Active obedience is when we obey the commands of someone else. Passive obedience is the total submission to another, even when harm or suffering may result. The two concepts are very similar, but active obedience usually involves the performance of certain deeds, while passive obedience implies non-resistance. In reference to God, active obedience is seeking out His commands and setting our hearts to do them. Passive obedience is the state of ongoing surrender that says, “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus exemplified both active and passive obedience at all times during His ministry on earth, and Christians are to rely on the Holy Spirit’s power to follow His example (Acts 1:8).
God required active obedience of the Israelites in the Old Testament. That active obedience was detailed and difficult because God wanted them to realize that they could not be righteous enough to deserve His mercy and grace. He was setting the stage for the entrance of His Son, Jesus, who would fulfill every letter of the law (Matthew 5:17). Through Jesus’ active obedience, He fulfilled the totality of the law’s requirements. He said, “I always do those things that please Him” (John 8:29). In passive obedience, Jesus submitted Himself to cruel and unjust treatment because it was the will of God (Isaiah 53:7). The Bible never uses the terms active obedience or passive obedience, but some biblical descriptions of Jesus’ passion do emphasize passivity: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
A Christian is to remain in a constant state of passive obedience to God. Walking in the Spirit means we stay sensitive to His leading and respond the way He wants us to (Galatians 5:16, 25). When hardships come, we endure (James 1:2). We live in the knowledge that God will work everything together for our good (Romans 8:28), so we need not pursue vengeance (Romans 12:19). We know that God is at work in our lives, and we give Him free rein to accomplish what He wants (Galatians 6:9; Philippians 2:13).
However, passive obedience is only half of the responsibility of the Christian. God has specific commands He wants us to obey, and many of them are contrary to what we would naturally choose. Jesus told us that in order to follow Him we must “deny ourselves and take up our crosses” (Luke 9:23). Those are actions. Among other things, we are told to “be not drunk with wine, but be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18), “flee sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18), “love one another” (1 Peter 1:22), and “pursue holiness” (Hebrews 12:14). Those commands all require active obedience. First Thessalonians 5:12–22 is a list of commands from Paul to the church. It is not an exhaustive list, but it demonstrates that the Christian life requires performing certain actions.
With Jesus as our perfect model and the Holy Spirit as our strength, we must pursue lives of both passive and active obedience (Acts 1:8). It takes both to fulfill commands such as this: “As far as it is up to you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). Passive obedience overlooks wrongs and leaves judgment with God. Active obedience seeks ways to do good and avoid evil. When we live this way, we glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).