Rebecca Stark is the author of The Good Portion: God, the second title in The Good Portion series, a series written to encourage women to immerse themselves in the depths of Christian doctrine.

The Good Portion — God explores what Scripture teaches about God in hopes that readers will see his perfection, worth, magnificence, and beauty as they study his triune nature, infinite attributes, and wondrous works. 

Rebecca also blogs at Out of the Ordinary.


« How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God? | Main | I Have Not Died »

Christ's Active and Passive Obedience and Our Justification

Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress….

(Nicolaus Zinzindorf, 1700-1760,
translated by John Wesley, 1703-1791)

Recently, everywhere I look I see the mention of the active and passive obedience of Christ, and what (or whether) both aspects of Christ’s obedience contribute to our justification. The concepts of the active and passive obedience of Christ were included in the last three questions from the Westminster Larger Catechism that I’ve posted, although those particular terms weren’t used. But the ideas are there, with the catechism clearly teaching that both the active and passive obedience of Christ are necessary for the justification of sinners. And one of the books I read and reviewed recently, By Faith Alone, dealt a bit with the active and passive obedience of Christ and whether both are necessary grounds for our justification. So I’ve been thinking about the two kinds of obedience and what they contributed to our justification, and if I’m thinking about it, you know I’m going to write about it.

Passive Obedience
Christ’s passive obedience refers to his bearing the curse of the law for us in his death on the cross. The word passive as used here does not mean that Christ’s sacrificial death was simply something done to him, and that he played no active role in it. (We know that’s not the case, for Jesus tells us clearly in John 10:18 that he laid down his life of his own accord and authority, making him an active participant in his own death.) Rather, the term passive in passive obedience comes to us from the Latin obedentia passiva, in which passiva refers to Christ’s suffering. You’ve seen the pass root used like this elsewhere, as in the term passion used to refer to refer to Christ’s suffering and death.

Christ’s passive obedience—his obedience in bearing the curse of the law for us—is the basis upon which our sins are forgiven. His death was an atoning death, and he was our substitute. Our sins were placed upon Jesus Christ on the cross and he endured the penalty for our sin in our place. This payment of our penalty through Christ’s suffering and death on our behalf is the reason we can be pardoned.

There are the statements in questions 70, 71 and 72 of the Larger Catechism that point to Christ’s passive obedience. I’ll not quote all three of them, but just the first question, number 70, which has to do with the definition of justification. I’ve underlined the specific references to Christ’s passive obedience and what it accomplished for us.

Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.

Justification, according to the catechism, has two aspects: pardoning of our sin and counting us as righteous. Passive obedience has to do with the pardoning of sin. The slate recording all our sins is erased, we might say, because of Christ’s passive obedience, or, as the catechism puts it, “for the … full satisfaction of Christ” on our behalf. You will also see passive obedience called penal obedience, so-named because Christ satisfies the penal requirement (or penalty) of the law by his sacrificial death.

Among evangelical Christians, there is agreement that Christ’s passive obedience was necessary in order for sinner to be justified. When it comes to the next aspect of Christ’s obedience, his active obedience, things get trickier.

Active Obedience
Christ’s active obedience refers to his keeping of the whole law completely throughout his life. You may also see this called preceptive obedience because it refers to Christ’s obedience to all of God’s precepts.

What disagreement there is about the active obedience of Christ isn’t in regards whether it was necessary for Christ to live a life without sin in order for us to be justified. The disagreement comes over whether his perfect life was necessary only because the sacrifice for sinners must himself be sinless, or whether it is necessary for another reason as well: as grounds, along with Christ’s passive obedience, for our justification. Do sinners require not only pardon from sin, but also a record of perfect obedience—a requirement that is fulfilled by Christ’s perfect law-keeping on behalf of those who believe?

