showed himself to be the obedient and loving Son of God, thereby restoring our race to the Father’s immediate presence, for one can only look face to face upon one who has been loved and obeyed from the heart. While the devil would have us turn our faces eternally away from God, Jesus as our messianic Head has turned us to look upon our heavenly Father forevermore. His going, in our place, through the baptism of repentance and the temptations, prepared him to stand in our place in Gethsemane and on Calvary.

The work of the Messiah of Israel could only have been carried through by the Son of God. Although the Scriptures do not often mention together ‘Messiah’ and ‘Son of God,’ it is clear that the task of the one had to be undertaken by the other. Gerhardsson rightly says that ‘2 Samuel 7…played its part in keeping alive the identification between the Messiah and the Son of God.’ 17 In this regard, it is significant that Jesus was tempted both as Messiah of Israel and also as the Son of God. The latter was the basis on which Satan sought to have him disobey the Father: ‘If you are the Son of God’ (or ‘since you are the Son of God’) – e.g. Matt. 4:3; Luke 4:3, etc. And fulfilling the appointed tasks of the Messiah was the role only he, who was the Son of God in the flesh, could have undertaken and successfully carried through. 18

The Anointed One, who definitively rejected Satan in order to be pleasing to God his Father, and to await his will for what must follow, did so for our sakes, as our representative. In him, we have rejected Satan and the gods of a world, darkened by sin and death, in union with the one who is: ‘the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high…’ (Heb. 1:3).

Sinclair Ferguson has seen the point here:

His temptations constitute an epochal event. They are not merely personal, but cosmic. They constitute the tempting of the last Adam…His testing was set in the context of a holy war in which he entered the enemy’s domain, absorbed his attacks and sent him into retreat (Matt. 4:11, and especially Luke 4:13). In the power of the Spirit, Jesus advanced as the divine warrior, the God of battles who fights on behalf of his people and for their salvation (cf. Exod. 15:3; Ps. 98:1). His triumph demonstrated that ‘the kingdom of God is near’ and that the messianic conflict had begun. 19

At the end of his earthly ministry, the incarnate Son, facing a substitutionary, God-forsaken death in Gethsemane, unlike the first Adam, said ‘Thy will be done’ (Matt. 26:42), and, unlike the complaining and distrusting Israel in the wilderness, without reserve committed his spirit into the Father’s hands with his last breath (Luke 23:46). The result of that self-sacrificing will and loving trust is ‘writ large’ in Romans 1:2-3 as the ultimate fulfillment of all the promises of the Gospel: ‘(… Which he had promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures,) Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.’)

Later in Romans 5, and also in I Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul makes the schema of two Adams: Adam and Christ, crucial to his entire theology of redemption. ‘For as by one man’s disobedience, many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous’ (Rom. 5:10); ‘For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive’ (I Cor. 15:21-22).

What we must take account of here is that Jesus did not go directly from his miraculous birth or from his public baptism straight to the cross of Calvary! Yes, ‘In the fullness of the time’ (Gal. 4:4) that had been appointed ‘before the foundation of the world’ (Rev. 13:8) for the great transaction (in Calvin’s terms – mirifica communtatio), Christ would indeed go to Calvary, but that time was not ripe until he had obeyed the Father in his earthly life for some thirty-three years of constant filial devotion and perfect obedience from the heart. This means that a life of active obedience, a life of perfect filial sonship, was to be lived in its fullness before that hour when the Son would be glorified by the Father on the cross as he poured out his life a ransom for many.

We now consider (i) the necessity of Christ’s active obedience for our salvation, and (ii) the accomplishments of his active obedience.

(i) The necessity of Christ’s active obedience for our salvation

In traditional confessional Protestantism, most of the emphasis in the doctrine of salvation by Christ has been laid upon his atoning death and resurrection. Yet the significance of his holy life, while generally not receiving the attention it deserved, has not been totally ignored. For instance, this matter was discussed by the fathers of the Westminster Assembly in the 1640s in London. The question was: is the death of Christ alone sufficient for our justification, or is his life necessary as well? The Assembly divines voted strongly in favor of the latter. The Minutes of the Assembly state that the arguments of Thomas Goodwin helped win the day for affirming the imputation to believers of the active obedience of Christ. 20 Hence the Westminster Confession affirms Christ’s active obedience as constituting part of our justification, which is imputed to us by faith (Ch. 9.1).

