Examining the Imputation of the Active
Obedience of Christ
A Study in Calvinistic Sacred Cow-ism by Steve Lehrer and Geoff Volker, modified http://idsaudio.org/ids/pdf/classic/imputation.pdf
A sacred cow is a doctrine or belief that one cannot examine and weigh to consider its truth claims without upsetting people. It is considered above any doubt or criticism. An example of a sacred cow in Calvinistic1 theological circles is the imputation of the active obedience (AO) of Jesus Christ. It is a doctrine that is a lynchpin of Covenant Theology (CT).2 It has been handed down from one generation to another without being questioned, and after the passage of time has come to be regarded as a given.
Active (or Preceptive) Obedience: The perfect obedience of Jesus Christ to the Mosaic Law.
Passive (or Penal) obedience: Christ’s sacrificial death by which He paid the penalty for the sins of the elect.3
Imputation: Getting something that you did not earn. Imputation rather abstractly describes how all that Jesus accomplished for us gets to us. So, one might say that imputation communicates that all that Jesus did on the cross is placed or wired into your “spiritual bank account” when you believe.
Righteousness: Acceptance with God. In the context of salvation, it entails whatever God requires in order to be accepted by Him.
1 “Calvinistic” herein refers to Calvinism only as it touches on soteriology—the doctrines of grace or the five points of Calvinism.
2 This connection is further explained later.
3 Some folks
object to our limitations on the definition of passive obedience (
Making a Molehill Out of a Mountain
Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof
believed that the passive obedience (
“…if He (Christ) had merely paid the penalty (for the believer), without meeting the original demands of the law (for the believer), He would have left man in the position of Adam before the fall, still confronted with the task of obtaining eternal life in the way of obedience. By His AO, however, He carried His people beyond that point and gave them a claim to everlasting life.”4
According to Berkhof, if only the PO of
Christ (POC) is imputed to the believer, this would not give him eternal life.
He would have to obey God perfectly and earn eternal life on His own. The man
who only has the POC imputed to him would be in a spiritual
Consider what Scripture actually says that Jesus accomplished by His death on the cross — His PO. Hebrews is a great book to turn to when considering the POC because it is the book of the Bible that spills the most ink concerning Christ’s sacrificial work. Heb.10 extols the greatness of the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ in contrast to the repetitive but ineffective sacrifices offered by the Levitical priests:
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy (Heb.10:11-14).
This passage speaks only about Christ’s priestly sacrifice for the sins of His people. It says nothing about His righteous life. The sacrifice of Christ or the imputation of the POC does two things for the believer. First, it makes the believer perfect—that is the believer is viewed as though he had obeyed the law perfectly (v.14a). Second, it purchases a work of the Spirit in the life of the believer that guarantees that he will grow in holiness (14b). Our concern here is for the perfect status the believer is given because of the imputation of the POC. In the context of the book, “perfection” is referring to the state of moral innocence that allows one to be accepted by God—to stand in the presence of God and to approach Him boldly for grace and mercy in times of need. Consider the verses that immediately follow the passage above:
The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: "This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds." Then he adds: "Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more." And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water (Heb.10:15-22).
The one priestly sacrifice of Christ on the cross is identified
here as the New Covenant. It gives us complete forgiveness of our sins—past,
present, and future—making us perfect in God’s eyes. Christ’s
Some argue that sinners not only need their sins forgiven to have eternal life, but they need a “positive righteousness” to obtain eternal life with God. Consider Wayne Grudem’s thoughts on this:
“Christ had to live a life of perfect obedience to God in order to
earn righteousness for us. He had to obey the law for his whole life on our
behalf so that the positive merits of his perfect obedience would be counted
for us. Sometimes this is called Christ’s ‘AO,’ while his suffering and dying
for our sins is called his ‘
Grudem is clearly
saying that the brand of righteousness that the imputation of Christ’s
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Earlier we defined “righteousness” as: “Acceptance with God. It is, in the context of salvation, whatever God requires in order to be accepted by Him.” The wrath of God against sinful man is the big problem highlighted in Romans up through 3:20. The law simply makes it clear that sinful man is utterly and justly condemnable before the God of heaven and earth. The solution that this passage gives us to that problem is the cross, which results in the believer becoming “righteous” or “justified.” Does this “righteousness” or “justification” necessitate a “positive” or “law-keeping” element that goes beyond payment for sins? If so, the passage in the New Testament that speaks most directly to this issue makes no mention of it.
The righteousness from God is revealed apart from law means that
we can become righteous without perfect obedience to God. In fact, we
can become righteous even after having transgressed God’s holy law. How is this
done? The first thing that is revealed to us is that it is done “by
faith.” We acquire this precious righteousness simply by believing or trusting
in Jesus Christ. That is, by trusting in Him alone to save us from God’s wrath
because of His substitutionary work on our behalf,
His work is then imputed to us. But what is the work of Christ that
is spoken of here that has such a close connection to the believer becoming
“righteous”? This passage is solely concerned with the imputation of Christ’s
* A THEOLOGICAL DISCLAIMER: We affirm the imputation of the sin-bearing work of Jesus Christ on the cross to the believer. The believer acquires the results of the sin-bearing work of Christ by faith alone in Christ alone. This faith is the result of God’s irresistible grace alone. We are only rejecting the imputation of the AOC because we cannot find it in Scripture. We wholeheartedly embrace the imputation of the sin-bearing work of Christ as absolutely essential and foundational for our acceptance with the Father—essential to being declared righteous in his sight. The imputation of Christ’s cross work is the sine qua non of the Christian faith. [see Justification By Imputation http://pop.eradman.com/]
There is a current controversy in evangelicalism that is raging under the heading of the “New Perspective on Justification.” This “New Perspective” seems at some point to be denying the imputation of both the active and passive obedience of Christ. Because it is rejecting imputation en toto, the New Perspective is a denial of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone and is therefore heresy.
