The Suffering Servant: A Primer on the Passive Obedience of Christ (Part Two)

In Part One of this article, we explored the biblical data supporting the necessity of Christ’s passive obedience for our redemption. We saw how Jesus suffered according to the will of the Father in order to save sinners, which is the good news of our redemption. This passive obedience of Christ is, therefore, a vital aspect of the gospel, and is certainly biblical. In this installment, we will consider the evidence found in the Reformed confessions and catechisms regarding this necessary and practical doctrine.

Reformed Confessions and Catechisms

We find this essential doctrine in the Belgic Confession (1561) wherein its author, Guido de Bres (d. 1567), wrote,

We believe that God—who is perfectly merciful and also very just—sent his Son to assume the nature in which the disobedience had been committed, in order to bear in it the punishment of sin by his most bitter passion and death. (Art. 20)

In this concise statement, de Bres brings together the doctrines of original sin, the incarnation, and the passive obedience of Christ, in order to illustrate the way in which Christ would redeem his people—through his substitutionary death on the cross—all according to the will of the Father, who “sent his Son” to redeem.

De Bres elaborated on the vicarious suffering of our Lord Jesus,

We believe that Jesus Christ . . .presented himself in our name before his Father, to appease his wrath with full satisfaction by offering himself on the tree of the cross and pouring out his precious blood for the cleansing of our sins, as the prophets had predicted. For it is written that ‘the chastisement of our peace’ was placed on the Son of God and that ‘we are healed by his wounds.’ He was ‘led to death as a lamb’; he was ‘numbered among sinners’ and condemned as a criminal by Pontius Pilate, though Pilate had declared that he was innocent. So, he paid back what he had not stolen, and he suffered— the ‘just for the unjust,’ in both his body and his soul—in such a way that when he sensed the horrible punishment required by our sins his sweat became like ‘big drops of blood falling on the ground.’ He cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ And he endured all this for the forgiveness of our sins. (Art. 21)

Making use of Old and New Testament texts, the author highlighted several key aspects of the passive obedience of Christ: the vicarious, propitiatory, and redemptive nature of his suffering; as well as the fact that Christ’s painful punishment was according to the will of God the Father, since it had been promised by the prophets of old.

In addition to the Belgic, the Canons of Dort (1618–19) emphasized the eternal character of God’s sovereign plan to redeem a fallen people by the suffering of Christ,

It was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father; that he should grant them faith (which, like the Holy Spirit’s other saving gifts, he acquired for them by his death); that he should cleanse them by his blood from all their sins, both original and actual, whether committed before or after their coming to faith; that he should faithfully preserve them to the very end; and that he should finally present them to himself, a glorious people, without spot or wrinkle. (Art. 8)

This again underscores the truth that the suffering of Jesus was far from arbitrary, but it was according to the will of God and his eternal plan to redeem his people (pactum salutis). As the Canons added,

This plan, arising out of God’s eternal love for his chosen ones, from the beginning of the world to the present time has been powerfully carried out and will also be carried out in the future, the gates of hell seeking vainly to prevail against it. As a result, the chosen are gathered into one, all in their own time, and there is always a church of believers founded on Christ’s blood, a church which steadfastly loves, persistently worships, and—here and in all eternity—praises him as her Savior who laid down his life for her on the cross, as a bridegroom for his bride. (Art. 9)

And thus, the suffering of Christ is no abstract doctrine, but is exceedingly practical. Not only for our redemption, but insofar as it affects the church, from her gathering into a body, to her worship of the crucified Christ.

Finally, the Westminster Larger Catechism stressed the suffering, or humiliation, of Christ from his conception to his sepulcher. The divines asked, “What was the estate of Christ’s humiliation?”:

The estate of Christ’s humiliation was that low condition, wherein he, for our sakes, emptying himself of his glory, took upon him the form of a servant, in his conception, birth, life, death, and after his death, until his resurrection.

Consequently, they remind us that Christ’s suffering was not only for a day or even a week, but the entirety of his life in the flesh, from conception to the cross to the tomb, the life of Jesus was a life of humiliation and suffering on behalf of others.

As we can see, the passive obedience of Christ is prominent in both the Holy Scriptures and in the confessions and catechisms of the Reformed churches. From all of this, we can conclude that the suffering and humiliation of Christ according to the will of his Father and for our salvation is an essential aspect of the gospel and, therefore, our salvation.


As we meditate on these truths and thus come to a greater understanding of what our Lord Jesus went through on our behalf, hopefully, this adds depth to our appreciation of him and his suffering for us. And so, this week, as we hear of his final Passover, his prayers in Gethsemane, his midnight trial, his disciples scattered, his discussion with Pilate, his death sentence, his torment on the way to the cross, his agony on the cross, his final words, his being pierced through by the spear, and his burial in the tomb, it is my prayer that we will not only see these as events that truly did occur in history but that they would have a profound influence on our lives.

For example, when it comes to our own suffering according to the will of God, Christ’s suffering will certainly give us a proper frame of mind. As Christ himself said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt 16:24) This is the pattern that Christ has set down for us, and we ought not to be surprised when we are called to follow in his steps. (1 Pet 2:21)

Therefore, as we conclude this article, it is my hope that as we grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ and his suffering, that it will strengthen our love of both God for what he has done in order to redeem us, and also our love for one another, even as we suffer together. Indeed, remembering Christ and his passive obedience is something we ought to do not only during Passion Week, but daily.

Part One

©Scott McDermand II. All Rights Reserved.


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  • Scott McDermand II
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    Scott McDermand II is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Bad Axe, Michigan. He graduated from San Diego State University (B.A., History) and earned masters degrees at Westminster Seminary California (M.A., Historical Theology; M.Div). He serves on the board of directors of the Heidelberg Reformation Association as secretary. He has a passion for preaching and teaching the Word of God, Biblical theology, Church History, and enjoying fellowship with the people of First Presbyterian Church, Bad Axe, MI. In his free time, he enjoys baseball, reading, classical music, eating whatever his wife cooks for him, and walking their two dogs.

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