A fine discussion of the results of the debates in the Assembly concerning his active obedience is found in Jeffrey K. Jue’s article ‘The Active Obedience of Christ and the Theology of the Westminster Standards: A Historical Investigation.’ 21 He argues that a few members of the Assembly (such as Vines and Gataker) opposed the imputation of active obedience out of fear that the concept might lead to antinomianism. 22 But the great majority, probably led by Thomas Goodwin, among others, affirmed the imputation of Christ’s active obedience in the justification of believers, although they strongly rejected antinomianism. 23

In Goodwin’s ‘Of Christ the Mediator,’ he devotes three chapters to Christ’s active obedience and its imputation to believers. 24 As he comments on Romans 8:4 [‘That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit’], he notes:

There be three parts of justification. First, The taking away of actual sin; this is handled in ch. iii. ver. 24, ‘All have sinned,’ etc. His passive obedience takes away the guilt of actual sin. But, secondly, we ought to have an actual righteousness reckoned to us. This is handled in Rom. v. 18, ‘As by the offence of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one, the free gift came upon all unto justification of life.’ The active obedience of Jesus Christ made many righteous. Justification lies not only in pardon of sin, but in the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and imputed to us as Adam’s sin was.

But the law is not fulfilled yet; for we have corruption of nature in us. The apostle therefore in this Rom. viii. 4, he brings in the third part of justification, vis., That Christ came into the world in our nature, and fulfilled the righteousness of the law, in having that nature perfectly holy. And now the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in all parts of it; here is a perfect justification, and we desire no more. 25

But like earlier historical creeds and confessions of the church, the Westminster divines do not devote much space to the active obedience, but list it before going on to the issues involved in his atoning death. However, Mark Jones shows that owing to the great influence of Thomas Goodwin (quoted above), the Savoy Declaration of the Congregationalists, that met soon afterwards, enlarged the section on Christ’s active obedience and its imputation, by one strong clause: ‘… by imputing Christ’s active obedience to the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness…’ (Ch. 9.1). 26

Herman Bavinck notes that only a small minority of Protestants ever denied the necessity of Christ’s active obedience, such as Karg (Parsimonius), who retracted his opposition in 1570, and Johannes Piscator, who wrote against the concept in a letter of 1604. 27 The vast majority of the Reformed did accept it, as in the Belgic Confession, article 22, which speaks of the Lord ‘imputing to us all his merits, and so many holy works, which he has done for us and in our stead.’ Yet though the Reformation accepted in principle the redemptive nature of Christ’s active obedience as being conveyed to his people, they still did not go very far in expounding it (as compared to their voluminous work on his atoning death).

We see a summary exposition of it in Chapter 8 of the Westminster Confession of Faith (‘Christ the Mediator’): ‘He was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfill it, endured most grievous torments immediately in His soul, and most painful sufferings in His body…’ (par.. 4). ‘The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself…hath fully satisfied the justice of the Father…’ (par. 5). Similarly, in the Chapter (11) on ‘Justification,’ his active obedience is definitely taught as part of his action to justify his people, but is not expounded any further than saying: ‘Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are justified…’ (par. 3).

In general, the Westminster Confession considers Christ’s active obedience within the context of Covenant. Thus, Chapter 7, ‘Of God’s Covenant with Man,’ states that Adam was in a ‘first covenant,’ ‘a covenant of works,’ which works had to be fulfilled for the salvation of humankind to occur: ‘The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised in Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience’ (par. 2).

Covenant of Works

But Biblical Theology in the last century has not accepted that there was ever ‘a covenant of works’ in the Genesis text. John Murray, a conservative Calvinist, has denied its presence, and has called it rather ‘the Adamic Administration,’ although he teaches the headship of Adam and the necessary place of full obedience of life to be justified. 28 In place of the concept of the covenant of works binding upon Adam and his posterity, the more recent viewpoint has been that there was a ‘covenant of creation,’ and that all its phases (including ‘the administration of Adam’) should be included under the overarching rubric of ‘the Covenant of Grace,’ although not denying the federal headship of Adam, and its implications for having brought all his posterity into sin and guilt. 29

One Covenant of Grace

Pierre Courthial, in his Le Jour de Petits Recommencements (The Day of Small Beginnings), teaches that the Covenant of Grace was in force before Adam sinned, indeed, it was the structural basis of creation. That is to say, grace means more than pardon, and, of course, pardon is applicable only after Adam’s fall into sin. Courthial argues, therefore, that God’s grace has, in Scripture, two senses: one is benevolence or favor, and the other is merciful pardon. The Covenant of Grace was marked by benevolence before the Fall, and merciful pardon after the Fall. He points out that God’s word to Noah before the Flood in Genesis 6:18, normally translated ‘I will establish my covenant with you’ actually should be translated ‘I will confirm my covenant...’ 30