4 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1941), p.381
6 see appendix for a fuller treatment Rom.3:20-4:12 as it relates to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness
Making a Mountain out of a Molehill
If affirming the imputation of the AOC seem to make a theological molehill out of a theological mountain, the opposite, making a theological mountain out of a theological molehill, is also going on. If the imputation of the POC makes the believer unconditionally accepted by God and therefore completely righteous, then what more does he need? Again, if the sacrificial death of Christ is in fact so wonderfully powerful and efficacious as to completely justify sinners and ensure their claim on eternal life with God, what more would the imputation of the AOC give you?
In my experience, the sacred cow called the imputation of the AOC has been a litmus test for orthodoxy. If you deny this, it is as if you have denied the faith. This is making a mountain out of a molehill. We have just shown that in Scripture the POC secures eternal life for the believer, allowing him direct access to the God of heaven and earth. Even if the imputation of the AOC were biblical, since it gives one nothing that the imputation of the POC does not give—righteousness and eternal life—it would seem that it is not essential to the faith.
Does the imputation of the AOC even qualify as a molehill? We have shown
that righteousness is gained for the believer by the substitutionary
death of Christ. Eternal life is the result of this amazing and merciful cross
work. It would seem that the imputation of the AOC is a theological redundancy. The claim is that it brings positive
righteousness, but a believer already has that with Christ’s imputed death. The
claim is that it secures eternal life, yet a believer has that as well through
Christ’s cross work on his behalf. Finally theologians claim that the
imputation of Christ’s AO brings one beyond any relationship Adam ever had with
God so that there is no need to work to earn anything. Praise God, the believer
has this too, through the imputation of Christ’s
Wag The Dog
Much of the our interaction with people about this issue of the imputation of the AOC has been strange. The objections they raised rarely had anything to do with Scripture. It gives us a sneaking suspicion that this theological doctrine is a direct result of the tail wagging the dog.
Why is the imputation of the AOC such a big deal? It is a big deal first and foremost because it is a lynchpin in the system of theology known as CT. The verses used as proof-texts and the exegetical work done by Covenant Theologians over centuries on this issue is shockingly sparse and void of sound biblical spade-work. That is because the tail (the system of theology) is wagging the dog (Scripture itself). According to CT, the imputation of the AOC has to be in Scripture because it is the foundation of how the Bible fits together and how salvation works. [see 3 Studies Theological Notes http://pop.eradman.com]
The Covenant of Works
Just what is the Covenant of Works (CoW) and why is it so important to CT and the imputation of the AOC? Wayne Grudem, who is not a Covenant Theologian, has perhaps the best description of the CoW and its relationship to the imputation to the AOC:
In this statement to Adam about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil [‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall die’ (Gen.2:16-17)] there is a promise of punishment for disobedience—death…In the promise of punishment for disobedience there is implicit a promise of blessing for obedience. This blessing would consist of not receiving death, and the implication is that the blessing would be the opposite of receiving “death.” It would involve physical life that would not end and spiritual life in terms of a relationship with God that would go on forever. The presence of the ‘tree of life…in the midst of the garden’ (Gen.2:9) also signified the promise of eternal life with God if Adam and Eve had met the conditions of a covenant relationship by obeying God completely until he decided that their time of testing was finished. After the fall, God removed Adam and Eve from the garden, partly so that they would not be able to take from the tree of life ‘and eat, and live forever.’7
The way this works in CT is that just as the first Adam represented a people and was under a CoW, so also, the last Adam—Jesus Christ—represents a people and is under a CoW. Adam failed to obey God perfectly and earned condemnation for His people. But where Adam failed, Christ succeeded. Jesus Christ succeeded in obeying God perfectly when He lived a sinless life under the Mosaic Law. In doing so, He earned justification or righteousness for His people. Dr. Grudem states this component of CT quite well:
If Christ had only earned forgiveness of sins for us, then we would not merit heaven. Our guilt would have been removed, but we would simply be in the position of Adam and Eve before they had done anything good or bad and before they had passed a time of probation successfully. To be established in righteousness forever and to have their fellowship with God made sure forever, Adam and Eve had to obey God perfectly over a period of time. Then God would have looked on their faithful obedience with pleasure and delight, and they would have lived with him in fellowship forever. For this reason, Christ had to live a life of perfect obedience to God in order to earn righteousness for us. He had to obey the law for his whole life on our behalf so that the positive merits of his perfect obedience would be counted for us.8
This understanding of how Scripture fits together sounds so clear and so right. It shows not only the importance of the relationship between Adam and Christ, but it makes the futility and even the hubris of trying to earn our own salvation by works so clear. But there is one big problem. Although there are many individual truths in this scheme, Scripture does not seem to teach the scheme as a whole.
What Will The Weather in Be Like in Heaven?
“What will the weather be like in heaven?” “I don’t know because Scripture doesn’t tell us!” Much of what Grudem said above is like this question about weather in heaven—any answer is pure speculation [or logical deduction]. The entire argument might be correct, but if what he says is not clearly stated in Scripture, then it is just conjecture. It is uncheckable and can neither be confirmed nor denied. In fact, if God does not deem important enough even to tell us about issues like the weather in heaven or the so-called probation period of Adam, it is a safe bet that we don’t need to know. All that Dr Grudem wrote is the standard understanding of the CoW and its relationship to the work of Christ. Just mull over some of our questions about this understanding of Scripture.
