In the incarnation, Jesus Christ, the divine Son, lived a life of perfect obedience and submission to God as a representative of his people, which fulfilled the expectations of the prophets and provided the way of salvation for the people of God.
Jesus Christ came as the incarnated divine Son to live a human life of perfect obedience and submission. While we are unable to live a life without sin, Jesus was our representative and lived a perfect life on our behalf, a life attested to throughout the Bible. This obedient life fulfilled the expectations of the prophets of the Old Testament, who expected God to both send a Messiah to rescue his people and to provide a sufficient sacrifice for their sins; Jesus was both of these. As the second Adam, he came to provide his righteousness for his people who had inherited the unrighteousness of Adam.
The Reality of Christ’s Obedience and Sinlessness
When Isaiah prophesies of a coming Messiah, a Christ, who will be put to death for the sins of his people, he speaks clearly of this Redeemer’s character: “And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” (Isa. 53:9). This pristine character stems from a heart that is not rebellious, an open ear that always listens to God (Isa. 50:5). The prophets in the OT clearly proclaimed universal human disobedience and sinfulness, but they also spoke of a coming one who would be fully obedient and fully without sin.
Jesus Christ, true God and true man, fulfilled the expectations of the prophets. Jesus himself claimed that he always did those things that pleased the Father (John 8:29). On any other lips, such a claim would be arrogant, but Christ did in fact live a life of perfect obedience. The only account we have of Christ as a boy pictures him eager to pursue the will of God (Luke 2:49). When Jesus is baptized as man, commencing his public ministry, a ringing endorsement sounds from heaven itself: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). Even a pagan ruler could find no fault with Christ (John 19:4). And in the hour of Christ’s greatest trial, when his disciples fell asleep and gave in to denial and betrayal, Christ affirmed his perfect allegiance to God: “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 2:42).
Other inspired writers attest to the perfect obedience and sinlessness of Christ:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
“You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5).
“Knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet. 1:18–19).
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).
“For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Heb. 7:26).
The Significance of Christ’s Obedience and Sinlessness
Christians affirm the reality of Christ’s obedience and sinlessness, but we need to go deeper and consider the significance of his perfectly pure devotion. First, Christ’s obedience stands in stark contrast to the rest of humanity. There is no one righteous, not even one (Rom. 3:9). Christ is the only truly righteous one (1 John 2:1). Second, the obedience of Christ identifies him as the divine Son. Given sin’s grip on humanity, who but someone who is himself very God would be able to fulfill God’s law? Marvelously and miraculously, the second person of the Trinity took on human flesh in the incarnation, and his real obedience as a human marks him out as someone who perfectly radiated the express image of God. Third, the sinlessness of Christ was a necessary perquisite to qualify him as a suitable Messiah. When Peter speaks of Christ as a lamb without blemish or spot, he is not simply speaking with poetic beauty or sentimental reflection—he is calling to mind the Old Testament demand for a spotless sacrifice (Exod. 12:5; Lev. 1:3).
And this leads us to another important piece of Christ’s identity. The obedience of Jesus shows us not only that he is the divine Son, his flawless obedience demonstrates that he is in fact the long-awaited Messiah. John the Baptist cried out, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Such a statement would make little sense unless someone was familiar with the teachings and themes of the Old Testament Scriptures. The need for a perfect lamb is only one morsel of the biblical feast that is set out in the pages of the Bible as God unveils his plan to restore fallen humanity. Christ is not only the spotless sacrifice, he is the faithful priest (1 Sam. 2:35; Heb. 2:17), the righteous king (Ps. 72; Rev. 19:11–16), the truthful prophet (Deut. 18:18; Acts 3:21–26), the willing servant (Deut. 6:13; Phil. 2:5–8), and the obedient son (Exod. 4:23; Luke 4:1–15). Understood against the powerful backdrop of shadows and types (picture-prophesies), the obedience of Christ unveils a figure who is the sum and substance of Scripture (Luke 24:25–27), the one hope of redemption.
