Humiliation & Exaltation: Christ's Obedience

There is a logical progression when one moves from the doctrine of the incarnation to the doctrine of Christ’s obedience. As Jeff Stivason argued in a previous post, Christ Jesus not only came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15) but, in order for God to save sinners, the Son had to become incarnate. That is, God saving sinners necessarily requires that the fully divine Son take to himself our full humanity. But why? Well, to use language developed in an even earlier post, our estate in Adam is guilty and our condition is fallen, and without a divinely human mediator, our future standing before God is utterly hopeless. And here’s where our understanding of Christ’s obedience comes to bear on the doctrine of salvation. Without a fully divine and fully human mediator who lived a life of full obedience, even obedience unto death on a cross, then we are completely without hope.

This underlies J. Gresham Machen’s famous “last words”, when on January 1, 1937 he telegrammed his close friend and colleague John Murray with these words: “I'm so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” Indeed! What Machen understood so well and what gave him such assurance in the face of death was that wrapped up into Christ’s saving work was his obedience to the Father on our behalf. If our estate before God is guilty because of the man Adam’s disobedience (Rom. 5:15), then we are in dire need of another representative, another man, to now obey God in our stead. And that is what Christ came to do.

And this is partly why our savior came wrapped in swaddling clothes; his obedience on our behalf was a lifetime’s obedience. Consider the words of Hebrews 5, verses 8-10, that “although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.” The author of Hebrews here grounds Jesus’ priestly ministry, his ability to be a mediating sacrifice on our behalf, in his life of obedience. And notice how he emphasizes Jesus’ progressive obedience: he learned obedience.

What we need to remember here is that as a fully human being Jesus Christ grew; he grew in wisdom and strength (Luke 2:52) and, very importantly, he grew in his obedience. Now this doesn’t imply that Jesus was ever disobedient, no. Rather it highlights his ever-growing track-record of godly obedience, obedience to God through everything he experienced in his incarnate state. He obeyed his parents in all situations. As he grew, he rightly obeyed the governing authorities in all the right ways. And as we see when John the Baptist protested to the sinless savior getting baptized, Jesus responds by saying “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).

Jesus knew that if he were to die for fallen men he had to do so as the obedient man. As Paul tell us in Galatians, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). Thus we see that Christ gains for us life and adoption not just in his death and resurrection but also in his incarnation and obedience.[1]

Gregory of Nazianzus gets at this when in his famous utterance against the Apollinarian heresy he quipped that “that which Jesus has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.” Gregory was speaking here of Christ’s mind that, contrary to what the heretical Apollinarians believed, Christ’s mind was not only fully divine but also fully human. But think about this too in terms of volition. Jesus not only had a fully divine will but he also had a fully human will, fully human desires, and fully human wants. And in his humanity he desired, he willed, he wanted to obey God. And indeed, he did obey God! And therefore, he can save rebels like us who so often desire and will and thus carry out the exact opposite of what God commands.[2]

We know that Jesus came down from heaven, not to do his own will, but to obey the will of him who sent him (John 6:38). But let’s not forget that the Father also loved Jesus Christ because of his obedience (John 15:10)! Here at last was a man in whom God could fully delight because he alone could truly say “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” (Psalm 40:8).

And so when we come to believe in Jesus Christ and trust in him as our only mediator, though our condition is still quite fallen, our estate before God is righteous. Simul iustus et peccator. United to Christ we become united to his obedience. “You are in Christ Jesus,” says the Apostle Paul, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,  so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor. 1:30-31). Why was Machen so thankful for Christ’s obedience? Because “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. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

 Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] Michael Horton, Justification, volume 2 (Zondervan, 2018), p. 207.

[2] This truth has so much relevance for how we think about our sanctification as well.


Stephen Unthank