How good it is to know that when God looks at you in Christ, he doesn’t see your shabby catalogue of sins and failures—he sees the pristine life of his beloved Son. He doesn’t see your bad temper, but Christ’s perfect patience and love. He doesn’t see your lusts and fantasies but Christ’s perfect purity and chastity. He doesn’t hear your cruel words, but his Son’s sinless speech.
J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) was one of the great theologians of the twentieth century. He served as a Professor of New Testament first at Princeton Seminary from 1906 until 1929 when he founded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in response to the incursion of modernist theology at Princeton. He travelled widely, preaching and teaching all over the world, exercising an international influence for orthodoxy. He wrote many books and scholarly articles expounding and defending Biblical Christianity. And yet, as he lay dying on New Year’s Eve, 1936, he wasn’t thinking about any of his many and considerable achievements throughout his life. He dictated a telegram to his colleague John Murray in which his last words are recorded, ‘I’m so thankful for [the] active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.’
What did he mean by this? Simply this: that Jesus Christ saves us by living the life of perfect obedience to the law of God that fallen human beings cannot ever live. Of course, he must do more than this—he must also die the death that we deserve to take the punishment for all our sins. It’s not one or the other—both are essential if we are to be saved from hell and gain entrance into heaven. Theologians distinguish between the two by referring to Christ’s keeping the law in our place as his ‘active obedience’ and his dying to atone for our sins as his ‘passive obedience.’
If a J.G. Machen, at the end of a life of godliness, brilliance and faithfulness couldn’t rest on his own righteousness to secure his place in heaven, how much less can you or I. We need a Saviour who has lived the life we cannot live. There is no hope without it.
Just pause and think of what it meant for the Lord Jesus to obey for us, in our place. For thirty years he never once said or did anything wrong. More than that, at every single moment he positively said and did exactly the right thing, in the right way, to the right degree! More than that, his obedience didn’t just extend to his outward actions and words—his inner life was perfect in line with the law of God. In his thoughts, his feelings, his will, his desires, his reactions, his attitudes, motives and disposition—not once, not for so much as a millisecond, was there even an infinitesimal lapse.
Remember, too, that Jesus wasn’t living closeted away from the corrupting influence of sinful people. He was plunged into the middle of the world, surrounded by and in close contact with sinners. He experienced the weaknesses of a human nature that give temptation extra power. He knew what it was to be tired—weary to the point of exhaustion. (So weary, indeed, that he was able to sleep through a windstorm at sea when the boat he was in threatened to capsize!). How often we give in to temptation when we’re tired and our guard is down. Jesus never did.