the significance of Jesus’ life


Bruce McCormack makes an incisive observation in his essay on ‘The Ontological Presuppositions of Barth’s Doctrine of the Atonement’ (The Glory of the Atonement, pp 347-348):

Where the person of Christ is abstracted from his work … we tend to flesh out the meaning of the chief terms – “hypostasis” and “natures” – along the lines of a priori definitions of general classes of things, rather than attending to the historical particularity of Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, whose “person” was actualized in and through his work. And where the work of Christ is abstracted from his person, our understanding of that work is severely attenuated and we are left without adequate answers in the face of challenges that are today being brought against traditional evangelical teaching on the subject.

Now, it’s interesting to ponder what theologians have actually made of the person of Christ in His ‘historical particularity’ — ie. His incarnate life and ministry — rather than simply His ‘work’ narrowly conceived as his death. In On the Incarnation, Athanasius stresses Jesus’ teaching ministry by which He renews us in knowledge in the image of God. For Athanasius this sits alongside Christ’s sacrificial death to deal with the penalty of our sin and bring us from death to life.

By contrast, Protestant scholasticism (in typically baroque mode) suggests that Christ’s active obedience — that is, His life of perfect obedience to the law of God — combines with His passive obedience in giving Himself over to death to ensure that we are not only forgiven but also counted positively righteous.

Not only do I recall more occasions in the Gospels on which Jesus breaks laws (like the Sabbath) than occasions on which He obeys, but I find the implicit downgrading of forgiveness deeply unsettling — isn’t being forgiven by God just the same as being considered righteousness? Or is it some sort of ‘intermediate state’?

Of course I’m probably caricaturing. But can anyone help me out? What is the significance of Jesus’ life?



  1. Hi Chris,

    Two thoughts.

    Firstly, I don’t think Jesus is ever recorded as breaking any of the Torah in the gospels. He’s often shown as breaking the Pharisees unbiblical traditions though (e.g. strict Sabbath observance, cerimonial washings).

    Second, the active/passive obedience distinction comes I believe from the reformed understanding of Adam’s pre-fall state. this corresponds to the state a Christian would be in if they only received the forgiveness for their sin thru Jesus’ death. To achieve a glorified state we also need Christ’s life of perfect obedience reckoned to us. I’m not convinced that formulation is quite correct (Jesus’ obedience even to death was supreme and earned his vindication by God), but I do think the issue merits consideration lest we end up with a ‘forgiven from your sin, now earn your salvation’ theology. At the end of the day, we need to affirm that all of Christ’s covenant-keeping is granted us, even as he bore all of our iniquities.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Sam. Your first comment picks up on something obviously inflammatory in my post — although I still feel like the underlying challenge remains unanswered: Where exactly in the Gospels do we see much portrayal of Jesus obeying the Torah?

      And on your second comment, as you can probably tell, I’m uncomfortable with the suggestion that forgiveness through Jesus’ death just resets us to ‘neutral’ (ie. an Adamic, pre-Fall state) whereas his active righteousness is needed to ‘achieve a glorified state’ for us. That might be the reformed understanding (although I struggle to see it in Calvin’s Institutes), but is it biblical?

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