Active Obedience…Does it matter?

We need to point out what it is exactly that we are talking about here. When I use the term ‘active obedience’, I am referring to a theological concept that, according to Wayne Grudem, goes like this;

…Christ had to live a life of perfect obedience to God in order to earn righteousness for us. He had to obey the law for his whole life on our behalf so that the positive merits of his perfect obedience would be counted for us. Sometimes this is called Christ’s “active obedience,” while his suffering and dying for our sins is called his “passive obedience.” (Wayne Grudem: Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England and Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers, p.570)

To say that we need the active obedience of Christ, then, assumes at least four things.

  1. That there is a standard of righteousness from God that we must live up to,
  2. That the reward for living up to God’s standard is life,
  3. That the penalty for not living up to God’s standard is death, and
  4. That we are fallen and cannot live up to God’s standard and therefore are under the penalty of death.

The standard that we must live up to is God’s law. This law is often summarized in the Ten Commandments, and in the New Testament is summarized by Christ as loving God and you neighbor. I’m not going to try to prove to you that you haven’t lived up to that standard. Instead I’m simply going to say, “You haven’t lived up to that standard.”

This standard that God demands we all live up to has a reward attached to it.

You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 18:5 ESV)

The Apostle Paul quotes this verse in Galatians 3. He says,

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” (Galatians 3:11-12 ESV)

In Paul’s discussion he speaks of the inability of the law to make anyone righteous. Yet he quotes Leviticus 18:5 with authority that there is the promise of life for the one who obeys the law perfectly.

Jesus says much the same thing on two separate occasions. When the rich young ruler comes to him and asks, ” What must I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 18:18-22), what does Jesus say? “You know the commandments.” Jesus here clearly lets us know that the promise of life to those who obey is valid.

The second occasion Jesus affirms the reward that is to be received through the law is found in Luke 10.

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
(Luke 10:25-29 ESV)

The interesting point in this dialogue comes in the last verse. The lawyer wanted to justify himself. He knew the answer to the question Christ had asked. The greatest commandments were to love God and neighbor. But he also knew that he had not lived up to that standard of perfection. And he also knew that the law also rewards disobedience with death.

  • “‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ (Deuteronomy 27:26 ESV)
  • For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Galatians 3:10 ESV)

We are all under the penalty of the law. We are all deserving of death. That is just a fact. But the Gospel is good news for just this reason, that we, when we deserved the penalty of the law, were given instead the reward of the law. Part of the way this happens is found in the ‘Active Obedience’ of Christ. We’ll talk more about that next time.

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