Jean-Marc Berthoud devotes an insightful chapter to ‘The Covenant of Creation’ (ch. 3) in his recent volume on The Covenant of God Throughout the Scriptures (if I may give it an English title at this point, before its translation from French). 31 He shows that Adam and Eve knew the grace of God even before the Fall, in the sense of grace as divine benevolence or favor: ‘Everything came to them from the grace of God, a grace which enabled them to do all the works which had been ordained for them by God.’ 32

If we keep in mind the original concept of the Covenant of Grace, which (before the Fall of Adam) signified ‘grace as divine benevolence’, it will help us to make sense of both the created order and the purpose of human life. The created order must be understood in light of the God who made it so that it would be the stage upon which humankind – his image-bearers – would live in fellowship with him.

Following Courthial in particular, I have sought to address the significance of these two senses of grace (i.e. loving condescension and pardon for sin) in chapter 6 of Systematic Theology, Vol. 1. 33 If what that chapter says is correct, the fact that God was in covenantal relations with Adam, our first father, and that Adam was to be totally obedient to God, in no sense removes the reality of God’s graciousness in this original administration or covenant. God’s grace in the sense of beneficence was already in the covenant with Adam without that precluding the necessity of full obedience. Granted these two meanings of grace, it seems to me that the Westminster Confession does not preclude grace from the Covenant of Works. 34

God’s covenant with creation can, in this way, be seen as that of an overarching Covenant of Grace in which the Lord created a son to live in the amity of obedient fellowship with him. Not to do so would have its consequences, but that does not remove the prior fact that the Father wished for a son to love him from the heart, which meant ready and full obedience to the divine will, or – in New Testament terms – ‘walking in the light.’

The entire Old Testament shows us that Adam failed; Israel failed. So God, out of love to the world (John 3:16), gave his only begotten Son to stand in for it, and do what it did not do, and now could not do. In terms of the traditional covenant theology, one could say that God’s incarnate Son came to pay the penalty of the broken relationship with God (namely, substitutionary death), and – before that supreme climax of love and grace – to keep in its fullness all the righteous requirements of the law. In a certain sense, the substitutionary death keeps us from hell, and the representative obedience takes us into heaven to live forever with God.

(ii) The accomplishments of Christ’s Active Obedience

Both Testaments set forward the moral and legal requirements that need to be fulfilled between Adam (and his race) and God (e.g. Genesis 2:16-17; Preface to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:2 and Deuteronomy 5:1-5; Matthew 5:17-20) and underlying that obedience, is the life of sonship which alone is pleasing to the Father. Since the first Adam, and afterwards Israel, did not live out this loving sonship to the Father, then Christ, the Last Adam, would do so. This is central to the concept of Christ’s active obedience, and particularly to its accomplishments.

Christ’s Active Obedience is above all else the Life of True Sonship

Two of the early Church Fathers (Athanasius and Irenaeus) provide us the necessary clues to appreciate the one true sonship in which we share by faith: In his De Incarnatione (section 13), Athanasius says:

What then was God to do? or what was to be done save the renewing of that which was in God’s image, so that by it men might once more be able to know Him? But how could this have come to pass save by the presence of the very Image of God, our Lord Jesus Christ?... Whence the Word of God came in His own person, that, as He was the image of the Father, He might be able to create afresh the man after the image (par. 7).

He goes on (in section 16) to say:

For men’s mind having finally fallen to things of sense, the Word disguised Himself by appearing in a body, that He might, as Man, transfer men to Himself, and centre their senses on Himself, and, men seeing Him thenceforth as Man, persuade them by the works He did that He is not Man only, but also God, and the Word and Wisdom of the true God (par. 1).

Over a century before Athanasius, Saint Irenaeus of Lyon at several points in his Adversus Haereses wrote of Christ having ‘recapitulated’ our fallen, Adamic humanity, restoring it by his holiness through every stage of life. Irenaeus writes along these lines:

Being a Master, therefore, He also possessed the age of a Master (i.e. thirty years old), not despising or evading any condition of humanity, nor setting aside in Himself that law which He had appointed for the human race, but sanctifying every age by that period corresponding to it which belonged to Himself. For He came to save all by means of Himself…He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age…a youth for youths…thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old age man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all…sanctifying at the same time the aged also. 35

These, and other Church Fathers, teach that we are reconciled to God, not only by the saving death of Christ (which they clearly affirmed), but also by his saving life; by his active obedience that does something to our in-turned humanity, to turn it back to God. Hence his life enters into our salvation, as well as his death.

