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The Obedience of Christ

U.L. Larson

1948 Synod Convention Essay

The Salvation which the Scriptures present shows God Himself as taking the first step toward a restoration of the original relation between Himself and man. God, who abominates sin, and has hurled His righteous curse at wrong-doers, of His own will makes overtures to rebel man by which He desires to establish a union of love with him. Besides righteousness, holiness and justice which make God the absolute opposite of sin, besides truthfulness, which moves God to carry out every threat that He has uttered against the sinner, — there is in God a quality which Scripture calls “Grace.” God’s grace is not the same as His Goodness, for the goodness of our God extends to all His creatures, animate as well as inanimate. The Grace of God, however, is concerned only with man, and that not in as far as he is man primarily nor in as far as he is puny man but in as far as he is sinful man. Grace surmounts the barrier which divides man from God. God’s grace prompts God to deal with man, to love man, despite his sin. Out of this unlooked-for disposition of God towards sinful man springs the first thought and possibility of a salvation for man. God, not man, takes the first step, as well as every other step in man’s salvation. God proposes to restore man, and does not wait for man to rehabilitate himself with God.

The fact that God entertains a gracious thought within Himself toward the sinner is a mystery to man. No man has ever expected, or remotely guessed at the idea of saving grace in an offended God. When this truth was published to man, and when it assumed living reality in Him who was sent to proclaim it in its fulness, the world beheld the greatest miracle in its history. With a shout of joy Paul hailed this unexpected news: “The grace of God which bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men.” (Tit. 2) It has existed in God and had been declared to man again and again. But, following blindly its own paths of reason and morality, the world had forgotten the revelation of God’s saving grace. The world had wrestled with the problem of man’s restoration to the favor of God, but every attempt it put forth was but a proposal which man made to God, and in which man lays down terms to God with which He is to be satisfied. By revealing His grace, God declares to man in effect: You must leave this matter to me; you begin wrong and will never get this problem to work out right.

The scriptures further declare that this mysterious thought in God, “grace,” upon which our whole salvation rests, led to another mystery which it calls “the mystery of Godliness,” “God was manifest in the flesh.” (I Tim. 3:16) Saving grace becomes incarnate in a savior. God declares Him to be His commissioned agent to proclaim to men the message of salvation, when He calls from Heaven: “Hear Ye Him.” And this Bearer of Grace asserts that there is no approach to the Father save through Him. “No man cometh to the Father but by Me.” (Joh. 14:6) There is no saving grace except as it is found in Christ.

But to the world Christ has always been a most perplexing problem. It has never understood His singular personality, and it has never understood the peculiar mission which brought Him among men. The Christ-problem is the oldest problem with which the Christian Church, in her contact with the men of this world, has had to wrestle.

The Scriptures set Christ before us as a strangely composite being. He is called and described and displayed in action as “man” and “the son of man.” His birth, His conversation among men, His suffering, His death are truly human. It was no phantom, no angelic vision that men beheld passing up and down Palestine. It was no specter or spirit that spoke to them upon various occasions. On all these occasions Christ was the same. People recognized Him as we would an acquaintance. He wept human tears, He felt human joy. Men observed Him angry and cheerful, calm and disturbed. Our creed squares with the Bible when it calls Him “true man born of the virgin Mary.”

And yet this man spoke as never man did speak. (John 7:46) One of the wisest of His race confessed Him “a teacher come from God.” (John 3:2) A voice from Heaven pronounced Him the Son of God, (Matt. 3:17), and He Himself consistently sets up the claim that He “is in the bosom of the Father,” (Joh. 1:18) that He “is in Heaven,” (John 3:13) that “He and the Father are one.” (John 10:30) He appeals to the convincing testimony of His works to substantiate His claim. Our creed again is in full harmony with the Scriptures when it confesses Him “true God begotten of the Father from eternity.”

Equally incomprehensible to the natural reason of men is His avowed mission. His first public act takes place on the banks of the Jordan, where He has come asking baptism of John. John was aware that baptism could not be applied to Him for the ordinary purpose. For this applicant had come into the world by an immaculate conception. He was even then the Sinless one “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners.” (Heb. 7:36) It seemed blasphemous to treat Him as a common man. John voices his scruples: “I have need to be baptised of Thee, and comest Thou to me?” But he is told: “Suffer it to be so now; for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matt. 3:14–15) The crowds gathered about Him, again and again, to hear Him expound His doctrine. “Think not,” He tells them, “that I am come to destroy the law and the prophets; I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17) His public career is literally punctuated with the ever recurring assertion that He was come not to do His own will, but “the will of Him that sent me, and to finish His work.” (John 4:34) God’s will, the holy and righteous will of God, which is set before us in the law, He had come to fulfill. This law was the rule of His life and its complete fulfillment the achievement for which He strove with passionate zeal.