It’s obvious from the answers to the previous three questions from the Westminster Larger Catechism that it affirms the necessity of Christ’s perfect obedience accounted to sinners in their justification. In the answer to question 70, quoted above, in regards to justification, God is said to account sinners “righteous in his sight … for the perfect obedience … of Christ, by God imputed to them.” Moving along to question 71, God is said to impute Christ’s righteousness to sinners based on his obedience, accepting from a “surety”—Christ himself—what he could have “demanded of them.” In question 72, the catechism states that justifying faith

receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness…for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.

Or, in language you may find easier to understand, from John Frame in Salvation Belongs to the Lord:

When we believe in Christ, God counts us as righteous in Christ. That is to say, God imputes to us the active obedience of Christ; so, he sees us, regards us, counts us, declares us as righteous and holy, as Jesus is.1

Double Imputation
Double imputation is the name for the teaching that both the active and passive obedience of Christ are necessary as grounds for our justification. Our sin is imputed to Christ, which means that in His death, our sin was counted as Christ’s own; and his righteousness is imputed to us, which means that God regards Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us. In justification, God not only erases our sinful record, but he writes a righteous record—the one achieved by Christ in his perfectly obedient life—to replace it. Justification, as seen this way, has two aspects: the negative, wherein our disobedience to the law and the curse that comes to us as a result is removed from us; and the positive, wherein Christ’s life of obedience to the law and the blessing that results from that is given to us.

Historically, those who are reformed or reformedish have affirmed double imputation, and those who are not reformed affirm the imputation of our sin to Christ, but deny the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to us. Those who deny the imputation of Christ’s righteousness argue that it is not found in scripture, and it is true that you won’t find the statement “Christ’s perfect obedience to all of God’s precepts is imputed to those who believe as grounds for their justification” in the Bible. However, there are texts that can be used to argue for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, although, of course, those who deny double imputation don’t see them as arguing for it.

Defense of the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness
Why do some see the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to sinners in the text and other do not find it there? What is the key to whether someone sees the imputation of Christ’s active obedience in the text or not? In his essay, To Obey Is Better Than Sacrifice from By Faith Alone, David VanDrunen argues that one of the central matters in this debate is the question of “whether God demands perfect obedience as the condition for eschatological life….”2 And I suspect that believing in the necessity of obedience as grounds for justification provides the foundation for seeing the imputation of Christ’s righteousness affirmed in scripture.

Giving a whole argument for the necessity of perfect obedience to his precepts for eternal life is way beyond what I can do in a blog post, but one of the clearest arguments, as I see it, is in Romans 2:13:

…it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.

Perfect law keeping is required of us, yet we are also told that “by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified (Romans 3:20).” We need perfect law keeping, but we can’t do it. And there we have the problem: law keeping is necessary for justification, but no one keeps the law. However, we are also told that God “justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5),” so we know that a solution to the problem exists, for God does indeed justify those who don’t keep the law. How does he do that? That’s where the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness comes in: it explains how God can justify the ungodly even though obedience is required for justification. Without the foundational doctrine of the necessity for perfect obedience as grounds for justification, one is unlikely to see the concept of imputed righteousness in scripture; and with this foundational doctrine, it will be seen in several places in the New Testament. Those who believe that God requires us to be obedient and not simply guiltless will see God’s gift of righteousness to the sinner in those passages that can be interpreted as confirming imputed righteousness, since they understand the necessity of a solution to the problem of our inability to produce for ourselves the obedience to God’s precepts that is required for justification.

What, then, are some of the places in the New Testament that can be used to defend the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in our justification? For one, Paul tell us in 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 that it is “by God’s doing we are in Christ Jesus, who became for us…righteousness;” and that based on this truth, no one has grounds for boasting except in the Lord. Since Paul says that this righteousness precludes our boasting about our own works and gives us reason to glory in Christ’s work instead, I’d understand this to mean that the righteousness Christ became for us must be a righteousness that is not inherent to us; but rather, Christ’s own righteousness counted as ours. If Christ becoming my righteousness rules out any boasting on my part, then it must be that God regards me as righteous in Christ apart from my own works. I see imputed righteousness in these verses because the argument Paul makes in the text seems to point to it, even though he doesn’t say it directly. In addition, I am inclined to understand it that way because that fits with what I already know: I stand in need of an alien righteousness counted as my own, because justification requires obedience.