Those who believe in the CoW understand that within the arrangement between God and Adam there was an “implicit promise of blessing for obedience.” But our question is, “How can you be certain if it is not stated explicitly?” Dr. Grudem along with Covenant Theologians posit that the tree of life is that which “signified the promise of eternal life with God if Adam and Eve had met the conditions of a covenant relationship by obeying God completely until he decided that their time of testing was finished.” Does Scripture tell us that the tree signified this or say that there was a “time of testing” or “probation period” anywhere in the text of Genesis? Does God ever say that Adam only had to obey the command for a certain period of time or that if Adam did obey the commandment that God would allow him to eat from the tree of life? Does the text say that if Adam and Eve obeyed that they would be “established in righteousness forever and…have their fellowship with God made sure forever”? Where in Scripture is forgiveness of sins ever said to be insufficient to gain acceptance with God, or as Grudem puts it, “If Christ had only earned forgiveness of sins for us, then we would not merit heaven. Our guilt would have been removed, but we would simply be in the position of Adam and Eve before they had done anything good or bad and before they had passed a time of probation successfully”? There might have been a probation period, but since Scripture doesn’t tell us this, the question must be left open.
7 Ibid., 516.
8 Ibid., 570.
The Covenant of Works —What’s in a Name?
It is unwise to refer to God’s relationship with Adam as a “covenant” even though God gave Adam a command with a promise of punishment if broken. But if this command and this promise is not called a covenant by the authors of Scripture, we must think twice about describing it by that name ourselves. Because of the importance of the word “covenant” in Scripture and the prominent place the concept has in our theological systems, using the word “covenant” to describe Scriptural events not called covenants should be rejected. The danger of calling something a covenant that is not referred to as such increases the likelihood of making it a cornerstone of our theology. Something that in fact is not an emphasis in Scripture may end up acquiring an unscriptural significance and supporting an unbalanced and unbiblical theological system.
We are not saying that you always have to use biblical terms to describe biblical concepts (even when those concepts are foundational to our theological systems). The Bible never uses the term ‘person’ when referring to the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, Christians are justified in this application because the concept of the personhood of the Holy Spirit is clear in Scripture. We find that we are forced to acknowledge the personhood of the Holy Spirit from the clear teaching of Scripture which does not allow us to believe that the Holy Spirit is simply an impersonal force. Some of these evidences are actions of the Holy Spirit that are driven by purpose and intelligence as well as the fact that the authors of Scripture referred to the Spirit by using personal pronouns like “him” and “his.” So the concept of the “personhood” of the Holy Spirit is an important doctrine although the term is never used to describe Him in Scripture. Thus it can be a valid practice to understand a person or event in Scripture by using a term that Scripture does not in fact use to describe that person or event.
So, the fundamental problem is not in assigning the word “covenant” to events in Scripture that Scripture itself does not call covenants, but rather the problem is the place you give those events in your theological system precisely because you designate them “covenants.” I think this happens very naturally because the term “covenant” in Scripture, unlike the term “person,” is a high profile and extremely important term. Almost invariably covenant theologians use the concept of covenant, whether it is the Covenant of Redemption, the CoW or the Covenant of Grace, to illustrate the continuity of Scripture and God’s work in salvation. But Scripture uses the term, almost without exception, to illustrate discontinuity.
We return again to the most basic question, “Is it biblical?” Even if the relationship between God and Adam in the Garden is technically a covenant, God places no importance on that fact. If Scripture does not use the term “covenant” when referring to God’s relationship to Adam but uses it of other pivotal events, perhaps we should reserve the term for those events God calls covenants.9 Consider whether refraining from calling the arrangement a covenant would do damage to your theological system and whether your system in turn drives you to label the arrangement a covenant.
9 Hosea 6:7 is often cited as biblical proof that God call’s the relationship between God and Adam a covenant: “Like Adam (or “as at Adam;” or “Like men”), they have broken the covenant- they were unfaithful to me there.” Using this text to support the massive weight of the CoW seems unwise. Not only are there other interpretive options for this text such as taking Adam as the name of a location (Josh.3:16) at which some rebellion occurred, but also within the ranks of CT there are many who do not see this text as supporting the existence of a CoW in the garden (As an example of this see “The Adamic Administration,” in The Collected Writings of John Murray [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977], 47-59). Even if one were to grant that this text does call the relationship in the garden between God and Adam “a covenant,” can this rather obscure verse bear the full weight of the doctrine?
Rejecting the “Covenant of Works” Without Rejecting the Principle of Works
Salvation can “theoretically” be earned by perfect heart-act obedience to God. In addition, even the smallest act of disobedience earns God’s infinite and eternal wrath. We do not need the “CoW” schema to embrace these facts. These statements actually have clear biblical foundations that can be verified by simple exegesis.
If we turn our attention to the Old Covenant and examine the nature of that covenant under which Christ was born, we will find that it was a “CoW.” That is, we find that the condition for blessing was perfect obedience to the commands of that Covenant and cursing and wrath followed violation of any of those commands:
Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, "This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites" (Ex.19:3-6).
If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God…(Dt.28:1-2).
However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you…(Dt.28:15).
Although there are many places one could turn in the New Testament to support this doctrine, Galatians is the locus classicus, the great antidote for any fool who desires to earn God’s acceptance by works. Paul does not rebuke the Galatians because salvation by works is an unbiblical concept. He rebukes them because it takes perfect obedience in order to gain eternal life by works and they should know this and also realize that they are unable to achieve such a thing:
All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law." Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, "The righteous will live by faith." The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, "The man who does these things will live by them." Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree" (Gal.3:10-13).
If you desire to be saved, even just in part, by earning or meriting your salvation, then your salvation will not be gained by faith but by obedience to the law. But make no mistake—you actually have to “do” the law to be saved in this manner (v.12). James tells us that even one violation of God’s law is treated by God as if you violated every law: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (Jas.2:10). Even in this context where he is clearly writing about Christ’s work in relation to salvation by faith and by law, Paul does not mention the AOC. He does not write that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by obeying the law perfectly on our behalf (AO). But Paul does write about Christ “becoming a curse for us” by His work on the cross—His PO.
