A Brief Explanation of the Active and Passive Righteousness of Christ

I know I have been on a T.F. Torrance kick recently. I promise I’ll lay off after this one. But I thought this was pretty good, and straight to the point.

By active obedience is meant the positive fulfillment of God’s saving will in the whole life of Jesus in his sonship. From the very beginning to the very end, he maintained a perfect filial relation to the Father in which he yielded to him a life of utter love and faithfulness, and in which he received and laid hold of the love of the Father. This active obedience was therefore his own loving self-offering to the Father in our name and on our behalf, and also his own loving appropriation of the Father’s word and will in our name and on our behalf.

By passive obedience is meant the submission of Jesus Christ to the judgement of the Father upon the sin which he assumed in our humanity in order to bear it in our name and on our behalf. This is the passion he endured in the expiation of our sins, but it is also his willing acceptance of the divine verdict upon our humanity.

This distinction between the active and passive obedience of Christ has been emphasized in Reformed theology not in order to distinguish or separate them, but in order to insist that the whole course of Christ’s active obedience is absolutely integral to his work of reconciliation, and that atonement cannot be limited to his passive obedience, that is to his passive submission to the penalty for our sin inflicted upon him in his death…

This mutuality of Christ’s active and passive obedience is important for it means that in our justification we have imputed to us not only the passive righteousness of Christ in which, in suffering his death on the Cross, he satisfied and atoned for our sins, but the active righteousness of Christ in which he positively fulfilled the Father’s will in an obedient life.

In other words justification means not simply the non-imputation of our sins through the pardon of Christ, but positive sharing in his human righteousness. We are saved therefore not only by the death of Christ which he suffered for our sakes but by his vicarious life which he lived for our sakes.”

Torrance, Incarnation, 80-81.


  1. John T. "Jack" Jeffery says:

    Thank you for posting this. It is a good reminder of a fine statement of sound theology for some, and a means of introduction to this for others. I came to appreciate Torrance on this subject from his “Introduction” to a volume he translated and edited, “The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper: Sermons on the Sacrament preached in the Kirk of Edinburgh by Robert Bruce in A.D. 1589”, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 1958), pp. 23-27. Torrance there introduces the reader to Bruce on not only the active and passive obedience of Christ, but also on His incarnational redemption. This was an eye-opener from which I never looked back. From the day I became convinced of this I have proclaimed and taught, “He was conceived and born for me, He lived and died for me, He rose and ascended for me, and He is coming back for me!”

    Torrance wrote there concerning what he refers to as “a very interesting passage…in Bruce’s sixth sermon on Isaiah 38, published in 1591, which is very enlightening for our understanding of this conception of union with Christ in the Sacrament.” (pg. 24)

    After citing Bruce’s first and third points concerning Christ’s passive and active obedience respectively (pp. 22-25), Torrance continues:

    “These are two aspects that cover the atoning work of Christ in scholastic Calvinism, His passive and active obedience on our behalf. But Bruce, following Calvin, could not be content with that, and so between, these two he expounded another, and no less essential, main aspect of Christ’s atoning reconciliation. And this is what he had to say about it: –

    ‘Secondly, He delivered us from the disorder and rotten root from which we proceed. For, as you see, and that by the mighty power of His Holy Spirit, so that our nature in Him was fully sanctified by that same power. And this perfect purity of our nature in His Person covers our impurity, for He was not conceived in sin and corruption as we are, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, who perfectly sanctified our nature in Him, even in the moment of His conception. Thus in that He was thoroughly purged, His purity covers our impurity.’

    If Bruce thought of the satisfaction of Christ as freeing us from our actual sins, it is clear that he thought of His perfect purity in incarnation and birth as covering our original sin, or as sanctifying our human nature. This stress upon incarnational redemption in Christ Bruce sandwiched in between his accounts of Christ’s passive and active obedience, for it belongs to the very heart of His saving work. And so he summed it up by saying that all these, namely, perfect satisfaction, perfect purity and perfect righteousness are to be found in Christ perfectly.” (pg. 25)

    “It is this ‘whole Christ’ that we are given to participate in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and therefore we are given to share not only in the benefits of His death on the Cross and in His righteous fulfillment of the Will of God, but also in His sanctified human nature so that we are sanctified in the purity of His Incarnation through union with Him in His humanity.” (pg. 26)