This is the first chief thing in Christ’s obedience.

When we speak of the “obedience” of Christ, we mean thereby: (1) By His holy life Christ has perfectly fulfilled the law in our stead and for our benefit; (2) By His innocent sufferings and death He suffered, in our stead and for our benefit, the punishment which, according to the law of God, we have deserved. In speaking of this our dogmaticians distinguish between them, calling the former “the active obedience,” and the latter the “passive obedience” of Christ. We also will follow this usage although we do not thereby regard the two as being separated in reality, but, rather, as being two sides of Christ’s obedience. We are not to assume that Christ’s active obedience was rendered during one portion of His life, and His passive obedience during another, although His obedience is more clearly seen as passive during one period than at other times. Throughout His whole life His obedience was both active and passive. While engaged in performing the functions of His ministry, in teaching, preaching and healing the sick, Christ suffered in various ways. And even in His greatest agonies He was not exclusively passive, but active also. We must always remember that He had voluntarily made Himself subject to sufferings, and that He endured sufferings of His own free will. In all His suffering there was, therefore, an activity — His will was active. There was an exertion of power in the midst of His suffering. And because His suffering was voluntary, we may also speak of it, and His death, as an obedience. A man who suffers against His will, because He is forced to suffer, cannot be said to render obedience when he suffers. When Christ suffered and died, it was not because He was too weak to resist His enemies, but because He was obedient to the will of His Father. And because His own will was in perfect accordance with the will of the Father, His sufferings and death were voluntary.

But, before we proceed, it is well that we fix firmly in our mind what the law of God is and what it demands of us. God has given three laws to men: the ceremonial, the civil and the moral. To all these three was Christ obedient. But as we are no longer under the first two we shall confine ourselves to the third one, — the moral law, summed up for us in the ten commandments. At the creation of man this law was written upon his heart. But when man fell into sin, this law in his heart became so blurred that man could not read it aright. Therefore, God gave this law again at Mt. Sinai, written upon two tablets of stone.

This law is a statement of the holy and just will of our God. As the holiness and justice of God are unalterable, so that law which reveals these attributes of our God is unalterable. It demands obedience of us. If we fail to render the obedience it demands, the law pronounces its judgment upon us. And its judgment certainly is not slight. It is death! Yea, if we have kept the whole law but have offended in only one point, the apostle James says we are guilty before our God. This law demands of us not merely that we keep our tongues from cursing and swearing, our hands from the shedding of blood, our bodies from unchastity, and so forth, but the law is summed up in these two commands: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy mind” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matt. 22:37–39) Whatever of law and commandments is found in the Bible hinges on love to God and neighbor. St. Paul asserts the same in short and sharp words, when he writes “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom. 13:10) All commandments of the law are comprehended in the command of love, and therefore he that is perfect in love has fulfilled the law.

This love is far more than merely the practising of a particular virtue or good work, as to pray, to give alms, or to live chaste. Love is an affection of the heart which comes into play in all man’s words and works. The law does require works; it requires a vast variety of outward works which can only be performed by an activity of the bodily members; but the first and great requirement of the law is the love of the heart. The law requires me to go and do a piece of work — but it wants me to do that work from love and in love. Now if I go and do that work, but I do it without love, then, in a sense I have kept the law, but my keeping it is like a hollow tree — there is no heart in it. Human laws are kept by performing the deed merely. If a man hands in the amount which the law taxes him, the collector is satisfied, whether it is given willingly or grudgingly. But with the law of God it is not so. God looks upon the heart, and if a work is not done in love it is not lawful before Him.

Let me attempt to illustrate this. The law commands us to help those in need. This does require an act of us. If now a starving beggar is placed before you, you may act in different ways. You may treat him like the priest and Levite did the man who fell among thieves, pass him by. Then you are violating both the letter and spirit of the law. Or, you may extend him a gift, wishing in your heart that you had not met him. Then you are keeping the letter and violating the spirit of the law. Or you may be prompted to say: He is my fellow man, redeemed by the same blood of Christ as I am: surely I must help him. Then you are keeping both the letter and the spirit of the law. Or you may, prompted by the love of Christ, heartily sympathize with him, deploring the fact that you have neither silver nor gold to give him. Then you are moved by the spirit of the law, and God accepts it as though you had kept the letter also.

We may therefore liken the law to man having soul and body. The body is composed of many and manifold members, the soul is one, but it goes through all the members and gives life and activity to every one of them. Now when the soul leaves the body, the corpse still looks like a man, but it is dead; there is no life in it, and instead of being delighted with a corpse you turn a way from it in disgust. The law comprises many commandments which require a vast variety of works, but love is the soul of the law. Love must go through all those works, and if a man’s works are done in love they are live works and are pleasing to God, but if a man’s works are without love, they have the form of good works, but there is no life in them; they are dead works, and God is as disgusted with them as you are with a corpse. It is love that gives a man’s works their value before God.