The fear of many believers is that if you deny this CoW schema, you will have to abandon the crucial biblical understanding of the relationship of salvation and works as well as the seriousness of sin. But establishing the biblical foundations of the relationship of salvation and works of the law, as above, can be done without any reference to the CoW said to have been made by God with Adam in the Garden. Establishing the biblical truth concerning our accountability to God for keeping His commands in the New Covenant era can also be done without reference to God’s relationship with Adam. Consider Rom.6:23:
“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Paul is simply saying that when you break the commands that apply to you in the New Covenant era, what you earn from God is eternal wrath in hell or spiritual death. You get the curse of God unless the Son takes the curse on your behalf. Unlike the CoW, the biblical foundations of this doctrine can be examined and verified by reading and interpreting clear texts of Scripture.
Considering Scriptures Used to Support the Imputation of the AOC
For Robert Reymond, in his one volume systematic theology, the “fact” that these verses refer to the AOC is almost self-evident and without need of argumentation. His view comes under the subtitle “Christ’s Entire Life Work ‘One Righteous Act’ of obedience” which gives us a sneak preview of his understanding of Rom.5:18. His comments simply amplify the subtitle:
…it is necessary first to note that under-girding all the rich and variegated terminology that the Scriptures employ to describe Christ’s cross work, there is one comprehensive, all-embracing, unifying feature of his entire life and ministry, which is so essential to his cross work that without it none of the things that the Scriptures say about it could have been said with any degree of propriety. That feature is the obedience of Christ (see Rom.5:18).10
This passage is the premier teaching passage on imputation. If Reymond is correct and these verses are referring to Christ’s entire life of obedience, then the imputation of the AOC is a biblical doctrine. But if this text does not refer to His obedient law-keeping life, then we must look elsewhere for its biblical foundation. Let’s examine this passage:
Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous (Rom.5:18-19).
The tight argument that Paul makes about the method by which God saves begins in v.12. But Paul sets the stage in the beginning of chapter 5 where he speaks about the POC:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!11 Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (5:6-11).
The only connection that Paul has made between Christ and our justification is Christ’s death on the cross. There is nothing in the text up to the beginning of the argument in verse 12 that would lead the reader to consider Christ’s law-keeping in relation to the justification of sinners.
The contrast is between Adam’s “one act” and Christ’s “one act.” Adam’s one act of disobedience refers to his eating the fruit from the forbidden tree. It was not a reference to his entire life. One of the simple keys that tell us this is Paul’s statement “one act” in reference to Adam’s sin. No interpreter takes Adam’s “one act” to refer to his entire life before God.
So as we consider verses 18 and 19, the question before us is, “What does Christ’s ‘one act of righteousness’ (5:18) and his ‘obedience’ (5:19) refer to?” Some argue that although the “one act of righteous” might point to a single event, the use of the word “obedience” to describe this act opens it up to the possibility that Paul is referring to the entire life of Christ. Consider John Piper’s words on this: “does not the word ‘obedience’ in Rom.5:19 without any limitation itself provide that clue? ...it seems arbitrary to draw the line at some point in the final hours or day of Jesus’ life and say that the obedience before that hour was not part of the righteousness that ‘leads to justification’ (v.18) or part of the ‘obedience’ that constitutes many righteous (v.19).”12 Now this logic would be a powerful argument if it weren’t for the context that surrounds the word “obedience.”
Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous (Rom.5:18-19).
Adam’s sin is referred to as ‘disobedience’ in verse 19 “without any limitation.” Using Piper’s own argument we would need to consider the events surrounding Adam’s fall - Adam’s sinful intentions before he ate and perhaps when he inevitably sinned against Eve after he ate. But isn’t it simpler and clearer to simply work with those things that are obvious in the passage: the clear parallels between Adam and Christ; the near context in which the POC is mentioned in relation to justification; and the reference to ‘one act’ concerning both Adam and Christ? Is it really that “arbitrary” to limit Christ’s obedience to His obedient substitutionary death in this context, especially since the only Pauline reference to the obedience of Christ is His obedient death (Phil.2:8)?
This text clearly favors the interpretation that Christ’s “one righteous act” or his “obedience” refers to his sacrificial death. But even if you are not convinced of our point of view, this text is not unambiguously speaking about the imputation of the AOC. If it does not speak clearly to the issue, then it cannot serve as the textual foundation for this doctrine.
10 Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (998), p.629.
11 The reference here to being “saved through His life” (v.10) is often understood by Covenant Theologians to refer to the imputation of the AOC—that would make life refer to the obedient life of Christ prior to His work on the cross. But v.9 begins an argument from the lesser to the greater in which there is a temporal aspect. Here is my paraphrase of verse 9: “If now we have been justified through Christ’s blood, how much more shall we finally be saved through Him since he is resurrected and at the right hand of God in Heaven?” The contrasting is between all that Christ’s death does for us with all that His resurrected life will do for us in the future. Christ’s resurrected life will actually do “more.” With this in mind, consider my paraphrase of verse 10: “If God reconciled us to Himself by the death of Christ while we were still God-haters and His enemies, How much more will God save us utterly and completely in the last day by the resurrected life of Christ now that we love Him and He loves us!” This is a wonderfully comforting verse that points to power of Christ’s resurrected life rather than His obedient suffering life. Rom.6:5 is another great example of this death to resurrection life pattern that Paul writes about: “If we have been united with Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.”
12 John Piper, Counted Righteous In Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? (02), p.111-112.
In this passage Paul is looking at the religious achievements in his life and comparing them to knowing Christ and His righteousness and seeing the latter as being of incomparably greater value:
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Phil.3:7-11).
This text is often cited in support of the imputation of the AOC.
