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Theologians often speak of the active and passive obedience of Christ. His active obedience consisted of His perfect keeping of the law of God throughout His life. His passive obedience consisted of His willing reception of the punishment of sinners’ breaking the law. Both are imputed to sinners who trust in Christ, so that they are seen to be perfectly righteous in Christ and without any penalty for breaking the law (see Westminster Confession of Faith 11). “Passive obedience” is somewhat of a misnomer, since Christ’s enduring the penalty of sin was an active endurance.

The passage that most strongly affirms the positive imputation of Christ’s righteousness is 1 Corinthians 1:30: “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (NASB, here and throughout). Believers’ union with Christ means that “in Christ Jesus” we are considered to have the same (perfect) “wisdom . . . , righteousness . . . sanctification, and redemption” that Christ possesses. This does not mean that we possess these attributes in our personal existence on earth. Instead, we are represented by Christ as becoming these things because of our unity with Him (that is, we “are in Christ”). The phrase “to us” refers to our location “in Christ Jesus” and our sharing in His attributes.

Some object to this conclusion because it appears difficult to understand how Christ Himself was “redeemed” in the same manner that believers are “redeemed.” Accordingly, some contend that neither should the references to “wisdom,” “righteousness,” and “sanctification” be taken in a representative manner. The verse would refer only to believers’ becoming wise, holy, righteous, and redeemed through Christ, and the first three characteristics would be godly traits that should characterize increasingly the lives of Christians.

A simple word study alleviates this problem. The word translated “redemption” is sometimes used in the Greek Old Testament to refer to release from sin but is more often used to refer to liberation from harsh oppression. In view of this, it would appear to be a normal use of “redemption” in 1 Corinthians 1:30 to indicate liberation from oppression, particularly with respect to Christ. It would refer to His deliverance from death and liberation from bondage to the powers of Satan in the resurrection.

The first part of the verse augments the conception of Christians’ being represented by these attributes of Christ: it was by God’s “doing” that we “are in Christ Jesus,” and because we are “in” Him, we share positionally in His impeccable traits. Therefore, we are to boast not of our own abilities (vv. 29, 31) but of the benefits resulting from our representation by Christ.

Consequently, 1 Corinthians 1:30 supports the idea that believers are represented by Christ’s perfect righteousness and are, positionally, as completely righteous as He is (see Rom. 5:15–19; Phil. 3:9). In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul writes, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Paul asserts that Christ took on an alien guilt and endured a punishment that He Himself did not deserve so that the sinners for whom Christ suffered the punishment would “become the righteousness of God in Him [Christ].” This means that God would view us as “not guilty” and not deserving of the penalty though we had committed sin. But our becoming “the righteousness of God” also means being identified with “the righteousness of God” not only in the death offering of Christ but explicitly in the risen Christ, so that some positive aspect of Christ’s righteousness is credited to us.

We would be lost without our Savior.

Genesis 1:28 and its reiterations throughout the Old Testament provide an important background for understanding Christ’s justifying work with respect to His active obedience. The commission of Genesis 1:26–28 involved the following aspects: (1) “God blessed them”; (2) “Be fruitful and multiply”; (3) “Fill the earth”; (4) “Subdue” the “earth”; (5) “Rule over . . . [all] the earth.” God’s making Adam in His “image” and “likeness” is what would enable Adam to execute the various parts of the commission. As an image bearer, Adam was to reflect the character of God, which included mirroring the divine glory. Together with the prohibition on eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:16–17), the essence of the commission was subduing and ruling over the earth and filling it with God’s glory, especially through bearing glorious image-bearing progeny. If Adam had obeyed his commission, He would have received escalated end-time blessings, the essence of which was an irreversible, eternal incorruptibility of physical and spiritual life, which would be lived in an incorruptible cosmos that was free from any evil or sinful threat.

Adam, however, disobeyed the commission by disobeying God’s word and not ruling over creation in the way he should have, allowing the serpent to enter and corrupt him and his wife (Gen. 3; see 2:16–17). But the commission to Adam was not revoked. Many biblical passages indicate that Adam’s commission was passed on to other Adam-like figures such as Noah, the patriarchs, and old covenant Israel. Nevertheless, they all failed in carrying out the commission. Beginning with the patriarchs, the repeated commission to Adam was combined with a promise of a “seed” who would “bless” the nations. This suggests that the commission would be fulfilled at last by the “seed.”

