John Calvin wrote, “Now someone asks, how has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us.  To this we can in general reply that he has achieved this for us by the whole course of his obedience” (emphasis mine).[1] The goal of this series of posts is to examine how the gospel is the good news of what that Christ has accomplished, for those who believe in him, through the totality of his obedient work in the place of sinners.  Our aim is to avoid a truncated gospel that focuses merely on a part of Christ’s work, and (re)discover the massive implications of all Jesus has done through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, intercession, and return.  This week, the focus is on the good news of the gospel as it relates to the life of Christ.


This past Saturday morning I was talking to my good friend, Mario, about his upbringing in a denomination that believed and taught that it was possible for a person to lose his or her salvation.  He recounted the fact that one could never really know whether or not he or she was truly right before God.   This was due to the fact that one had to continually evaluate one’s own performance in the Christian life, deciding whether or not it was good enough to maintain a right status before the Father.  At times he said he felt as if he “was in” and at other times he “was out,” based on his performance in the Christian life.  As we discussed the issue, it occurred to me that during Mario’s upbringing there was a focus on Christ’s substitutionary death, but little if any teaching regarding Christ’s perfect, law-fulfilling life.  Simply, there was the belief that Christ died to pay the penalty for the believer’s sin, but the righteousness the believer had and kept before the Father was based on the quality of his or her performance in response to Jesus’ death.  As a result, the believer was caught in a revolving cycle of doubt and assurance based on their present performance.

Truthfully, Christ did die to pay the penalty for our sins before the Father and fully absorb his righteous wrath against our rebellion.  But the good news of the gospel includes the reality that Jesus also lived a perfect life of obedience to God’s Law, that his perfect righteousness may be graciously credited to the account of all those who helplessly receive him by faith. Jesus himself said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17, ESV).  It was necessary to fulfill the Law at every point because the penalty for breaking any part of God’s law, at even the smallest point, is condemnation and death (see Deut. 27:26; Rom. 3:23; Gal. 3:10).


Theologians refer to the obedient work of Christ in terms of his “active” and “passive” obedience.  Christ’s death, in our place, on the cross is referred to as his “passive obedience,” while His law-fulfilling life is known as his “active obedience.”  Robert Reymond notes, “by [Christ’s} preceptive [or, active] obedience—he made available a perfect righteousness before the law that is imputed (credited) or reckoned to those who put their trust in him.”[2] John Murray spells this out a bit more thoroughly, saying:

“The real use and purpose of this formula is to emphasize the two distinct aspects of our Lord’s vicarious obedience.  The truth expressed rests upon the recognition that the law of God has both penal sanctions and positive demands.  It demands not only the full discharge of its precepts but also the infliction of penalty for all infractions and shortcomings.  It is this twofold demand of the law of God which is taken into account when we speak of the active and passive obedience of Christ.  Christ as the [representative] of his people came under the curse and condemnation due to sin and he also fulfilled the law of God in all its positive requirements.  In other words, he took care of the guilt of sin and perfectly fulfilled the demands of righteousness. He perfectly met both the penal and the perceptive requirements of God’s law.  The passive obedience refers to the former and he active obedience to the latter.  Christ’s obedience was vicarious in the bearing of the full judgment of God upon sin, and it was vicarious in the full discharge of the demands of righteousness.  His obedience becomes the ground of the remission of sin and of actual justification” (emphasis mine).[3]

The good news of the gospel is that the righteous standing we have and keep before God the Father is not based on our performance, but Christ’s performance for us! Thus, because this act of obedience is something that Jesus has historically completed, an obedience having been performed, it can never change!  And, because the believer has been united with Christ, by the work of Spirit, the Father views and accepts us as if we had obeyed like the Son! (see John 6:56; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:5; 1 John 4:13)


For those who have helplessly received Christ’s work by faith and turned from their sin, the following objective realities have been won by Christ for the believer no matter how he or she may feel at a given moment:

  • Though we may fail, in our place Christ has faithfully succeeded!
  • Though we may fall, in our place Christ has fully triumphed!
  • Though we may stumble, in our place Christ has stood firm!
  • Though our obedience may falter, we are fully accepted based on Christ’s flawless obedience for us!

These realities do not change!  And so, the reality of the gospel frees us to fulfill God’s commands in an atmosphere of unconditional acceptance and grace, rather than under the heavy yoke of uncertainty.

