The Sufficiency of Christ's Obedience in His Life and Death

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When we teach that our right standing with God is attained through the imputation of Christ’s obedience to our account (Romans 5:19; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 4:6, 11; 10:3), does this imply that the work of Christ on the cross—his final suffering and death—is insufficient for our justification?

This question arises in part because of texts that connect the cause of justification specifically to the cross of Christ. For example:

  • Romans 3:24-25: “[They] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood.”
  • Romans 4:25: “[He] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
  • Romans 5:9: “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”
  • Galatians 2:21: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”

To see the answer, we might ask a similar question concerning the forgiveness of sins. In other words, let us ask: Does the insistence upon Jesus’ sinless life imply that the work of Christ as the spotless Lamb of God on the cross is insufficient for the canceling of the debt of our sins? Our sins being cancelled and forgiven is connected most directly to the death of Christ. For example:

  • Colossians 2:13: “[He forgave] by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
  • 1 Corinthians 15:3: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”
  • Isaiah 53:5: “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.”
  • 1 Peter 2:24: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.”
  • Revelation 1:5: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.”
  • 1 John 1:7: “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

Is the death of Jesus sufficient to cleanse us from all our sins? Yes, but only as the climax of a sinless life. The book of Hebrews is most explicit about the necessity of the Son of God being perfect and without sin so that he can bear our sins once for all.

  • Hebrews 4:15: “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.”
  • Hebrews 7:27-28: “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.”
  • Hebrews 2:10: “It was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
  • Hebrews 5:9: “And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.”

So the death of the Son of God is sufficient to cover all our sins as the climax of a sinless life. This is no disparagement to the cross. It is not adding to the cross. The New Testament writers saw the death of Christ as the climax of his life. His whole life was designed to bring him to the cross (Mark 10:45; John 12:27; Hebrews 2:14). That is why he was born, and why he lived. To speak of the saving effect of his death was therefore to speak of his death as the sum and climax of his sinless life.

Similarly, the final obedience of Christ in his death is sufficient to justify his people as the climax of a sinless life. It is not likely that the apostles thought of Jesus’ obedience on the cross as separate from his obedience leading to the cross. Where would one draw the line between his life of sinless obedience and the final acts of obedience? Any line would be artificial. Do we draw it at the point where he submitted to the piercing of his hands? Or at the point when he submitted to his arrest in the garden? Or at the point where he endured Judas’ departure from the supper? Or at the point where he planned his final entry to Jerusalem? Or at the point where he “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51)? Or at the point of his baptism where he said, “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15)?

It is more likely that when Paul spoke of Jesus’ obedience as the cause of our justification he meant not merely the final acts of obedience on the cross, but rather the cross as the climax of his obedient life. This seems to be the way Paul is thinking in Philippians 2:7-8: “He emptied himself . . . being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Notice the sequence of thought: He became a human. That is, he was found in human form. > He humbled himself. > The way he humbled himself was by becoming obedient. > This obedience was so complete that it willingly embraced death. > Even death in the most painful and shameful way—on a cross.

What this text shows is that between “being born in the likeness of men” at one end of his life and “even death on a cross” at the other end of his life was a life of self-humbling obedience. The fact that it came to its climax on the cross in the most terrible and glorious way is probably what causes Paul to speak of the cross as the sum and climax of all his obedience. But it is very unlikely that Paul would have separated the obedience of the final hours from the obedience that designed, planned, pursued, and embraced those final hours.

Thus when Paul says in Romans 5:18, “One act of righteousness (di’ henos dikaiōmatos) leads to justification and life,” and when he says in Romans 5:19, “By the one man’s obedience the many will be appointed righteous,” there is little reason to think he meant to separate the final obedience of Jesus from the total obedience of Jesus. In Adam’s case, it only took one sin to completely fail. In Christ’s case, it took an entire life to completely succeed. That is how their disobedience and obedience correspond to each other.

Thus when Paul compares the “one trespass” of Adam to Christ’s “one act of righteousness” (Romans 5:18), there is no single act in Christ’s life that corresponds to the eating of the forbidden fruit. Rather, his whole life of obedience was necessary so that he would not be a second failing Adam. One single sin would have put him in the category of a failing Adam. But it took one entire life of obedience to be a successful second Adam. That this complete life of obedience came to climax in the freely embraced death of Christ made such an overwhelming impression on his followers that they looked upon the “cross” or the “death” as the climax and sum of his obedience, but not separate from his cross-pursuing life.

So back to our initial question: “Does the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness imply that the cross is insufficient for our right standing with God?" The answer is no. Just as the perfectly obedient life of Christ is essential to the death of Christ as a covering for our sin, so the perfectly obedient life of Christ is essential to the death of Christ as the supreme act of obedience by which we are appointed righteous in him. The death of Christ is sufficient for covering our sins as the climax of a sinless life. And the death of Christ is sufficient for our justification as the climax of a sinless life.