The Cross of Christ can’t be understood apart from the ideas of Christ’s active and passive obedience. On the Cross, Christ obeyed the righteous demands of God’s law against the penalty of sin. On the Cross Christ passively endured the Father’s wrath thus fulfilling all righteousness.
Galatians 3:13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”
I Peter 2:24He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree,
Theologians refer to this as Christ’s passive obedience. In Christ’s passive obedience the sins of the Church are imputed to Christ as he pays for them there on the Cross as our substitute. His obedience to the demands of the law stands in the place for what we were obligated to pay ourselves. This is one of the three great imputations recorded in Scripture (the Elect’s sin to Christ).
However, theologians also speak of Christ’s active obedience thus drawing the life of Christ into the orbit of our redemption. In Christ’s active obedience Christ obeys all that His people were required to obey at the laws righteous demands. We failed in rendering up the just obedience that God’s law required and without that necessary obedience we could not have concourse with God. As such, the Father takes the Son’s obedience and receives it as our obedience. The Son’s obedience is counted as our obedience. This is the 2nd of the three great imputations to Scripture … Christ’s obedience is imputed (reckoned to our account) to the Church. This is Christ’s active obedience.
There have been some throughout history (including recently with some advocating the Federal Vision heresy) that denied the active obedience of Christ. John Wesley and the Wesleyans denied Christ’s active obedience. The problem with this position is that while our sins are indeed forgiven we are left without the righteousness required to stand in God’s presence.
Commonly, those who have denied Christ’s active obedience have also then said that we have to, upon our forgiveness, build up a righteousness that can be received by God as the righteousness required. Often in history, this became a kind of neonomianism where the righteous demands of the law are reduced so that the saved can meet the law’s demands thus being able to build up salvation capital with God. Of course, there is no good news in denying Christ’s active obedience. Any Gospel that requires me to build up righteousness capital in order to have an audience with the Father is no Gospel at all.
History tells us that the last words of the great theologian J. Gresham Machen were,
“Thank God for the active obedience of Christ… no hope without it.”
How Good is your Good Friday?