What is the most important question in the whole world? It is the question that tormented Martin Luther until he discovered its answer in Romans 1:17. This question will cast you about upon the waves of dread and doubt unless you have the same answer Luther found. When you embrace it by faith, you enjoy peace and happiness that cannot be taken away. The all-important question is this: How can I, an unworthy sinner, be reckoned righteous, received into favor, and be accepted by the holy and just God? Put another way, how can an unholy man or woman draw near and abide in the presence of the Holy One without being utterly consumed? There is one answer to this all-important question: God justifies His people in Jesus Christ. He is “the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). He is the gracious God who “justifieth the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5).
Justification is God’s gracious, judicial verdict, as Judge, in which He declares the elect believer righteous in Christ. Justification is God’s verdict in which He absolves us of the guilt of our sins, acquits us of the punishment our sins deserve, and accounts us righteous in His sight, not with righteousness of our own making, but with the perfect righteousness of Christ Himself, which becomes ours by imputation.1 This is the great truth that God restored to His church through the Protestant Reformation, the “main hinge,” John Calvin said, “on which religion turns.”2 Every one of us ought to cherish it. “For unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God.”3 Justification is how you and I, unworthy sinners, are accepted by the holy God.
But now, this leads to another equally pressing question: How can God do that? How is it possible for the holy God to justify unholy sinners? How can the Judge pronounce the verdict concerning His people, “Not guilty, but righteous!” when His people in ourselves are so plainly guilty and unrighteous? God is just, and perfectly so. Justice and holiness are attributes of His divine being. God cannot justify on a whim. God cannot pronounce a verdict that is contrary to His own divine nature, contradicts His own justice, conflicts with His own holiness, or that nullifies the demands of His law. God is perfectly self-consistent. He is the I AM THAT I AM in all His works and ways. If God is to justify us, He must justify us justly. How can this be done? Here is a question of basis. What is the basis of our justification? Upon what ground does God’s justifying verdict rest? We must know the basis, so that our souls may rest upon it. For our assurance that we are accepted by God is only as solid, strong, and stable as the ground upon which God’s justifying verdict rests.
The comforting answer to this question is that justification has a basis. This basis is more solid, strong, and stable than the firmest rock beneath our feet. One word—or better, one name—is the bedrock upon which God’s justifying verdict rests: Christ. If we want to add a second word, then we say Christ alone! Jesus Christ, God the Son in our flesh, and His finished work as the Mediator of the covenant, constitute the sole basis upon which the holy God justly justifies His elect people. Specifically, the basis of justification is the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ for His people.4 The whole Christ is our righteousness (I Cor. 1:30). The whole Christ and His entire obedience is the all-sufficient ground for our justification.
To help us see this more clearly, it is worth our while to delve into the theological distinction between Christ’s passive obedience and active obedience. Of course, this distinction has its shortcomings. Christ’s work is one unified whole that cannot be neatly divided into parts.5 Nevertheless, this distinction is useful. It helps us wrap our creaturely minds around everything that Christ has done for us. It increases our appreciation for the unique facets of the one lustrous diamond that is the saving work of Christ.
Christ’s passive obedience refers to His saving work of suffering for His people. The passive obedience of Christ is His work of taking upon Himself the heavy burden of all of the guilt, of all of the sins, of all of God’s elect people, throughout all ages, and bearing the penalty God’s law prescribes for those sins, namely, the curse, and eternal death. Jesus’ passive obedience is His enduring of the holy wrath of God in order to deliver us from it. Christ suffered for our sins His whole life long. His sufferings culminated upon the cross, in those three hours of hellish darkness, where the Lamb of God laid down His life as the propitiation for our sins.
The term passive can be misleading. It does not mean inactive, but rather emphasizes that Jesus suffered.6 Jesus humbled Himself and assumed our flesh in order to be the sin-bearing, suffering servant of Jehovah. Jesus was very active in His passive obedience. He did not helplessly succumb to sufferings that were thrust upon Him. Jesus voluntarily took the burden of our sins upon Himself. He actively bore the punishment for our sins. By His divine power He sustained His human nature in the bearing of that wrath such that He carried it all away. Thus, the term passive stresses not a lack of agency on Christ’s part, but stresses the fact that Christ’s work was to suffer and die for His people (Is. 53:11).
Christ’s active obedience refers to His life of perfect conformity to every demand of God’s holy law, such that He lived not only a sinless life, but also rendered unto God a life of flawless love, service, and devotion. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice both in life as well as in death! He saves us as much by His life as by His death. Throughout His life on earth, Jesus fulfilled every jot and tittle of God’s law (Matt. 5:18). It was His meat to do His Father’s will (John 4:34). Jesus’ obedience was not merely outward, but inward, from the heart. He fulfilled not only the letter of the law, but its essence. He loved the Lord His God with all His heart, soul, mind, and strength. He loved His neighbor as Himself. He performed the “weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith” (Matt. 23:23).
Thus, by His life and death Jesus fulfilled all righteousness (Matt. 3:15). Jesus fulfilled all righteousness as our Substitute, as our representative Head. He is not only our Substitute in His death; He is also our Substitute in His life!7 He saves both by atoning for our sins and by fulfilling every positive requirement of the holy God in our place. With His blood He blots out our sin-debt; and with His obedient life He pays our love-debt. Christ’s suffering and death take away our guilt and punishment; Christ’s life of obedience constitutes us righteous and grants us the right to eternal life. Everything that God requires a man to be, Christ was. Everything God requires a man to do, Christ did.
