Dear Church Family,
Many people graduate from college with financial debt and college loans. And so for many years after graduating, a portion of their income must go to paying off that debt. Suppose, however, that upon graduating from college, some generous relative or friend decided to give you a gift: he pays off your financial debt for you. What a gift that would be!
Paying the Debt
These are the kinds of terms that many people think in, when they think about what Christ has done for us in His suffering and death. Because of our sin, we owe a debt to God; His justice and holiness demands payment for our disobedience. But, through His suffering and death, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has paid the debt which we owe to God. He was delivered over for our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification (Romans 4:25).
If that were all that Christ did, it would be a good thing. Like the relative who paid off your student loans, your debt would be paid. The problem is, however, that if someone simply paid for your student loans – as good, kind, and merciful as that is – you still have to get a job and work in order to support yourself. Such is the way of life. Likewise, if Christ only paid the debt that we owe to God, once that debt was paid, we would then have to work on our own (in our own efforts) to try and obtain the blessings of heaven.
In a sermon he once preached, J. Gresham Machen put it this way:
Suppose He had merely paid the just penalty of the law that was resting upon us for our sin, and had done nothing more than that; where would we then be? Well, I think we can say — if indeed it is legitimate to separate one part of the work of Christ even in thought from the rest — that 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 when God placed him under the covenant of works.
That covenant of works was a probation. If Adam kept the law of God for a certain period, he was to have eternal life. If he disobeyed he was to have death. Well, he disobeyed, and the penalty of death was inflicted upon him and his posterity. Then Christ by His death on the cross paid that penalty for those whom God had chosen.
Well and good. But if that were all that Christ did for us, do you not see that we should be back in just the situation in which Adam was before he sinned? The penalty of his sinning would have been removed from us because it had all been paid by Christ. But for the future the attainment of eternal life would have been dependent upon our perfect obedience to the law of God. We should simply have been back in the probation again.
Christ’s paying the debt for our sins is a good thing, but He does more: He makes us rich. Being born of a woman, born under the Law (Galatians 4:4-5), He was tempted in all things as we are, yet He did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). By faith in Him, Jesus Christ not only pays our debt and balances the scales of justice, He positively credits to us His righteousness and fills up our account with His obedience (Romans 5:17-19)!
From that same sermon preached by Machen:
Adam before he fell was righteous in the sight of God, but he was still under the possibility of becoming unrighteous. Those who have been saved by the Lord Jesus Christ not only are righteous in the sight of God but they are beyond the possibility of becoming unrighteous. In their case, the probation is over. It is not over because they have stood it successfully. It is not over because they have themselves earned the reward of assured blessedness which God promised on condition of perfect obedience. But it is over because Christ has stood it for them; it is over because Christ has merited for them the reward by His perfect obedience to God’s law.
The Passive and Active Obedience of Christ
These two ways of speaking of Christ’s work on our behalf are usually referred to as Christ’s passive and active obedience. Christ’s passive obedience “consisted in His paying the penalty of sin by His sufferings and death, and thus discharging the debt of all His people” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p 381). 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” (Berkhof, p 380).
Christ’s passive obedience is so named because it refers to all of that was done to Him, all that He received – all of the suffering which He underwent in His incarnation, crucifixion, and death. Christ’s active obedience is so named because it refers to all that He positively did, all of His good work – His keeping perfectly the entire Law of God in our stead.
While we may differentiate between the two in order to speak about them, they are inseparable. Machen is again, helpful. From that same sermon:
Christ’s active obedience and His passive obedience are not two divisions of His work, some of the events of His earthly life being His active obedience and other events of His life being His passive obedience; but every event of His life was both active obedience and passive obedience. Every event of His life was a part of His payment of the penalty of sin, and every event of His life was a part of that glorious keeping of the law of God by which He earned for His people the reward of eternal life. The two aspects of His work, in other words, are inextricably intertwined. Neither was performed apart from the other. Together they constitute the wonderful, full salvation which was wrought for us by Christ our Redeemer.
Meditating upon the passive and active obedience of Christ, I was reminded of the hymn by Phillip P. Bliss, “I Will Sing of My Redeemer.” In the refrain of that hymn, we sing:
Sing, oh sing, of my Redeemer,
With His blood, He purchased me.
On the cross, He sealed my pardon,
Paid the debt, and made me free.
I really like this hymn. I love to sing of my Redeemer and His wondrous love to me as it is expressed in this hymn. And, the refrain has some cool tenor and bass parts that are just fun to sing. It is a good hymn that focuses our attention on the passive obedience of Christ. That is good and right. So, I am not advocating that we stop singing it, or that we change the words.
At the same time, we should remember that Jesus Christ has not only – through His passive obedience – “paid the debt, and made me free.” He has also – through His active obedience – given me His righteousness, and made me rich. What a glorious Savior is He!
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch