“Passive” is not a complimentary word to apply to someone these days. It suggests an inert, sluggish, withdrawn soul that is lost in daydreams. So perhaps it sounds like a contradiction to speak of “passive obedience.” How can obedience be passive?
I suppose if someone in authority commands you to be inert, sluggish, withdrawn, and lost in daydreams, then your passivity will be an act of obedience — although we are now descending into wild paradox with our talk of a “passive act”!
The passive obedience of Christ, however, doesn’t involve these contradictions and paradoxes. The word “passive” here suggests the older meaning of “suffering.” There was an aspect to Christ’s obedience to the will of His Father that embraced suffering, a submission to affliction and infliction. Hence the term “the Passion” is used to describe the last hours of the Savior’s life, from Gethsemane onwards.
The counterpart to Christ’s obedience-as-suffering is His “active obedience.” This refers to the way He positively embodied in His character and deeds His Father’s precepts for human life. Since Christ is the True Man, and since God’s will for humanity is expressed in the Moral Law, Christ’s active obedience is His fulfillment of that Law. If we want to see the meaning of the Ten Commandments fleshed out in a human life, we must look at Christ.
It’s quite common today to find people rejecting this distinction between Christ’s “active” and “passive” obedience as artificial. But it would only be artificial if we said that Christ’s active obedience was everything He did prior to Gethsemane, and His passive obedience was everything that happened afterwards. That won’t work, because Christ suffered prior to Gethsemane (think of the inner pain He must have experienced every day, as He witnessed human sin and the wreck it makes of lives created for God). And of course, Christ kept on obeying His Father’s precepts during the whole course of the Passion. So we must not make that pre- and post-Gethsemane kind of distinction.
What theologians are trying to do when they distinguish between the active and passive obedience of Christ is point to a very real distinction between different aspects, or different dimensions, of the one life of Christ. Throughout His entire life, Christ fulfilled the Moral Law. But so would Adam have done if sin had not entered the world when he sinned. It’s the entrance of sin that brings in a new, darker dimension to the obedience required of Man: he must now submit to God’s holy judgment as a result of his transgression.
So when Christ comes as the Second Adam, it won’t suffice for Him simply to live the holy life that unfallen Adam ought to have lived. The Second Adam’s obedience also means submitting humbly to the awesome divine verdict on human sin. He was submissive throughout His life as He underwent all the hardships and sorrows of a sinless man in a fallen world. But His submission to His Father’s judgment on our sin reached its apex on the cross. Prior to this, Christ had only walked in the outer shadow of judgment, so to speak, still enjoying the light of His Father’s face. On Skull Hill, He entered the innermost darkness when He cried out, “My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Yet still He embraced the darkness with a submissive spirit — a Son obeying His Father’s purpose, at one with the Father in His redemptive design.
By calling this submission of Christ a passive “obedience,” theologians are highlighting two hugely important points. First, the Passion didn’t fall on an unwilling Savior. The Lamb of God wasn’t dragged to the altar of Calvary kicking and screaming.He was, as John Milton puts it, “a sacrifice glad to be offered.” Anything else would have destroyed the revelatory nature of the Cross as the supreme display of love. We couldn’t really say, “See how much Christ loved me: He suffered for me most unwillingly!”
Second, suffering by itself isn’t enough to atone for sin. Atonement concerns giving God what we owe Him. Since we sinners don’t (and can’t) give God what we owe Him, God does something staggering. He Himself on our behalf gives to Himself what we owe, as God the Son becomes Man and deals with His Father in humanity’s name. But one of the things we owe God is submission to His holy verdict on our sin. Not just suffering the verdict, but also submitting to it, with a full confession of our sin, and a full acknowledgment of God’s holiness in judging our sin. After all, if it’s a mere question of suffering, the lost are going to suffer God’s judgment. But that won’t atone for their sin. Hell isn’t purgatory.
So if we sinners are to give God what we owe, then the great representative of sinners, Christ the God-Man, must do two things for us. He must endure the penalty of sin, and in the midst of that endurance, from His heart of consuming fire, He must also sing a hymn of praise to the divine holiness and justice that judge the sinner. He must suffer, and He must submit perfectly to the suffering. That alone will suffice to make full atonement for human transgression; that alone will give God what we owe Him. And that is what Christ has done for us. His Passion took Him to the heights of holy obedience. The incarnate Son of God freely submitted on our behalf, from the core of His being, to His Father’s holy death-sentence on our old Adamic humanity in all its vile unholiness. Here was “passive obedience” indeed. Was Christ ever more gloriously obedient to His Father’s will than when He willingly endured the Cross?
This surely accounts for the Bible’s emphasis on the voluntary nature of Christ’s sacrifice. “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John10:17–18). “He gave himself for our sins” (Gal.1:4). “The Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). “He made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant … He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:7–8). “Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ who gave himself for us to redeem us” (Tit. 2:13–14).
Pause, then, and contemplate. The eternal Son of God, Creator of the universe, worshiped and adored by angels and archangels, has offered Himself in your place. He has offered Himself freely, willingly, and gladly, to endure the judgment that your sin deserves, and to endure it in a holy way — saying the perfect “Yea and Amen!” to the holiness of the judgment, which your corrupt heart could never have said. As far as atoning for your sins is concerned, the only thing you owe God is endless gratitude. And, to quote John Milton again, “a grateful mind by owing owes not, but still pays, at once indebted and discharged; what burden then?”
May God crown all the immensity of His grace in Jesus Christ with the gift of an unburdened, grateful heart.