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Obedience of Christ

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(ὐπακοή ) is generally divided into active and passive. His active obedience implies what he did; his passive what he suffered. Some divines distinguish the two. They refer our pardon to his passive, and our title to glory to his active obedience; though Dr. Owen observes that it cannot be clearly evinced that there is any such thing, in propriety of speech, as passive obedience; obeying is doing, to which passion or suffering does not belong. As to the active obedience of Christ, the Scriptures assure us that he took upon him the form of a servant, and really became one (Isaiah 49:3; Philippians 2:5; Hebrews 8). He was subject to the law of God: "He was made under the law; "the judicial or civil law of the Jews, the ceremonial law,, and the moral law (Matthew 17:24; Matthew 17:27; Luke 2:22; Psalms 40:7-8). He was obedient to the law of nature; he was in a state of subjection to his parents; and he fulfilled the commands of his heavenly Father as respects the first and second table. Christ's obedience was

(1) voluntary (Psalms 40:6);

(2) complete (1 Peter 2:22);

(3) wrought out in the room and stead of his people (Romans 10:4; Romans 5:19);

(4) well pleasing and acceptable in the sight of God;

(5) followed by a glorious reward (Philippians 2:9). (See ATONEMENT).

Theologians commonly hold that the active obedience of Christ was as much a part of his atonement or satisfaction as his passive obedience. This might be more clearly and definitively expressed as follows: The satisfaction which Christ has made consists both in his enduring the punishments incurred by men and in his yielding a perfect obedience to the divine laws. This opinion is derived from the twofold obligation of men (a) to keep the divine laws, and (b) when they have failed, to suffer punishment for their sin. In this way the satisfaction of Christ came to be considered as consisting of two parts, active and passive. This view was then connected with the theory of Anselm respecting the removal of the guilt and penalty of sin. The suffering of Christ removes the penalty, and his active obedience the guilt of sin; and the perfect righteousness of Christ, or his fulfillment of the law, is imputed to us in the same way as if we ourselves had fulfilled the law, and thus our defective obedience is made good. Respecting this doctrine de renmissione culpae et pence, (See IMPUTATION); (See PUNISHMENT); (See REMISSION OF SINS).

We subjoin a brief history of this doctrine. Good materials for its history may be found in Walch's inaugural disputation, De obedientia Christi activa (Gottingen, 1754, 4to). See also Bullet. Theol. Jan. 17, p. 22. Passages are found even among the ancient fathers which teach that the fulfillment of the divine law by Christ is to be considered as if done by us (see the passages cited by Walch). Many of these passages, however, appear very doubtful and indefinite, and this doctrine was by no means universally established in the early Church. Even Anselm, who built up such an artificial system, did not make this application of the twofold obedience of Christ. This, nevertheless, was the tendency of his theory, especially of the doctrine de remissione culpce et pence. But after his time this explanation of the satisfaction made by Christ by means of his twofold obedience was adopted by several schoolmen, who now looked up texts for its support. Yet it was never very generally adopted by theologians of the Romish Church. In the Protestant Church, on the contrary, it has been almost universally taught by the theologians since the sixteenth century, and even introduced into the "Form of Concord" (Morus, p. 169, n. 5), which, however, never received a universal symbolical authority in the Lutheran Church. This explanation is not found in the other symbols. One reason, perhaps, of the reception of this explanation in the Protestant Church is the supposition that the theory de obedientia activa could be used to advantage against the Catholic tenet of the value of one's own good works.

Another reason is that the imputation of the active obedience of Christ was denied by the Socinians and Arminians. On these grounds, most of the Lutheran and Reformed theologians accounted this doctrine essential to sound orthodoxy. But doubting whether the active obedience of Christ constitutes a part of his satisfaction has no influence upon the plan of salvation through repentance, faith, and godliness. Baumgarten and Ernesti have therefore justly pronounced this dispute as of no great dogmatical importance. In fact, the difference among theologians upon this subject has often been more apparent than real. There were, indeed, some Protestant theologians, even in the 16th century, who denied the merit of the active obedience of Christ e.g. the Lutheran theologian Karg (or Parsimonius), also the Reformed theologian John Piscator, who had many followers; more lately, John la Placette, and others. The same was done by many of the English theologians, who in general adopted the Arminian views. But from the end of the. sixteenth to the middle of the eighteenth century the opinion was by far the most prevalent in the Lutheran Church that the active obedience of Christ is of the nature of satisfaction, or vicarious. This opinion is defended even by Walch in the work just referred to. Since the time of Tillner, however, the subject has been presented in a different light. He published a work entitled Der thtige Gehorsanm Christi (Breslau, 1768, 8vo). In this he denied that the active obedience of Christ is of the nature of satisfaction. Thereupon a violent controversy ensued. Schubert, Wichmann, and others, wrote against him, and he, in reply, published his Zusatze (Berlin, 1770). The best critique of this matter is that of Ernesti, Theol. Bibl. 9:914 sq. For the history of the whole controversy, see Walch, Neueste Religionsgeschichte, iii. 311 sq. The subject is considered also by Eberhard, Apologie des Socrates, 2:310 sq. Of late years, a great number of Protestant theologians have declared themselves in favor of the opinion that the active obedience of Christ is properly no part of his satisfaction, which is the effect solely of his passive obedience. Among, these are Zacharia, Griesbach, and Doderlein.

It may help to settle the controversy on this subject to consider that it has originated solely in mistake. Two things have been separated which never can be put asunder, and which never are so in the Bible, but, on the contrary, are always connected. All that Christ did and suffered for our good receives its peculiar worth from the fact that he did it from obedience to the divine will. This is the virtue or obedience of Christ. If we would partake of the salutary consequences of his sufferings, we must, under divine guidance and assistance, follow his example. This is an indispensable condition. The two things are always connected in the Bible, and should be so in our instructions; and then this doctrine cannot be abused. The remarks made by Morus (p. 170, 171) are directed to this point. The Bible, indeed, justifies us in saying (1) that everything which Christ actively performed during his whole life, in obedience to God, is salutary to us, was done on our account and for our good. But (2) we therefore truly affirm that our whole happiness (σωτηρία ) is the fruit in a special manner of his obedience to the divine command, both in his suffering and in all the actions of his life. Had he not shown this obedience, we should not have .attained to this happiness. So the Scriptures everywhere teach. The obedience of Christ in suffering is therefore the foundation, and imparts to us the assurance that all his other obedience, in respect to all the divine commands, will be for our benefit (John 6:51; John 3:14-16; John 12:24; John 1 John 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:9 sq.). No injury to morals need be apprehended if the Scripture doctrine is followed, and things which belong together are not separated. See Knapp, Christian Theology, § 115; Smeaton, Doctrine of the Atonement (see Index); Harless, Christian Ethics (see Index); Ullmanii, Sinlessness of Jesus (see Index); Graves, Works, vol. iv; Edwards, Works; Fletcher, Works; Presb. Confession; Theol. Mediumn, or Cumberl. Presb. Rev. Oct. 1871; Presb. Quar. and Princet. Rev. Jan. 1874, art. iv; and the references in Malcolm, Theol. Index, s.v.


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Obedience of Christ'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/o/obedience-of-christ.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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