Note well, therefore, that Christ did not say love is the greatest commandment, He says “Love is the great commandment.” That expresses much more than if He had said the greatest. Before our God there is only one great commandment, the command of love.

What has been said is, I hope, simple enough for the dullest to understand that to keep the law perfectly, we must be able to say that we are, and ever have been, perfect in love. The first commandment requires that all our affections are turned to God and that all our thoughts, words and deeds flow from the love of God. The second requires that my neighbor is to be as clear to me as I am to myself, and that I am to be concerned about his welfare just as much as about my own. To be perfect in love never an evil inclination, never a mistrust towards God, never a murmur against Him, never a wish that He would deal differently with me, and never an ill will towards any man, friend or foe, must have been born in us. The law must be kept perfectly.

Is it then not true, as so many imagine, that if a man does the best he can God will be satisfied and nothing more will be required of him’? I answer: That is a snare whereby Satan catches and destroys the souls of men. The Pharisees did do what they could, but the Lord told us we must do more than they did, would we be found righteous in our keeping of the law. You say: I want to do it and would like to keep it all, and should my honest attempt be of no value? I answer: Wanting to do it is not enough; it must be done, and with liking to do it the law is not satisfied. You say: But I try to do it. I answer: What is trying? It must be done! Many a drowning man tried to save himself, yet sank into the deep. Do you say: But I cannot do it, and how can God demand that I do what I cannot do, and then condemn me for not doing it? Reasons might be given justifying God, but why? Here is the simple fact; God has given His law and this law says: This do, or thou art condemned and no man’s muttering about it will ever alter this fact. The law knows of no leniency, it does not give a little and take a little. It takes no regard of whether we are able to do it or not. Thousands upon thousands striving to keep the law have day after day sighed: I cannot, “when I would do good, evil is present with me.” (Rom. 7:21) But the law has no ear for such complaints. It knows nothing of compassion for the weak or mercy for the struggling; it cuts straight through and says: “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” (Gal. 3:10) Such is the law of God! This law must be fulfilled! But no man can do this!

What God doth in His law demand,

No man to Him doth render;

Before His bar all guilty stand;

His law speaks curse in thunder.

The law demands a perfect heart;

We were defiled in every part,

And lost was our condition.


To cleanse ourselves from sinful stain,

According to our pleasure,

Was labor lost — works were in vain —

Sin grew beyond all measure;

For when with power the precept came,

It did reveal sin’s guilt and shame

And awful condemnation.

(Luth. Hynmary No. 205:2 and 4)

Yet this law, has Christ fulfilled! The gospels make much of the holy life of Christ. Again and again they stress the point that Christ fulfilled the law in every respect. He certainly obeyed the ceremonial law. The first public example of this was given when He was only eight days old, when He was circumcised. Then a few days later the infant Jesus was presented in the temple and an offering was made for Him. All this was done “according to that which is said in the law of the Lord.” (Luke 2:24) And why did John the Baptist yield to Christ’s request to be baptized? Because Christ wished to “fulfill all righteousness.” He stood there before John as one who was in duty bound to keep the whole law and as one whose consuming passion was to see that He did it all.

He likewise fulfilled the political and civil laws given unto the children of Israel. He paid His taxes to the Roman government as did other men. He honored the High Priest and civil magistrates, and carefully observed all other duties the civil law imposed upon Him.

But above all things did He observe the moral law, the eternal standard of right and wrong. Outwardly the Pharisees also did this, though they understood not its deep significance. Christ did more. He walked according to the law, not only outwardly as the Pharisees, but obeyed the spirit of the law as well. He did what none other has done, nor can do; He loved God above all things. This is clearly evidenced from the one recorded event of His youth when He accompanied His parents to Jerusalem to observe the Passover, and remained in Jerusalem when they left for home. It was the will of His Father in Heaven that He should be in the temple just at that time, and should there show forth the first rays of His divine glory for a testimony to the elders and rulers of the people; and when it came to doing the will of His Father, He had no more any regard of men, not even of His parents. When His mother complained of the anxiety with which she and Joseph had been obliged to seek Him, He rebuked her saying: “How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about My Father’s business” (Luke 2:49) He declared to His mother, she ought to have known that He must be about the work which His Heavenly Father had given Him to do, and if she had remembered this she would not have needed to be in anxiety about Him, neither could she have entertained the thought that He had dealt unkindly with her. Someone might here raise the question: Why did Jesus stay at Jerusalem without the knowledge of His parents? Why did He not tell His mother beforehand, what He was about to do? The simple answer is we do not know, nor does it concern us. There may have been many reasons for it. Perhaps it was done, because He, as a priest after the order of Melchizedek, was to appear in the temple without father or mother. In short, so it was the will of His Father, and so He did, and it was strictly in accord with the law. In His final blessing of the people Moses says of a true Levite: “Who said unto his father and his mother, I have not seen him, neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew his own children: for they have observed thy word, and kept thy covenant. They shall teach Jacob thy judgments and Israel thy law.” (Deut. 33:9) In the performance of the office unto which He was sent Jesus could have regard of no man, for no man could help Him with it. He had to do it alone and He gave Himself wholly to it, as He later on said to His disciples: “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me, and to finish His work.” (John 4:34)