Although there is no mention of a CoW and there is no mention of Christ’s perfect law-keeping on behalf of sinners, the text does speak of righteousness. Paul does not want a righteousness of his own “that comes from law.” Righteousness certainly can come from perfect law-keeping, but Paul knows that obtaining such a righteousness is a fruitless and faithless endeavor. Paul wants the righteousness that comes from God and is acquired by faith in Christ. What is Christ’s righteousness? One interpretive option is that Christ’s righteousness refers to Christ’s perfect obedience to the Mosaic Law (AOC) which He imputes to all those who trust in Him as Savior and Lord. Another interpretive option is that Christ’s righteousness refers to the payment for sin which He made by His death on the cross (POC) and imputes to all those who trust in Him as Savior and Lord. Which interpretation is right and how do we decide?
In order to arrive at the correct conclusion we must go to the locus
classicus regarding the righteousness the
believer acquires through faith in Christ, Rom.3. Since we have already spent
time in this passage, we can come to some swift conclusions. In Rom.3 we found
that Paul only writes about the imputation of the POC—the payment for
sins. Therefore, since the
only place in Scripture where Paul defines the righteousness of Christ
is in reference to his
1 Corinthians 1:30
In this passage Paul is contrasting the “wisdom” of the world with the “foolishness” of the gospel: “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God--that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”
This verse clearly speaks of imputation, but is there
anything in the text that causes us to think that this is a reference to the
imputation of the AOC? When Paul speaks of preaching the gospel he talks about
preaching “Christ crucified” (v.23) which is an explicit reference to
Do you not know that the
wicked will not inherit the
The term “sanctified” in 1 Cor.6 doesn’t seem to have any clear reference to Christ’s imputed law-keeping, nor does it have anything to do with the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of the believer causing Him to put away sinful patterns of living. If it had to do with growth in moral purity he could scarcely have said that about the Corinthians at this point in the letter. Instead, consider the words that Paul uses with “sanctified” in this verse. It is being used with two synonyms: “washed” and “justified,” which it stands in-between. 1 Cor.1:30 has that same pattern. Paul writes that Christ has become for us “wisdom from God—that is our “righteousness, holiness, and redemption.” The “wisdom from God” spoken about in this passage is the gospel—how a sinful man is accepted by a holy God. If both “righteousness” and “redemption” are clear references to payment for sin—which we found to be the case in Rom.3—then we have two synonyms that enclose the word in question. It is doubtful that holiness refers to a different concept entirely while being enclosed by two synonyms. It is far more likely that this is a three-fold word description of what the believer gets because he is “in Christ.” They are not three different things, but it is a three-fold way of describing the same thing—the believer’s complete innocence before a holy God because of the death of Christ. It is a beautiful way of describing the believer’s ability to come right into the presence of God because of the imputation of the POC.
2 Corinthians 5:21
This text is a clear and wonderful declaration of the imputation of our sin to Christ and His righteousness to us: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Of course the argument turns on one’s definition of “righteousness.” Since Paul uses this term to refer to the imputation of the POC, this text is best read as a statement of that wonderful truth. Christ makes it so that we are declared innocent of any transgression or “perfect” (Heb.10:14) because of Christ’s one sacrifice. Christ took the punishment of our sin so that through faith in Him we become acceptable and perfect—that is, “righteous in His sight” (Rom.3:20). There is no reference in this text or in the surrounding context to the imputation of Christ’s perfect life.
Ironically, these verses serve to undermine any theological necessity for this doctrine. This should become evident as we closely examine this important passage of Scripture. In Rom.8 Paul is making the case that if you are a believer, then you are no longer a slave to sin, that if you are yoked to Christ, then you are set free from both the penalty and the enslaving power of sin:
“For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (Rom.8:3-4).
This text says that “God did” something - sent His Son to die on a cross as a “sin offering.” That is a clear reference to the POC. Through the imputation of the POC “the righteous requirements of the law” are “fully met in us.” Isn’t that amazing! There is absolutely no hint of the imputation of the law keeping of Christ. There is only reference to His PO and yet that “sin offering” which served to have our sins condemned in Christ, allows us to stand before God as people who have fully met the righteous requirements of the law. The imputation of the POC unambiguously accomplishes everything that the so-called imputation of the AOC was supposed to do!
In v.4 Paul describes the group of people that fully meet the righteous requirements of the law as those “who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.” This is a reference to something else that the one “sin offering” of Christ does for every believer. We mentioned it earlier in relation to Heb.10:14 “because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” The one sacrifice that Christ made, not only purchased perfection for the believer—described in Rom.8 as having fully met the righteous requirements of the law — but also progress in holiness. That is a work of the Spirit in the life of the believer that causes the believer to serve God and put sin to death. The verses that follow contrast the life of the man who has this work of the Spirit of God and the man who does not have the Spirit. This is all purchased by the POC that is imputed into the account of everyone who repents and believes.
Other verses used to defend the imputation of the AOC cited in systematic theologies seem to fall into four broad categories for which we have provided obvious textual examples:
1) in defense of the sinless life of
2) in reference to the imputation of righteousness (Rom.4:4-6; 10:3-4);
3) that say that Christ was under law (Gal.4:4-5);
4) that seem totally unrelated other than some key words (Mt.3:15).
Our response to these verses by category is as follows:
1) Christ had a sinless life, but without reference to imputation
in relation to that sinless life in Scripture we are left to understand it to
refer to His sinless life that qualified
Him to by the perfect Savior13.
2) Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer, but that righteousness is defined in Scripture as His sacrificial death in payment for sin, which grants the believer acceptance from God for all eternity.
3) Christ was under the Mosaic Law and His perfect obedience to it qualified Him to be the perfect Savior.
