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Obedience of Christ

OBEDIENCE OF CHRIST (ὑπακοή, G5633). The submission of Jesus to the commandments of God, particularly to His uniquely Messianic calling.

Birth and childhood.

The events of Christ’s birth and childhood are described in terms of obedience to God. The obedience of Mary (Luke 1:38), the place of birth (2:4), the giving of the name (2:21), and the submission of Jesus to His parents (2:51) as well as to His heavenly Father (2:49) are all according to God’s commandment and therefore enjoy His favor (2:52).

Ministry and death.


Paul’s explanation of the Gospel has at its heart the obedience of the one man, Christ, as undoing all the evil introduced by the disobedience of Adam (Rom 5:19); cf. Galatians 4:4, where Christ’s being born under the law is seen as the condition of His redemption of those also born under it. Hebrews interweaves the themes of the dangers of human disobedience and the blessings coming from Christ’s obedience. Christ’s prayers were heard because of His godly fear. He learned obedience through His suffering, and this consequent perfection became the source of salvation (Heb 5:7-10); the entire work of Christ is described as doing God’s will, in which God has pleasure (Heb 10:5-10). Here too the obedience of Christ has consequences (reward) through the pleasing of God.

Theological implications.

Although it would appear at first that this teaching of Scripture has had only a peripheral effect upon the history of theology, closer examination reveals its immense impact in many areas.

Covenant theology.

The protest against nominalist speculation, which divorced God’s grace from the work of Christ, was under the leadership of the new covenant theology of the late middle ages (Gregory of Rimini); which was expanded by Anabaptist and Ger. and Eng. Calvinist theologians. This theology was the affirmation that “God had bound himself by his Word,” and that in particular the cross was not a theological accident, but the manifestation and the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation.

Amyraldianism (or New England theology).

The Amyraldian attempt to preserve the sovereign, gracious activity of the Spirit in conversion while denying the limited (personal) atonement of Christ, was countered frequently by pointing out that the work of the Spirit with individuals was itself an aspect of the reward given to Christ in virtue of His obedient atonement, so that to speak of a particular work of the Spirit apart from the particular atonement accomplished by Christ was to make of the Spirit a nominalistic, mysterious, impersonal force, not the Spirit of Christ.

Active and passive obedience.

Classic Protestant theology distinguished between the work of Christ in fulfilling the requirements of the law for us (active) and suffering the penalty of sin for us in His expiatory death (passive); active obedience can be regarded also as the general requirement for all men as revealed in divine commandment, while the passive obedience would be the specific, Messianic mandate given to Christ alone. Medieval thinking considered that only non-required virtue had an “extra,” transferable character. (Anselm regarded only the death of Christ as making satisfaction since as a man he must be obedient to the law in any case), and even Protestants made use of the same perspective. Lutherans affirmed that Christ as God-man was above the law, and so His obedience of it was not required and hence meritorious. The Calvinist Piscator, endeavoring to protect the true humanity of Christ, held that Christ was under the law, and hence His active obedience was not meritorious. Later Protestantism saw the Biblical necessity for a pure sacrifice, making the active obedience the presupposition for the passive; further, the ongoing work of the risen and ascended Christ also must be regarded as vital to our salvation, and can be thought of under the active aspect.

Most less-sophisticated Christians have been convinced that to speak of the passive character of Christ’s death implies that it is something which happened to Him, not something He willingly did for us. While this has never been intended by theologians, it may be wise to avoid these particular abbreviations and explain what is intended: that those who trust in Christ do not only receive the forgiveness of sins, but also the positive approval and reward of the Father, as the obedience of Christ is imputed to the believer and he partakes of the promised Holy Spirit and His gifts.

Emphasis on the active obedience is valuable also in considering the parallel with the disobedience of Adam and its consequences. The sinlessness of Christ (in the reality of His temptations) is perhaps the central issue in considering His divine/human character, and obviously can be more easily grasped from a consideration of His obedience (including the incarnation itself as an act of obedience). Finally, even the dual aspects of the believer’s obedience to God (his obligation to obey God’s revealed will and also to fulfill his own personal calling) are given new depth in terms of his Lord’s obedience.


