Why is Christ our perfect intercessor? This article explains that the answer lies in Christ’s active obedience and passive obedience.

Source: The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, 2017. 3 pages.

Christ’s Active and Passive Obedience

Why are Christ’s prayers effective to save and preserve His people to the end? The answer lies in His finished work of redemption. Accomplishing that work required Christ to do the will of God, both by fulfilling all righteousness — that is, by His active obedience — and in the things which He suffered, or His passive obedience. Allow me to take a few minutes to explain this pair of theological terms. They are crucial for our confidence in Christ’s power to save to the uttermost those who come unto God through Him. The efficacy of Christ’s intercession stands upon His obedience to the Father’s will.

We must go back to the beginning, for Christ is the “last” or “second” Adam (1 Cor. 15:45, 47). All human obedience to God is grounded in God’s creation of and covenant with Adam, God’s servant-king on the earth (Gen. 1:26-28). Immediately after creating Adam out of the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7), the Lord God assigned to Adam his first home and vocation (Gen. 2:15), a reminder that Adam was duty-bound to obey his Maker. God reinforced the duty of obedience by giving a command framed in the form of a covenant (Gen. 2:16-17). Notice the two sides of this arrangement: first, Adam’s continued enjoyment of life depended upon perfect obedience to God (Gen. 2:9; 3:22-24); second, disobedience to God’s word would incur the punishment of death (Gen. 3:19).

We see a similar two-sided obedience in the law of Moses. God’s covenant with Israel was a gracious covenant grounded upon God’s promises to Abraham (Ex. 6:3-8; Lev. 26:42) and His work of redemption in bringing them out of the land of Egypt (Ex. 20:2). However, God made Israel’s enjoyment of the covenant privileges conditional upon their obedience to the law (Ex. 19:5). If they kept His commandments, then they would enjoy God’s blessing in the land; but if they broke His covenant, then they would suffer the punishment of sorrow, subjugation by their enemies, and exile from the land (Lev. 26; Deut. 27-28).

The subsequent history of Adam, and all mankind in him, was one of disobedience. As a consequence, mankind has forfeited the promise of God’s blessing and life, and inherited the curse of God and death. Adam and Eve were driven out of Paradise and subjected to the power of death. Therefore, fallen sinners have a double need with respect to God’s holy law: first, to escape the curse incurred by disobedience, and second, to obtain the blessing promised to obedience. William Perkins said, “We owe to God a double debt. One is that we are to fulfill the law every moment from our first beginning ... The second debt is a satisfaction for the breach of the law.”1

The tendency in some circles is to assume that the second need is met if the curse is removed. In other words, so long as our sins are forgiven, we will receive God’s blessing of eternal life. However, the biblical principle of obedience requires more than a record free of any wrongdoing in order to receive the promised blessing; we must also be counted as positively obedient and righteous in God’s sight. God taught the prin­ciple of “do this, and you shall live” in the shadowy forms of the old covenant, telling Israel that if the nation did as God commanded, they would live in the land (Lev. 18:5; Neh. 9:29; Ezek. 20:11). Our Lord Jesus Christ taught the same principle regarding eternal life. When a man asked Him, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Christ, responding to his question about “doing,” pointed him to the moral law, and said, “This do, and thou shalt live” (Luke 10:25-28). The apostle Paul affirmed the same as well (Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12). Francis Turretin wrote, “As sin has brought upon us two evils — the loss of life and exposure to death — so redemption must procure the two opposite benefits — deliverance from death and a right to life.”2

God meets our double need through Christ’s obedience. We cannot separate His obedience into two parts any more than we can divide God’s dealings with Adam into two covenants, or Christ into two persons. However, there are two distinct aspects of Christ’s obedience that theologians refer to as His “passive” and “active” obedience. Let’s consider each aspect in order to see more of the perfection of Christ as the only Savior.

Christ’s passive obedience means His willing submission to the sufferings His Father had ordained for Him as Mediator, including the accursed death He died on the cross. In some ways, the word “passive” can be misleading, for Christ actively chose to lay down His life (John 10:18) — He gave Himself for His church as an act of love for us and an offering pleasing to God (Eph. 5:2, 25). Here “passive” is used in the sense of the Latin verb patior, meaning “to suffer” or “to endure.” As Paul explains in Galatians 3:13, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.” When Christ died on the cross, He died under God’s curse upon lawbreakers (Deut. 21:23). Our precious Lord Jesus died as the substitute for sinners, giving His life “as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), so that, by enduring punishment in their stead, His people could have peace with God (Isa. 53:5). That is the passive obedience of Christ: His willing acceptance and endurance of “the things which he suffered” (Heb. 5:8).