As Jesus walked in immaculate holiness toward God, so also did he walk in untarnished virtue before men. He had no pleasure in the vanities which the young are so prone to seek. When Joseph and Mary found Him, they did not find Him in a tavern, or in a theatre, or on the street in bad company, or lounging idly at a corner; they found Him in the temple, where the God-fearing and the pious were to be found. We must not imagine that Jerusalem contained no places for worldly enjoyments. The inducements to sinful pleasure were just as seductive in Jerusalem as in other cities; — but Jesus was found in the temple. In His childhood and youth He never did anything by which any one could have been offended, or for which He might have been justly rebuked. Twenty years later He stood in the same temple, at the time when the Jews were gathered there from all parts, and challenged them to bring any charge against Him, saying: “Which of you convinceth me of sin?” (John 8:46) Speaking thus He needed not to fear that someone might step forth and say, at such a time and place, he had heard Jesus speak evil, or had seen Him do wrong. When He preached at Nazareth, where He had lived until His thirtieth year, His former acquaintances and neighbors thrust Him out of the city, because they could not bear His doctrine; but they could bring no charge against Him, excepting that He was a carpenter’s son, and the law certainly did not forbid that. He never did anything, in His childhood or youth, with which even His bitterest enemies could find any fault. When He was yet young in years the words of the Psalmist were already fulfilled in Him: “Thou art fairer than the children of men: grace is poured into thy lips.” (Psalm 45:2) He gave His parents honor due parents, and He obeyed their commands most willingly. As His conduct towards all was what it should be, so in particular towards His parents He performed all the duties of a son in the full sense of the word, and so He fulfilled the righteousness of the fourth commandment. Christ so walked in His childhood years and in His youthful years, that neither God, nor any man, friend or foe, nor He Himself could find any fault or neglect in all His life and doings. A perfect youth without blemish!

As the Scriptures depict to us the early years of Christ as years during which He walked blamelessly so also they set forth the three years of His public ministry in the same way. He publicly preached that He was not come “to destroy the Law.” (Matt. 5:17) Neither was He come to give the world a new law, nor to teach men how they might keep the law of God, but He was come “to keep the law,” Himself to obey and do all that the law demanded.

The first example of His obedience during the years of His public ministry will, of course, be His baptism of John. If we see in this event of His life nothing more than simply the historic fact that Jesus was baptized of John in the Jordan like so many others, we can derive little or no benefit from it. But that it means something far more than this is very evident from the conversation between John and Jesus. During this conversation Jesus conceded that for Himself, for His own person, He did not need baptism; but, He argued, it must nevertheless be so, because He must fulfill all righteousness, all commanded of the Father. (The significance of Christ’s baptism will be spoken of later.)

Another instance of His obedience is very apparent from the account of His temptation by Satan in the wilderness. (Matt. 4,1–11). It certainly was a marvelous thing that Satan, the Chief of those fallen angels of whom St. Jude writes that they are “reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the Judgment of the great day,” dares draw nigh unto Jesus Christ “who is over all, God blessed forever” to tempt Him to sin. And not only did Satan undertake to tempt Christ, but he went about it in a bold, arrogant, overbearing manner, as though He were Christ’s equal, or even His superior. Boldly he pronounced it an uncertain thing that Christ was the Son of God. With great presumption he undertook to teach Christ ways and means to help Himself out of His distress. With still greater impudence he takes Christ and leads Him about. Finally Satan crowns his arrogance by showing Christ the glories of the world and promising them all to Christ if He would only fall down and worship him.

Using His divine power Christ could in a single moment have banished Satan with all his hosts from this earth. But then men would not have been redeemed from sin and guilt. Man’s redemption, if it was to be accomplished at all, had to be accomplished agreeable to the word spoken by Isaiah: “Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her convicts with righteousness.” (Is. 1:27) Redemption had to be accomplished in a legal way and not by violence. This point is easily illustrated. If a man bas been sentenced to prison by due process of law, it will not do to free him by violence. Though a mob break the jail and set the man at liberty, yet he is not a free man. He is at large, but the law still holds its claim upon him. To make the man legally free, he must be pronounced free by the properly constituted authorities according to the law. The redemption of man had to be accomplished with judgment and righteousness, according to law and justice, and not by force. Satan did have a legal claim upon us. This Christ was obligated to take from him. Therefore Christ did not use His divine power against Satan, but only the written Word of God. The first Adam had fallen into Satan’s power, because by unbelief he set aside this weapon, God’s word and command. Therefore, the second Adam had to overcome Satan with this weapon. It was the will of His Father that He so should do, and gladly and willingly did Christ obey.

