Passive and Active Obedience

Dear Church Family,

In our text for the sermon this coming Sunday (John 18:15-27), the Apostle Peter denies his Savior three times while Jesus stands trial before the Jewish high priest. Peter’s weakness and desertion stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ love and loyalty.

This contrast, as we will see on Sunday, illuminates the importance of understanding the passive and active obedience of Christ. I’ve written about how the passive and active obedience of Christ makes us free and makes us rich. In preparation for the sermon this Sunday, I encourage you to follow the link and read about what that means.

For now, here are some basic definitions from Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (pp 380-381):

The Passive Obedience of Christ – consists in Christ’s “paying the penalty of sin by His suffering and death, and thus discharging the debt of all His people.”

The Active Obedience of Christ – consists in “all that Christ did to observe the law in its federal aspect, as the condition for obtaining eternal life.”

You may ask why this is important. Why is it important to understand that Christ was both actively obedient (He kept the law of God) and passively obedient (He bore the penalty for our sins)? It’s important because it is what makes Jesus the only possible Redeemer and Mediator between God and man. It’s important because this understanding is foundational to a proper understanding of justification and perseverance. Or, to put it another way, it helps us to understand that, as believers in Christ, our beginning and continuance in faith is based solely upon Christ’s obedience and suffering.

If you have been redeemed by the grace of God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, then you cannot add to or take away from His work. We do not obey God’s law or suffer for our sins in order to be brought into a right relationship with God; Christ has done all that is necessary to set us free from the punishment of sin. Nor do we obey God’s law or suffer for our sins in order to continue in a right relationship with God; Christ has done all that is necessary to grant you eternal and abundant life.

A Bad Illustration with a (hopefully) Good Point

In preparing sermons, I usually find that I have more to say than is needed or even helpful – there are some “leftovers.” These leftovers don’t make it into the sermon for various reasons (e.g., it would make the sermon too long, the point distracts from the main point, it’s a bad point or illustration that doesn’t work, etc.). This week, I came up with an illustration about the active obedience of Christ that won’t make it into the sermon this Sunday for all of these reasons.

The chief reason, though, is that it’s a bad illustration. Be that as it may, let me try and see if I can make a good point from a bad illustration…

In chemical reactions – as I learned years ago in chemistry class – when you combine two or more substances together such that a chemical reaction occurs, the substances that you combine together are called reagents. So, for instance, if you combine sodium (Na) and chloride (Cl) together, the two reagents – sodium and chloride – have a reaction. They bond with one another, and you get sodium chloride: NaCl – one part sodium and one part chloride – what we call salt.

And since sodium and chloride come together in a one to one ratio to form sodium chloride, it’s pretty easy to figure out how much salt you will get from a particular reaction. For instance, if you combine one gram of sodium with one gram of chloride, how much sodium chloride would you get from that reaction? Answer: two grams. Hopefully, that’s simple enough to see – one gram of sodium and one gram of chloride when combined and bonded to one another, make two grams of sodium chloride.

Now, here’s where it gets a little tricky. What if you doubled the amount of sodium? So, now you combine two grams of sodium with one gram of chloride. You might expect that you would get three grams of sodium chloride, but you would be wrong. You would get the same amount of sodium chloride (two grams) plus an excess of one gram of sodium: two grams of sodium plus one gram of chloride also makes two grams of sodium chloride.

The reason for this is because in that second experiment (two grams of sodium plus one gram of chloride), chloride is the “limiting reagent.” In a chemical reaction involving a one to one ratio of two elements, the chemical reaction is limited by the element of the lesser amount. Once it’s used up, there is no more reaction. That’s why it’s called the limiting reagent. [Here’s another reason why I won’t use this illustration: it’s tedious!]

Anyway, I initially thought that I would use this illustration to speak of how Jesus’ merit (His active obedience) is the limiting reagent of our perseverance in the faith. The point that I was trying to get at was that our perseverance in the faith is not limited by what we bring to the equation, but is solely based upon what Christ brings to the equation.

Do you see the problem with the illustration? It implies that we actually do bring some kind of merit, obedience, or sacrifice to the equation. It also implies that there is limit to Jesus’ merit. There’s all sorts of problems with this illustration!

But, if we use the idea of a limiting reagent as an illustration of what Jesus’ active obedience is not, maybe that would work. You see, if our salvation was a chemical reaction, we don’t supply any of the reagents. Jesus is the one who supplies all of the chemicals – and His supply of grace and merit is unlimited! So, while in chemistry, there may be such a thing as a limiting reagent, in salvation there is the unlimited reagents of Christ’s love, forgiveness, and imputed righteousness!

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch