The Work of Christ: A Q&A with R.C. Sproul

Dr. R.C. Sproul is the founder of Ligonier Ministries, the author of more than 70 books, and a beloved Bible teacher, pastor, and scholar. He was also my seminary professor at Reformed Theological Seminary. Dr. Sproul recently wrote a new book, The Work of Christ: What the Events of Jesus’ Life Mean for You, and I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about it.

Justin Holcomb: Is it helpful to distinguish between the person of Christ and the work of Christ? Why or why not?

R.C. Sproul: This distinction is not one that I make. It’s one that’s been made classically, and there’s a reason for it. In order to understand the significance of everything that Jesus did, his work, we have to understand who Jesus is. To understand who Jesus is, we have to look at what he did. So there’s a symbiotic interaction, an interconnection between who Jesus is and what Jesus did. We distinguish them, but we can never separate them because it’s the same Jesus who did what he did and who is what he is.

JH: In the book, you describe Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism as the most important text in the New Testament for defining the work of Jesus (p. 74). Why is Jesus’ baptism so important, and why does it matter for our salvation?

RS: It’s so important because, first of all, it was when his public ministry began, when he was ordained as the Messiah. He was anointed at his baptism by the Holy Ghost coming down from heaven, and his baptism itself showed his ministry of taking upon himself, in his human nature, all of the obligations given by the law of God to the people of Israel. You remember that John the Baptist was reluctant to perform the baptism of Jesus since it was for repentance of sin. Jesus has no sin, and John knew that. He tried to stop Jesus.

Jesus said, “No, wait. It’s necessary. I have to do this.” In his baptism, he was identifying with his fallen people that he had come to redeem and taking upon himself the whole weight of the demands of the law as the new Adam.

JH: Jesus Christ lived a life of perfect obedience to God the Father. You distinguish the active obedience of Christ from the passive obedience of Christ. Why is this distinction necessary, and why do you think it has been neglected?

RS: First of all, let me be quick to say that this distinction, again, does not originate with me. There’s a classic distinction in theology between the active obedience and the passive obedience. Here’s what it gets at.

The passive obedience of Jesus describes the work that he did to take upon himself the punishment due to us for our sin. Jesus was like the lamb led to the slaughter: he passively allowed himself to be killed and to be crucified and to have our sin imputed to him. All true Christians will certainly grant that Christ bore our sins for us, and that his work on the cross was the work of obedience.

“One issue came up that the Protestants and Catholics could not agree on . . .”

Remember, in the garden of Gethsemane, he asked that the cup be removed, but he said, “Not my will, but thine, be done.” Jesus passively obeyed that mandate and went to the cross. Without the cross and without the imputation of our sin to Christ, there’s no salvation for us, and Christianity is nothing but moral suggestions.

In distinction from that, we talk about his active obedience. To understand the importance of that, let’s realize that the cross achieves and the atonement effects for us the removal of our sin. And the removal of our sin makes us innocent before God. It puts us in the position that Adam was before the fall. But for Adam to inherit the kingdom, he not only had to be innocent, he had to be righteous.

So again, to obtain the goal of saving us, the Savior had to not only take away the guilt of the people he was trying to save; he also had to provide for them the positive righteousness that God required in order to be saved. As the new Adam, Christ succeeded where Adam failed. By one man’s disobedience, death came into the world. By another man’s obedience came life and salvation. The active obedience of Jesus has to do with Jesus’ living a life of perfect obedience to the commands of God and achieving, in himself, perfect righteousness, which righteousness is the grounds for our justification. His righteousness imputed to us covers us and gives us the righteousness that God requires for us to be saved.

“. . . the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to believers as the grounds for our justification.”