But Christ was also to obey the second table of the law, which demanded of Him that He be concerned about the welfare of His neighbor. Therefore, the evangelists relate that wherever He went He did that which was good. The many miracles that He performed show this clearly. He cast out devils, He healed men that were bodily afflicted, He fed multitudes, He raised the dead and many other miracles did He work. All of these works certainly show that He was no ordinary man, but was possessed of divine power. But these wonders are also a symbol of His office, and a fulfilling of that work given Him of His Father. They also are a part of His active obedience. That all the miracles of Christ have this significance we see clearly from an occurrence related by Luke in the 9th chapter, where we read that He once sent messengers to a village of the Samaritans, requesting them to grant Him a night’s lodging, but the inhabitants of that village refused to receive Him. Angered by this, James and John proposed to make fire from heaven to fall upon that village, but the Lord rebuked them, saying: “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them,” Those are remarkable words. Why did the Lord refuse to do what His disciples wanted Him to do. Would it have been an act of injustice? By no means! If the wicked are consumed by fire, that is not unjust, and the Lord had done this before, (Sodom and Gomorrah); but in the days of His flesh He refused to do so, because it would not have been in keeping with that work given Him to do. Likewise, when some of the Jews asked Him to perform a sign in the heavens, — that, like Joshua, He should command the sun to stand still or show some other sign, He refused to do so; for thereby no good gift would have been bestowed upon anyone. This is a remarkable characteristic of all the miracles which Christ performed! In every one of them He extended help, wrought deliverance from some evil, bestowed some good gift. Moses and the prophets often performed miracles by which severe punishment was visited on the ungodly, but our Lord Jesus Christ never performed a single miracle by which anyone suffered the least harm in body or soul. His miracles show His office, that He is come, not to destroy but to fulfill the law. They mightily demonstrated how intent He was, at all times, upon His neighbor’s welfare. Of His love to us John writes: “Having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end.” (John 3:1) In the night of His greatest agony He said: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) But Christ died for us while we were yet His enemies; so He was verily perfect in His love towards all His brethren of mankind.

All that He did, and all that He spoke flowed from a fountain of purest love. Incessantly did He travel about in Judea and Galilee comforting the comfortless. Ever did He direct His steps where His help was needed; and wherever He went, benefactions were scattered broadcast. No journey was too far, no road too dusty; He would go to bring help to the needy. Once when His mother and His brethren desired to speak to Him, He stretched forth His hand over His disciples, saying, “Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father, which is in heaven, the same is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31–35) Mark, in his third chapter relates that Jesus was so busy healing and helping, that He had no time to eat, and His disciples feared that He must be beside Himself. He loved His enemies who did evil unto Him, and He prayed for those who crucified Him. He walked in love unblamable in the sight of the all-seeing eye of His Father. He had come into the world to fulfill the command of love, and when He bowed His head on the cross He said: “It is finished.” Everything the law demanded had been done. That law which demands that we be perfect in love toward God and Man — this He had willingly and perfectly kept.

Still all the law fulfilled must be,

Else we were lost forever,

Then God His Son sent down that He

Might us from doom deliver;

He all the law for us fulfilled

And thus His Father’s anger stilled,

Which over us impended.

(Luth. Hymnary No. 205:5)

Christ’s life was, indeed a marvelous life. God from heaven declared Himself “well pleased” with Him. (Matt. 17:5) From this one man He had received that all-surpassing love which all the rest had failed to render to Him. Men, too, extolled His numberless acts of love. In the last night which He spent on earth, that disciple who had been closer to Him than all the others looks back, as it were, over His past life and sums up his judgment of Him in these words: “Having loved His own, He loved them unto the end.” (John 13:1)

This life had been full of self-denial, self-forgetfulness, and self-abasement. It had entailed great hardships, had forced upon Him unusual humiliations, had led Him into frequent danger. It was a life grossly misunderstood, and filled with much sorrow. It ended in seeming failure. Yet even in His last moments that one overmastering thought which had engrossed Him throughout His life was still in His mind: “Not what I will, but what thou wilt.” (Mark 14:36) He prays for His tormentors, He absolves a penitent thief, and He arranges for the future welfare of His mother from the cross.

