The urge to pick one aspect of Christ’s life—namely, His death—as more important than the others is understandable. We certainly see in the New Testament how everything seems to turn on the cross. We could accurately say that the cross is the crossroads of history, the moment at which our sin was laid on Christ’s shoulders and His righteousness was transferred to us. It’s easy to see why Christ’s death might overshadow anything else about Him. But to talk about “cross-centeredness” as if the death of Christ (His passive obedience) is more important than the life of Christ (His active obedience) is to miss other incredibly important things about Jesus.
The truth is, our redemption depends not only on Christ’s substitutionary death, but His substitutionary life as well. J. Gresham Machen’s last recorded words (sent by telegram to fellow theologian and friend John Murray) were, “I’m so thankful for [the] active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” He understood that apart from Christ’s law-fulfilling life, there is no righteousness to impute. We are, therefore, left dressed in our own filthy rags.
Murray wrote: “The real use and purpose of the formula (active and passive obedience) is to emphasize the two distinct aspects of our Lord’s vicarious obedience. The truth expressed rests upon the recognition that the law of God has both penal sanctions and positive demands. It demands not only the full discharge of its precepts but also the infliction of penalty for all infractions and shortcomings. It is this twofold demand of the law of God which is taken into account when we speak of the active and passive obedience of Christ.”
Christ’s life, in other words, is just as central to our rescue as His death. As I’ve said before, we are not saved apart from the law. Rather, we are saved in Christ who perfectly kept the law on our behalf.
So Christ’s death is not the center of the gospel any more than Christ’s life is the center of the gospel. One without the other fails to bring about redemption. It’s much more theologically accurate to say that Christ Himself is the center of the gospel. He didn’t just die for you; He lived for you too.
– taken from Tullian Tchividjian’s book It Is Finished: 365 Days of Good News