Justification by Faith Alone
“Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?” (v. 46).- John 8:46
No discussion of the atonement could be complete without a consideration of the obedience of our Savior to His Father. After all, Jesus saw His death as fulfilling His Father’s will (Luke 22:39–46; John 19:28–30). Moreover, when we talk about Christ’s obedience, we normally distinguish His passive obedience from His active obedience.
The atonement manifests Christ’s passive obedience because in His death He receives in His person the actions of others—His Father’s wrath and the torture of earthly authorities. Let us be careful here, for our Savior is not entirely passive in the atonement. He willingly allows the authorities to execute Him, actively submitting Himself to them as He lays down His life for His sheep (John 10:1–18). Still, the term passive obedience is useful because it emphasizes that Jesus offers no resistance in the atonement.
Christ’s active obedience describes His complete faithfulness to God’s commands, His living a perfect, sinless life in flawless obedience to His Father. We find an allusion to this unwavering obedience when Jesus asks, “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” in today’s passage. Clearly, Jesus expects the answer to be “No one.” Other passages, such as 1 Peter 2:21–25, teach that our Savior always kept God’s law perfectly.
Our Lord’s life of active obedience reminds us that His death was not all that was required to redeem us. If that were so, He could have become incarnate as an adult and gone straight to the cross. By itself, Christ’s death for our sins only cleanses us from evil, restoring us to a position of neutrality before God in regard to His law, much as Adam was before the fall. Adam was free of sin when He was created, but He had no positive obedience of His own. He still had to obey God perfectly, taking dominion of the earth, multiplying and covering the earth with offspring, and not eating the forbidden fruit (Gen. 1:28; 2:16–17). Adam had to do these things to receive eternal life. We see this in that the obedience of Christ, the last Adam, secures eternal life (Rom. 5:12–21).
Except for Jesus, all human beings are born in Adam. That makes us subject to God’s demand for perfect obedience for eternal life. Jesus rendered such obedience, and when we rest in Him by faith alone, God credits His righteousness to our account, and we prove that God imputed our sins to Christ on the cross (2 Cor. 5:21). Therefore, the Father sees us as having the perfect active obedience needed for eternal life.
Because we are sinners, we can do nothing in and of ourselves to merit eternal life. Even after we are saved, our best works remain tainted by sin and cannot produce the perfection we need for a righteous standing before God. Jesus’ active obedience to the Father, however, is put on our account when we trust in Christ, giving us confidence before Him. As Dr. R.C. Sproul has said: “No work of ours is good enough for evil to atone. Your merit, Lord, is all we have; it saves and it alone.”
Passages for Further Study