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The Active and Passive Obedience of Jesus Christ by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

Articles on Justification by Faith Alone

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The following article explains the doctrine of imputation of the active and passive righteousness of Jesus Christ. This article was first submitted to the Whitefield Theological Journal.

With the rise of the heresy of the Federal Vision, New Perspectives on Paul, and the Auburn Avenue Theology, there stands a continued need for reproclaiming the truth of historic Christianity. Contrary to modern liberal theologians who are continually trying to appeal to the masses with new-fangled theological ideas, such a reproclamation of orthodox theology is in accord with both the Gospel, and the Westminster Confession of Faith, and needs no revision, updating or change. Reformed Theology does not need to be modernized; it simply needs to be understood.


Reformed Theologians have generally made a distinction between what is called the obedentia activa and obedentia passiva of Jesus Christ.  These two components of the obedentia Christi are fundamental to understanding the foundational doctrine of the iustitia imputata of Christ.[1]  The two accompany each other at every point in the Savior’s life.[2]  Romans 10:4 declares, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”  Christ is the “termination” or τέλος  (Rom. 10:4) of the law for all who believe (by faith) that His obedience forensically justifies them eternally.

The obedentia activa and obedentia passiva of Jesus Christ summarizes the iustitia Dei used throughout the Scriptures.  This phrase relates to the reflection of God’s character as seen in the perfect obedience to the commandments, or lex moralis.  Justification is a summation of the legal declaration of God toward the sinner – the actus forensiscounting the believer righteous (through imputation) rather than making him righteous (misconstruing justification and sanctification).[3]  The iustitia imputata of Christ is completed upon God’s judicial declaration.  At its heart “declarative justification” involves the iustitia alienum et extra nos (the alien righteousness not of the sinner but from Christ) imputed to the believer through faith by grace (Eph. 2:8-10).

This obedentia Christi fulfills the covenant breaking of the Law that the first Adam failed to uphold.  Karlberg says, “Where the first Adam failed as a covenant breaker, the second Adam succeeded in perfectly fulfilling the demands of the covenant by his active and passive obedience.”[4]  This does not liberate Christians from keeping the law – in terms of sanctification and holiness – but does release them from having to keep the law perfectly to satisfy divine justice and procure their own salvation (the first use of the law).  Bahnsen states correctly, “Christ’s perfect obedience to the Law of God secures our release from the necessity of personally keeping the Law as a condition of justification.”[5]  Rather, the foundation of Christian ethics is substantiated in the sinner through this iustitia imputata.  McGrath rightly comments, “The doctrine of justification by faith declares that God makes available as a gift a new mode of existence, a new lifestyle, and enables believers to act in such a way that their actions correspond to those of Jesus.”[6]  This does not mean that Christian ethics is justification.  The only means by which the sinner is justified before God rests solely upon the imputation of the obedentia activa and obedentia passiva of Jesus Christ to a sinner, and subsequently God’s just declaration of the sinner’s soteriological state based on the work of Christ.  It is this justification that makes Christian ethics possible.

Based on the requirements of the Law, it is not enough that Christ dies for the sins of His people.  To die and cleanse sinners from their sin is to set them at ground zero.  At that point redeemed sinners still continue to sin.  As Luther said, they are piles of dung covered in gold.  The remnants of remaining sin and the filthiness of the flesh still war with the Spirit (Gal. 5:17).  They must also have a covering that continues to infinitely expiate their sin before the holy justice of God; otherwise, justification becomes analytic and not synthetic.  Analytic justification is the Roman Catholic belief where God looks both at the sinner and the Savior and justifies them based on what Christ did and what the sinner continues to do.  Synthetic justification is the biblical formulation where God recognizes Christ’s work, both the obedentia activa and obedentia passiva, and declares the sinner just as a result of them both.  The sinner, in the ordo salutis, has been regenerated, acts with a fides reflexa (a reflex act of faith) springing from regeneration, is declared righteous by God on account of Christ’s iustitia imputata, but is then continued to be viewed in this credited manner because of the perfect obedentia of Christ’s work.  Jesus perfectly fulfilled the iustitia Dei where men cannot.  It is this active obedience that continues to justify them, and it is passive obedience that continues to save them before the wrath of God’s justice.  Kline rightly comments, “For Christ himself enters upon the inheritance as the forerunner, surety, and head of the many only when by his active and passive obedience he has fulfilled the constant Hauptgebot of the covenant and submitted to the demand of the curse sanction voiced in the covenant from the beginning.”[7]

