Jonathan Edwards’s View Of That Great Act Of Obedience: Jesus’ Laying Down His Life -- By: Ryan M. Hurd

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 78:2 (Fall 2016)
Article: Jonathan Edwards’s View Of That Great Act Of Obedience: Jesus’ Laying Down His Life
Author: Ryan M. Hurd

Jonathan Edwards’s View
Of That Great Act Of Obedience:
Jesus’ Laying Down His Life

Ryan M. Hurd

Ryan M. Hurd is an MDiv and ThM student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI.

Within the work of Christ, theologians typically distinguish between an active and passive obedience. While artificial, this distinction helps explain the two-step work required for justification, namely: (1) satisfying for the penalty of death incurred by disobedience and (2) meriting the reward of eternal life. Christ’s active obedience provides the latter. It is that obedience Christ wrought by walking according to the commands of God. The former—Christ’s penal suffering (primarily on the cross)—is his passive obedience whereby he satisfied God’s wrath.

For Jonathan Edwards, however, defining and distinguishing between active and passive obedience is not a simple matter, and he formulates his conception differently than most. Edwards employs both terms in explaining Christ’s work. However, he views Christ’s whole work as supremely active obedience, even in his suffering (which theologians typically label as passive obedience). For Edwards, Christ’s passive work of suffering was the greatest part of his active obedience.

This might appear to be contradictory if viewed through the lens theologians often use when examining the active and passive distinction. Such would argue that passive obedience, by very definition, is not to be considered meritorious. Further, passive obedience is understood as satisfying the law negatively, while active obedience fulfills the law positively. Thus, Edwards’s construction, taken at face value, appears incongruous. Nonetheless, his understanding of the active and passive relationship, as this article examines, remedies the discrepancies.

Edwards’s underlying thesis is that Christ’s passive obedience is subsumed under his active obedience. This thesis differs from that of other theologians who typically hold both the active and passive forms together equally. For Edwards, however, what theologians typically distinguish as passive obedience actually was active (meritorious) in itself.

A necessary caveat here needs to be inserted. Edwards’s system is not asserting that Christ’s passive obedience was active in the sense that Christ was purposeful or intentional (rather than being a victim, inactive in suffering).

Edwards of course would not deny that Christ’s death was not active in this sense, but his proposal is different. Because Christ’s passive obedience was an obedience to God’s commands, it therefore comprises...

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