‘To obey is better than sacrifice’
(1 Samuel 15:22)
While struggling to learn New Testament Greek, I was taught to distinguish between the ‘active’ and ‘passive’ voices. My tutor’s explanatory illustration has stayed with me – Active voice: think, ‘Jesus healed the leper’. Passive voice: think, ‘The leper was healed by Jesus’.
At the very centre of the Christian faith lies the fact of Christ’s obedience to his Father – he ‘became obedient unto death, even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:8). Although the two are profoundly intermeshed, theologians sometimes distinguish between the active and passive obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ. Both were vital in relation to his procuring the salvation of his people.
The active obedience of Christ
By his active obedience we mean that Christ (uniquely among all the men who ever lived) kept the law of God perfectly. He lived a faultless life in every respect, being absolutely sinless in thought, word and deed.
This was an essential condition of his obtaining salvation for his people, since only a sinless person could atone for the sins of others; the substitutionary sacrifice must be ‘without blemish’ (Exodus 12:5).
The unanimous testimony of Scripture is that Christ was sinless. He alone could make the seemingly audacious claim, ‘I always do what is pleasing to [God]’ (John 8:46). And he alone could lay down the challenge to his enemies, ‘Which of you convicts me of sin?’ and be met by silence (John 8:46).
Christ’s active obedience, therefore, consisted in what he uniquely did. It was written prophetically of him, ‘I delight to do thy will, O my God; thy law is within my heart’ (Psalm 40:8).
Christ’s passive obedience
Christ’s passive obedience, on the other hand, consisted not so much in what he did but in what he suffered and endured. Famously, in the Garden of Gethsemane, contemplating his impending crucifixion, Jesus prayed, ‘Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done’ (Luke 22:42).
Here we see the Lord Jesus submitting to the will of God – a passive obedience that reached its culmination at Calvary.
Berkhof helpfully states that Christ’s ‘passive obedience consisted in his paying the penalty of sin by his sufferings and death, and thus discharging the debt of all his people’. And this definition accords with Scripture. Paul states that Christ ‘was put to death for our trespasses’ (Romans 4:25) while Peter writes ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree’ (1 Peter 1:24).
The Lord Jesus, then, submitted to the will of God both actively and passively. His active and passive obedience are synergistic – that is, they ‘work together’ in procuring the eternal salvation of God’s elect. ‘For as by one man’s obedience many were made sinners, so by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous’ (Romans 5:19).
Our active obedience
However, we can also consider this matter of active and passive obedience in relation to our own Christian lives. What is the secret of true happiness? It surely results from living a life pleasing to God. But how do we please God? By obeying him both actively and passively.
Our active obedience consists in actively doing what God says – by keeping his commandments, loving what he loves and shunning what he hates. Jesus said, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 15:15).
A Scottish preacher is said to have prayed, ‘Lord, make me as obedient as it is possible for a saved sinner to be’ – and it was a good prayer. God our Maker knows what is best for us. To violate his laws – laws set out clearly in the Holy Scriptures – goes against the grain of our creation. Yet as fallen creatures this is what all people do continually and habitually (Romans 3:9-20).
But this is no longer the case for the true Christian. Redeemed by God’s grace and indwelt by God’s Spirit, the believer is both motivated and empowered to seek, know and actively obey the will of God.
It follows that our active obedience to God cannot be divorced from the Bible, for the Bible is the written revelation of God’s will. Thus Christians both are, and are to be, people of the Book – eager to read, heed and obey the revealed will of God in Scripture. If there is a ‘short cut’ to blessing, this is it.
Our passive obedience
But much less acknowledged is the need for God’s people to exercise passive obedience to the will of God. This is more of an ‘unseen’ matter, for it involves ‘being’ more than ‘doing’ – endurance rather than visible activity.
For example, God’s will for some may involve their being rendered inactive for a time – either short, long or seemingly interminable. In his providence he may see fit to send redundancy, illness or incapacity. His all-wise and eternal purposes may require crushing disappointments or the frustration of our plans. He may not see fit to give us visible fruit for our Christian service.
Such seemingly harsh providences will make us seek his grace that we might patiently exercise our passive obedience to his will. The proper response of faith in such instances is a meek submission to his dealings with us, continuing to trust him whatever betides.
We are to emulate Jeremiah and bear the yoke he has laid upon us: ‘Woe is me because of my hurt! My wound is grievous. But I said, “Truly this is an affliction, and I must bear it”’ (Jeremiah 10:19).
The God of the Bible has only one will – a ‘good, acceptable and perfect will’ that is implemented ‘according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Romans 12:2; Ephesians 1:11).
He is sovereign and in total control of the universe. His will is not arbitrary but ‘according to the counsel’ of an all-wise God. He knows what is best for his children. The Christian response to a seemingly harsh providence is thus one of passive obedience. ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him’ (1 Samuel 3:18).
The perfect will of God
The Christian, therefore, must not only seek God’s help in doing his will, but also seek God’s strength to endure his will. Oh to bear patiently whatever he sends our way! The passive graces of the Christian life – humility, gentleness, patience, submission, steadfastness, faithfulness to God whatever our circumstance – are not stressed sufficiently in an age of frenetic activity when everything seems driven by measurable results.
But who can deny that passive obedience is as pleasing in God’s sight as active obedience? Who will deny that the passive graces of the Christian life are just as much the fruit of God’s Holy Spirit as are love and joy? And who can deny that the passive will of God is, at times, far harder for us than the active will of God?
True Christian heroes are not always those in prominent positions in the church. We all aspire to be useful and fruitful. But what if God does not see fit to make us visibly so?
Sometimes the will of God for us is simply to be still before him: ‘Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him’ (Psalm 37:7). ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10). ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence’ (Psalm 62:1).
Waiting upon God
Waiting time is not necessarily wasted time. Under God, both busy and barren times may be sanctified for our blessing and his glory. It is a matter of distinguishing between active and passive obedience to God. Both have a place in his overall plan and sovereign will.
If you are currently struggling with passive obedience to God’s will for your life, you have my sympathy. But many of God’s people have walked this valley before you – including Katharina von Schlegel who in the early eighteenth century penned words that have been a comfort and blessing to many since:
Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change he faithful will remain.
Be still my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend,
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end