4) Scriptures that are unrelated to the doctrine do not and cannot serve to give it a biblical foundation.
We found even the best attempts at exegetical arguments for the
imputation of the AOC to be wanting of clear biblical support. We also found
that some of their most frequently cited texts, upon closer scrutiny, actually
undermine the need for the doctrine entirely. The imputation of the AOC seems
to be a doctrine without biblical foundations. It would seem that to hold and
defend a doctrine with a traditional foundation rather than a biblical
foundation is to begin your trek down the hermeneutical road to
13 [The OT
types of Christ’s substitutionary death all depict
the POC of the perfect sacrifice without any
Some Questions and Objections Considered
Do you mean to say that you actually need a specific text from the bible to establish a biblical doctrine or practice?
Yes. For if by “establish a biblical doctrine or practice” you mean that this is something God wants me to believe or do, then you must have the clear and unambiguous witness of Scripture to back that up. If you don’t have a text from scripture to establish your view, you have no word from God and therefore no view worth defending.
I’m not a Covenant Theologian and yet I embrace the Imputation of the AOC. How does your characterization of CT apply to me?
It is possible that you embraced the doctrine not knowing that its invention and continued existence depends on and is driven by CT. You may simply believe the doctrine is true because someone you trust taught it to you and you never thought to question it. Many evangelicals who are not of the Covenant Theological stripe wisely embrace the doctrine of salvation that Covenant Theologians also hold. That is, many—though not enough—non-covenantal evangelicals embrace the doctrines of grace. But when covenant theologians expound the doctrines of grace, the imputation of the AOC is woven into the fabric of the doctrines of grace so that the two are inseparable. That is why, if you are not a Covenant Theologian, you probably still believe in the imputation of the AOC. Covenant theologians and the many garden-variety evangelicals who embrace the life-giving doctrines of grace unwittingly embrace the imputation of the AOC.
Can’t you lump AOC and POC together under one heading—Christ’s imputed obedience that makes us righteous?
Certainly if you have a passage that clearly teaches the
imputation of the AOC alongside the imputation of His PO. We have many clear
passages that teach the imputation of Christ’s
Do believers have to fulfill the righteous requirements of the law?
Yes. But, according to Scripture, this can only be done through the death of Christ. The reception of his payment for sins makes it just as if we had already perfectly obeyed the righteous requirements of the law. Consider our comments on Rom.8:1-4 above.
John Piper defines justification differently than we do here. He writes:
The Greek word for ‘justify’ (diakioo) does not mean “forgive.” It means to declare righteous, usually in a court of law. A prisoner who is found guilty and is forgiven would not be called ‘justified’ in the ordinary use of the word. He is justified if he is found not guilty. Forgiveness means to be found guilty and then not have the guilt reckoned to you but let go. So we should be careful that we not assume justification and forgiveness are identical” (Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness (02), p.115.
In your paper you say that forgiveness of sins is synonymous with justification. How do you respond to Piper’s argument?
It appears that his argument is philosophical rather than biblical. The problem that Paul raises in Rom.3 is that men need righteousness that cannot be earned. How, then do we get it and what does it consist of? Paul tells us that we get righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ and that the righteousness or justification we need to be accepted by God is equivalent to redemption which is the forgiveness of sins: “and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood” (Rom.3:24-25). The author of Hebrews tells us that the imputation of Christ’s sin-bearing work makes believers perfect: “But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Heb.10:12-14). Scripture seems quite clear on the subject and we must not let our philosophical ideas drown out the clarity of God’s Word.
If you deny the imputation of the AOC, aren’t you watering down the doctrine of justification?
We think that we are actually lifting the priceless sacrificial
death of Christ to its rightful position within the incredibly important
doctrine of justification. What does the death of Christ give the believer? Some say that
the sacrificial death of the sinless Son of God procures for believers no
better standing than Adam had before the fall. They say that the sacrificial
death of Christ is insufficient for eternal life. But Scripture says that when
believers receive the results of the death of Christ they have been made
perfect forever (Heb.10:14). This language that the Holy Spirit uses gives us
the clear picture that as the result of the death of Christ the believer is
viewed as though he has obeyed God’s law perfectly, when in reality he has
simply received the full forgiveness of his sins. God is telling us that in
order for someone to be accepted by God, that person must have no black marks on
his record. One can get a clean record in two ways:
1) obey God’s law perfectly
2) have all of your transgressions of God’s law perfectly paid for through Christ’s sacrificial death.
A clean record or being perfectly forgiven is equivalent to perfect obedience—it makes the believer righteous in God’s sight. That is exactly what the death of Christ gives to the believer according to Heb.10:14. Denying the imputation of the AOC while affirming the imputation of what the Scripture says about the amazing sufficiency of the Sacrificial death of Christ lifts the cross high and the theological significance and meaning of justification remains unchanged.
By Steve Lehrer http://idsaudio.org/ids/pdf/classic/appendix.pdf
Interpreting Scripture with Nothing up My Sleeves
Our method of interpreting Scripture must not be like illusionists pulling rabbits out of hats. There should be no slight of hand and no smoke and mirrors. Our conclusions should be obvious and every step we take to get there must be out in the open.
Rom.4:4-8 has been trumpeted as a proof text for the imputation of the active obedience of Christ (AOC). We do not believe the doctrine is actually in the text, but has to be smuggled in from the outside. Both the magician and the well-meaning interpreter are often doing the same thing—making something, a rabbit or a doctrine, appear “out of thin air.” A careful and ordinary reading of the text does not find the imputation of the AOC in it.