Dumitru Staniloae (1903-1993), has manifested the same insight:

In this way [incarnation as a true human person] he begins his work of salvation through what he does with his very own human nature. He has not just assumed humanity in order to be our juridical representative, to pay or to suffer in our stead for the offense against God, as is the case in Western theology… ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich’ (2 Cor. 8:9). In accord with this, Leontius of Byzantium considers the descent of the Son of God as the only ‘remedy’ for our disease. ‘Through economy, the only wise doctor of our souls has healed the disease of all by receiving within Himself our sufferings.’ 36

Significance of Christ’s fulfillment of the Law

Later in his Christology, Staniloae again quotes Leontius of Byzantium, and adds a comment:

According to Leontius, ‘If he fulfills the law without having the need to do that (for the righteous have no need of repentance), evidently he does this to fulfill all the righteousness of his oikonomia according to the body and to show his divinity in the very act of fulfilling the law; once the bodily nature was lacking the power to fulfill the law, only the divine nature could fulfill it completely.’ 37

Staniloae comments: ‘Evidently, it is not about the fulfillment of the law in the sense of an external satisfaction offered to God, but about the fulfillment of God’s will and of the requirements of human nature through a life that brings this nature to its true condition by its union with God.’ 38

John Owen summarized Christ’s active obedience in terms of fullest keeping of the law on our behalf, as being a successful fulfillment of all its terms, which is by faith imputed to us as one part of our justification:

First, By the obedience of the life of Christ you see what is intended, – his willing submission unto, and perfect, complete fulfilling of every law of God… Secondly, That this obedience was performed by Christ, not for himself, but for us, and in our stead…Thirdly, Then, I say, this perfect, complete obedience of Christ to the law is reckoned unto us… 39

We can think of Christ’s internal (not merely external) fulfilling of the law and will of God as a sanctification from the inside out of our humanity that was turned away from God. He turns it back around, face to face with the heavenly Father. In The Mediation of Christ, Torrance shows us what has happened:

We are to think of the whole life and activity of Jesus from the cradle to the grave as constituting the vicarious human response to himself which God has freely and unconditionally provided for us. That is not an answer to God which he has given us through some kind of transaction external to us or over our heads, as it were, but rather one which he has made to issue out of the depths of our human being and life, as our own…Jesus Christ is our human response to God. 40

Christ’s Sonship and our Sanctification

In this active obedience of sanctification and reconciliation, Christ lives out the life of filial sonship which neither Adam nor Israel ever did. Hence, in addition to the biblical concept of substitution, one must add the biblical concept of representation. That is what we find in the theology of the Apostle Paul, especially in Romans 5 and 6, which explicate in detail the union of believers with Christ, their covenant head and representative.

This means that as our substitute and representative, as the Last Adam, Christ turns back our humanity from saying with Adam, ‘My will be done’ (as he succumbed to the temptation of Satan to be as God), to saying ‘Thy will be done.’ Christ represents us in his true and full humanity by restoring us to God-centeredness. He, in our room and stead, can truly say: ‘I do always those things which please him’ (John 8:29). He does so especially in his life of prayer. What Mark 1:35 notes of him was, no doubt, typical: ‘And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed.’

In his perfect faith in the Father, in his obedient response to all of God’s holy law (cf. Matt. 5:17), he represents us as ‘our worship leader’ (to quote John Calvin’s comments on Christ’s priesthood in Hebrews). Thus, through his holy, loving life, we who believe in him are lifted up into the heavenlies, for in him, through union in the Holy Spirit, we have ‘access’ to God (Eph. 2:18). He takes our humanity with him into heaven in his ascension, so that ‘we are seated with him in heavenly places’ (Eph. 2:6).