Thus, the gospel when understood and embraced brings freedom to Mario’s situation.  By God’s grace Mario has come to understand this, but for those in the shoes of his past, let the burdensome cycle of assurance and doubt be lifted by Christ’s perfect obedience in your place!  Remember, believe, embrace, and live in light of both the life and death of Christ for you!  Let’s rest in his righteousness, not ours (since ours is nonexistent anyway)!  May we be people who preach the gospel to ourselves every day, delightfully and rigorously pursuing holiness in light of the unconditional acceptance and righteousness won for us through the faithful and perfectly obedient life of God the Son!



The Gospel & The Incarnation

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), II.xvi.5; cited in Reymond’s Systematic Theology.

[2] Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 631.

[3] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1955), 21-22.



  1. Hello,

    I’ve been studying the issue of Christ’s “active obedience” and I don’t believe it’s Biblical, particularly in light of the fact the ‘biggest’ passages relating to our justification are silent upon it and put the weight squarely on Christ’s Death and Resurrection (e.g. Rom 3:21-26, 4:25, Gal 2:21, 2 Cor 5:21).

    I’ve seen people say John Calvin taught this, but when I look up the reference (Institutes 2:16:5) to the quote you gave, he isn’t speaking of “active obedience,” at least not in any clear way I’d expect. For example, here is some context:

    “And indeed he elsewhere extends the ground of pardon which exempts from the curse of the law to the whole life of Christ … In short, from the moment when he assumed the form of a servant, he began, in order to redeem us, to pay the price of deliverance. Scripture, however, the more certainly to define the mode of salvation, ascribes it peculiarly and specially to the death of Christ. … And, indeed, the first step in obedience was his voluntary subjection; for the sacrifice would have been unavailing to justification if not offered spontaneously. … We must bear in minds that Christ could not duly propitiate God without renouncing his own feelings and subjecting himself entirely to his Father’s will. … ”

    The context is Calvin commenting upon the Apostles’ Creed, focusing on the stanza about Christ’s Death (there is no stanza about Christ’s ‘active obedience’). The point Calvin is making is that Christ’s “passive obedience” began the moment He was born, and also as the basis for the sacrifice to be acceptable culminating at the cross. In short, Calvin isn’t speaking about a so called “active obedience.”

    You spoke a lot about “the law-fulfilling life of Christ,” but I think you’re misunderstanding what the Bible means by “fulfill.” To “fulfill” means to recognize the ideal of something, it does not mean to “obey perfectly.” For example, the Bible says Judas’ betrayal “fulfilled” the Scriptures (Acts 1:15ff), Jesus’ suffering and rising “fulfilled” the Law and Prophets (Lk 24:44ff), and Paul says Christians “fulfill” the Law by loving one another (Rom 13:8ff, Gal 5:4). Notice how you cannot simply substitute “kept perfectly” where it says “fulfilled”.

    To say Jesus “fulfilled the law in our place” as meaning Jesus “kept the law for us” would also result in problematic scenarios, such as Jesus abstained from pork in our place (as Gentiles) and that Jesus got circumcised in place of the Jews (e.g. the Apostles).

    Taking these factors into consideration, along with the simple fact the Bible nowhere clearly says Jesus kept the Law in our place, if we are following Scripture I don’t think anyone should teach “active obedience” as a component to our justification.

    • Nick,

      Hey man, thanks so much for reading the post and taking the time to respond! I appreciate that you’re thinking through the issue of Christ’s “active” or “prescriptive” obedience, and testing it against the Scriptures (a la Acts 17:11).

      My initial question to your response would be, “If Jesus didn’t fulfill the demands of the law in the place of the elect, where does the positive righteousness come from that is imputed to those who place their faith in Christ alone for salvation?”

      Tullian Tchividjian makes reference, in a recent post, to a helpful essay by Michael Horton on this matter entitled, “Obedience is Better Than Sacrifice,” where Horton says:

      “As important as it is that Christ bore the penalty of our sins on the cross, it is just as important that he triumphed over the powers of evil and recapitulated the history of fallen humanity and Israel. Adam was commanded to obey God’s law and failed, Israel was commanded to obey God’s law and failed, but Christ came into this world and completed a life of perfect obedience to the law of his Father. Christ the righteous One was indeed the Last Adam, the True Israel…We have not only been forgiven on the basis of Christ’s curse-bearing death, but justified on the basis of his probation-fulfilling life.”

