In Reformed theology, there is a theological construct involved in the doctrine of justification that involves two important terms: the active and passive obedience of Jesus. Generally speaking, the active obedience refers to Jesus' perfect, law-keeping life, whereas the passive obedience refers to his suffering and death on the cross. The focus here is on the former.
The theological construct begins not in Matthew or Mark, nor in the Psalms or the Prophets, but "in the beginning:" in Genesis. The command God gave Adam to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is called by many, the Covenant of Works. If Adam had obeyed God, he would have earned eternal life. Adam was in a state of working for God, of earning merit from him, and therefore this is called the Covenant of Works.
Adam failed. He sinned against God. And we, Adam's posterity, all failed with him. As a result of being under Adam's curse of sin, the whole human race has the failure of the Covenant of Works hanging over its head as it were, and is therefore under the wrath and curse of God. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us, "None can be saved by the Covenant of Works, since all are condemned by it."
Enter the Messiah, Jesus. Jesus is the 2nd Adam, and came to fulfill the law. He came to fulfill the Covenant of Works in our stead. This fulfillment of the Covenant of Works with Jesus' perfect life sets us free from the wrath and curse of God by a transfer of righteousness, the righteousness that Adam would have earned but failed to earn. Now, with the active obedience of Christ fulfilling the Covenant of Works, we can have a transfer of righteousness to our account when we trust in the works of Christ: his active and passive obedience.
I heard a pastor preach recently on Philippians 2:13, "Work our your salvation with fear and trembling." The pastor admitted that this command seemed contradictory to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Then he said that indeed we are saved by works. We are saved by works, he said. "Just not our own, but by the works of Jesus." Pastorally, this is the "breakdown" of the implementation of the active obedience doctrine as it is preached to the people.
Now of course, Adam indeed failed and we all sinned with him and are held under the wrath and curse of God because of Adam's sin (Romans 5:12). And Jesus is indeed the 2nd (last) Adam (1 Cor. 15:45). Jesus also fulfilled the law (Matthew 5:17). And we are justified by faith and declared righteous because of what Jesus did for us (Romans 3:28; 4:1, 24-25; Gal. 2:15,16). But when the details about "active" and "passive" obedience come into the mix, and when we talk in greater detail about the nature of the interaction between God and Adam in the garden, we run the risk of building theological constructs and abstractions. Is this really a big deal? Does it effect the lives of "normal" people in the pew (or movable chair)? I think it does.
1st, without discussing the nature of the covenant God did make with Adam, I think when we teach the active obedience doctrine from the pulpit, we run the risk of "easy believism." It is certainly a chain reaction, and the chain has to be followed closely, as closely as the Clintons should be followed regardless of any election success or failure because of the negative ramifications that might possibly ensue by means of continued meddling in "affairs."
Easy believism can happen from the active obedience doctrine in two ways: a) because the parishioner is left knowing that righteousness is transferred to her simply because Jesus earned her righteousness for her, and b) because she is therefore sloth to the idea of repentance and turning from sin. If Jesus' active obedience results in a transfer of righteousness to my account merely upon my believing (trusting) in him, then repentance does not come into play.
This latter result of a lack of repentance in preaching occurs because of the idea of justification by "faith alone." If faith "alone" is preached from the pulpit and repentance is not preached along with it, people are not heeding the command to turn from their sin and turn toward God and Christ in faith. But this is what the Bible teaches us to do (Acts 20:21).
Now of course, none of us is righteous on our own account, and we are indeed declared righteous because of what Jesus did (Romans 4:24-25) and the alone instrument is faith (Romans 5:1). But the problem in churches that teach the active obedience doctrine is that it results in a failure to preach repentance from sin just as it also fails to command listeners to have a living, active, faith--an obedience-seeking faith, rather than a "simple trust." It is almost as if we are telling people to "accept Jesus as your Savior," which Reformed people love to jab their Arminian brothers and sisters about, but it ends up being the same thing: people are not challenged to repent and turn from sin, and live a life of daily repentance and faith in Jesus: "But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses," (Matthew 6:15), and, "forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors," Matthew 5:12). Our God is a consuming fire. And, to the aformentioned preacher's credit, he did highly empnasize that God is holy and is to be feared. But he still failed to talk about a penitenet faith and a life of daily repentance, i.e. working out your faith with fear and trembling.
It is rare, according to many people, that theological abstractions have any kind of effect upon the way people live their lives. And that may be true. However, I think in this case, the theological construct of the active obedience of Jesus for the imputation of righteousness to the believer upon faith "alone" has a result that leaves the gospel "hanging in the air," where people are never challenged to turn from their sins and live lives of humility and daily penitence before God.
The other problem with this theological construct, is that it lacks any serious exegesis to support it, which is a great idea for a future post. Thanks, and have a great day.