Andrew Murray shows that while our salvation is legally grounded, in accordance with the holy character of God, and what it requires of sinners, it reaches beyond any external legal sense: ‘If our salvation was not to be a merely legal one – external... – but an entrance anew into the very life of God, with the restoration of the divine nature we had lost in paradise, it was the Son of God alone who could impart this to us. He had the life of God to give; He was able to give it; He could only give it by taking us into living fellowship with Himself.’ 41

In a covenantal, representative sense, all of Christ’s life, including his faith, counted for us, who are united to him in faith and the Holy Spirit. This seems to be confirmed by the Apostle Paul’s statement in Galatians 2:20, especially as it is translated in the Authorised Version: ‘the faith of the Son of God’ (i.e. ‘I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’). Richard B. Hays has given an entire volume to discussing The Faith of Jesus Christ. 42 In it he seeks to demonstrate that in terms of Greek usage, the Authorised Version gives us the best translation: it makes most sense to take it as a subjective genitive (i.e. faith of, not faith in). 43 In that case, it is indeed the faith of the Son of God. In that profound sense, our faith is finally grounded in his faith.

Christ’s representation of his people in his active obedience is clearly taught in the New Testament. We must examine several relevant passages.

Scriptural evidence for the saving significance of Christ’s Active Obedience

Romans 5:12-21

Romans 5:12-21 contrasts the disobedience of the first Adam, which brought guilt and death upon his descendants, with the obedience of the last Adam, which brought pardon and life to all who identify with him through faith. While the emphasis of the passage is upon Christ’s death, there are no exegetical grounds for denying the significance of his lifelong, total obedience before that atoning death.

His Circumcision

His circumcision was to fulfill Old Testament law (cf. Luke 2:21), and to do so in our place, as part of his active obedience. I can find no reason to disagree with Saint Thomas Aquinas’ exposition of the Lord’s circumcision:

I answer that, For several reasons Christ ought to have been circumcised. First, in order to prove the reality of his human nature, in contradiction to the Manichean, who said that He had an imaginary body… Secondly, in order to show his approval of circumcision, which God had ordained of old. Thirdly, in order to prove that He was descended from Abraham, who had received the commandment of circumcision as a sign of faith in Him. Fourthly, in order to take away from the Jews an excuse for not receiving Him, if He were uncircumcised. Fifthly, in order by His example to exhort us to be obedient…Sixthly, that He Who had come in the likeness of sinful flesh might not reject the remedy whereby sinful flesh was wont to be healed. Seventhly, that by taking on Himself the burden of the Law, He might set others free therefrom, according to Gal. iv. 4, 5. 44

His ‘Presentation’ in the Temple

The same meaning (active, vicarious obedience) would be true of his presentation by his godly parents in the Temple, forty days after his birth. Staniloae, drawing again from Leontius of Byzantium, writes:

…that it was not he who needed this fulfillment of the law [i.e. presentation in the Temple], but his brothers and sisters whom he represented. For he himself was the true purification of sin, and he took away the power of the law…[Leontius writes]: ‘Having the strength of purity in his body woven with God, Christ fulfills all the righteousness of the bodily law in order to free the body’s nature from the punishment of the law and from curse and to show it worthy of the spiritual existence which he gave to it.’ 45

His Baptism of Repentance

At the beginning of his public ministry, Christ stood in for us in the baptism of repentance, a major event in fulfilling his sonship in a way that Adam and Israel had both failed. John the Baptist knew that he was no sinner, and thus had no need for repentance, but Jesus replied: ‘Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness’ (Matt. 3:14-15). This was part of his active obedience, in which he was taking his people through with him into true turning to God in repentance. He had no need to do so for himself; he did it for us.

His Temptations

It is the same with his temptations in the wilderness. We have already seen how it was an epochal event, one that carried through fullest denial of self in order to honor the Father in the same sort of testings where both Adam and Israel had failed. Christ successfully passed those trials on our behalf. He said ‘no’ to self, and ‘yes’ to God, where Adam and Israel had yielded to Satan in self-interest. Thereby, Christ is turning our human experience back to God, and doing so on our account.

His Prayers

In his life of prayer to the Father, Christ prays in our place, so that his prayers give validity to ours in his name. In praying, he takes us back to where we were created to live in fellowship with our heavenly Father. While he continues to do this as our mediatorial intercessor in his ascended state, the point here is that he was already doing this during his representation of us during his earthy life. The Gospel of Luke in particular presents scenes from the prayer life of the Lord. Some examples of his praying are seen as follows: when Jesus was baptized, he was praying (Luke 3:21-22); in the midst of a very busy ministry, ‘he withdrew himself into the wilderness, and prayed’ (Luke 5:16), and similarly, ‘went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God’ (Luke 6:12); he took Peter, James and John to the Mount of Transfiguration, and prayed with them (Luke 9:28-29); he prayed ahead of time for Simon Peter’s faith to triumph through the attacks of Satan (Luke 22:31-32).

