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.