The obedience and sinlessness of Christ culminates in the truth that he was obedient and sinless as the representative of his people. He didn’t come to earth merely to show off his ability to do what no one else could do. He didn’t come simply to provide a climatic conclusion to the most gripping story ever written. He came, as the Nicene creed confesses, for us and for our salvation. Representation plays a crucial role in the unfolding story of the Bible. The kings and priests represented the people of Israel, and yet we can push back all the way to the very beginning of the Bible. Interestingly, the Bible calls Adam a son of God (Luke 3:38). Adam was called to obey, but instead Adam the son disobeyed. As a public representative, Adam’s sin affected all humanity, for in Adam all die (1 Cor. 15:22). But Adam was a type of the one Son to come (Rom. 5:14). Just as Adam represented humanity in his sinful disobedience, so Christ represented his people in all his perfect obedience: “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). The entire life of Jesus was a life lived as the second Adam on behalf of his people.
Sometimes theologians refer to the “passive obedience” and the “active obedience” of Christ. These terms can be confusing, because Jesus was never passive in anything that he did! But what these terms intend to signify is that Christ was the substitute for his people in two distinct ways. He bore God’s wrath in our place, taking the curse of God on himself for human disobedience (“passive obedience”). He was also our substitute in the perfect and positive obedience he offered up to God throughout the whole course of his mediatorial life on earth, persistently loving God and neighbor with his whole being (“active obedience”).
The Application of Christ’s Obedience and Sinlessness
Bible truth should always lead us to worship. Doctrine cries out for heartfelt devotion. The gospel truths of Christ’s obedience and sinlessness provide much opportunity for reflection. Here are a few encouragements, though we can only scratch the surface. First, marvel at the unique obedience of the Savior. We admire those who achieve a “perfect” score in Olympic competition. But how much more should we marvel at the God-man who waged a lifetime of warfare with Satan and sin and did so in perfect obedience! The crowds might have gawked at the shame Christ experienced when he hung exposed on the cross, but we should gaze in love and admiration at the one who willingly came to provide a perfect sinless rescue for lost sheep.
Second, praise God that his acceptance of us is not ultimately based on our obedience. When we accurately understand the righteous requirements of God and couple that understanding with an honest assessment of our own lives, we could easily be overwhelmed by fear and anxiety. But we have a representative, a second Adam from above, and because we are in Christ, all that is his is ours, including his perfect obedience.
Third, recognize that Christ’s obedience brings us to a status beyond being simply forgiven. As stunning as it is to believe that we no longer face God’s eternal punishment, often Christians still labor under a sense of guilt, knowing that we are not the kind of people that we should be. But God has not only removed our filthy clothes, he has given us clean clothes (Zech. 3:4–5). We are not merely pardoned criminals. We are also beloved sons and daughters with whom God is well pleased, because we are united to Christ our head, and our obedience remains at God’s right hand, completely unassailable.
Fourth, we must resist the urge to find our fundamental identity in anything other than Christ. Our achievements in the workplace, our common bonds of ethnicity or gender, our political activism, and the approval of peers or family—all of these good gifts are easily marred by sin and can lead to deep hurt and frustration. But when we anchor our souls in the reality of God’s acceptance of us because of Christ’s sinless obedience, we have great freedom to enter every sphere of life without overloading any other identity marker with a weight that it wasn’t meant to bear.
The obedience and sinlessness of Christ should cause us to break out in song!
I will glory in my Redeemer
My life He bought, my love He owns
I have no longings for another
I’m satisfied in Him alone
I will glory in my Redeemer
His faithfulness my standing place
Though foes are mighty and rush upon me
My feet are firm, held by His grace
- Brandon Crowe, The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospels
- Douglas F Kelley, “Christ’s Active Obedience”
- J. Gresham Machen, “The Doctrine of the Atonement—The Active Obedience of Christ”
- John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (pp. 19–23)
- John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith
- John Piper, “Why Did Jesus Need to ‘Learn Obedience’?”
- Michael Horton, “Obedience Is Better Than Sacrifice,” in The Law Is Not Of Faith
- The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, “Report on Justification” (pp. 15–25)
- R. Scott Clark, “Do This and Live: Christ’s Active Obedience as the Ground of Justification,” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry
- Steve Lawson, “No Hope Without It: The Life of Christ”