The Gospels also present Jesus’ teaching on prayer at large. Jesus gave his church the Lord’s prayer (Matt. 6 and Luke 11); he said ‘to pray for those who despitefully use you’ (Luke 6:28); he told the disciples to pray for the Lord of the harvest to send forth labourers into his harvest’ (Luke 10:2); he warned his disciples to pray in order to escape the coming judgments that will try those who dwell on the face of the whole land (Luke 21:36); they were to pray to avoid temptation (Luke 22:40); he taught his people to continue praying when they did not receive a rapid answer (Luke 11:5-13 and 18:1-8).

Our ‘worship-leader’

As a crucial aspect of his active obedience Christ worships the Father as our covenant head – in our room and stead, thereby turning us from ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil’ back to our gracious and holy God. John Calvin calls the risen Christ our ‘worship leader’ (λειτουργος) in his Commentary on Hebrews. While Calvin’s comments have reference to the ministry of the risen Lord in heaven, the devotion of his earthly life already played a part in orienting his people ‘to lift up their hearts to the Lord’. They are caught up throughout their earthly life in his ‘high priestly prayer’ for them in John 17, as well as in his heavenly intercessions for them, as in Hebrews chapters 4 and 5. Calvin particularly thinks through Christ’s one Priesthood in his commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, especially chapters 7 through 10, and he expounds what this means in Institutes Book II, chapters 9-11 and Book IV, chapters 14-17.

Calvin teaches that Christ is ‘the leader of our worship’ (λειτουργος) – Hebrews 8:2, ‘the minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched and not man.’ In his incarnation, atonement and coronation, he has fulfilled and replaced the Old Testament priesthood and abides as ‘the High Priest over the House of God’ (see Heb. 9). This Christ is the sum and substance of our worship, its High Priest, its leader. Or put in covenantal terms, he fulfills the obligations of God towards us and of us towards God as Representative Head of the Covenant of Grace. As Christ ‘through the eternal Spirit offered himself’ (Heb 9:14), so we still have nothing more nor less to offer in our worship than him.

As Calvin notes in his Commentary on Hebrews 6:19, even as in the Old Testament, when the High Priest entered into the Holy of Holies, all Israel entered with him, so in Christ’s priestly work ‘in the person of one man all entered the sanctuary together.’ Even as God accepted Israel in the person of the High Priest bearing the sacrificial blood to the mercy seat, so God accepts all true worshipers as His crucified, risen Son now represents them in the heavenly sanctuary. Our earthly worship only has validity because it is the counterpart of His heavenly worship. In worship, as in justification, sanctification, adoption and glorification, ‘we are accepted in the Beloved’ (Eph. 1:6).

Commenting on Hebrews 9:11 ‘of good things to come,’ Calvin writes: ‘The meaning is, that we are led by Christ’s priesthood into the celestial kingdom of God, and that we are made partakers of spiritual righteousness and of eternal life so that it is not right to desire anything better. Christ alone, then, has that by which he can retain and satisfy us in himself.’

This insight, that Christ is always our worship leader, is the continuing ground of vital, biblical worship in its every element and circumstance. The divine worship required of us (and provided for us in our Covenant Head) is not a human work; it is always the work of Christ for us and through us. This bears the closest relationship to the biblical teaching of justification by faith in Christ on the ground of grace alone. We are justified in Christ; we worship in Christ. Worship is not primarily self-expression. Rather it is the groaning, praising and interceding of the Holy Spirit within us, taking us back to the One who sent him to us on the basis of his finished work (see Rom. 8:14-17).

In The Mediation of Christ, Torrance describes Christ, both in his active and passive obedience, as our prayer. Speaking of the messianic fulfillment of the Tabernacle liturgy, he writes:

…Jesus Christ embodied in himself in a vicarious form the response of human beings to God, so that all their worship and prayer to God henceforth became grounded and centred in him. In short, Jesus Christ in his own self-oblation to the Father is our worship and prayer…so that it is only through him and with him and in him that we may draw near to God with the hands of our faith filled with no other offering but that which he has made on our behalf and in our place once and for all. 46

But the fact that Christ himself is our worship and prayer does not mean that we do not need to pray ourselves, but precisely the contrary. His prayer life on earth in our place and his continuing intercessions for us in heaven call for, and give supernatural validity to, our intercessions to the Father. That is why, as we have seen, he gave his disciples (and all of the church, for all time to come) the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13; Luke 11:1-4). And that is why Paul instructs us ‘to pray without ceasing’ (I Thess. 5:17).

