The Active and Passive Obedience of Christ

Basket of Figs, October, 2007

Bud Powell

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The Preaching of the Cross

“For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” (1Co 1:18 AV)

The death of Christ on the cross is certainly the focus of the Gospel and that a shift of focus away from the passive obedience of Christ will obscure the gospel and do harm.  The active obedience of Christ is essential to the Gospel, just as is God’s eternal decree, but this must not be the focus.

1.  The catechism states that my only comfort in life and in death is that I belong to Christ who has “with his precious blood” redeemed me from all the power of the devil.”  Without this redemption, none of the other good things derived from this “belonging” would apply.  The fact that “blood” is metonymic, does not at all detract from the importance of the word that is used metonymically.  When a young swain asks for the “hand” of his sweetheart, there is importance given to the word “hand” by emphasis on the concept of “vow” or a pledge of the whole person.  If nature is governed by “tooth and claw,” we by metonymy emphasize that there is cruelty and violence characterizing nature, which would not be emphasized if we said that “Bambi rules nature.”  There is always an emphasis because of the word that is used in the figure.

2.  The references to the Person of Christ in catechism questions 15 through 20 are there for the purpose of adding value or merit to the “satisfaction” that Christ made for sin.  It is true that the active obedience is referenced in such questions as No. 18 in which Christ is said to be given to us for “complete redemption and righteousness,” but the focus of the catechism is on the “satisfaction.”  Our mediator must be man, so that He could make satisfaction for sin to the justice of God in His human nature; He must be God so that He could bear in His manhood the burden of God’s wrath….”

3.  This focus is seen throughout the catechism, especially in questions such as No 37-44 which are summarized below:

The sufferings of Christ included all the time he lived on the earth, but especially on the cross when He bore in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race.  He was condemned by the temporal judge to deliver us from the severe judgment of God.  He was crucified because he was cursed of God to redeem us from the curse, because  the justice and truth of God required that satisfaction for our sins could be made in no other way than by the death of the Son of God.  He was buried to show that He had really died.  We therefore do not atone for our sins by our own death, but our death is a dying to sin and an entering into eternal life.   We therefore benefit much from His death, for with Him our old man is crucified, slain, and buried, so that evil lusts may no longer reign in us, but that we may offer ourselves living sacrifices to Him.  We are therefore redeemed from all the power, anguish, and torment of hell forever.

4.  This focus is seen everywhere in the New Testament.

A.   John the Baptist announced the coming of the Messiah by saying, “Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world,” focusing on His death which would redeem not just Israel but the whole world.

B.   I Peter 1:18ff says that we were redeemed from our “vain conversation” not by corruptible things like silver and gold, but by the “precious blood of Christ” as of a lamb “without blemish and spot.”  Certainly the focus of this is on the sacrifice of Christ and the active obedience [without blemish and spot] is referenced to indicate the value of the sacrifice.  The justice of God could be satisfied only by a sacrifice that was commensurate with the offense.

C.   A testament does not go into force until the death of the Testator [Heb. 9:16,17.]  The context requires “testament” rather than “covenant” for no covenant goes into force because one of the covenanting parties dies [for instance, the death of the wife frees the husband from his covenant and he can marry another], but a last will and testament does go into effect by the death of the testator.  So, without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin as the ceremonies of sacrifice from Adam to Christ testify.   So Christ appears once in the end of the world to “put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” Specifically, the Apostle Paul says that “For the preaching of the cross…is the power of God.”  [See 1Cor. 1:18-24]


D.   Again, even though “cross” in vs. 18 is metonymy, yet the focus is on the sacrifice of Christ, and Paul said that the fact that he preached “Christ crucified” was a stumbling block to the Jew and foolishness to the Greek.  It was specifically this preaching that is the power of God and the wisdom of God among those who “are called.”  This means that the preaching of the cross specifically connects with the elect, for it meets them on the level of the sin and guilt, without which connection no man can be saved.  Everything in the Bible is to be believed and preached, but it is specifically the preaching of the cross which is both an offense to the flesh and power of God unto salvation.

E.   Paul says that it is by the preaching of Christ crucified that the gift of the Holy Spirit is given:  “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?  This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” (Ga 3:1-2 AV)

F.    The focus of the Gospel and the reception of the Holy Spirit are said to be by the hearing of faith that receives, not the law, but the crucifixion of Christ.   The focus is Christ “crucified.”  The law must be preached in a lawful way, as Paul says elsewhere, but the focus of the Gospel is on the sacrifice of Christ, not on obedience.  This is a fundamental error of the Shepherdites, who equate obedience with faith.  Faith is not the equivalent of obedience, because faith has a different focus than obedience. For me to believe the Gospel is to believe that Christ died for my sins [I Cor. 15:1ff].  To be a Christian I must agree with the verdict of the Father with respect to the cross.  I am not at liberty to assign whatever reason I want to with regards to the death of Christ, for God has already interpreted it:  the soul of Christ was made an offering for sin [Is. 53] and HC 

Q12:    Since, then, by the righteous judgment of God, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, how may we escape this punishment and be again received into favor?

