A Dying Man's Consolation The Active & Passive Obedience of Christ

by Michael S. Horton

©1996, 1998 Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals

Dismissing his doctor's orders, J. Gresham Machen, beaten down by a career of struggling for the Faith even within his own communion, kept his commitments to a small circle of Orthodox Presbyterian parishes in South Dakota. "I have too much to do," he insisted, as his chest was even then tight from pneumonia. The next day, however, Machen was hospitalized. On New Year's Eve, the host pastor visited this infamous opponent of Liberalism on his deathbed and the elder statesman related a dream he had enjoyed that made him long for Heaven. "Sam, it was glorious, it was glorious," he said. "Sam, isn't the Reformed Faith grand?" Just before he passed into the next world, Machen dictated a telegram to John Murray, professor of systematic theology at Westminster Seminary. These last words read, "I'm so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it."1

Once more we are reminded of just how practical and relevant doctrine can be in our deepest crises. When all is well, we can dispense with such questions, but not when the truly great issues of life are staring us in the face. But what is this "active obedience of Christ" to which Machen referred and why was it such a remarkable comfort in his dying hour?

John Murray, the recipient of that famous telegram, wrote eloquently of this great biblical doctrine. "Early in our Lord's ministry we have his own witness" to being the promised "Servant of the Lord" in Isaiah, says Murray. When John the Baptist questioned the propriety of him baptizing the Messiah, Jesus answered, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness" (Mt 3:15).2 It was our Lord's great pleasure and duty to "fulfill all righteousness" down to the least stroke of the Law: "I came down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me" (Jn 6:38). Calvin observes, "Now 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."3

We are told in Scripture that Jesus Christ was both human and divine. Because of this union of the divine with the human nature, "he grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man" (Lk 2:52). In fact, he "learned obedience from the things he suffered" (Heb 5:8). This is not at all to suggest that our Lord was sinful, but in his humiliation he was truly and fully human. That is, just as he grew up physically, so too he progressively obeyed God throughout his life. At no point did he fail to respond positively to his Father's will, so his growth was perfect and complete.

It is impossible for us to imagine what it would have been like for this Son of Man to experience genuine temptation in precisely the same way as it comes to us and still to have turned his will from every form of hatred, lust, selfishness, greed, pride, laziness, and every other form of disobedience, whether in thought, word, or deed. He sinned neither by omission nor commission, neither by ignorance nor malice. Even when faced with the temptation in the wilderness, where Lucifer offered him the kingdoms of the world (as if he owned them), in addition to food to satiate his fast-weary body, Jesus, unlike the first Adam, answered with the Word of God.

But more than all of these countless acts of obedience and perfect conformity to his Father's will in mind, body, soul, and heart, there was one act of obedience that crowned our Savior's righteousness: "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-even death on a cross!" (Phil 2:6-8). This death is our Lord's passive obedience, just as his active obedience is his thirty-three years of perfect conformity to God's will. Although some other word might be preferred, the "passive" nature of Christ's obedience to death took the form of suffering, while his "active" obedience took the form of doing. It was not merely the agony of the cross as a form of human punishment, nor indeed even the unjust accusations of his tormentors, but the divine curse that was attached to this death that made this step of obedience so daunting. For this reason, our Lord prayed in Gethsemane, "Lord, if it is possible, take this cup from me." And yet, even in the face of divine judgment, when he would bear the sins of his people, he still prayed, "Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done" (Mt 26:41-43).

This obedience was voluntary. "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me--just as the Father knows me and I know the Father--and I lay down my life for the sheep...No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father" (Jn 10:14-18). Because it was a voluntary obedience, it is offered to the Father as the eternally meritorious sacrifice of the God-Man. "By the obedience of the one man many shall be declared righteous," Paul declared (Rom 5:19), contrasting the imputation of the first Adam's guilt and the imputation of the last Adam's righteousness. Thus, in his high priestly prayer, our Lord prays, "For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified" (Jn 17:19). Throughout the Old Testament, one of God's names had been Yireh-Tsadikenu, "The Lord Our Righteousness," and in First Corinthians this is applied to Christ, "who has become for us our righteousness, holiness and redemption" (1:30).

So what does all of this mean for us in our troubles? Why did Machen find so much satisfaction in clinging to this promise on his deathbed?

First, it is quite easy for us to believe that God is lenient. We conceive of him as Santa Claus: "He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake." But who would think of jolly 'ol St. Nick punishing people for their sins? And yet, that is what the Bible insists God will do at the end of history. The same Jesus who emptied himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross, will return to judge the living and the dead. It will be a trial of strict justice and nothing short of perfect righteousness will be required of each of us. Either it will be our own, or borrowed from the host, but God will not be lenient on that dreadful day.

Second, it is quite easy for us to believe that God's grace makes up for what we lack. We even hear justification defined as "just-as-if-I'd-never-sinned." But surely this would not be sufficient for our salvation. God not only requires an absence of sin, but a positive possession of the righteousness his nature requires of us. "It is finished," our suffering Savior cried out, not only concerning this final trial, but as the capstone to the whole life that he so willingly lived to God for us. While his passive obedience on the cross canceled our sins, it is his active obedience throughout his life that provides the ground upon which God can declare us righteous. This perfect obedience does not merely make up what we lack, but satisfies God's just wrath against even the imperfection of our best works as believers. The Father "so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son," so it is not as if the Father is a harsh, demanding taskmaster who must be persuaded by the Son to have mercy. Rather, it is the Father himself who sends the Son to save the world by his voluntary obedience in life and death.

Finally, it is good to know--especially when facing the next world--that for every time we have failed to conform to God's will in thought, word, and deed, by actively sinning or failing to conform to his revealed will, his Son has fulfilled the obedience that we owe. By never once giving in to the lust, pride, sloth, greed, selfishness, and malice that are so often allowed space in our overcrowded hearts, Jesus Christ becomes our Savior not only in his atoning death but throughout his life. In this way, every day of his life was as necessary for our salvation as that dark afternoon on Golgotha. He was the only "fully surrendered, victorious, sold-out," Christian who ever lived! Our surrender is halfhearted and partial; our victories seem always to be sullied by pride. Even if we could live the "higher life," could God not smell our smugness? Wouldn't our best works be sabotaged by our own depravity? These good works would be corrupt enough to condemn us on the last day, so what we require is the obedience of someone else to stand in for us. It is not only Christ's atoning death, but his saving life during the thirty-three years of his conformity to the Father's will that shelters us from God's just sentence. "This is why," wrote Charles Hodge, "the believer, when arrayed in this righteousness, need fear neither death nor hell. This is the reason why Paul challenges the universe to lay anything to the charge of God's elect."4

May we proclaim this hope while we have breath, and then may it find its way to the center of our vision when God calls us home. For it is the only reason we will hear those welcome words, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."

1. Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Banner of Truth, 1977), p. 508.
2. John Murray, Collected Writings: Systematic Theology (Banner of Truth, 1977), pp. 151-157.
3. John Calvin, Institutes 2.16.5.
4. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 1946), vol. 3, p. 144.


Dr. Michael Horton is the vice chairman of the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Dr. Horton is a graduate of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, Power Religion, In the Face of God, and most recently, We Believe.

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