In my previous post in this series, I discussed the profound, although nuanced, importance of rightly handling the message of the Gospel without fragmenting Christ’s life. His active obedience is as important as His laying down of His life (passive obedience), which is as important as His death defeating resurrection. Without any one of these pieces, Christ did not accomplish anything on our behalf. Yet, it is through His actual sinless life, true crucifixion on our behalf, and literal resurrection from the dead that the Lord Jesus provided salvation through faith in Him. For this post, I will be discussing His active obedience (sinless life).
I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it. -J. Gresham Machen
J. Gresham Machen, the courageous Presbyterian churchman who sought to preserve the Gospel message in the warring Presbyterian Church (USA), who went on to found Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), wrote the previous quote in a telegram on Jan. 1, 1937 to Prof. John Murray, a friend and colleague. This is the last thing Dr. Machen ever penned, and he went to be with the Lord a few hours later. Not only does this quote summarize the life and faith of a man who followed the Lord faithfully until the end, but it also presents a clear look at the absolute centrality of Christ’s obedience during His life for those of us who call upon His name in faith–”No hope without it.”
The presence of sin in the life of every individual is an absolute reality, one that affects every aspect of our being. The Scriptures make it absolutely clear: “…sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned…” (Rom. 5:12). The alarming truth is that there are no “innocent” people. The far-reaching ramifications of Adam’s sin is such that “all sinned” in him. The effects of sin are not passive in their influence over our lives, but have fundamentally changed the ways in which we live.
The active disobedience of Adam has produced a state of spiritual inability on our own part from the moment we are born:
Against You, You only, I have sinned
And done what is evil in Your sight,
So that You are justified when You speak
And blameless when You judge.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me. (Psalm 51:4-5)
Each of us stand in a position of guilt before God, not simply because of Adam’s sin, but because we all must say honestly that “Against You, You only, I have sinned.” From Adam we have received a nature tainted by sin, rendering us spiritually dead and morally incapable (Col. 2:13; Eph. 2:5). This deadness is not a passive existence, but one that encourages active disobedience apart from God’s intervention by grace. This doctrine has become known as total depravity or total inability. While I will touch on this briefly, for a more complete exposition of this doctrine, see Total Depravity by John Piper.
Merely to establish the reality of our active disobedience, consider what the Scripture says concerning every individual ever born:
9…For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 ”Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 ”Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 ”Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16in their paths are ruin and misery,
17and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 ”There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
19Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. -(Rom. 3:9-19 ESV)
And again: “…whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).
Because of our active and complete disobedience, each person stands justly condemned before a God Who is Holy, Holy, Holy, apart from the active and complete obedience of Christ fulfilling all the requirements of the Law. The affront to His glory and moral perfection caused by even the “smallest” of sins is deserving of death and eternal condemnation because of the transcendent magnitude of His goodness: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
Yet, Jesus, through his life, accomplished everything necessary for us to be freed from our own sin. Where we could not fulfill the Law, Christ fulfilled the commands of the Lord completely. His position as our Savior is powerful for us because “…we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).
Without Christ’s sinlessness, He would not have fulfilled the requirements of being a pure sacrifice without blemish, which is essential to the sacrificial system instituted by God. This system was a shadow of the true sacrifice which was to come on the Cross, granting salvation through faith in the coming Messiah. For if the sacrifice of animals affected sin, “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9:14).
Apart from Christ’s active and complete obedience, His sacrifice would have had no efficacy in saving us. Indeed, God would not have been able to make Him “who knew no sin to be[come] sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
This brings us to the next thing to consider with Christ’s active obedience: imputed righteousness. Because of Adam’s sin, we received death and a sinful nature. Adam’s sin was imputed (ie. transferred, given, applied) to us. In order to address this issue of inherited sinfulness, Christ did not simply atone for our sins through the Cross, but imputed to us His righteousness: God made Him “who knew no sin to be[come] sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ did no simply take our sin, but also transferred to us His righteousness.
Dr. Machen, discussing imputed righteousness, said:
“If Christ had merely paid the penalty of sin for us and had done nothing more we should be at best back in the situation in which Adam found himself where God placed him under the covenant of works. In other words, if Christ only paid the penalty for our sins through his passive sufferings, then we are merely transported back to the Garden of Eden.”
Unless we are given a new identity, the old identity remains. Unless His righteousness is given to us, our sinfulness is only temporarily accounted for. Yet this is the glorious truth: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God…” (Gal. 2:20).
The reality of this truth is absolutely remarkable, without parallel–that God would treat Christ as we deserve, paying the penalty for our sin through death on the Cross, and He would treat us the way Christ deserves, imputing to us His own righteousness when we were disobedient.
It is for this reason that Christ’s active and complete sinfulness is essential to our salvation. Because no one is capable of living a perfect life, Christ had to do it for us. Apart from His Law fulfilling life, we would all remain condemned under the Law, incapable of justifying ourselves before God. Because of His active obedience in life, He was able to offer Himself as a sacrifice for our sins, taking the punishment of God away from us, giving to us His own righteousness. Praise be to You, Lord Jesus Christ!