A12:  God wills that His justice be satisfied;[1] therefore, we must make full satisfaction to that justice, either by ourselves or by another.[2]

G.  This is the reason that Paul said, “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” (Ga 6:14 AV)  It is not a physical object that Paul glories in, but the meaning of the death of Christ, for by His death I am dead to sin.   It is because of the death of the cross that the curse upon Adam’s seed is removed with regard to the elect and makes newness of life not only possible but certain.  Because Paul understood the implication of the crucifixion of Christ, he said that it was unthinkable that newness of life should not flow to the believer because we have been baptized into [united with Christ in] His death, that we might walk in newness of life [Romans 6:1-8].   The whole refutation of the canard that the apostles preached that we may continue in sin so that grace may abound depends upon the focus on the death of Christ.  For Christ could not have risen from the dead if He had not been dead, specifically dead in terms of the curse of God upon sinners. 

H.  The central ceremony that was instituted by our Lord in remembrance of Him is the Lord’s Supper, which emphasizes the broken body and shed blood of our Lord.   We do not actually break and eat His body, nor do we actually pour out and drink His blood, for there is no more sacrifice for sins.  We no longer know Christ after the flesh [2Cor. 5], but we must never forget the source of our life: in the Lord’s Supper there is a remembrance of the source of our new life in Christ.  Not in predestination nor the eternal decree [Necessary, for our salvation is from heaven and the election is “unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ”  (1Peter 1); not the incarnation [necessary for He must sacrifice true human nature]; not His sinlessness [necessary for His offering must be perfect]; not His resurrection [necessary as an affirmation of God’s acceptance of the sacrifice; not His ascension [necessary if He is to appear in Heaven for us and purge the things in heaven [Heb. 9:23]; not His kingdom [necessary, for He must rule over me if I am to be saved from my sins for I have no power of my own even to receive the blood of Christ]; not His return to judge the world [necessary, for the redemption of the inheritance that He purchased with His blood].  No, in the Lord’s Supper the focus is on His sacrifice: we remember His death until He comes again, for it is from the broken body and shed blood of Christ that the life of the church arises.  My very life in God depends upon the death of the Son of God. 

I.      The cup of blessing is communion in the blood of Christ—not the literal blood, but in the meaning of the shedding of Christ’s blood.  The bread which we break is communion in the body of Christ—not the literal body, but in the meaning of the breaking of Christ’s body.  The meaning is in 2Cor 5:21:  “He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”   We could not have had His righteousness [active obedience] imputed to us, if our sin had not been imputed to Him [passive obedience].  The order is important:  He did not die because we had been made righteous; we are made righteous because He has died.  The imputation of our sin to Him is the reason for the imputation of His righteousness to us.  The words are plain.  Predestination is not the thing itself, but the eternal decree of God that it take place in time.  I am predestined to be conformed to Christ and the decree is from eternity, but I do not wear a halo nor pretend to wear one.

J.     “10  And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. 11  And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.” (Re 12:10-11 AV) The defeat of Satan and his power over the people of God is accomplished on the earth by the “blood of the Lamb” as well as by their testimony and the offering up of themselves to God.  But their testimony and their offerings would not have availed if their guilt had not been removed by the blood of Christ.  The emphasis is upon the atonement which destroyed the accusations of the accuser.  When guilt is removed, Satan’s kingdom falls.  We are made kings and priests unto God because “he has loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood.” [Rev. 1:5,6] The very power of Satan’s kingdom and the bondage in which men are held are because of guilt.  “14 ¶  Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; 15  And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” (Heb 2:14-15 AV)  It is specifically for the purpose of delivering the people of God from the bondage of guilt and fear that Jesus took flesh and blood that “through death he might destroy death.” 

K.  The power of the cross of Christ is also set forth in Heb. 10:14:  “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.”  What the blood of bulls and goat could not do [put away sin, perfect the priests, perfect the worshippers, etc.] the blood of Christ can do, perfect His people forever.  We are sanctified by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all:  “8  Above when he said, Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein; which are offered by the law; 9  Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second. 10  By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Heb 10:8-10 AV)  By the last will and testament of Jesus Christ, which goes into effect only by the death of Christ, we are perfected forever.

L.   In fact, the active obedience of Christ culminates in His passive obedience:  "And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross..." [Phil. 2]   Even my active obedience to Christ becomes vain and useless if I seek to avoid the reproach of the cross.  "And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple."  [Luke 14 27]   Many make a vain show in the flesh of their obedience, but are ashamed of the cross of Christ. 

5.  It is true that the meaning of Christ’s active obedience, as well as the doctrines of election and the spiritual kingdom of Christ, is obscured in modern evangelical theology and needs to be recovered.  But it often happens that  error comes into the church because a necessary doctrine is recovered and becomes the focus and emphasis of the ministry.  We are not unaware of the devices of the enemy.  It is the meaning of the cross of Christ that abases the pride of men, brings the gift of the Holy Spirit, crucifies the old man with his affections and lusts, bringing joy and peace to the church.  Satan does not need to remove the blood of Christ to win great victories in the church; all our enemy needs to do is to shift our attention away, leaving us with a form of godliness and a form of knowledge, but without the power thereof.“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:” (1Pe 3:18 AV)

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