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). 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.
THE GOSPEL & 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).
THE LAW-FULFILLING LIFE OF CHRIST
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.” 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).
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)
GOSPEL REALITIES IN LIGHT OF THE LAW-FULFILLING LIFE OF CHRIST
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!
OTHER POSTS IN “THE GOSPEL & THE PERSON OF CHRIST” SERIES:
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), II.xvi.5; cited in Reymond’s Systematic Theology.
 Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 631.
 John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1955), 21-22.