Calvin on Christ’s Active Obedience

From Institutes 2.16.5 (Battles edn):

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. This is proved by Paul’s testimony: “As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience we are made righteous” [Romans 5:19]. In another passage, to be sure, Paul extends the basis of the pardon that frees us from the curse of the law to the whole life of Christ: “But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, subject to the law, to redeem those who were under the law” [Galatians 4:4-5]. Thus in his very baptism, also, he asserted that he fulfilled a part of righteousness in obediently carrying out his Father’s commandment [Matthew 3:15]. In short, from the time when he took on the form of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us.

Yet to define the way of salvation more exactly, Scripture ascribes this as peculiar and proper to Christ’s death. He declares that “he gave his life to redeem many” [Matthew 20:28]. Paul teaches that “Christ died for our sins” [Romans 4:25]. John the Baptist proclaimed that he came “to take away the sins of the world,” for he was “the Lamb of God” [John 1:29]. In another passage Paul teaches that “we are freely justified through the redemption which is in Christ, because he was put forward as a reconciler in his blood” [Romans 3:24-25]. Likewise: “We are …justified by his blood …and reconciled …through his death.” [Romans 5:9-10.] Again: “For our sake he who knew no sin was made sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” [2 Corinthians 5:21] I shall not pursue all the testimonies, for the list would be endless, and many of them will be referred to in their order. For this reason the so-called “Apostles’ Creed” passes at once in the best order from the birth of Christ to his death and resurrection, wherein the whole of perfect salvation consists. Yet the remainder of the obedience that he manifested in his life is not excluded. Paul embraces it all from beginning to end: “He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant …and
was obedient to the Father unto death, even death on a cross”

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Put another way, might we say that “the death of Christ” is Biblical shorthand for the entirety of Christ’s saving work? We see the culmination of Christ’s atoning work on the cross while not excluding the suffering and righteous endurance of Christ during the rest of His life?

    • Bryan,

      There are two questions here:

      1. Historical (what did Calvin teach?)

      2. What should we believe?

      In this case I think the two coincide. Calvin here seems clearly to say that the ground of our justification is Christ’s lifelong obedience for us and this obedience culminated in Christ’s death for us. This is the essence of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Indeed, it’s interesting that Calvin said “whole” obedience as this was the adjective debated at the assembly for which, in some cases, “perfect” was substituted to satisfy the small minority who doubted/rejected the IAO.

      Calvin said that Christ’s death is, in effect, a synecdoche: a part for the whole. It is related organically, however, to the whole of his obedience.

      What is essential here is that Christ did not come to qualify himself to be a Savior. Note how Calvin treated Christ’s obedience as if it were for us (that’s a crucial Protestant theme) not for himself. Those who denied IAO typically (following Anselm) assume that Christ owed obedience for himself, in order to qualify himself to be a Savior on the cross. This wasn’t the framework within which Calvin interpreted Christ’s life and death.

      • This is a very informative section in Calvin’s institutes. Thank you for sharing.

        Let me add this proposal and see how it works with your understanding.

        There is no question that Jesus’ obedience was in behalf of sinners. Paul says in Romans 5:19 that (just as) the disobedience of one made many sinner, so also by one man’s disobedience many will be made righteous.

        The principal of the typology here is that of one man and what he does that affects all (or many). If one wanted to press the fact that Jesus’ obedience was for Himself, it would really contradict the thought-process of the Apostle Paul in Rom 5:19.

        However, one could arrange a logical point that Adam’s disobedience (in one sense) was for himself. In other words, Adam’s sin is really his own and he did incur a guilt of his own before God. However, this is extended to affect all “in Him” (1 Cor 15).

        But it would be brave to argue that Jesus was obedient for Himself and by extension (parallel to Adam) obedient in the place of all “in Him”.

        Jesus’ obedience cannot be compartmentalized into sections (obedience to the law of Moses [with no partitions], 10 commandments, death on a cross). Jesus’ obedience is His coming into the world to do His Father’s will. Obedience cannot be described or defined in any other way. However, the cross is the manifestation of this obedience, for this is that for which he became obedient to do in this world.

        • I just wanted to add.

