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

As we considered previously, the active obedience of Christ is an essential aspect of the gospel. Without it, those who are fallen in Adam have no hope of righteousness. Thus, Christ’s coming in the flesh and living a perfect life of obedience as the Last Adam is absolutely necessary for our salvation. Because of his active obedience (his righteousness according to the law), he is the only one able to make satisfaction for sin on the cross. In the last article, we looked at the biblical storyline and data. Now, we will survey the Reformed confessions and catechisms for the same.

From the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms

Scripture clearly teaches that Christ’s active obedience is imputed to sinners. It can also, however, be found all throughout Reformed theology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly in the Reformed confessions and catechisms. As before, we begin with the problem of Adam’s failure within the covenant of works and the ramifications thereof. Beginning with this foundational point, the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646 articulated that, “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (WCF 7.2).

As a representative of humanity under the covenant of works, Adam failed to offer the requisite perfect, personal obedience, which resulted in not only his own condemnation but also that of all mankind. The Westminster Larger Catechism explains that “The covenant being made with Adam, as a public person, not for himself only, but for his posterity; all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him in that first transgression” (WLC 22).

Concerning the estate in which all mankind now finds itself because of Adam’s failure as our covenantal representative, the Westminster divines stated:

The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consisteth in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness wherein he was created, and the corruption of his nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritual good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually; which is commonly called Original Sin, and from which do proceed all actual transgressions. (WLC 25)

We are guilty of both Adam’s sin and our own particular sins. The Belgic Confession (written by Guido de Bres in 1561) further elaborated on the depth of our sin and misery inherited from Adam,

Through the disobedience of Adam, original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature, and a hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother’s womb, and which produces in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof; and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God, that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind. (Art. 15)

Thus, we can see that mankind is in desperate need of recovery from this fallen estate and of a righteousness that comes from outside of us. Since we cannot recover ourselves nor produce our own righteousness, we are in need of another Adam-like figure to redeem us through his perfect obedience. Since all mankind born of ordinary generation has been plunged into such a fallen estate, this second Adam, like the first Adam, must come into this world without sin. As the Heidelberg Catechism (authored by Zacharius Ursinus in 1563) put it, that figure is Christ, the “one who is very man, and perfectly righteous; and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is very God” (HC 15).

Thus, the one who is very man and very God not only had to take on human flesh but also had to live a perfectly righteous life under the law of God as our covenantal representative. This perfectly righteous life consists of both his active obedience and passive obedience. The active obedience of Christ, being his perfect obedience according to the law, would make him the only person who is qualified to atone for the sins of his people. As the divines put it:

It was requisite that the Mediator should be God that he might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God, and the power of death; give worth and efficacy to his sufferings, obedience and intercession; and to satisfy God’s justice, procure his favor, purchase a peculiar people, give his Spirit to them, conquer all their enemies, and bring them to everlasting salvation. (WLC 38)

In short, his obedience was offered so that he would redeem us from our fallen estate inherited in Adam. This is the gospel. Without the active obedience of Christ, that is, his perfect life as our second Adam, we have no hope of recovery from our fallen estate.

How do we receive the righteousness of Christ? How does his active obedience become ours?

The Belgic Confession stated thus regarding the mystery of receiving the righteousness of Christ in our justification,

We believe that for us to acquire the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith that embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him…Jesus Christ is our righteousness, crediting to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place. (Art. 22)

His righteousness is credited, or imputed to us. His merit becomes ours as we embrace it through faith. Without the righteousness of Christ, there is no justification for the sinner. Without the justification of the sinner through receiving the perfect obedience of Christ, we are still dead in our sins. As de Bres wrote in the following chapter of the Belgic Confession, “Recognizing ourselves as we are; not claiming a thing for ourselves or our merits, and leaning and resting only on the obedience of Christ crucified, which is ours when we believe in him. That is enough to cover all our sins” (Art. 23).

Similarly, the Heidelberg Catechism put it this way in response to the question of what we believe concerning the forgiveness of sins, “I believe that God, because of Christ’s satisfaction, will no longer remember any of my sins or my sinful nature which I need to struggle against all my life. Rather, by his grace God grants me the righteousness of Christ that I may never come into judgment” (HC 56). In response to the question of how one is righteous before God, the catechism also stated,

Without any merit of my own, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I have had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me—if only I accept this gift with a believing heart. (HC 60)

Concluding that, “Only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness are my righteousness before God, and I can receive this righteousness and make it mine no other way than by faith alone” (HC 61).

Additionally, the Westminster Confession highlighted the importance of the obedience of Christ for the redemption of his people:

The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself, which he through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father, and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him. (WCF 8.5)

And regarding the justification of the elect by the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness,

Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth…by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God. (WCF 11.1)

The Westminster Larger Catechism further underscored the necessity of the perfect obedience of Christ in its section on justification:

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 any thing 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.” (WLC 70)

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. (WLC 72)

Without the obedience of Christ, there is no imputation of Christ’s righteousness for our salvation, and without that, we are still in Adam and the estate of sin and misery.

As we can see, the perfect active obedience of Jesus Christ is prominent in the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the Reformed churches of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. So, we can indeed say that based on the teachings of Scripture and Reformed theology, the active obedience of Christ is an essential aspect of the gospel for our salvation. The one who came in the flesh has lived a life of perfect obedience as our representative, offered himself for our sins, and we receive his righteousness in our justification.

So, harkening back to the question posed in part one of this article: what should Reformed Christians focus on during the season of Lent?

We are well within our Christian liberty to implement a schedule of fasting and prayer for forty days, keeping in mind that we are, in fact required to repent for all of the Christian life. While some may choose to focus on the rituals associated with Lent, Reformed Christians should direct their attention to Christ and his perfect active obedience not only during his forty days in the desert but also from his circumcision to his cross. For without the active obedience of Christ, there is no gospel. As J. Gresham Machen said in his final correspondence before his death, “So thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”

Part One

©Scott McDermand II. All Rights Reserved.


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