      Overall, Tchividjian’s post is thoroughly helpful in…you can read it in its entirety here:

      Scripturally, perhaps the clearest section(s) on the necessity of Christ’s obedient life, death, and resurrection for our salvation would be Romans 5:15-21; 8:1-4.

      As J. Gresham Machen fitly spoke before departing to be with Christ, ““So thankful for Christ’s active obedience; no hope without it!”


      • Hi Kevin,

        Thank you for your response.

        You asked me: “My initial question to your response would be, “If Jesus didn’t fulfill the demands of the law in the place of the elect, where does the positive righteousness come from that is imputed to those who place their faith in Christ alone for salvation?”

        Taking this question along with your quote of Horton, I think the problem rests in assuming this “positive righteousness” is needed in the first place. When Paul builds his case for man’s universal sinfulness in Rom 1-3a, he says it’s Christ’s sacrifice alone that makes God “just and justifier” in Rom 3b. I don’t see Paul’s thesis entailing or building up towards the need of “positive righteousness,” since the Cross provides the only righteousness God accepts. I’ll read the Tchividjian link you gave now to see if this is addressed.

        Regarding Romans 5:15-21, my hesitation to read or assume “active obedience” here is because in the same Calvin quote above, he explicitly says the obedience of Rom 5:18-19 is speaking on Christ’s “passive obedience,” without any notion of “active.”

        Also, Greek scholar Daniel Wallace says on Romans 5:12-21:

        Quote: “Having established the basis of God’s pleasure in us, viz., the imputation of righteousness (or forensic justification), Paul now discusses the impartation of righteousness, or sanctification (5:12–8:39). This is the third major section of the epistle. In some ways there is a neat trilogy found in these first eight chapters. The apostle first discusses justification which is salvation from the penalty of sin (3:21–5:11). Then he deals with sanctification or salvation from the power of sin (5:12–8:17). Finally, he addresses glorification which is salvation from the presence of sin (8:18-39).12

        Paul lays out his views on sanctification using the twin themes of reigning and slavery. He begins by contrasting the reign of grace with the reign of sin (5:12-21). Although many NT students would place 5:12-21 under the second major section (i.e., under “Justification”), “the words ‘just,’ ‘justice’ and ‘faith’ coming from the first part of the quotation [Hab 2:4 in Rom 1:17] as given by Paul, are of very frequent occurrence from 1:17 to 5:11, and almost entirely absent thereafter. On the other hand, the terms signifying ‘life’ (and ‘death’) occur regularly in chapters 5:12 to 7:1.”13 Thus the apostle seems to be signaling that he is now picking up a new topic.
        In 5:12-21 Paul moves beyond the legal issue of justification.

        This is interesting because, if true, it means Rom 5:18-19 cannot be speaking on justification, ruling this out for contention of “active obedience.”

    • Nick,

      Again, I appreciate the generous dialogue.

      In reference to the Rom. 5:18-19 passage I would say that given the context and nature of Adam’s disobedience (breaking covenant stipulations), the “obedience” of Christ would take into account the entirety of his work (both active and passive) given that it was through the “disobedience” of the covenant many were made sinners, and through the “obedience” of Christ (both law-fulfilling and penalty-bearing) believers are reckoned righteous.

      In relation to the question I posed in my initial response regarding the basis for the righteousness graciously imputed to those who trust in Christ alone for salvation, it may help continue to focus on the nature of the first Adam’s infraction and Christ’s (the Last/Second Adam) gracious mediating work…

      Before the Fall, Adam was in a state of innocence (neutrality) before God. Upon his successful obedience/keeping of the covenant of works (Gen. 2:15-17), at a point determined by God, God would have credited righteousness (a positive postion) to Adam. Adam sinned, however, breaking the covenant, was cursed and had to endure the penalty of death for breaking the covenant. This, then, put Adam (and all humanity after him, save Christ) in a negative position before God because of his willful disobedience. Man now and hereafter was responsible not only to keep the conditions of God’s determined covenantal relations, but was also responsible for paying the penalty due upon transgressing the covenant.