Men have attempted again and again to explain this life, but every attempt has finally proven unsatisfactory. It is held that Christ is the perfect man and His life the highest type of morality. He is the pattern of excellence that we are to copy; but it is evident that such an explanation is disappointing, to say the least. Just this is our trouble that we can not imitate it sufficiently well. It certainly was not Christ’s purpose to show men by example what God demanded of them. This the law did, and the lives of all the saints of God, recorded in Scripture, proved that the lessons of the law were unachievable even by the best men. No, Christ lived His life in strict harmony and conformity to the law not for His own sake but for our sake. Beautifully does the Apostle Paul affirm this when he writes to the Galatians: “When the fullness of time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law.” (Gal. 4:4) This is the great reason why He so carefully, in all points, at all places, fulfilled His Father’s law. He was not, of Himself, subject to the law. But, when you and I, and all men, who were in duty bound to keep that law could not, then He came to do this work in our place and stead. He, of Himself, was exalted far above the law. Because of this He was not in duty bound to keep the law on His own account.

If Christ had been only a man, as we are, then it would not profit us that He perfectly had kept the law. Then all that He did would only be for His own good. But He was a God-man. He had a divine nature as well as a human nature. The Son of God was a person before He became a man, and He did not give up His personality when He assumed a human nature. This God-man was Lord of the Law. (Matt. 12:8) As the Son of God He might have become man in another way than He actually did. His assumption of human nature did not necessarily involve that He must share the ordinary conditions of human life on earth. It did not involve that He must be born, and that He must live and develop as a child that is subject to parental authority, or that He must live as a member of a civil society whose laws He obeys; in short, it did not involve that He was personally in duty bound to comply with all the requirements of the law which is given to men and applies to men. But as Christ voluntarily assumed human nature, so He voluntarily subjected Himself to the law. That the son of God was “made under the law,” or came to be under the law, was in accord with the purpose of the Father, and, therefore, also in accordance with the will of the Son. He was born under the law, made subject to it, of His own free will and choice. The purpose of this was, not that He might fulfill a personal duty which He owed, but that He might redeem them that were under the law. He was made subject to the law for our sake, that we might receive the adoption of sons. It is evident, then, that Christ’s fulfillment of the law, His active obedience, is a part of His redemptive work, and was done all for us. We have not kept the law, we have sinned against it, we have lived ungodly lives, but Christ stood in our place, and in our stead lived a life with which God was, and still is, well pleased. This same truth is declared in many other places throughout the Bible. (cf. Rom. 5:18–19; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 2,8; Rom. 10:4; 1 Cor. 1:30).

That we have not kept the law can now no more prevent our salvation, because Christ has kept it for us. Though I have transgressed the whole law, yet Christ has fulfilled it all. He has thereby gained for me, and for all men, a righteousness in the law that far exceeds that which any scribe or Pharisee could ever show forth. If we now grasp, through faith, Christ’s obedience and appropriate it unto ourselves as our own, then this is just as good and just as valid before God as though we had never broken the law, but had kept it most perfectly — “for Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.” (Rom. 10:4) “He led Captivity captive.” (Eph. 4:8)

The Son obeyed Him cheerfully,

And born of virgin mother,

Came down upon the earth to me,

That He might be my brother:

His mighty power doth work unseen,

He came in fashion poor and mean,

And took the devil captive.

(Luth. Hymnary No. 526–6)


Christ’s Passive Obedience

We have already heard that God requires righteousness of us. This absolute, inflexible insistence on holiness and righteousness is not arbitrariness on the part of God. It springs from God’s holy and righteous nature, which is forever unchangeable. Of ourselves we cannot render this obedience to God’s law. Therefore God sent His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:2), that by His obedience we might be made righteous.

The righteousness of God demands also that sin be punished. For it is written, “cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” (Gal. 3:10) We mortals are not competent to decide the question as to what punishment is a just and adequate punishment for our violations of the law of God. This question is not to be decided according to the ordinary notions prevailing among men. We must not forget that there is a vast difference between us and God, and between our relation and God’s relation to sin and sinners. It is but natural that culprits and criminals should have other ideas concerning punishment and justice than the judge. What God’s judgment is concerning sin and its punishment can be known only from His word which clearly declares that “the wages of sin is death,” (Rom. 6:23) temporal as well as eternal. Thus by the death of the sinner the righteousness of God is indeed vindicated; but by an eternal punishment he is excluded from the joys of eternal life. But how could the sinner be properly punished, and yet be made partaker of eternal salvation? Scripture teaches that this was done and could be done only by the vicarious atonement of Christ, who became a curse for us, that we might be redeemed from the curse of the law. (Gal. 3:13) This is what we mean when we speak of Christ’s passive obedience. It was an obedience which He rendered, and it was in full accord with the law of God.

