Tullian Tchividjian blogged today that he “is concerned” about the neglect, in the neo-Reformed movement, of the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ. He raises a good point. It is just as likely for one to be shallow in his understanding of the Bible’s teaching on salvation, all the while emphasizing election, as it is for one emphasizing free will. It is just as likely one could be shallow in his soteriology while accentuating monergistic salvation as it is while accentuating synergistic salvation. History has well shown that many who call themselves Calvinists have utterly lacked the biblical depth of insight and awe in the Gospel found in Calvin’s own writings. This is especially a danger at a time like this when Calvinism is cool. In conversations with other Evangelicals, even with Reformed types, I almost never hear mention of Christ’s active obedience. But this doctrine is just as pivotal as the passive obedience of Christ. In fact, the doctrine of justification rests on it. After all, the Protestant Reformation clarified that to be justified is not to have righteousness imparted to believers, but to have Christ’s righteousness imputed to believers by faith. Christ’s righteousness. His right works of obedience to God. The Westminster Confession emphasizes Christ’s active obedience in articles 11.2 and 11.3:
“WCF 11.2 Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love. WCF 11.3 Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to His Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, inasmuch as He was given by the Father for them, and His obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead, and both, freely, not for anything in them, their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.” (WCF 11:2-3 WCS)
“Faith” says Westminster, rests “on Christ and His righteousness…” and “His obedience… [is] accepted in [the place of all those that are justified]…”. Paul emphasizes the active obedience of Jesus in Romans 5:19, in context contrasting the righteousness of Jesus which is imputed by faith to all who believe with the sin of Adam which is imputed to all his descendants: “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom 5:19 ESV) If Adam’s active sin brings about our condemnation, it is fitting that Christ’s active obedience is instrumental in our redemption!
There is a knee-jerk reaction, among Evangelicals I have noticed, to the suggestion that we are saved by works. And of course this is not usually wrong, for what most Evangelicals mean to convey by denouncing the suggestion of salvation by works is that our works could not be effective in our own salvation because in that case, as Paul insists in Romans 4:5, those whom God justifies do not work to prove their righteousness to God, but instead believe “in Him who justifies the ungodly”. However, to categorically declare that we are not at all saved by works is to misunderstand the importance of Jesus’ baptism and the pronouncement at that time by God of His intense pleasure in His Son.
” 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”” (Mar 1:9-11 ESV)
God’s good pleasure in His Son, whom He so loved, was in response to the obedience of Jesus by which the Son demonstrated His love for His Father: “…But I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.” (Joh 14:31 ESV) Did God’s love for Jesus depend on Jesus’ obedience? No, of course not. But the Divine statement in Mark 1:11 that God was “well pleased” was not simply repeating God’s confession of love for Jesus (i.e., “You are my beloved Son”): it was the affirmation of God’s extreme pleasure in the active obedience of Jesus for 30 years to that point, in human flesh, showing the world how much He obeyed His Father by how well he obeyed Him.
That’s why the very next scene in Mark 1 sees Jesus being driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit in order to be tempted by Satan. Jesus was substituting Himself, in that temptation, for the nation of Israel. He was in the wilderness for 40 days; Israel was in the wilderness for 40 years. Israel failed to obey God, falling to the temptation to sin over and over again; Jesus withstood the temptation Israel could not, perfectly obeying His Father in all righteousness. Right up to and including His struggle in the garden, shortly before His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus continued to perfectly obey God. His whole life, He perfectly obeyed the Law—fulfilling the Law! So that when He died in the place of sinners, taking their sin on Himself, His Father could legally and justly credit any sinners who trust in Him with the perfect righteousness earned by Jesus. We are saved by works: His works.
” 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him,” (Heb 5:7-9 ESV).