      Louis Berkhof provides a very helpful explanation hereafter:

      “Christ as Mediator entered the federal relation in which Adam stood in the state of integrity, in order to merit eternal life for the sinner. This constitutes the active obedience of Christ, consisting in all that Christ did to observe the law in its federal aspect, as the condition for obtaining eternal life. The active obedience of Christ was necessary to make His passive obedience acceptable with God, that is, to make it an object of God’s good pleasure. It is only on account of it that God’s estimate of the sufferings of Christ differs from His estimate of the sufferings of the lost. Moreover, if Christ had not rendered active obedience, the human nature of Christ itself would have fallen short of the just demands of God, and He would not have been able to atone for others. And, finally, if Christ had suffered only the penalty imposed on man, those who shared in the fruits of His work would have been left exactly where Adam was before he fell. Christ merits more for sinners than the forgiveness of sins. According to Gal. 4:4,5 they are through Christ set free from the law as a condition of life, and are adopted to be sons of God, and as sons are also heirs of eternal life, Gal. 4:7. All this is conditioned primarily on the active obedience of Christ. Through Christ the righteousness of faith is substituted for the righteousness of the law, Rom. 10:3,4. Paul tells us that by the work of Christ “the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us,” Rom. 8:3,4; and that we are made “the righteousness of God in Him,” II Cor. 5:21.

      …If Christ had merely obeyed the law and had not also paid the penalty, He would not have won a title of eternal life for sinners; and if He had merely paid the penalty, without meeting the original demands of the law, He would have left man in the position of Adam before the fall, still confronted with the task of obtaining eternal life in the way of obedience. By His active obedience, however, He carried His people beyond that point and gave them a claim to everlasting life” (emphasis mine).

      [Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (4th rev. and enl. ed edition; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), 380-381.]

      Additionally, Michael Horton notes, “Jesus is both Lord of the Covenant who commands and the Servant of the Covenant who fulfills all righteousness and wins for us forgiveness, the new birth, resurrection, and the renewal of the whole creation.” (The Gospel Commission, p. 36, emphasis mine)

      Not sure if you know this, but your argument (if I understand it correctly) has actually been the thought of Arminian scholars Richard Watson and R.N. Davies as well; they denied that the active obedience of Christ has the redemptive significance which I (and the Reformed tradition) ascribe to it. Are you familiar with their works?

      I do hope this helps in some way.


      • Hi Kevin,

        I am not familiar with Watson or Davies, but I did read your Berkhof quote and commentary and it makes sense. But making sense doesn’t automatically put something in the “Biblical” category. I understand the notion of ‘neutral state’, but I’m bothered by the striking absence of this ‘active’ component in texts like Rom 3b and 2 Cor 5:21 – compounded by the fact Calvin quotes these and other passages (e.g. Gal 4:4-5) in his talk on passive obedience. Do you know of anyplace where Calvin clearly makes the passive vs active distinction? It seems to me, if the Cross is sufficient, it cannot put man back into Adam’s “neutral state.”

        Here is the logic I see: if man can never come under condemnation due to their punishments being taken at the Cross, then they are not in the same state as Adam since there is nothing ‘neutral’ about a state where you will never be held legally guilty for any future failings you have. If man’s only two final options are heaven or hell, and hell is off the table by the Cross, then this can only default to Heaven. What do you think about this argument, is it flawed?

        Also, how do you interpret Galatians 2:21?

      • Nick,

        Regarding Calvin, I do believe that he spoke of “active obedience” in the passage that both you and I originally cited. Here’s the passage in a more complete context:

        Calvin said:

        “Now someone asks, How has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us? To this we can in general reply that he has achieved this for us by the whole course of his obedience. This is proved by Paul’s testimony: “As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience we are made righteous” [Romans 5:19]. In another passage, to be sure, Paul extends the basis of the pardon that frees us from the curse of the law to the whole life of Christ: “But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, subject to the law, to redeem those who were under the law” [Galatians 4:4-5]. Thus in his very baptism, also, he asserted that he fulfilled a part of righteousness in obediently carrying out his Father’s commandment [Matthew 3:15]. In short, from the time when he took on the form of a servant (his birth; cf. Gal. 4:4-5; Phil. 2:7), he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us.