Jesus is the complete Savior! Christ’s entire life is as a beautiful tapestry seamlessly woven together with the threads of His passive and active obedience. Together, His passive and active obedience deliver us from every dimension of sin. This is most clearly seen in the culmination of Jesus’ saving work, the climax of both His passive and active obedience, the cross of Calvary. Jesus “humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). Yet in His submission to death, He actively gave His life for us: “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10:17-18). When Christ gave Himself into the hands of sinners and suffered His blessed body to be nailed to the cross, this was simultaneously His supreme act of humility and submission, and His supreme act of love and obedience to the Father. The cross was both Christ’s supreme act of love for God and His supreme act of love for His people. Even as the Father turned His face away, drawing from the crucified Christ the agonized cry, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me” (Mark 15:34), Jesus never wavered in His love for the Father or His love for us. He bore our sin and He obeyed God’s will to the very end, when at last, triumphantly He said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). At the cross, the heart of the Triune God is laid bare in Christ’s supreme demonstration of God’s saving love.
In light of this, look again at that second question concerning basis. Do you see how Christ’s active and passive obedience come together to form the basis for our justification? Together, Christ’s passive and active obedience lay the rock-solid foundation upon which the holy God our Judge may justly and truthfully pronounce this unchangeable verdict concerning us: “You are forgiven, righteous, and an heir to eternal life!”8 Christ’s passive and active obedience are the ground of our acceptance with God and the foundation of our joy, peace, and assurance.
This truth is a fundamental part of our inheritance from the Reformation. It is the teaching of Scripture that the Reformation recovered and set forth in our Reformed creeds. We are justified on the basis of Christ blood: “Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him” (Rom 5:9). We are justified on the basis of Christ’s obedience: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). The wonder of wonders is that God made Christ to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God through Him (II Cor. 5:21). There is no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus. There is no one in heaven or earth who can lay anything to the charge of God’s elect (Rom. 8:1, 33). The Heidelberg Catechism expresses this truth in LD 23: “only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God” (Q&A 61). Both Christ’s passive obedience (Christ’s satisfaction) and His active obedience (Christ’s holiness) constitute our righteousness before God, so that God views His people as if they never had had, nor committed any sin, and as if they had fully accomplished all that obedience that Christ has accomplished for them (LD 23 Q&A 60).
A couple of applications in closing. First, that the only basis of our justification is Christ’s perfect obedience means that our obedience contributes absolutely nothing to our justification. Even the good works wrought in the regenerated believer by the Holy Spirit, even the lively faith kindled by the Spirit, do not constitute any part of the ground upon which God’s verdict rests.9 If you imagine the basis of justification as the concrete foundation, not even one pebble in the concrete mix is your work or your contribution. Every particle of it is the obedience of Christ for you. What a comfort that is! You do not have to work to build the foundation for your justification! It would be utterly futile if you did. You would perish everlastingly. Christ has built the foundation. Christ is the foundation. In the matter of justification, “other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 3:11).
Secondly, dear believer, ponder for a moment everything that Christ’s active obedience means for you personally. This is worth highlighting because we have a tendency sometimes to so focus on Christ’s passive obedience that we let it overshadow His active obedience. Of course, Christ’s suffering and death give us all manner of consolation. His suffering and death paid for our sins, took away our guilt, and freed us from the curse and punishment our sins deserve. But there is more! Do not forget Christ’s active obedience for you. This, too, gives us all manner of consolation. Jesus has not only paid for your sins, but He has fulfilled God’s law for you! You are not only covered with His precious blood, but you are clothed in His perfect obedience! Christ’s passive and active obedience are the twin threads with which the garments of your salvation are woven together.
Are you struggling with a guilty conscience because your sins are more than you can count? Look to the cross of Christ. He paid it all. He took your guilt away. Are you disheartened by the weakness of your faith, the barrenness of your life, the frequent smallness of your love for God and neighbor? Look to Christ. His whole life, His obedience, His love, His very perfection, is imputed to you, purely of grace. Christ’s gracious nail-pierced hands have clothed you in the garments of His salvation, the wedding robe of His righteousness. When you stand before God’s judgment seat, what is it that God’s holy eyes behold? The perfect life of Christ. His passive and active obedience. This is how you and I, unworthy sinners, are accepted and received by the holy God.
Go back to Calvin’s words with which we started: “For unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God.” Do you grasp, by faith, what your relationship to God is? Do you grasp the nature of His judgment concerning you? Righteous in Christ, before God, and an heir of eternal life! God’s covenant friend! Accepted and beloved of the holy God! Rest upon the basis of it all: the obedience of Christ alone. Through the Protestant Reformation, God restored this truth to the church, so that you may know it for sure. What a precious heritage is ours! Soli Deo Gloria!
1 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 191- 192.
2 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. Mc- Neill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1967), 3.11.1, 726.
3 John Calvin, Institutes.
4 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 377- 378.
5 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., vol. 2 (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1994), 448.
6 The word passive is derived from the Latin word patior which means to suffer or to endure. It has the same root as the word passion, which in expressions such as “Jesus’ Passion Week” refers to suffering.
7 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, 378.
8 For an insightful and well articulated presentation of this position, see: Brandon Crowe, “The Passive and Active Obedience of Christ: Retrieving a Biblical Distinction,” in The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls, ed. Matthew Barrett (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 442
9 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, 191-192.