We have often heard that Jesus Christ had to die on the cross so that our sins might be forgiven. This is absolutely true and wonderful! But it is only one side of the story. Jesus Christ also had to obey on the cross so that we might inherit eternal life.
The distinction between these two goals (forgiveness and life) is the same as that of the active and passive obedience of Jesus Christ. The passive aspect of Christ’s obedience is that He paid the penalty for sin. The active is that He merited eternal life for us.
In this article, we examine the active obedience that Christ gave so that we might inherit eternal life. This is absolutely crucial to our understanding of salvation, but it is oftentimes neglected and not clearly understood in the evangelical world today.
The reason we believe that Christ has earned eternal life for us by His obedience is because the Scripture says (1) that perfect obedience is necessary for life, (2) that Christ not only suffered for us but also obeyed for us, and (3) that the result of Christ’s work is forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Perfect Obedience Merits Eternal Life
The Bible has one simple way of saying that perfect obedience is necessary for eternal life. “Do this and live.” The “do this” is perfect obedience, and the “live” is eternal life.
Jesus said it this way to the rich, young ruler, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). John Calvin’s comment on this passage is simple and to the point, “[The rich young ruler] dreams of merits, on account of which he may receive eternal life as a reward due; and therefore Christ appropriately sends him to the keeping of the law, which unquestionably is the way of life” (emphasis mine).
This is similar to the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. There, a teacher asks Jesus what must he do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what is written in the law, and he responds that we must love God and our neighbor. Listen carefully to Jesus’ answer, “You have answered rightly, do this and you will live” (Verse 28).
Obviously, Jesus establishes a necessary connection between perfect obedience and eternal life. But what does that mean for us? The purpose is not that we might try to gain righteousness by the law. Some object to the idea that Jesus would say that perfect obedience merits eternal life because that would be tempting us to gain righteousness by the law. But they forget what the Bible says one very important purpose of the law is.
The purpose is that we might be shown that we cannot merit eternal life. To put it another way, “By the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). The law condemns us all that “every mouth may be stopped and all the world may become guilty before God” (3:19). This is precisely what Jesus was doing in the passages that was mentioned earlier.
And so the question for us is, “Have we done this so that we might live?” The answer is that we have not done this, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The conclusion is: we shall not live.
Christ not only Suffered but Obeyed for Us
Happily, we are not left with the sad fact that we have not done this and, therefore, shall not live. The Gospel gives us the happy news that Christ not only suffered for us but also obeyed for us so that we might live. The Bible says that Jesus “did this” so that we might live.
Jesus said that dying on the cross was not only laying down His life for the sheep but also obedience to the Father. In John 10:18, He said, “I have power to lay [my life] down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.” Thus, His death on the cross was an act of obedience to the Father.
This is why the Apostle Paul describes Christ’s humiliation as becoming obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross (Philippians 2:8). Christ was obedient throughout His whole life but especially on the cross.
Thus, in one of the most important passages in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit contrasts the disobedience of Adam with the obedience of Christ. He says there, “For as by one man’s disobedience, many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). We see in this passage not only that Christ rendered perfect obedience but also the purpose of that obedience: “so that many will be made righteous.” That is, that His righteousness might be put on their account!
Some object to the use of Romans 5 in speaking of the active obedience of Christ because it speaks of one act of obedience, which refers to the cross. But this objection is easily removed. Just as Christ’s sufferings occurred throughout His whole life but reached their culmination on the cross, so Christ’s obedience continued throughout His whole life but reached its pinnacle on the cross as the supreme act of love to the Father.
Thus, we have a solution to the problem of the “Do this.” Christ has “done this” for us. When we think of all the ways that we have disobeyed God, we can take comfort in this fact: Jesus has obeyed in our place.
Eternal Life is a Result of Christ’s Work
Jesus has “done this” for us, and so now we can live. Is it not stated abundantly in Scripture that Christ came down from heaven not only that we might have forgiveness of sins but also that we might have eternal life?
Consider the most popular verse in the Bible. It is said that God sent His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish (because of His passive obedience) but have everlasting life (because of His active obedience).
Another Scripture verse that is very familiar to us all is Romans 6:23. Here it is said, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Notice that we have merited death. Christ paid those wages. But we also have a gift—eternal life. How do we get it? It is “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Thus, we “live” because Jesus Christ has “done this.”
It is important to recognize that God does not change His standards. God has said, “Do this and live.” Perfect obedience is the condition of eternal life. Without the “doing of the law,” there will be no eternal life.
But we get eternal life. How, then, is this possible? Certainly not because we have done what was necessary! Rather, it is because Jesus has done all that it was necessary to do in order for us to gain eternal life! The “done this” or obedience to the law is not ours but Christ’s. Christ gives us His “done this” or His perfect righteousness so that we might have eternal life.
Conclusion – Very Good News
Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins. That is very good news, for we deserved eternal punishment because of our sin. Christ has paid that penalty for us.
But paying the penalty for our sins is not enough to get us into heaven. If we only had forgiveness of sins, then we would merely have a clean, blank slate. A blank slate will not get us into heaven. The Bible says that eternal life is for those who have obeyed the law. The slate must have “good works,” “performance of the law,” “righteousness,” or “done this” written on it. And this is also the very good news of the Gospel. Christ has not only given us a clean slate. He has written on it, “Christ’s obedience.” That is surely enough to get us into heaven!
What glorious good news! Christ has done it all! He has paid the penalty for my sin and done all that is necessary for me to obtain eternal life. And now I know that I have everlasting life and will not come into judgment but have passed from death to life. No power in this world can possibly overwhelm or overrule the efficacy of Christ’s obedience and sacrifice!
Rev. J. Wesley White is Pastor of the New Covenant PCA in Spearfish, South Dakota.