        Yet to define the way of salvation more exactly, Scripture ascribes this as peculiar and proper to Christ’s death. He declares that “he gave his life to redeem many” [Matthew 20:28]. Paul teaches that “Christ died for our sins” [Romans 4:25]. John the Baptist proclaimed that he came “to take away the sins of the world,” for he was “the Lamb of God” [John 1:29]. In another passage Paul teaches that “we are freely justified through the redemption which is in Christ, because he was put forward as a reconciler in his blood” [Romans 3:24-25]. Likewise: “We are …justified by his blood …and reconciled …through his death.” [Romans 5:9-10.] Again: “For our sake he who knew no sin was made sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” [2 Corinthians 5:21] I shall not pursue all the testimonies, for the list would be endless, and many of them will be referred to in their order. For this reason the so-called “Apostles’ Creed” passes at once in the best order from the birth of Christ to his death and resurrection, wherein the whole of perfect salvation consists. Yet the remainder of the obedience that he manifested in his life is not excluded (Back to ACTIVE OBEDIENCE). Paul embraces it all from beginning to end: “He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant …and was obedient to the Father unto death, even death on a cross” – Calvin’s Institutes 2.16.5; emphases/titles mine

        Regarding your argument, I would say that we must view the cross as Christ’s curse-bearing, wrath-absorbing, penalty-taking, substitutionary atoning sacrifice for those who believe in him. The cross paid the penalty, our sin being imputed to Christ. But because the Lamb who hung there had fulfilled the righteous requirement of the law, his righteousness can be graciously imputed/reckoned to us.

        Additionally, when we are forever in the presence of God in the New Creational Kingdom, we will be beyond what Adam was in the garden precisely because Christ has won our glorification through the totality of his work. Jesus takes us beyond what Adam was in the garden!

        Galatians 2:21 is in the context of Paul’s argument against a religious sect known as the Judaizers. The Judaizers believed that Christ had ratified the Old Covenant and gave people a “clean slate” per say upon which their fulfillment of the law would add to the work Christ had done to give them a “second chance.” Therefore, they basically taught that a person had to become Jewish (live a life of strict observance to the law = be circumcised, observe kosher and Sabbath laws, etc.) in order to become and stay Christian. Paul says that what they preach is no gospel at all. For by works of the law, no one will be saved. That is, because of indwelling sin, a person is totally spiritually unable to keep the law…and if you try, basing your righteousness before God on your performance/law-keeping ability, you nullify the grace of God freely given through the completed work of Christ. It’s been said that “addition to the work of Christ is the greatest subtraction of all.” See my post “MACHEN & DEADLY MATH” for more on this.

        Appreciate the conversation!

        God bless.

  2. Hi Kevin,

    I appreciate this conversation as well, but don’t want to take up your time.

    I’m honestly struggling to see “active obedience” plainly stated in Calvin’s quote, especially in the parts you put in bold. For example, you put in bold “Paul extends the basis of the pardon that frees us from the curse of the law to the whole life of Christ” and “from the time when he took on the form of a servant (his birth; cf. Gal. 4:4-5; Phil. 2:7), he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us

    To me, language of “pardon” and “freed from the curse” (Gal 3:13) and “price of liberation” all apply to passive obedience. Active obedience isn’t about attaining pardon/liberation.

    And at the end of your quote you say Calvin transitions “Back to ACTIVE OBEDIENCE,” yet he is quoting Phil 2:8 (“death on a Cross”) and he immediately follows this by saying: “And, indeed, the first step in obedience was his voluntary subjection; for the sacrifice would have been unavailing to justification if not offered spontaneously.” In other words, the obedience prior to Cross was to make Him a worthy sacrifice.

    The tone of the quote is summed up in the second to last sentence where Calvin says: “Our acquittal is in this, that the guilt which made us liable to punishment was transferred to the head of the Son of God (Is. 53:12).” The term “acquittal” is synonymous for “justification”, but he says this is passive obedience.

    My focus on Galatians 2:21 was the interesting juxtaposition:
    “I do not nullify the grace of God,
    for if righteousness were through the law,
    then Christ died for no purpose.”

    This suggests grace-righteousness came through Christ’s death, since the law couldn’t give this. Paul is not contrasting our law keeping with Christ’s law keeping, which would be the logical form of argument if active obedience were necessary, and instead removes law keeping from the equation and supplants it with the Cross.

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