Steak for Lent: A Primer on the Active Obedience of Christ (Part One)

When I worked in a steakhouse located in a predominantly Roman Catholic community, I always knew when it was Lent because people would come into the restaurant, announce they were unable to eat steak, and ask if we served fish. We did, of course, so I spent half my shift pointing out that the “Seafood” page was located right next to the page titled, “Steaks and Chops” on the menu.

Many of us have family, friends, or co-workers who show up to events with ash on their foreheads or announce the fact that they are fasting and cannot eat certain foods on certain days. Is that what this time of the year is all about? Letting people know that you are fasting? Showing up to work or social events with ash on your forehead? What should Reformed Christians be doing at this time of the year?

On the liturgical calendar used by many Christian traditions, this time of year is known as the season of Lent, which comes from a medieval English word meaning springtime. During this period, there is a focus on fasting and prayer as a means to repentance. These are all good things, particularly when done properly and for the right reasons.1 What often gets lost, however, is the narrative that lies behind this season of fasting and prayer. The forty days of repentance is meant to remind Christians of Jesus’ forty days and nights of fasting in the wilderness wherein he was tempted by the devil:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” (Matt 4:1–3)

Rather than an imperative for Christians to do the same, this narrative directs us to an essential part of the work of Christ for our salvation, and thus, it directs us to an essential aspect of the gospel.

What is the gospel?

The gospel is the announcement of good news that the eternal Son of God has come the in the flesh to save us from our fallen estate by his perfect life, his atoning death, his resurrection, his ascension, his enthronement, his session, and his return to judge the living and the dead. Having previously considered his coming in the flesh, that is, the incarnation, we now focus on the perfect life of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In Reformed theology, there are two aspects to his perfect life: his active obedience and his passive obedience. The active obedience of Christ is his perfect law-keeping on our behalf, whereas his passive obedience refers to his suffering according to the will of God on our behalf. This article will focus on his active obedience according to the Holy Scriptures. A second installment will consider his active obedience from the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms. The purpose of these two articles is for us to grow in our understanding of what Christ has done for us in the gospel and thus, grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, our Savior.

The Holy Scriptures

When considering the active obedience of Christ, the first thing that we must understand is that because of Adam’s sin, we have fallen into an estate of sin and misery so deep that there is nothing that we can do on our own to save ourselves from it. This is a foundational truth for all of humanity. We must grapple with the fact that we are sinners who cannot possibly be righteous before God on our own. Thus, in order to be justified before God, we desperately need a righteousness that comes from outside of ourselves.

This estate of sin and misery originates in the Garden of Eden, where Adam was under a covenant of works with God, which can be summarized as the promise of blessings for obedience and the threat of curses for disobedience (Gen 2:17; 3:22; Hos 6:7). Not only was he under a covenant of works, but he also represented all of humanity in this covenant. Thus, his obedience would be our righteousness and life, and his disobedience would be our unrighteousness and death. We know what happened—Adam disobeyed the terms of the covenant, and his failure led to sin and death for all mankind.

The Apostle Paul writes, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). So, in addition to the sin and guilt of Adam which has been imputed to all mankind, we also have our own particular sins that we are guilty of. We read in the Bible that, “Indeed, there is no one earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins” (Eccl 7:20), and “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. . . If we say we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8, 10). We are unrighteous sinners, guilty of both Adam’s sin in the Garden (original sin), and also our own individual disobedience to the law of God (actual sins). We will consequently receive the punishment of sin, which is death.

In order to be saved from this sinful, fallen estate, we need someone else to represent us covenantally who is untainted by the sin of Adam. We need another Adam-like figure who will reverse the curse of Adam’s sin and redeem our sins as well. Indeed, as Paul tells us, this is why Jesus was born, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who are under the law” (Gal 4:4–5a).

