Friday, May 15, 2009

On the Distinction between Christ's "Passive" and "Active" Obedience

Craig Blomberg has a blog post at Zondervan's Koinonia blog today in praise of N.T. Wright's new book, now available in North America: Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision. Dr. Blomberg's fuller review will be available next week at the online Denver Seminary Journal. [Update: it's now here.]

I did want to draw attention to one aspect of the review that represents an important but common misunderstanding regarding the doctrine of justification:

Dr. Blomberg glosses Jesus’ "active obedience" as his "sinless life" and Jesus'
"passive obedience" as his "atoning death." But that's not historically what the terms mean--though I will admit that some popular defenders of the Reformed view (though not Piper) sometimes make this mistake.

It's important to make sure that we are certain we understand the teaching on its own terms from its best representatives before we determine whether or not we agree with the teaching being proposed. This is a necessary (though not sufficient!) condition for charity in place of caricature.

The Reformed understanding is that Christ's "passive obedience" and his "active obedience" both refer to the whole of Christ's work. The distinction highlights different aspects, not periods, of Christ's work in paying the penalty for sin ("passive obedience") and fulfilling the precepts of the law ("active obedience").

As Louis Berkhof puts it in his standard Systematic Theology (pp. 379, 380), "The two accompany each other at every point in the Saviour's life. There is a constant interpretation of the two. . . . Christ's active and passive obedience should be regarded as complementary parts of an organic whole."

John Murray, in Redemption—Accomplished and Applied (pp. 20-22), expresses it quite clearly:
[We cannot] allocate certain phases or acts of our Lord’s life on earth to the active obedience and certain other phases and acts to the passive obedience. The distinction between the active and passive obedience is not a distinction of periods. It is our Lord’s whole work of obedience in every phase and period that is described as active and passive, and we must avoid the mistake of thinking that the active obedience applies to the obedience of his life and the passive obedience to the obedience of his final sufferings and death.

The real use and purpose of the formula is to emphasize the two distinct aspects of our Lord’s vicarious obedience. The truth expressed rests upon the recognition that the law of God has both penal sanctions and positive demands. It demands not only the full discharge of its precepts but also the infliction of penalty for all infractions and shortcomings. It is this twofold demand of the law of God which is taken into account when we speak of the active and passive obedience of Christ. Christ as the vicar of his people came under the curse and condemnation due to sin and he also fulfilled the law of God in all its positive requirements. In other words, he took care of the guilt of sin and perfectly fulfilled the demands of righteousness. He perfectly met both the penal and the preceptive requirements of God’s law. The passive obedience refers to the former and the active obedience to the latter.