Someone might object and say: “Since Christ has fulfilled the law in our stead, why should He also in our stead have suffered the punishment for our violation of the law? Would not one of these two things have been enough to satisfy the demands of divine justice? Would not the vicarious fulfillment of the law render the vicarious punishment superfluous?” The answer to these, and similar questions must always be an emphatic “NO.” Man is always in duty bound to fulfill the law. Whether man obeys the law or not, obedience to the law is a duty which man owes to God, and from which he is never exempted. If he never disobeys the law, he is, of course, not subject to any punishment. If he disobeys the law, it still continues to be his duty to fulfill the law, and besides, a penalty is imposed upon him. The payment of the penalty is not an alternative for obedience to the law, but an additional obligation. In this state (Minnesota) the law requires that the annual real estate taxes, (or at least one half of them) be paid before the first day of June. If not paid by that time a penalty is added. The payment of the penalty does not exempt a man from paying the whole tax, but is an additional obligation. The holy angels in heaven render perfect obedience to the will of God; they do not suffer any punishment. The devils, and the dead in hell, are suffering just punishment; but they are not fulfilling the law; they do not love God with all their heart, neither have they any concern for their neighbor’s welfare. There is a very real distinction between fulfillment of the law and punishment for the violation of the law. The passive obedience of Christ did not render His active obedience superfluous; neither did His active render His passive obedience unnecessary. He came to fulfill the law; He was made under the law to redeem those who were under it. This also includes His paying the penalty of the law in our place and stead. If we were to be set free from every demand of the law by Him, He was obliged to pay our penalty for us. Much has been spoken and written about Christ’s passive obedience. Again and again it is preached by our pastors. Our literature, church papers, books, periodicals emphasize it continually, and rightly so, because the Scriptures make much of it. Therefore, we desire in this essay to emphasize only one particular point of His passive obedience, namely this that the sufferings and death of Christ were an obedience which He rendered willingly and voluntarily.

The obedience which Christ rendered was a perfect obedience at all times. It’s perfection also includes this that He was willing so to suffer and die. In all His bitter suffering and shame, and in the untold agony of the cross, He at all times made the Father’s will His own. He did not render it passively in this sense, that He was unable to help Himself against the power of His enemies, or against the will of His Heavenly Father. Though His innocent body and sinless soul shrank in horror from the terrible ordeal through which He knew He had to pass, if His work were to he accomplished, yet He willingly yielded Himself to the task set before Him. “O, My Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, Thy will be done.” (Matt. 26:42) Thus He prays in dark Gethsemane, and He rises from the ground and in willing obedience is prepared to drink the cup. “Rise,” He calls to His three sleepy companions, “Rise, let us be going; behold, he is at hand that doth betray me.” (Matt. 26:46) He does not hide Himself, He does not flee from His enemies who seek His life. He knows that ere another sun shall set, He will be crucified, dead, and buried. Yet He goes to meet the band that has come to bind Him and lead Him captive to the slaughter. Much depends upon this, that we know and firmly hold fast to the fact that this was a willing obedience.

It need hardly be stated in a gathering like this that an unwilling obedience is no obedience at all. Yet, it certainly is something which needs to be preached to men in general, because men, as a rule, are so shallow and superficial in these things that they are quite content if they render to those in authority a mere outward obedience. They do what they are told to do and do it well, let us assume. They also refrain from that which is forbidden, and so they imagine they have done their duty, even though it were all done unwillingly and with a rebellious heart. Men must as a rule be satisfied herewith, but not so our God. In His sight this is no obedience. As a matter of fact, since Adam’s fall there has never occurred one case of perfect obedience, no, not even in the lives of the most saintly of men. But what we are concerned with here is obedience in suffering, especially in suffering punishment for sins committed. It is a matter of common experience that men suffer punishment unwillingly; that they bear the penalty imposed upon them under the strong pressure of compulsion; that they suffer because they cannot help themselves. They do not give their heart’s full consent to the justice of their punishment. They seek for themselves all manner of excuses and place on others most of the blame. Like Adam, they blame the woman, and, like the woman they blame the devil, and all together they blame the God that made them, and they will not admit that theirs is the sin and the guilt and God’s is the holiness and justice. For this reason the whole human race without exception is doomed to abide in death forever. God demands a perfect obedience in the inmost spirit of man, also with regard to the manner in which man bears his punishment. As long as a man does not in his heart of hearts willingly agree to all that God in His infinite justice deems fit to do unto Him, he is not right with God, but remains in a state of rebellion and continually increases the amount of his sin and the burden of his punishment. Of themselves men will never confess that their sin has deserved such punishment, and that God in all His dealings with them is perfectly just and right. Of themselves they will never bear their punishment without murmuring against the Lord God. They will always hate the hand that justly smiteR them, instead of hating their sin and kissing the rod.

