Rebecca Stark is the author of The Good Portion — God, the second title in The Good Portion series, a series written specifically 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.


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Theological Term of the Week


active obedience of Christ
Jesus Christ’s perfect obedience to the whole law of God, which is credited to believers as grounds for their justification. Also called preceptive obedience. (See passive obedience of Christ.)

  • Christ’s active obedience in scripture (see quote from John Owen below for more explanation):
    Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 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. (Romans 5:18-19 ESV)
  • From the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith :
    Of Justification. We believe that the great gospel blessing which Christ secures to such as believe in him is Justification; that Justification includes the pardon of sin, and the promise of eternal life on principles of righteousness; that it is bestowed, not in consideration of any works of righteousness which we have done, but solely through faith in the Redeemer’s blood; by virtue of which faith his perfect righteousness is freely imputed to us of God; that it brings us into a state of most blessed peace and favor with God, and secures every other blessing needful for time and eternity.
  • From Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem:
    If Christ had only earned forgiveness of sins for us, then we would not merit heaven. Our guilt would have been removed, but we would simply be in the position of Adam and Eve before they had done anything good or bad and before they had passed a time of probation successfully. To be established in righteousness forever and to have their fellowship with God made sure forever, Adam and Eve had to obey God perfectly over a period of time. Then God would have looked on their faithful obedience with pleasure and delight, and they would have lived with him in fellowship forever.

    For this reason, Christ had to live a life of perfect obedience to God in order to earn righteousness for us. He had to obey the law for his whole life on our behalf so that the positive merits of his perfect obedience would be counted for us. Sometimes this is called Christ’s “active obedience,” while his suffering and dying for our sins is called his “passive obedience.” Paul says his goal is that he may be found in Christ, “not having a righteousness of [his] own based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9). It is not just moral neutrality that Paul knows he needs from Christ (that is, a clean slate with sins forgiven), but a positive moral righteousness. And he knows that that cannot come from himself, but must come through faith in Christ. Similarly, Paul says that Christ has been made “our righteousness” (1 Cor. 1:30). And he quite explicitly says, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19).
  • From The Imputation of the Obedience of Christ Unto the Law Declared and Indicated by John Owen:
    …[O]ur Saviour himself expounds this “fulfilling of the law,” by doing the commands of it, Matt.5:19. Wherefore, the Lord Christ as our mediator and surety fulfilling the law, by yielding perfect obedience thereunto, he did it for us; and to us it is imputed.

    This is plainly affirmed by the apostle, Rom.5:18,19, “Therefore, as by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners; so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” The full plea from, and vindication of, this testimony, I refer unto its proper place in the testimonies given unto the imputation of the righteousness of Christ unto our justification in general. Here I shall only observe, that the apostle expressly and in terms affirms that “by the obedience of Christ we are made righteous,” or justified; which we cannot be but by the imputation of it unto us. I have met with nothing that had the appearance of any sobriety for the eluding of this express testimony, but only that by the obedience of Christ his death and sufferings are intended, wherein he was obedient unto God; as the apostle says, he was “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross,” Phil.2:8. But yet there is herein no colour of probability. For,
    (1.) It is acknowledged that there was such a near conjunction and alliance between the obedience of Christ and his sufferings, that though they may be distinguished, yet can they not be separated. He suffered in the whole course of his obedience, from the womb to the cross; and he obeyed in all his sufferings unto the last moment wherein he expired. But yet are they really things distinct, as we have proved; and they were so in him who “learned obedience by the things that he suffered,” Heb.5:8.

    (2.) In this place, [Rom.5] “hupako-e”, verse 19, and “dikaiooma”, verse 18, are the same,— obedience and righteousness. “By the righteousness of one,” and “by the obedience of one,” are the same. But suffering, as suffering, is not “dikaiooma”, is not righteousness; for if it were, then every one that suffers what is due to him should be righteous, and so be justified, even the devil himself.

    (3.) The righteousness and obedience here intended are opposed “tooi paraptoomati”,—to the offence: “By the offense of one.” But the offense intended was an actual transgression of the law; so is “paraptooma”, a fall from, or a fall in, the course of obedience. Wherefore the “dikaiooma”, or righteousness, must be an actual obedience unto the commands of the law, or the force of the apostle’s reasoning and antithesis cannot be understood.

    (4.) Particularly, it is such an obedience as is opposed unto the disobedience of Adam,—“one man’s disobedience,” “one man’s obedience;”—but the disobedience of Adam was an actual transgression of the law: and therefore the obedience of Christ here intended was his active obedience unto the law;—which is that we plead for.

Learn more:

  1. R. C. Sproul: Jesus Not Only Died for Us, He Lived for Us
  2. Brian Schwertley: A Defense of the “Active Obedience” of Jesus Christ in the Justification of Sinners (pdf).
  3. Wayne Grudem: The Active Obedience of Christ
  4. John Samson: The Active Obedience of Christ - No Hope Without It!
  5. J. Gresham Machen: The Active Obedience of Christ
  6. Loraine Boettner: The Active and Passive Obedience of Christ
  7. Curt Daniel: The Active and Passive Obedience of Christ (mp3)

Previously at this blog:

Related terms:

  1. passive obedience of Christ
  2. justification
  3. imputation

Filed under Christ’s Nature and His Work

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Reader Comments (2)

I learned this precious doctrine by reading a systematic theology, believe it or not. I don't remember ever hearing it preached before and I have only heard it preached since one time and that only tangentially. (That is not to say that imputation of Christ's righteousness was not or is not regularly taught, but only that His active obedience is not regularly taught)

What a blessing this doctrine is! I make sure that the children in my Sunday School class are learning this over and over again.

November 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKim from Hiraeth

My experience would have been more-or-less the same as yours. I only saw this called "active obedience" as I read, although the concept was taught. But knowing the distinction between the aspects of Christ's obedience helps make the doctrine of the imputation of Christ' righteousness clearer.

November 27, 2008 | Registered Commenterrebecca

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