The Son’s Delight to keep the whole Law

The constantly worshiping Christ, through every aspect of his holy life, delighted to keep for us the whole law of God in active obedience to the Father. Psalm 40:8 was the cry of his heart: ‘I delight to do thy will, O my God; yea thy law is within my heart’ (cf. Heb. 10:7). In John 4:34, the Saviour says: ‘My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.’ In Matthew 5:17 he states: ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.’

As Galatians 4:4-5 shows us, his being ‘made under the law’ meant that part of his redemptive activity for us was that he, the author of the law, kept it in spirit and in every detail. He did so at his baptism, when he said to John: ‘Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness’ (Matt. 3:15). He did so at the price of immense agony in Gethsemane, as he cries out to the Father: ‘Thy will be done’ (Matt. 26:42). He, the Holy One of Israel, owed no obligations to the divine law, as though he were not already holy. The Holy One of Israel kept the whole law on our behalf.

Saint Thomas summarizes the reasons for and benefits of Christ’s having kept the law:

And Christ, indeed, wished to conform His conduct to the Law, first, to show His approval of the Old Law. Secondly, that by obeying the Law He might perfect it and bring it to an end in His own self, so as to show that it was ordained to Him. Thirdly, to deprive the Jews of an excuse for slandering Him. Fourthly, in order to deliver men from subjection to the Law, according to Gal. iv. 4, 5… 47

The Son fulfilled the prophecies of the Scriptures

Christ in both his active and passive obedience kept the law and fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament to the letter; to do so required both a holy life and an atoning death. The Gospel writers, especially Matthew and John, often say of an action in the life or passion of Christ: ‘This was done that the Scriptures might be fulfilled…’ (e.g. Matt. 1:22; 2:15; 2:17; 2:23; 8:17; 12:17, etc., and John 12:38; 13:18; 15:25; 17:12, etc.). Christ is actively fulfilling the Scriptures: these things were not just done to him; he is in active charge (cf. John 10:18: ‘No man taketh [my life] from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father’).

The Son was the Messiah

Christ speaks of himself as the true temple (John 2:19). He began his preaching ministry at his hometown synagogue by referring to himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah 61. Matthew and Mark relate that on the night of his betrayal Jesus quoted Zechariah 13:7 (‘Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’), and the four Gospels frequently describe the details of Christ’s death as fulfilling such Psalms as 22 and 69.

All that a loving Son ever needed to be, Jesus was; all that the Old Testament Scriptures said had to be done to reconcile a straying humanity with God, Jesus actively and fully carried out. How active was his active obedience, and how active was his passive obedience! Indeed, John Owen (who does accept the concepts of active and passive obedience) states that nevertheless, ‘…It cannot clearly be evinced that there is any such thing, in propriety of speech, as passive obedience; obeying is doing…’ 48

Staniloae has powerfully expressed the astonishing manner in which our union with Christ in his active obedience, as well as in his death, opens our lives towards others:

On the basis of full solidarity with us – because he is the divine Hypostasis of human nature and as such totally distinct from any hypostasis capable of closing itself off to others – Christ made himself the human center that is no longer subject to any tendency of selfish limitation through free will, but is totally open toward others, giving them, too, this power through their partaking of his nature. He has obtained this victory over sin through the effort of bearing the passions without sliding toward selfish preservation. He has thus achieved through suffering a union with us that remains to be accepted in turn by us, allowing us to assume his victory over the sin of separation. 49

Thus, our two most pressing needs, reconciliation with God and reconciliation with others, are part and parcel of the active obedience of Christ, finally completed to the full in his vicarious death for us. In conclusion we can say that by grace we have been given the almost incredibly good news: Jesus died for our sins (his passive obedience). But part of those same wonderful tidings is also his active obedience: Christ has turned our nature back to God, has fulfilled every righteous requirement of God in our name, and has lived the life of perfect sonship that our heavenly Father always wanted. In all of these blessings, the Lord has made us to share, as his Holy Spirit unites us to him who is our substitute and our representative. What a happy and loving people we are called and enabled to be!

1 Concerning the exegetical and theological details, both pro and con, of this ‘covenant’ terminology, see the discussion in D. F. Kelly, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, chapter 6.

2 Peter Lombard, The Sentences: Book 3 – On the Incarnation of the Word, ‘Distinction XVIII,’ Chapter 2.

3 Ibid., p. 73.

4 John Owen, Works: Communion with God, vol. 2, 161.

5 Calvin, Institutes II. xvi. 5 (Battles translation).

6 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ , Volume Three, John Bolt, Ed. and John Vriend, Tr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 378-379.

