Sunday, 25 April 2010

The Obedience of Christ

We are familiar with the glorious truth of Christ's obedience. We are familiar too with the traditional dual description of his obedience as 'active' and 'passive'. By active, is meant what he actively 'did'; by 'passive' is meant what he 'suffered'.

Just about anyone, however, who tries to think or write seriously about the atonement, while using these descriptions, finds them at best inadequate, at worst thoroughly misleading. In 'The Atonement' for example, Hugh Martin speaks of 'the unhappy and not very intelligible expression, "Christ's active and passsive obedience"' and after rather grudgingly allowing the phrase with suitable explanations he continues, 'But it may be safely doubted whether the phrase 'passive obedience' naturally indicates anything that can be properly called obedience at all...'" (p 81). The etymology of the word 'passive' from the Latin for 'suffering' means little to most of us today and even if it does, it does not help theologically.

Let me suggest at least three reasons why 'active' and 'passive' are poor adjectives to use:

1. They obviously suggest that some of Christ's obedience was 'passive',that is, he suffered and endured to some extent involuntarily. This is quite untrue. All of Christ's obedience was active, or it would not have been obedience.

2. It inevitably causes us to think in terms of a place or point where his obedience stopped being active and began to be passive. This is not essential to the terms, as they can of course apply to two kinds of obedience running concurrently through his life and death. Nonetheless, the tendency fostered by this nomenclature is to think of the cross as something inherently passive and the rest of Christ's life as active. This is a flawed way of thinking of the work of Christ. Christ's death on the cross was active self-offering, victorious throughout; 'Into thy hands O Lord I commend my spirit.' Moreover, he 'endured' from the moment of his birth.

3. The descriptions 'active' and 'passive' bear no relation to that which obedience is reflective of - the law of God. They suggest that there were times when the will of Christ was active, other times when it was quiescent, though Christ was always 'willing' throughout his obedience. But these words tell us nothing theological or even biblical about his obedience.

What is needed is a description of his work that reflects its twofold aspect accurately.

This means that it should reflect the fact that all of Christ's obedience was in relation to the law of God. Further, some of his suffering was in relation to the precepts of God, to provide a perfect, personal and perpetual obedience for his people; and part of Christ's obedience was in relation to the sanction, or penalty, of God's law, namely death in all its forms.

Why cannot we therefore use universally the words preceptive to decscribe Christ's obedience so far as it was providing a righteousness in obedience to the law; and penal to describe what he suffered in relation to the penalty of the law? These words are hardly new but could surely be adopted more widely. This preceptive-penal obedience of Christ ran through his whole life from conception to grave embracing all his self-offering, his priestly act on our behalf, in all he did and endured at every moment of his life. These words accurately describe what his suffering was all about, unlike the present active-passive description which only misleads.

I propose...the adoption of these terms.

If not passed - I shall continue to use them myself anyway!


  1. I see your point, and it's a good one. Like any theological terms, stuff always needs to be clarified (e.g. TULIP).

    But my real 'complaint' is of a different nature, I deny active and passive obedience as *concepts* for Biblical reasons. For example:

    (1) Justification is never phrased in terms of or as relying on 'active obedience'. This is a shock to many, but there really isn't any clear Biblical evidence. For example, major justification texts like Romans 3:21-26, Gal 2:21, 2 Cor 5:21, etc, etc, speak only of Christ's death.

    (2) The 'passive obedience' is more specifically linked to 'penal substitution', which upon careful Biblical examination is not actually the form of atonement being carried out. For example, see this article:

  2. Nick,
    I have belatedly replied to this in an article on my blog today, 12th May, having read your article on penal substitution.