Romans 4:4-8 in Context
How does a sinful man get right with a holy God? Is it by obedience to the Law or by faith? How do we get the “righteousness” we need to be accepted by God? These are the questions that Paul pours all of his rhetorical powers into answering in Rom.3:20-4:12. Rom.4:4-8 plays an important role in this larger text where Paul explains the life-transforming message of justification that is the heart of the gospel. There is a root word (dikai) woven throughout the passage. Words that are built upon this root are used 18 times in these 25 verses. The noun means righteousness and the verb means to declare righteous, to recognize as righteous, or to vindicate, depending on the context in which it is used. The common theme in the whole passage is righteousness, which explains Paul’s repeated use of the word and its cognates:
20Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. 21But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. 27Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. 29Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, 30since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. 1What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? 2If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. 5However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. 6David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 7"Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 8Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” 9Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. 10Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! 11And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised (Rom.3:20-4:12).
Interpreting Romans 3:20-4:12
In the beginning of this passage Paul points out man’s need for righteousness. He immediately tells us about God’s wonderful provision of that righteousness and exactly how this righteousness was acquired and how we can have a share in it. Paul never wavers or adds to the foundational statements he makes in the beginning of the passage. The law will not allow sinners to be declared righteous. Law can only point out sin and condemn sinners. The first three chapters right up to Rom.3:20, are spent proving this point: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom.3:20).
In v.3:21-23, Paul tells us that God provides righteousness apart from lawkeeping. This righteousness or justification is acquired by faith. The sinner trusts in Jesus Christ alone to gain this righteousness:
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
As we consider the issue of the imputation of the AOC in relation to this passage of Scripture, some questions naturally arise - What are we to trust that Christ did for us? Where does our righteousness come from? Does it come from Christ’s perfectly obedient life, or from His sin-bearing death? In the verses that follow, Paul only mentions Christ’s sin-bearing death: “and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.” Paul writes that justification, or being declared righteous in the court of heaven, comes through redemption. In Eph.1:7 Paul uses the term “redemption” in a similar context, but there he also defines the word: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.” In Col.1:14 Paul writes something very similar: “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” One way to think about how we are justified is by thinking about how we are redeemed. The meaning of redemption in the context of spiritual salvation is forgiveness of sins. Paul tells us that the way one becomes “justified” is by being “redeemed.” That is, one is declared righteous in the court of heaven by having his sins forgiven via the substitutionary atonement of Christ. God poured out His wrath on Jesus Christ in our place so that we might be declared “righteous in His sight.” We place our faith in His blood, or in His sacrificial death, so that we can be considered “righteous.”
Verses 25 and 26 are concerned with God’s character - with the justice of God in relation to His mercy on sinners:
He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
God demonstrates His own “righteousness” by making sure sins are punished. Those who were saved before the New Covenant era went for many years without having their sinful behavior duly punished. God demonstrated His justice or righteousness by pouring out His wrath on Jesus Christ for the sins of all who believe. God shows His justice in doing this by not simply winking at or ignoring sin; God declares men positively righteous by pouring out His wrath on Jesus, thereby being both just and the justifier. In verses 27-30 Paul continues to write about the same issue—how a sinful man can become righteous before God. The answer is still the same. We become righteous through faith in Christ’s sin-bearing death rather than by our own obedient observance of God’s Law; therefore we cannot brag that we have done something to earn God’s favor:
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.
There is only one God for both Jews and Gentiles, so there is only one way to be saved—through faith. It is not by Law observance or God would be the God of the Jews only, since they were the only ones who had God’s Law: “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God” (Rom.3:1-2).
If one could be saved by simply believing that a kind and loving God overlooks sin, then God’s law and his justice for transgressors by the unyielding standard of the Law could not be taken seriously. The Law would be nullified and God would be unjust. The Almighty would be a false-witness in His own court, setting up the lofty benchmark of the Mosaic Code as the presiding Judge and then mounting the witness stand to abrogate it with a whimsical “Oh never mind. I’m too nice for that sort of legalism.” Perish the thought! Our faith is in an objective event, the sin-bearing death of Christ that takes the demands of God’s law seriously. Paul makes clear that God has made a way for one to be righteous through the sin-bearing death of Jesus Christ. Those who accuse us of nullifying the Law should be applauding us for taking it so seriously: “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law” (Rom.3:31).
As we make our way into Rom.4, we find that Paul is still writing about the same issue—namely, how can a sinful man can be considered righteous in God’s sight? Can one become righteous by what he does or must it be through believing in the atoning work of another? Paul laid out the answer for us at the beginning of this passage as shown above. We are justified or found righteous in God’s sight through redemption, which is the forgiveness of sin. This precious gift was purchased by the sin-bearing death of Jesus Christ. Nothing new is being introduced into the argument. In order to further explain his point (that justification is by faith in Christ’s work on the cross apart from any works that the sinner does), Paul considers how Abraham was declared righteous: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God” (Rom.4:1-2). There is no reason to think that Paul is suddenly changing or appending the definition of “justify” or “righteousness” when he introduces Abraham.
In verses 3-5, the main point of the argument is to tell us that Abraham did not earn his righteousness through works. Paul is assuming that the reader has not completely forgotten all that has been said about righteousness. Paul is simply using different words to drive home the point that he already made in Rom.3:24—namely that justification, or the legal declaration of righteousness, is a gift: “and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” God gave Abraham his righteousness through the instrument of faith in God’s promises:
What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.