7 Goodwin, op. cit., 340, 346, 347.

8 See Chapter 6 of my Systematic Theology, vol. 1, 387-446.

9 Birger Gerhardsson, The Testing of God’s Son: (Matthew 4:1-11 & PAR) An Analysis of an Early Christian Midrash (Wipf & Stock: Eugene, Oregon, reprint of 1966 edition), 11.

10 J. Dupont, Les Tentations de Jésus au Desert, in Studia Neotestamentica 4 (Desclée de Brouwer: Bruges, 1968), 22.

11 Ibid., 15.

12 Ibid., 17.

13 Gerhardsson, op. cit., 31.

14 Dupont, op. cit., 18,19.

15 Ibid., 67.

16 Ibid., 70.

17 Gerhardsson, op. cit., 23.

18 According to Gerhardsson, op. cit., 23-24: ‘The recently discovered Florilegium Fragment from Qumran (4 Q Flor) presents us with a piece of evidence…in it the prophecy of Nathan is interpreted messianically, giving us an explicit statement that the Messiah is called Son of God.’

19 Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (IVP: Downers Grove, Il., 1996), 48-49.

20 See Chad Van Dixhoorn, ‘Reforming the Reformation: Theological Debate at the Westminster Assembly 1643-1652,’ 7 Vol PhD diss. Cambridge University, 2004, II. 51; referenced in Mark Jones, Why Heaven Kissed Earth: The Christology of the Puritan Reformed Theologian, Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010), 180.

21 Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for us in Justification, Edited by K. Scott Oliphint (Christian Focus Publications: Fearn, Ross-shire, 2007), 99-130.

22 Ibid., 114-121.

23 Ibid., 121-128.

24 Goodwin, op. cit., chapters XIX – XXI.

25 Goodwin, op. cit., 352.

26 Mark Jones, op. cit., 182.

27 Herman Bavinck, op. cit., 347.

28 See John Murray, The Covenant of Grace.

29 See my discussion of this in Systematic Theology, vol. 1, 391-400.

30 Pierre Courthial, Le Jour des Petits Recommencements: Essai sur l’ Actualité de la Parole (Evangile-Loi) de Dieu (Messages, L'Age d'Homme: Lausanne, 1996), 6: [Instead of ‘I will establish'] ‘One can equally well render the Hebrew verb qum (which is in the Hiphil) ‘to ratify’ or ‘to confirm.’ He goes on to argue that ‘to confirm’ makes better sense that ‘to establish’ in Genesis chapters 6, 9, and 17, as well as in Exodus 6. This grand book is being translated into English by the Rev. Matthew Miller of Greenville, SC.

31 Jean-Marc Berthoud, L'Alliance de Dieu à Travers L'Écriture Sainte: Une Théologie Biblique (Messages, L'Age d'Homme: Lausanne, 2012), 71-89.

32 Ibid., 72.

33 Systematic Theology, vol 1, 387-444.

34 Ibid., 389-390.

35 Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses II. 22. 4.

36 D. Staniloae, The Experience of God : The Person of Jesus Christ as God and Savior, translated by Father, Ioan Ionita (Holy Cross Othodox Press: Brookline, MA, 2011), Vol. 3, 100-102. He quotes Leontius, Contra Nestor. et Eutych. (PG 86a: 1321d).

37 Leontius of Byzantium, Adv. Nest., book VI (PG 86a: 1717-20).

38 Staniloae, op. cit., 134.

39 John Owen, Works, vol. 2, 161-162.

40 Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 90.

41 Andrew Murray, The Holiest of All: An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Oliphants, Ltd.: London, 1965), 180-81.

42 Richard B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: An Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1 – 4:11 (Scholars Press: Chico, California, 1983).

43 Ibid., 167-69.

44 The ‘Summa Theologica’ of St. Thomas Aquinas, Part III, Second Number (QQ. XXVII – LIX), literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (R. & T. Washbourne, Ltd.: London, 1914), Q. 37, First Article (p. 147).

45 Staniloae, op. cit., 133, quoting Leontius, Adv. Nest. book VI (PG 86a: 1717-20).

46 T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 96-97.

47 Saint Thomas Aquinas, op. cit., 199.

48 John Owen, Works vol. II, On Communion with God, 163.

49 Staniloae, op. cit., 149.

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