A. A. Hodge, The Atonement (1867), 212-227, 248-264; G. Smeaton, The Doctrine of the Atonement as taught by Christ Himself (1871), Sections XI, XII, XIV, XV, XXII, XXVIII-XXX, XXXIV-XLIV; G. C. Berkouwer, The Person of Christ (1952), 239-270; G. C. Berkouwer, The Work of Christ (1953), 314-327; J. Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (1955), 25-30; J. Murray, “The Heavenly Priestly Activity of Christ” (1958); A. Stöger, “Obedience” in Sacramentum Mundi (1970) II, 616-620.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The "obedience" (hupakoe) of Christ is directly mentioned but 3 times in the New Testament, although many other passages describe or allude to it: "Through the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous" (Ro 5:19); "He humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross" (Php 2:8); "Though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered" (Heb 5:8). In 2Co 10:5, the phrase signifies an attitude toward Christ: "every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ."

1. As an Element of Conduct and Character:

2. Its Christological Bearing:

3. In Its Soteriological Bearings:

In Ro 5:19, in the series of contrasts between sin and salvation ("Not as the trespass, so also is the free gift"), we are told: "For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous." Interpreters and theologians, especially the latter, differ as to whether "obedience" here refers to the specific and supreme act of obedience on the cross, or to the sum total of Christ’s incarnate obedience through His whole life; and they have made the distinction between His "passive obedience," yielded on the cross, and His "active obedience" in carrying out without a flaw the Father’s will at all times. This distinction is hardly tenable, as the whole Scriptural representation, especially His own, is that He was never more intensely active than in His death: "I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished" (Lu 12:50); "I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one taketh it away from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again" (Joh 10:17,18). "Who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish unto God" (Heb 9:14), indicates the active obedience of one who was both priest and sacrifice. As to the question whether it was the total obedience of Christ, or His death on the cross, that constituted the atonement, and

kindred question whether it was not the spirit of obedience in the act of death, rather than the act itself, that furnished the value of His redemptive work, it might conceivably, though improbably, be said that "the one act of righteousness" through which "the free gift came" was His whole life considered as one act. But these ideas are out of line with the unmistakable trend of Scripture, which everywhere lays principal stress on the death of Christ itself; it is the center and soul of the two ordinances, baptism and the Lord's Supper|Lord’s Supper; it holds first place in the Gospels, not as obedience, but as redemptive suffering and death; it is unmistakably put forth in this light by Christ Himself in His few references to His death: "ransom," "my blood," etc. Paul’s teaching everywhere emphasizes the death, and in but two places the obedience; Peter indeed speaks of Christ as an ensample, but leaves as his characteristic thought that Christ "suffered for sins once .... put to death in the flesh" (1Pe 3:18). In Hebrews the center and significance of Christ’s whole work is that He "put away sin by the sacrifice of himself"; while John in many places emphasizes the death as atonement: "Unto him that .... loosed us from our sins by his blood" (Re 1:5), and elsewhere. The Scripture teaching is that "God set (him) forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood" (Ro 3:25). His lifelong obedience enters in chiefly as making and marking Him the "Lamb without blemish and without spot," who alone could be the atoning sacrifice. If it enters further, it is as the preparation and anticipation of that death, His life so dominated and suffused with the consciousness of the coming sacrifice that it becomes really a part of the death. His obedience at the time of His death could not have been atonement, for it had always existed and had not atoned; but it was the obedience that turned the possibility of atonement into the fact of atonement. He obediently offered up, not His obedience, but Himself. He is set forth as propitiation, not in His obedience, but in His blood, His death, borne as the penalty of sin, in His own body on the tree. The distinction is not one of mere academic theological interest. It involves the whole question of the substitutionary and propitiatory in Christ’s redemptive work, which is central, vital and formative, shaping the entire conception of Christianity. The blessed and helpful part which our Lord’s complete and loving obedience plays in the working out of Christian character, by His example and inspiration, must not be underestimated, nor its meaning as indicating the quality of the life which is imparted to the soul which accepts for itself His mediatorial death. These bring the consummation and crown of salvation; they are not its channel, or instrument, or price.


DCG, article "Obedience of Christ"; Denney, Death of Christ, especially pp. 231-33; Champion, Living Atonement; Forsythe, Cruciality of the Cross, etc.; works on the Atonement; Commentaries, in the place cited.