          One can hold to a view which stresses that Jesus’ obedience (non-partitioned within his time on earth) being done in place of His church without holding to the view that EVERYTHING He did on earth is transferred to the church.

      • Ah. So a good example of the latter might be when someone like Richard Lusk claims to affirm IAO but writes

        “The active obedience itself, then, is not saving in itself. Rather, it’s the precondition of his saving work in his death and resurrection.”

        • Bryan,

          Isn’t the Learned Lusk the cat who said, “Imputation? Imputation? We don’t need no stinking imputation!”

          Yes, typically, those who teach that Jesus had to qualify himself to be a Savior do so as part of a scheme that denies IAO.


          Have you read the chapter in CJPM on the IAO?

          • Lusk also apparently wrote,

            “…my view makes the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience, as well as the resurrection, integral to the doctrine of justification.”

            (I’m drawing from Guy Water’s excellent book on The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology)

            It seems as though a number of the FV proponents want to say “We don’t need no stinking imputation!” while simultaneously stating that they surely do affirm the doctrine of the Reformed confessions and this must all be a big misunderstanding of their “clarifications.”

    • I need to order the book Covenant Justification and pastoral ministry. I’m dying to get it.

      Right now I am in the middle of a 2-year study in the biblical doctrine of justification. Towards this december I must have a paper ready, and I would love to get all the resources that i can.

  2. This sounds like a basic question:

    John 5:28 “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, 29 and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.

    This text seems to imply that the resurrection of life is based on good deeds. How do I reconcile that with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to my account?

    • Victor,

      It IS based on good deeds! Not yours but Christ’s. As Luther says, Christ has given us all things. We have nothing to give to God except what Christ has already given and done for us.

      Question the premise. The premise of your question assumed that the deeds must be intrinsic to us. Bad premise.

        • Resist the Devil and he will flee from you (James 4:7)

          Good luck to anyone trying to present himself to God on the basis of intrinsic, Spirit-wrought, sanctity.

          The Reformed Churches do confess that there is a judgment “according to works” i.e., having been vindicated (since we’re justified sola gratia, sola fide) on the basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness, it’s proper to speak about giving an account to God for our life on this earth, not for final justification but as obedient children.

  3. It is clear that our being justified by the death of Jesus secures for us the unchanging destiny of the future, therefore in pursuit of finding what the “good” things that are foundational to the resurrection of life must not have a bearing on eternal life.

  4. Victor,

    Far be it from me to add to what the good doctor has already written in response, but I just wanted to add that covenant theology saves you from wondering if this interpretation of Jn 5:28-29 does the text justice. After all, it is true, according to the covenant of works, that we’ll all be judged according to works. Christ obeys on our behalf, and his obedience fulfills the terms of the covenant of works. His death fulfills the curses of that covenant, and this whole state of affairs is promised in the covenant of grace by faith alone.


  5. In addition to the CJPM and Scott Clark helpful chapters.

    Also here is David VanDrunen’s helpful chapter (you don’t want to miss this chapter!) titled “To Obey Is Better Than Sacrifice: A Defense of The Active Obedience of Christ in the Light of Recent Criticism.”

    Here it is

    I’ll end this little comment with a J. Gresham Machen quote. This quote is from God Transcendent, don’t have the direct page numbers (don’t have the book with me right now). But found the quote through a Mr. Sipe over at Creed or Chaos.

    “How shall we distinguish Christ’s active obedience from His passive obedience? Shall we say that He accomplished His active obedience by His life and accomplished His passive obedience by His death? No, that will not do at all. During every moment of His life upon earth Christ was engaged in His passive obedience. It was all for Him humiliation, was it not? It was all suffering. It was all part of His payment of the penalty of sin. On the other hand, we cannot say that His death was passive obedience and not active obedience. On the contrary, His death was the crown of His active obedience. It was the crown of that obedience to the law of God by which He merited eternal life for those whom He came to save.