Throughout the centuries Reformed theologians and confessions have embraced and taught this distinction of the obedentia activa and obedentia passiva of Jesus Christ.  The Belgic Confession states that understanding the justification of the sinner, “embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits…imputing to us all His merits, and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead.”[8]   In question 60 the Heidelberg Catechism defines this righteousness which Christians receive, “as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me.”  The Second Helvetic Confession echoes these sentiments, “Therefore, solely on account of Christ’s sufferings and resurrection God is propitious with respect to our sins and does not impute them to us, but imputes Christ’s righteousness to us as our own (2 Cor. 5:19 ff.; Rom. 4:25), so that now we are not only cleansed and purged from sins or are holy, but also, granted the righteousness of Christ, and so absolved from sin, death and condemnation, are at last righteous and heirs of eternal life. Properly speaking, therefore, God alone justifies us, and justifies only on account of Christ, not imputing sins to us but imputing his righteousness to us.”[9]  And so Calvin’s influence on the French Confession states the same where the, “obedience of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to us” saves sinners.[10]  The Westminster Confession makes this distinction when it says that justification is through “imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ” to elect sinners. [11]  The Confession qualifies what “obedience” means in respect to Christ’s obedentia activa and obedentia passiva when it says, “Christ, by his obedience and death,” making a conscious choice to utilize both his active obedience and his passive obedience (death) as the foundation for justification.[12]

John Gill states that the obedentia Christi encompasses, “not only the active obedience of Christ, with his sufferings and death, but also that the holiness of his human nature is imputed to us for justification.”[13]  John Owen speaks extensively about this throughout His works.  In one example he states:

“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, that any of the saints of God were obliged unto. It is true, every act almost of Christ’s obedience, from the blood of his circumcision to the blood of his cross, was attended with suffering, so that his whole life might, in that regard, be called a death; but yet, looking upon his willingness and obedience in it, it is distinguished from his sufferings peculiarly so called, and termed his active righteousness. This is, then, I say, as was showed, that complete, absolutely perfect accomplishment of the whole law of God by Christ, our mediator; whereby he not only “did no sin, neither was there guile fold in his mouth,” but also most perfectly fulfilled all righteousness, as he affirmed it became him to do. Secondly, That this obedience was performed by Christ not for himself, but for us, and in our stead.”[14]


Owen also says that, “with respect unto the imputation of the active obedience or righteousness of Christ unto us [is] an essential part of that righteousness whereon we are justified before God.”[15]  Owen gathers these biblical ideas as a result of Christ’s work as the Surety of the covenant.  He continues, “That which Christ, the mediator and surety of the covenant, did do in obedience unto God, in the discharge and performance of his office, that he did for us; and that is imputed unto us.”[16]  Charles Hodge states, “The righteousness of Christ is commonly represented as including his active and passive obedience.  This distinction is, as to the idea, Scriptural.”[17]  According to William Ames, in differentiation from the works of Adam which brought condemnation, Christ’s works, all of them, are imputed to the Christian for justification, “The obedience of Christ is that righteousness (Romans 5:16) in the name of which the grace of God justifies us, just as the disobedience of Adam was that offense (Romans 5:16) for which God’s justice condemns us.  Therefore the righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers in justification.”[18]  Turretin explains the difference between the active and passive righteousness of Christ and its importance, “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 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.”[19]  He continues later, “the obedience of Christ rendered in our name to God the Father is so given to us by God that it is reckoned to be truly ours and that it is the sole and only righteousness on account of and by the merit of which we are absolved from the guilt of our sins and obtain a right to life; and that there is in us no righteousness or good works by which we can deserve such great benefits which can bear the server examination of the divine court, if God willed to deal with us according to the rigor of his law.”[20]  Witsius explicates the imputation of the work of Christ and the period of time in which Christ’s sufferings count for us, “from his very infancy, and through the whole course of His life, especially the close thereof, he endured all manner of sufferings, both in soul and body, humbling, nay, emptying himself, and being obedient to the Father unto death, even death of the cross…in time he fully performed for his people all that the law required in order to obtain a right to eternal life.”[21]

Jonathan Edwards explains why Christ’s active obedience is so vital in respect to covenant work and fulfillment:

The first distribution of the acts of Christ’s righteousness is with respect to the laws which Christ obeyed in that righteousness which he performed. But here it must be observed in general, that all the precepts which Christ obeyed may be reduced to one law, and that is that which the apostle calls the law of works, Rom. 3:27. Every command that Christ obeyed may be reduced to that great and everlasting law of God that is contained in the covenant of works, that eternal rule of right which God had established between himself and mankind. Christ came into the world to fulfill and answer the covenant of works, that is, the covenant that is to stand forever as a rule of judgment. And that is the covenant that we had broken, and that was the covenant that must be fulfilled.[22]


Shedd says the same more succinctly, “Christ’s active obedience is his perfect performance of the requirements of the moral law.”[23]  Without this obedience, men can never be justified in the sight of God and obtain a true righteousness that does not fail them.

