Justification consists in more than the forgiveness of sins. For if we are “only” forgiven for our sins, we still have not realized the requirements for eternal life, as laid out in God’s law. Attaining eternal life requires perfect obedience. Here we must consider Adam, who was promised eternal life on condition of personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience. Adam, as we know, failed to exhibit the obedience necessary to realize this prospect of glorious, everlasting life. However, we should not think that with Adam’s failure, the requirement of perfect obedience for eternal life is somehow swept away, as if with a wave of the hand. Instead, perfect obedience continued to be the requirement for the inheritance of eternal life.
he two aspects of Jesus’s unified obedience—the passive and active aspects—are both necessary for justification. This logical distinction speaks to two benefits of justification as historically understood, namely, the forgiveness of sins and the right to eternal life. On the one hand, the law requires punishment for sin. Sin cannot simply be swept aside and forgotten without recompense. Sin brings a penalty, leading to death, for every person born naturally since Adam. That penalty must be paid. This aspect of Jesus’s obedience is not that controversial for the many today who recognize the need for forgiveness of sins through the death of Christ. However, a right understanding of passive obedience also tells us that Jesus bore the wrath of God throughout the whole course of his lifelong obedience. This means that, as Geerhardus Vos has argued, the blood Jesus shed in his circumcision is no less atoning than the blood he shed at Calvary. This lifelong suffering is memorably captured in the Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 37:
Q. What do you understand by the word: “suffered”?
A. That all the time [Christ] lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, He bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race; in order that by His passion, as the only atoning sacrifice, He might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the grace of God, righteousness and eternal life.
Jesus’s passive obedience thus speaks to the penalty he paid throughout his life, which corresponds to the forgiveness of our sins in justification.
Yet justification consists in more than the forgiveness of sins. For if we are “only” forgiven for our sins, we still have not realized the requirements for eternal life, as laid out in God’s law. Attaining eternal life requires perfect obedience. Here we must consider Adam, who was promised eternal life on condition of personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience. Adam, as we know, failed to exhibit the obedience necessary to realize this prospect of glorious, everlasting life. However, we should not think that with Adam’s failure, the requirement of perfect obedience for eternal life is somehow swept away, as if with a wave of the hand. Instead, perfect obedience continued to be the requirement for the inheritance of eternal life. To be clear, this obedience must be perfect obedience and not the obedience of believers in sanctification. As Herman Bavinck cogently argues,
The works accomplished after justification by faith cannot be considered for justification . . . because those good works are still always imperfect and polluted by sin, and not in keeping with the full requirement of the divine law (Matt. 22:37; Gal. 3:10; James 2:10). God, being faithful and true, cannot view as perfect that which is not perfect. As the righteous and holy One, God cannot give up the demands of the law nor content himself with a semirighteousness, which is basically no righteousness at all.
For Bavinck, as with Reformed theology more broadly, eternal life requires perfect obedience to God’s law. As I argue later, appreciating the perfection of obedience required for eternal life is a foundational element to understanding the nature of justification in the New Testament, and that is helpful to keep in mind when interacting with advocates of other views. For in the Old Testament, it is only with Adam in his sinless, created estate that the possibility of eternal life on condition of perfect obedience is possible. Once sin enters the world, original sin affects all those born naturally after Adam. As we will see, this is because Adam is a covenant (or representative) head of humanity. Although the Mosaic law later comes to Israel in the Old Testament, this law is given within the context of the covenant of grace. The Israelites were never in a position to gain eternal life by their law keeping, since grace preceded the giving of the Mosaic law and since the Mosaic law was never intended as the means to secure eternal life. Only perfect obedience can meet the demands of eternal life; imperfect obedience simply cannot suffice.
Jesus’s obedience can therefore be understood to have passive and active dimensions, which correspond to the two benefits of justification. Forgiveness of sins cor- responds to Christ’s passive obedience, and the securing of eternal life corresponds to Christ’s active obedience. And just as we must not artificially divide the passive and active obedience of Christ, so we must not divide the benefits of Christ’s unified obedience, as if one could possess one without the other. It is not just “this” or “that” part of Jesus’s obedience that provides the ground for justification; it is the entire obedience of Jesus that saves. As Calvin succinctly states, “How has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us? . . . He has achieved this by the whole course of his obedience.”
When we ask how the obedience of Christ can be reckoned to us, the best answer is by means of imputation. In brief, imputation means that in justification the obedience (or righteousness) of Christ—including both passive and active dimensions—is forensically, or legally, credited to believers by faith alone. Key here is the recognition that the righteousness is the righteousness of another. Put differently, the righteousness that is imputed is the entire obedience of Jesus. This is necessary because Adam’s sin, given his role as covenantal and representative head of humanity, has been imputed to all humanity. However, as the last Adam born of a virgin, Jesus similarly stands at the head of a new humanity, and he is not affected by the guilt and corruption of sin. Thus, the remedy to the imputation of Adam’s sin comes by means of the righteousness of the last Adam, whose obedience is imputed to all who believe in him. It is important to understand that Adam not only transgressed the command of God but also failed positively to exhibit perfect obedience to the stipulations of the covenant. Therefore, the work of the last Adam involves not only forgiving sin but also realizing the perfect obedience that the first Adam never achieved in order to secure eternal life.
Excerpted from Brandon Crowe, “The Passive and Active Obedience of Christ,” The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical and Pastoral Perspective, ed. Matthew Barrett,(Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2019), 443–446. Used with permission of the publisher.