- We are sinners who need to be forgiven by God in order to be in His family.
- Jesus took our place on the cross and paid the penalty for our sins.
- Through faith in Him and His shed blood, we are forgiven and washed clean.
- Therefore, we can be in God's family and go to heaven when we die.
Actually, that summary of the gospel leaves out a good chunk of the truth... half of it, I'd say.
Because we don't need to just be forgiven in order to get into heaven. We also need to be righteous. Jesus Himself said, "You must be perfect, even as my Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). He also said that "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20).
Jesus' death on the cross wiped out the "debts" in our account, which is wonderful. But in order to get into God's family we also need "assets" in our account. Those assets are a perfect life, a record of scrupulous obedience to the law of God. Where can we get those assets?
We get them through faith in the active obedience of Christ.
The active obedience of Christ is all those things He did as a righteous, committed follower of God while He was here on earth. For 33 years, Jesus lived a perfect life. He was a perfectly compliant baby, an obedient toddler, a cheerful child, an unselfish pre-teen, a humble adolescent, a compassionate young adult, a generous man. He gave to the poor, had mercy on the sick, honored His parents, forgave those who wronged Him, and, in a word, loved His neighbor as Himself. Through every stage of His life, Jesus was fully devoted to God and other people. He crossed every "t" and dotted every "i" of the law of God. He obeyed all ten of the Ten Commandments, every day, both in attitude and in action. From the manger to the cross, Jesus Christ was unflichingly dedicated to the will of His Father. "He faced all of the same temptations we do, yet He did not sin" (Hebrews 4:16). And He did this for us.
In Christian theology, we distinguish the active obedience of Christ from His passive obedience. His passive obedience was His submission to the penalty of the law on our behalf on the cross.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (VIII.5) does a good job of showing that we need BOTH the active obedience and the passive obedience of Christ in order to enter God's family:
The Lord Jesus, by His perfect [i.e., active] obedience, and sacrifice of Himself [i.e., passive obedience], which He through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, has fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father has given Him.
More often than not, when we share the gospel we only tell people about Christ's passive obedience. And when we get down and depressed, we typically just remind ourselves that Christ died for us, that we're forgiven. Again, that's His passive obedience.
We need to start preaching, both to ourselves and others, the active obedience of Christ. Christ died for us, it is true. But He also lived for us.
Here's what this means practically: When I fail to love someone as I should, I need not despair, because Christ's perfect love toward others has been credited to my account. When I covet someone else's stuff, I need not get all depressed about it, because Christ's perfect contentment has been credited to my account. When I let out an unkind or judgmental word, I need not fear that I've disqualified myself from God's love, because Christ's perfect kindness has been credited to my account. Through my faith in Christ, His obedience has become my obedience. His holiness has become my holiness. His love and contentment and kindness and all other virtues have become my virtues.
This doesn't mean, of course, that my sins don't matter (they do) or that I don't need to repent (I do). But it does mean that I'm no longer defined by my sins. My identity is that of a righteous person with a spotless record. That's how God sees me, and that's how I should see myself. Always.
Jesus lived for me and He died for me. I am saved by His active obedience and His passive obedience.
J. Gresham Machen, one of our Presbyterian heroes of the last century, said this on his deathbed in 1937:
“I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”