This is why the Son of God came in the flesh—to redeem those who are under the law and the curse that it brings. Unlike any other human born after the fall, Jesus was born in an extraordinary way—that is, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of a virgin. This makes Jesus uniquely qualified to live a perfect life on behalf of those ruined by the sin of Adam. This is why the Apostle Paul calls Adam a type of Jesus and why he also calls Jesus the second or Last Adam in Romans 5:14: “Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the One who was to come,” and similarly in 1 Corinthians 15:45: “The first man Adam became a living being, the Last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”

To be the One whose righteousness would be imputed to those fallen in Adam who repent and believe in him, the Son would not only have to become incarnate, he would also need to remain perfectly obedient to the Law of God all of his life. This is called his “active obedience,” because it takes Jesus’ fulfilling of the Law, that is, the totality of his obedience according to the Law of God—the Moral, the Civil, and the Ceremonial laws—for him to be the One whose perfect obedience is imputed to those who believe. That is exactly what he did.

Thinking of his life and ministry, we can embrace many instances of his perfect obedience. For example, we are reminded of what Luke tells us about young Jesus after his parents found him in the temple teaching the teachers of Israel: “Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. And his mother treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51). Luke’s word choice is meant to remind us of the fifth commandment: “Honor your mother and your Father,” demonstrating the obedience of Jesus of Nazareth and tying it to his childhood. Luke is telling us that Jesus was always perfectly obedient, from his birth to the cross.

We see examples of this obedience of Christ on our behalf all throughout his ministry as well. The Lord Jesus even says this about himself, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). Of course, the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness by the devil (Matt 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13) is another lesson in the active obedience of Christ. In the wilderness, Jesus recapitulates the temptation of the first Adam in the Garden. Here, however, Jesus shows that he is the true Adam, the Last Adam who came to crush the serpent’s head through his obedience to the Law of God. Jesus did all of this, on our behalf, as our sinless covenantal representative, “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).

His sinlessness thus made Jesus the only person qualified to pay the debt owed to God for sin (Rom 6:23a) which he paid on the cross with his own life. As the Apostle Peter writes, “You were ransomed . . . not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Jesus, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet 1:18–19). In his death, our sin was imputed to Jesus, which is why we hear Jesus cry out with a loud voice on the cross, “’Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34).

Paul teaches us that because both our sin and the punishment due for it was transferred to Jesus, it was nailed to the cross and canceled: “Having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:13b–14). Therefore, the righteousness of Jesus—insofar as we are united to him, repent and believe—is imputed to us in our justification. We see this in 2 Corinthians 5:21 when Paul says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” and again in 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”

Just as our sin was nailed to the cross with Jesus, and we are buried with him in his death, we now have his righteousness, a righteousness that comes from another. Thus, the obedience of Christ results in our justification. His righteousness is our righteousness. We see this promised in the Old Testament as well:

He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed…And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” (Isa 53:5, 9).

This is about the perfectly obedient suffering servant who died for the sins of others. It is because of his perfect active obedience that God says this to those who trust in Jesus:

I have blotted out your transgression like a cloud and your sins like mist…for I have redeemed you. (Isa 44:22)

Therefore, having considered the biblical storyline and data, we can say with confidence that the active obedience of Christ is certainly biblical. Without it, we have no imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and without that, we are dead in our sin. Thus, the active obedience of Christ is, without a doubt, good news worthy not only of sober remembrance, but also of grateful celebration.

©Scott McDermand II. All Rights Reserved.


  1. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith mentions “solemn fasting” as part of the occasional worship of God for certain times and seasons (WCF 21.5) and several chapters and catechism questions on both prayer and repentance. Additionally, nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologian, Samuel Miller, wrote a booklet titled “The Duty, the Benefits, and the Proper Methods of Fasting,” which can be found online.


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One comment

  1. Great post Pastor Scott! Only thing I’d add is what Pastor Peter Bender stated. “That when Jesus was baptized, he came to those waters to have the sin of the world imputed onto him. It was a transaction. His destiny was the cross, his destiny was suffering, and his destiny was death in atonement for the sins of the world. John 1:29b “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! “”

    It opens up an entire new way of appreciating and showing gratitude for Jesus Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for us. Folks may deny that but to grasp that truth, I could look at 2 Corinthians 5:21 in a new light: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

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