The reiterations of the Genesis 1 commission beginning with Abraham are stated either as a promise of some positive act that will take place or of some command that will result in positive obedience. Both the promissory and imperatival reiterations of the commission pertain to the “seed’s” positive conquering, possessing (or inheriting), multiplying and increasing, and spreading out. In view of this, it would be strange if the New Testament never referred to Jesus as the last Adam in the same positive manner. The New Testament, indeed, sees Christ’s submission to death on the cross as part of His obedience to the commission of Adam (see Rom. 5:12–17; Phil. 2:5–11; Heb. 2:6–10). Jesus not only carried out what the first Adam should have carried out, but He became obedient even unto death, leading to His victory through resurrection and exaltation.

Paul refers more to Christ’s so-called passive obedience in death than he does to His active obedience in saving people. However, there are passages where Jesus as the last Adam is depicted without allusion to His death but as doing what Adam should have done. Christ’s temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4; Luke 4) is an example. There Christ functioned as both a last Adam and true Israel (i.e., corporate Adam) figure who obeyed at the very points where the first Adam and the first Israel disobeyed.


Likewise, Paul depicts Christ as the last Adam who has received the triumphant position and reward of incorruptible and glorious kingship as a result of having carried out all the conditions of obedience that were demanded of the first Adam, especially possessing and conquering. In 1 Corinthians 15:27 and Ephesians 1:22, Paul asserts that Christ has accomplished the Psalm 8:6 ideal that the first Adam should have carried out: “He [God] has put all things in subjection under his feet,” which means that Christ Himself as the last Adam also has “exerted the power . . . to subject all things to himself’” (Phil. 3:21). First Corinthians 15:45 clearly refers to Christ as the “last Adam” who has accomplished the heightened blessing of incorruptibility that the first Adam did not obtain. Furthermore, 1 Corinthians and Ephesians identify believers either with Christ’s having all things in subjection to Him (Eph. 2:5–6) or with His possessing incorruptible blessings (1 Cor. 15:49–57; see also Heb. 2:6–17).

Paul understands that Christ fulfilled the Adamic commission of Psalm 8. This means that Christ flawlessly ruled, subdued, multiplied spiritual progeny (though this element is missing in Ps. 8), and filled the earth with God’s glory as much as one person could in one lifetime. This is an inaugurated end-time notion, since Christ’s faithful obedience as the last Adam led to the everlasting reward of becoming the incorruptible new creation and King in that creation. In other words, Christ’s resurrected body was the beginning of the end-time new creation and His obedient rule in that new creation. As Christians are identified with Christ’s position of resurrection and royal exaltation in heaven, they also are identified with His reward of exalted kingship and the faithful obedience that continues to characterize that kingship. Christ’s resurrected and exalted kingship and status as the obedient Adam represent a breaking in of the future new creation into the present age. This is not a perfected new creation, since Christians in the present age are not yet perfectly obedient kings, nor have they experienced the consummate reward of full resurrection. However, we are in union with Christ, the last Adam who was perfectly obedient.

The doctrine that Christ was a penal substitute for sinners who have broken the law, so they could be considered not guilty, is the doctrine of Christ’s passive obedience. Second Corinthians 5:21 also refers to this notion: Christ’s becoming a sin offering for the penalty of believers’ sin results in our being declared not guilty, yet as we have seen above, we as believers also take on the righteousness of the resurrected Christ.

Romans 3:23–26 also refers to Christ’s passive obedience, with the word “propitiation” in verse 25 referring to the “mercy seat,” the lid of the ark of the covenant where sacrificial blood was poured out as a representative substitution for the penalty of Israel’s sin. Christ has now become the “mercy seat” where He sheds His own blood for the penalty of sin in order that sinners may be declared “not guilty” or “righteous.”

Thus, Christ’s representative life and death attribute to His people righteousness and declare us not guilty of our sin. We would be lost without our Savior.

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Expiation and Propitiation

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From the April 2019 Issue
Apr 2019 Issue