    Do you not see, then, what the true state of the case is? Christ’s active obedience and His passive obedience are not two divisions of His work, some of the events of His earthly life being His active obedience and other events of His life being His passive obedience; but every event of His life was both active obedience and passive obedience. Every event of His life was a part of His payment of the penalty of sin, and every event of His life was a part of that glorious keeping of the law of God by which He earned for His people the reward of eternal life. The two aspects of His work, in other words, are inextricably intertwined. Neither was performed apart from the other. Together they constitute the wonderful, full salvation which was wrought for us by Christ our Redeemer.”~ Machen


    The telegram read: I am so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it. –Machen

    And don’t forget Westminster Larger Catechism questions 70-73

    Q. 70. What is justification?
    A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.

    Q. 71. How is justification an act of God’s free grace?
    A. Although Christ, by his obedience and death, did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in the behalf of them that are justified; yet inasmuch as God accepteth the satisfaction from a surety, which he might have demanded of them, and did provide this surety, his own only Son, imputing his righteousness to them, and requiring nothing of them for their justification but faith, which also is his gift, their justification is to them of free grace.

    Q. 72. What is justifying faith?
    A. Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.

    Q. 73. How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?
    A. Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and his righteousness.

    • Thank you for this reply and the link.

      However, even Machen still admits there is a difference (some sort) between Active and Passive obedience. They are not the same exact thing. They are two aspects of one thing; namely, Christ’s obedience.

      Since it remains that they are seperate aspects, there must be exegetical support for both and not just one.

  6. >Thank you for this reply and the link. However…

    Oh, there is always a however with some.

    Righteousness. Righteousness, Erick. Show us your righteousness. Come on. Show us your righteousness. Let’s see Erick’s righteousness. Maybe you want to show us your teachers’ righteousness. Show us your and your teachers’ righteousness, Erick. Go on. Let see it. Do you have it? How did you get it?

    Do yourself a favor, Erick, and read all of the verses below. In them you will find the answer to this subject you present yourself as a seeker-of-answers regarding. There is more help in the verses below than in a thousand books written by whatever teachers it is you tend to read.

    Isa 61:10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.

    Rom 3:22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:

    Rom 4:11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also:

    Rom 5:17 For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.)

    Rom 5:18 Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.

    Rom 8:4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

    Rom 8:10 And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

    Rom 10:3 For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.

    Rom 10:4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.

    Rom 10:5 For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them.

    1Co 1:30 But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption:

    2Co 5:21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

    Gal 2:21 I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

    Gal 3:6 Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.

    Php 1:11 Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God.

    ************Php 3:9 And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:************

    Tit 3:5 Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;

    Jas 2:23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.

    2Pe 1:1 Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ:

    Rev 19:8 And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.

  7. Righteousness is of the law. Did you, do you, follow the law, Erick? Who followed the law? Adam in the Garden? No? Who followed the law, Erick? Did Jesus follow the law? Jesus, the Second Adam? Yes? And that righteousness is imputed to you by faith in Jesus, Erick? Is that a true – a biblical – statement? Yes? Erick?

    So where does that leave Erick? It leaves Erick without the internal trinity of vanity, worldly pride, and rebellious self-will. It leaves Erick stripped naked of his illusion of self-righteousness.

    Let’s allow Erick to work through this difficult time. This transition. Let’s hope Erick’s teachers don’t get to him and puff up that internal trinity again, setting it back on its internal throne, to reign over it internal kingdom of illusion and delusion.

    • DT,

      I don’t agree with Erick’s approach to the doctrine of IAO but you seem to be seeing something I’m not. You seem to attack him personally. I don’t understand your approach to this issue.

      Do you actually know something about Erick and his circumstances or are you speculating?

      • I admit I have a thing about these types who talk out of both sides of their mouth (“I fully accept justification by faith alone, however…). I actually hadn’t seen many of them for a year or more (I’m speaking of the Federal Vision types who swarmed internet sites). Also, this vain making of oneself the judge that you see in these folks is galling. Also, their sense of wanting you to beg them, or coax them, to come into the truth. I.e. their playing ‘hard to get.’ The disingenuous bewilderment as a tactic (they get this from secular academic sophists), and the disingenuous ‘question-asking’ as a tactic. As a teacher you obviously see genuine students and genuine questioning and grappling with issues and so on, and maybe this is where EW is currently at, but I’m skeptical. I’ll lay off though.

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