There are more texts, too, but I’ll just give a couple of them. There’s Romans 5:19, for instance, which says that “by one Man’s obedience many will be constituted righteous.” If you take the statements of Romans 5 as containing a kind of opposite symmetry, this would suggest that Christ’s obedience to God’s commands is the basis for the many being counted as righteous in the same way that Adam’s disobedience to God’s command is the basis for many being counted as sinners.

Another text that I believe teaches imputed righteousness is Phillipians 3:9, where it says that Paul desires to be “found in [Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” In context, it would seem that Paul is using the word righteousness as law-keeping righteousness (see verse 6, too). It is not Paul’s own lawkeeping righteousness by which he will “attain the resurrection from the dead,” but rather, law-keeping righteousness that comes from God to those who are united with Christ through faith.

All in all, I’d say that the two things taken together—the necessity for a record of perfect obedience and the texts that suggest that Christ’s righteousness counts as our righteousness—make a pretty strong case that Christ’s active obedience is necessary, along with his passive obedience, as grounds for our justification. We need them both: Christ’s death to rid us of the curse that comes from our law breaking, and Christ’s perfect law keeping to earn for us the reward promised.

And thankfully, gloriously, Christ provided them both for us. That he provided them both gives us even more reason to give glory and honor to Christ, whose obedience in death and obedience in life we depend on for our eternal life. As Paul says, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

1 John Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord, page 148.

2Gary L. Johnson and Guy P. Waters, By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification, page 133.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (12)

I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this subject!
Lisa J

July 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterLisa J

Hi Lisa,

I believe in the imputation of Christ's righteousness for the reasons given in the post. :)

July 11, 2007 | Registered Commenterrebecca


Oops - I don't think I clicked for the enlarged version! I finished at the 'if I'm thinking about it, you know I'm going to be writing about it... ' and I was waiting for more in another post. I'm such a novice!

Good post.

Lisa J

July 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterLisa J

Oops - I don't think I clicked for the enlarged version!


July 11, 2007 | Registered Commenterrebecca

Lovely post, Rebecca; I think this may turn out to be one of your greats.

July 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBrandon


Thanks for handling this topic. Many people are unaware of this distinction, yet it is extremely important. Here is a video of I did standing in my garage:-) talking about this very topic.


August 3, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug

Hi Doug,

Thanks for the link to your video. I really liked the watch example. Perfect!

August 3, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterrebecca

Wow!!! I think I found the community I was looking for (at least a virtual one).
Double imputation. Yes!!!

January 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFisherman

Thanks for the post. I've downloaded it to read more closely and carefully. I'm currently writing an article (actually I've been writing on it for about six years) on this subject. The rather prosaic, if not unambiguous, title is "Against the Doctrine of the Active and Passiive Obedience of Christ." So far I'm of the view that this doctrine is actually not taught in Scripture. The most direct influence on my views so far is Robert Lightner of Dallas Theological Seminary in his book "Sin, the Savior, and Salvation."
I've tried to do a historical search of where the doctrine explicitly appears in the history of theology (creeds, confessions), proponents among prominent theologians, and how proponents/opponents fall along certain theological paradigms (the most conspicuous of which so far seems to covenant vs. dispensational lines). I look forward to considering the arguments you propose. I'll certainly cite you appropriately if I use/comment on any of your points. God bless.

June 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRichard

A record of perfect obedience—a requirement that is fulfilled by Christ’s perfect law-keeping on behalf of those who believe?

August 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGerovital

Just found this while looking for a succinct answer on Christ's active and passive obedience as a I study for licensure in our denomination. Great post!

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDamon Cinaglia

Thanks Damon.

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrebecca

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>