Christ’s active obedience means His performing or keep­ing of all the commandments God ordained in the law as revealed through Moses (John 8:46; Heb. 4:15). When He was “made of a woman” or born of the virgin Mary, Christ was “made under the law” (Gal. 4:4). John Owen argued, “He was so made under the law, as those were under the law whom he was to redeem. Now, we were under the law, not only as obnoxious to its penalties, but as bound to all the duties of it.”3After three decades of living in this corrupt world, Jesus still heard His Father declare at His baptism, “Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Christ’s temptation in the wilderness is crucial for our salvation, for it is not only a model of how to use God’s Word to resist the devil, but also a record of the victory of our obedient Champion over the tempter who had induced our first parents to sin. That is why Luke concludes his account of Christ’s baptism and temptation with a genealogy reaching back to Adam (Luke 3:21-4:13): Christ is the second Adam who has raised up fallen sinners to eternal life and glory by His perfect “active obedience” to the holy law of God. Thus, as Johannes van der Kemp said, God’s justice “is satisfied, (1) by (Christ’s) suffering fully and completely the punishment threatened in consequence of sin ... (and by) (2) a perfect obedience, which the law of God demands in order to life.”4

Some say that Christ’s active obedience was necessary lest any sin disqualify Him from being the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Though that is true (Heb. 9:14; 1 Peter 1:19), we must go farther. If Christ does nothing more than remove our guilt and curse, then logically we must fall back on our own holiness to be righteous before God — in other words, we must be sanctified in order to be justified. While sanctification is a necessary consequence of justification, it cannot be a proper ground for justification. While we live, our sanctification must be imperfect or incomplete at best. That is, our experience of sanctification on this side of death never brings us to a state of perfect righteousness.5Instead, the perfect “active obedience” of Christ is credited to us as our righteousness before God. Notice the great exchange of 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Our sins were charged to Christ as He suffered punishment for us in His passive obedience, and His perfect “active obedience” is charged to believers as our righteousness before God. Our justification therefore stands upon a double imputation. “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).

Christ has satisfied our double debt with God, shouldering the curse and enduring punishment on the cross for our disobedience and rendering to God the obedience that we had failed to present to Him in order to obtain life and blessing. God not only strips off the filthy garments of our guilt and shame, but clothes us with the righteousness of Jesus Christ (Isa. 61:10; Zech. 3:1-5), for He is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). Luther exclaimed with joy, “Mine are Christ’s living, doing, and speaking, his suffering and dying, mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, suf­fered, and died as he did.”6

Christ’s obedience, both active and passive, is the foun­dation of His intercession for us. Christ sits at God’s right hand, and His very presence there as the incarnate God-man is a powerful testimony that He both lived and died for His people. You may ask, is there any place in the Bible where Christ’s active and passive obedience are brought together as the basis of His effective intercession for us? Yes, there are at least two places. We read in 1 John 2:1-2: “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins.” Our heavenly Intercessor and Advocate is both “the righteous” man, who did the will of God in all things as our representative and agent, and “the propitiation for our sins,” who endured the wrath of God and died in our place as a satisfaction for our sins. We also read in Hebrews 7:25, “He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” How is He able to do this? Because He “ever liveth to make intercession” as the One who in the first place is “holy, harmless, undefiled,” or perfectly righteous (v. 26), and who secondly, has “offered up himself” once and for all for our sins (v. 27), suffering all that was necessary to deliver us. What a glorious Savior! What an effectual Intercessor! God will never deny Him what He has won by His obedience to the will of the Father in all things.


  1. ^ William Perkins, Commentary on Galatians, in The Works of William Perkins, Volume 2, ed. Paul M. Smalley (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 113.
  2. ^ Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr., 3 vols. (Philipsburg, N.J.: P & R Publishing, 1992-1994), 14.13.10 (2:447).
  3. ^ John Owen, Communion with God, in The Works of John Owen, ed. Wil­liam H. Goold, 16 vols. (1850-1853; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 2:162.
  4. ^ Johannes van der Kemp, The Christian Entirely the Property of Christ, in Life and Death, Exhibited in Fifty-Three Sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. John M. Harlingen, 2 vols. (1810; repr., Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1997), 1:106.
  5. ^  For example, one opponent of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience writes, “Once we are made righteous through the imputation of His death on the Cross, we are then called to persevere in walking in His ways If we do not, we will forfeit that righteous standing that we gained by grace and through faith.” “Six Arguments for the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ examined and Refuted,” Denver Reformed Church Blog,
    http://www.denverreformed.com/6-arguments-for-the-imputation-of-the-active-obedience-of-christ-examined-and-refuted/ (accessed May 27, 2016).
  6. ^  Martin Luther, Two Kinds of Righteousness, trans. Lowell J. Satre, ed. Harold J. Grimm, in Luther’s Works, Volume 31, ed. Helmut Lehman (Phila­delphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 31:297.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.