If, therefore, the children of Adam are to be delivered from eternal death, it is not enough that a substitute be found who bears their guilt and dies for them. The vicarious death of Jesus Christ would have been quite useless to effect the redemption of sinners, if it had not also been a voluntary death, a willing sacrifice, a sacrifice in perfect obedience, not only to God’s law, but also to His way of enforcing the law and vindicating its justice by exacting the full penalty. Christ did this! He gave, from the depths of His soul, His unqualified and willing consent to the justice of the agony He endured and with all His heart agreed that His Father should in such manner join death to sin. He truly did hate the sin which had been laid upon His back, but He also did kiss the rod that smote Him. This is evident from every account of His passion. Not merely did He go to His sufferings with a willing mind; but in that hell of anguish, mockery and shame, He continued in the obedience to His Father’s justice and never once turned back from His task. His fellowship with His Father remained unbroken, even while He suffered the Father’s fiery wrath and curse because of the sin He was bearing. He remained a perfectly obedient son, in heart, mind and soul lovingly bound to the Father, even while the Father was punishing in Him, to the utmost, the sins of the world. And even though in a surpassingly dark moment of unutterable agony, He gave vent to His suffering in the startling cry: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” this cry revealed no murmuring heart, no rebellious spirit, but it was the cry of a soul that loved the Father and all His ways even then and would. not let Him go. And so when the fore-appointed hour had come, He voluntarily gave up His Ghost, His human soul, into the hands of His Father. Of His own free will He laid down His life, as He had foretold, (John 10:18; Matt. 20:28), and so with the sacrifice of His innocent sufferings and death, with the offering of a perfect obedience in dying as in living, Christ redeemed us. Christ did not die because His strength was exhausted, neither did He die because His human nature collapsed under the cross. His death was not due to the fact that He no longer was able to oppose His enemies, nor was it a natural termination of His life under existing circumstances. He could have lived longer had He so desired. This explains what we read in Mark 15:44 concerning the impression which the comparatively early death of Christ made on the mind of Pilate, who, from the experience he had had with many crucified criminals, knew that death by crucifixion was a slow death, the poor, condemned felons often lingering for days on the cross. “Pilate marveled,” we read, “if He were already dead, and calling unto him the centurion, he asked him whether He had been any while dead.” When Pilate spoke these words, Christ had been dead for about two hours. He died about three o’clock in the afternoon. (Matt. 26:46–50) Joseph of Arimathea went in to Pilate to “crave” the body “when the even was come.” (Mark 15:42) That could not have been much earlier than five o’clock. Pilate would have marveled still more, if he had known the exact time of our Lord’s death. But his wonder would have known no bounds, if he had been acquainted with the full truth concerning this altogether wonderful death. The Lord leaves us in no manner of doubt as to what is meant by the word “voluntary” as applied to His death. In John 10:17–18 He speaks in this wise; “Therefore does my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I may 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. This commandment have I received of my Father.” Yes, in full agreement with His Father’s will, He obediently lays down His life. Not under any compulsion of exhausted nature, not on account of the cruelty of His enemies, but in willing and loving obedience to His Father, He lays down His life, gives it as a free offering, a spotless sacrifice. “He became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Phil. 2:8)

This is Gospel indeed; this is glad tidings to all who sit in the shadow of death, doomed on account of their sins to fall a prey to eternal death from which there is no escape. This voluntary death of our substitute has a world of meaning, a heaven of consolation and hope for us all. For He died in our sins and for our sins. (I Cor. 15:3) His willing obedience even unto death, and in the very act of dying, was a vicarious obedience. So we are distinctly told by St. Paul, Rom. 5:19: “As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One shall many be made righteous.” He being our substitute, His obedience is accounted by God as our obedience; His life our life; His death our death. (II Cor. 5:14) He having died for our sins, we, who identify ourselves with Him through faith, are looked upon by God as having died that same death, as having suffered that punishment and paid to the last cent our debt to God’s holy law, and as having satisfied perfectly His divine justice. The wages of sin being death, and Jesus Christ, as the substitute of men, having died and thus received in full the wages that sin pays her servants, we have now no longer to expect or to fear that payment on the part of sin. “Her purse is empty!” She can no longer deal out death to those who are by faith one with Christ and partakers of His death as of His life. The part that faith plays in God’s economy of salvation does not properly belong to the scope of this essay. But let us fix our attention upon, and firmly hold to, the great and glorious fact that by His willing obedience, active as well as passive, Christ has fully atoned for our sins, reconciled us to the Father, and made us children of God and heirs of eternal glory. Without this obedience there could never have been any hope for us. All the unsearchable riches of Christ for the life and joy and hope of our souls have their source in the obedience of Christ and rest on it as a firm foundation.

“On Christ, the solid rock, I stand;

All other ground is sinking sand.”

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