This whole idea of imputation has been coming under attack in recent decades, partly because of what happened in the Evangelicals & Catholics Together (ECT) discussion. If you go back to the 16th century after the Reformation, after the split, there was an enormous effort to heal that breach. Significant discussions between leaders of the Reformation, the Protestants, and leaders of the Roman church were held. They came together to try to resolve their differences. There was a point at the Regensburg meeting when many thought the breach was resolved and healed and it was going to be okay, but then one issue came up that they could not agree on: that was the issue of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to believers as the grounds for our justification. The Roman Catholic Church insisted then and insists now that the only way God will declare a person righteous is if righteousness inheres within him. The Bible and the Reformers teach no, the only way God ever declares us righteous is by imputing to us righteousness that is not inherently ours. Martin Luther called it a foreign righteous. He stated that it is an alien righteousness that is outside of us. It is the righteousness of Christ, which is accomplished through his perfect obedience.

“Our whole salvation is linked to what Jesus spoke of [during] the Lord’s Supper.”

So you have people now who want to keep this rapprochement with Rome, who want the Protestants to drop the imputed righteousness or the perfect active obedience. There are also certain dispensationalists who don’t like the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ because it’s so closely related to the idea of the covenant. Adam was in a covenant with God that we call that the covenant of works. It can be fulfilled only by somebody performing those good works. We say we’re justified by faith alone. That’s the graciousness of the covenant. But the point is that the demands of the law, the works that are required, are graciously provided for us by the active obedience of Jesus.

If you don’t like or don’t believe in a covenant of works, then you don’t like the whole concept of Christ’s active obedience. So, from that circle among evangelicals, we’ve had strong, sometimes fierce, attacks on the active obedience of Jesus in recent years. I think it’s a great tragedy.

JH: In the book you note that when Jesus held the Last Supper, he was taking the Old Testament liturgy of the Passover and transforming it. What do you think is the significance of this for our understanding of Jesus and for how we celebrate the Lord’s Supper?

RS: Clearly the Lord’s Supper was instituted in the context of an Old Testament liturgy. Jesus met with his disciples to celebrate the Passover, and he changed the liturgy of the Passover. This is where the church was born and the new covenant was instituted because Jesus instituted a new covenant in his blood. That new covenant was not a radical split from the old. It was the fulfillment of the old.

Jesus is the Passover Lamb. It’s his blood that gives the atonement, not the blood of bulls and goats, and it is his blood that keeps us from the avenging angel of death, that is, the blood of the lamb that we now have on our doorposts. Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of the historic Passover and the whole system of redemption in the Old Testament. That’s why he said this is a new covenant “my blood . . . which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”

“Without the resurrection, the mission of Jesus would have been a failure.”

I think that the new covenant was instituted with that declaration, and it was ratified the next day with the pouring out of that blood in Jesus’ atoning death. It is extremely important for us to understand that our whole salvation is linked to what Jesus spoke of in the upper room when he instituted the Lord’s Supper.

JH: Why was Jesus’ resurrection necessary for his mission? And what does it mean for our future?

RS: Again, Jesus’ mission was to save his people. The New Testament tells us he was raised for our justification. What does that mean? Obviously, if Jesus died on the cross and stayed dead, there’s no reason to believe that his atoning sacrifice was acceptable to God. But God’s message with the resurrection is that God declares him to be the Just One, the Holy One, the One who is our Redeemer. So without the resurrection, the mission of Jesus would have been a failure.

JH: This book comes as a continuation of a long and fruitful writing and ministry career for you. What do you believe is the most important book you’ve written? What issues do you believe need to be addressed by the next generation of Christians?

RS: You know, I don’t know which is the most important. I keep coming back to The Holiness of God. I also think that Faith Alone is an important book, and The Truth of the Cross. Different books are important for different reasons. When I write in apologetics, that has a certain kind of importance that is different from when I write in theology. So, it’s hard for me to say.

JH: What other books do you recommend for those who want to dig deeper into the work of Christ?

RS: Well, there’s been work done by David Wells at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on the work of Christ. G. C. Berkouwer, my own mentor in my doctoral studies, has two volumes, The Person of Christ and The Work of Christ, both of which, I think, are extremely important and are two of the better works in his career. I recommend those.

JH: Thank you for serving the church by writing this book. I hope many readers will get it and benefit from it as they continually look toward the work of Christ for their hope and assurance.

Dr. Sproul’s new book is called The Work of Christ: What the Events of Jesus’ Life Mean for You.