A no-nonsense article such as this is relevant to the theological seminarian today and his future ministry among the people of God.  Why? Teachings surrounding the active and passive obedience of Christ in current Reformed Theological circles are under attack by those who desire to supplant these truths with a works-righteousness.  For example, those who are advocating the New Perspective on Paul base much of their teachings on a rejection of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ in relation to the law.  They rest much of their theology on parables (an historic practice heretics used to insert meaning of their own into the text) and on a reverse reading of typology (one consistently finds that their approach to typology has the Old Testament controlling the New Testament, rather than the other way around).  For example, they use the parable of the rich young ruler to say that works can save.  Rick Phillips, this writer’s home pastor, in discourse with some of these advocates, listened affrightedly to their argumentation as they attempted to make Christ say that He expected the rich young ruler to save himself by giving away all his money.  Then, they use John 15 to say that truly regenerate people who are indwelt with the regenerating new life of the Spirit can still fall away.[24]  Such is the new-fangled “objectivity” of the covenant, and the “corporate justification” one should look to over and against the active and passive obedience of Jesus Christ advocated by these “covenant moralists.”  Yet, the Scriptures speak differently, as does Confessional Christianity and its orthodox teachers.  Such teachings are infiltrating, not only aged seminaries, but the up and coming pastor attending those seminaries, and then finally the churches they preach in every Sunday.  This is a blatant retreat from the historical Reformed position, both theologically and confessionally on this issue.  And it is of such importance to the salvation of the elect sinner, that in speaking about the active and passive obedience of Christ, Gerhard Forde rightly states, “where the church no longer speaks this word, it has lost its reason for being.”[25]



[1] This should be noted, “It is not to be interpreted as if it meant, that His passive obedience consisted in mere suffering, or that His active obedience consisted in mere service; for it implies obedience in both, and excludes sufferings from neither.”  Buchanan, James, Justification, (Carlisle, Banner of Truth Trust: 1991), Page 307.


[2] Berkhof, Louis, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co.: 1988) Page 379.


[3] Making one righteous is to cross into the heretical “works salvation system” that Roman Catholicism has erected through the infused righteousness one may gain from Christ, but may also lose.  The only manner in which a Roman Catholic may be able to gain this back is through works assigned to them through penance.


[4] Karlberg, Mark W. Westminster Theological Journal, Reformed Interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant, (Westminster Theological Seminary 1981;2002). Vol. 43, Page 52.


[5] Bahnsen, Greg, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, (Covenant Media Press: 2002) Page 128.


[6] McGrath, Alister E. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, In What Way Can Jesus Be A Moral Example For Christians?  (The Evangelical Theological Society: 1991;2002). vol 34, Page 296.


[7] Kline, Meredith, Westminster Theological Journal, Law Covenant, (Westminster Theological Seminary: 1965;2002). vol 27, Page 13.


[8] The Belgic Confession of Faith, Article XXII, Our Justification Through Faith in Jesus Christ.


[9] The Second Helvetic Confession – Chapter XV, Of the True Justification of the Faithful.


[10] The French Confession, Article XVIII.


[11] The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XI Of Justification, Paragraph 1.


[12] Ibid, cf. the Westminster Confession of Faith paragraph 3, the Westminster Larger Catechism question 70 and the Westminster Shorter Catechism question 33.


[13] Gill, John, Sermon 37: The Doctrine Of Justification, By The Righteousness Of Christ,

Stated And Maintained. (Auburn, Ages Software: 2002, CD ROM) Page 11.


[14] Owen, John. Works, vol 3 (Carlisle, Banner of Truth Trust: 1992) Pages  204-205.


[15] Owen, John. Works, vol 1 (Carlisle, Banner of Truth Trust: 1992) Page 359.


[16] Ibid, Page 384.


[17] Hodge. Charles, Systematic Theology, Volume 3, (Grand Rapids, Wm. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1986) Page 141.


[18] Ames, William. The Marrow of Theology, (Grand Rapids, Baker Books: 1997) Page 162. Emphasis mine.


[19] Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol 2 (Phillipsburg, P & R Publishing: 1994), Page 448.


[20] Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol 2 (Phillipsburg, P & R Publishing: 1994) Page 648.


[21] Witsius, Herman. The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, vol 1 (Phillipsburg, P & R Publishing: 1990) Page 402.


[22] Edwards, Jonathan, Works, vol 1 (Carlisle, Banner of Truth Trust: 1992) Page 575.


[23] Shedd, W.G.T. Dogmatic Theology, (Phillipsburg, P & R Publishing: 2003) Page 720.

[24] Examples of this kind of Romanized teaching, and more, which denies the imputation of the active and passive obedience of Christ and centers on a works-justification, may be found throughout the theology of the following works: Reformed is Not Enough, by Doug Wilson; Stumbling into Apostasy, Credenda Agenda, Vol. 13, Number 2, by Douglas Wilson; tapes from the Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference 2002 or 2003; The Climax of the Covenant, by NT Wright; What Saint Paul Really Said, by NT Wright; Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion, by E.P. Sanders; Word Biblical Commentary on Romans, by James D.G. Dunn; The Justice of God: A Fresh Look at the Old Doctrine of Justification by Faith, by James Dunn and Alan Sugate; Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians, by James Dunn; Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays, by Krister Stendahl; The New Perspective on Paul, by Michael B. Thompson; The Call of Grace, by Norman Shepherd.

[25] Forde, Gerhard, Dialog, Justification by Faith Alone. The Article by which the Church Stands or Falls? (Fall 1988) Vol 27, Page 260.

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