Many an able interpreter stumbles at this point by getting wrapped up in the question, “What does the term credit mean?” It is true that this word was often used in financial transactions meaning, “to place into one’s account.” Many commentators then run with this verbal idea and conclude that righteousness cannot simply be forgiveness of sins because forgiveness of sins is non-imputation. Forgiveness is considering something bad (debt) in someone’s account as if it is not there, rather than placing something positive (wages) into someone’s account. They then conclude that a forgiven man is not necessarily a righteous man. If we follow these commentators down this dead end street, we will not be able to follow Paul’s argument. They are reading a theological assumption into the text by assuming that for something to be imputed it must be “positive” in some sense. And since forgiveness is not positive, it cannot be imputed. This is an unbiblical conclusion because when Paul speaks of crediting or imputing righteousness, he is speaking about the fact that righteousness is a gift that God gives to sinners who place their trust in Jesus Christ. Remember, Paul’s purpose in writing about imputation is to show the difference between working for your salvation and having your salvation given to you. He unambiguously explains what righteousness is in chapter three. One is declared righteous by being redeemed or receiving the complete forgiveness of sins (past, present, and future) that is gained by faith in the sacrificial death of Christ. The use of the term “credit” or “impute” does not turn all of this on its head. The purpose of the passage is to explain that righteousness, or forgiveness of sins, is a gift from God. God redeems sinners freely, rather than having them earn His acceptance by their works.
Paul’s simple but profound argument continues with a straightforward Old Testament quotation about forgiveness of sins:
6David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 7"Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 8Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.
Paul reaches back to Psalm 32 because it so beautifully restates the key idea that righteousness or forgiveness of sins is a free gift given by God to guilty sinners. He tells us in v.6 that David is saying “the same thing” as he has been arguing. There is nothing new or complex here. It is wonderful, but it is not complicated. Paul wants us to understand and marvel at the free gift that we are given by believing in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on behalf of His people. To be righteous in God’s sight is to have one’s sins “forgiven,” “covered,” and “never counted against him.” To be forgiven is to be righteous and to be righteous is to be blessed. Paul continues discussing the exact same point that he began to argue in the beginning of the passage and has focused on throughout this passage. He concentrates on the term “blessed” to continue the discussion about how a sinful man can be found righteous in God’s sight:
9Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. 10Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! 11And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
Salvation is by faith alone, apart from works of the Law. Abraham was blessed (reckoned righteous, justified, or forgiven of all his sins) before he was circumcised. Abraham’s obedience in getting circumcised, or his obedience to any other law, did not earn Abraham anything. The law of circumcision was given to Abraham after the promise so that we might understand that righteousness is a gift that, by definition, can never be earned.
Who hasn’t unwittingly engaged in some slight-of-hand as he has wrestled with Scripture? We have all unintentionally “smuggled” into our biblical interpretations some unbiblical presuppositions. The imputation of the AOC is the “rabbit” that is often smuggled into the “hat” of Rom.4:4-8. It is nowhere in the text, but well-meaning interpreters make the doctrine appear “out of thin air.” We all need to examine our presuppositions and our interpretations of Scripture with the utmost care that we may be found with “nothing up our sleeves.”
Review of “The Obedience of Christ,” subtitled “A Response to Steve Lehrer and
Geoff Volker,” by
redefining terms, it’s quite easy to make light work of another position. Once
the straw man is dutifully propped up, little effort is required to topple it.
Van Court insists that Christ’s “active” and “passive” obedience are
inseparable; thus any time the Bible mentions Jesus’ righteousness as being imputed
to the account of a Christian, he has redefined this righteousness to be all of
Christ’s earthly work, including His perfect keeping of the Mosaic code. Having
recast the terms — without any apparent Scriptural warrant —
Unfortunately, this back door approach will not bolster what is traditionally understood by Christ’s “active” obedience — namely, that Jesus’ perfect Mosaic law-keeping life is imputed to the believer’s account, as is His “passive” work on the cross. One cannot Biblically assert a truth via mere semantics. Van Court presents little by way of solid Scriptural evidence to support the point under discussion, namely that Christ’s keeping of the Mosaic Law is an integral part of the righteousness imputed to the believer. You cannot carry the day by the following simple equation:
(1) Jesus’ righteousness includes both His “active” (perfect life) and “passive” (cross work) obedience (a point asserted but not Biblically proven).
(2) Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the Christian.
(3) Therefore, Christ’s perfect life (“active” obedience) is imputed to the believer, as well as His sacrificial death (“passive” obedience).
space, we cannot extensively investigate the “covenant of works” — that Adam
was to earn life eternal by keeping God’s Law. However, Lightner’s
comments quoted by
Covenant Theology’s view on the “covenant of works” with Adam in the Garden and it’s bearing on Christ’s “active” obedience — Jesus’ perfect Mosaic Law keeping being imputed to the Christian — can thus be distilled to the following formula:
(1) The Lord told Adam that he was obligated to perpetual, perfect Law obedience as the requirement for eternal life.
(2) The Lord’s method of salvation is time invariant — we need the same perfect obedience required of Adam.
(3) Sinful men are unable to provide said perfect legal obedience due to their fallen condition.
(4) Therefore, Christ’s life of perfect conformity to the Mosaic code must be imputed to the Christian’s account if he’s to be righteous before God.
The system driven nature of this reasoning is obvious, which is why the conclusions are so mystifying to those unschooled in Reformed systematics. On a personal note, I was a follower of Jesus Christ for 17 years before I even encountered the notion of Christ’s “active” versus “passive” obedience. I suppose you could be pejorative; “Well, you were just an ignorant Christian!” OK, that may be so; but if this dogma is so central to the gospel, why is its promulgation so localized to the Presbyterians and their progeny?
Isn’t it interesting that this Covenant Theology outlook opens the door to the current debate on salvation by faith plus works? “You need perfect legal obedience to be saved!” can clearly be twisted to, “You need to contribute your own legal obedience to be saved!” Norman Shepherd, New Perspectives on Paul (NPP), and Auburn Avenue Theology / Federal Vision (FV) all forward a version of faith plus works soteriology, and they all share the same Presbyterian root. We are not saying that “guilty by association” is a valid doctrinal refutation. However, the focus on a believer’s need for justification via the fulfillment of the Law provides a rich soil from which these errors can and do spring.
Van Court does us a fine service by highlighting some of the Westminster Divines who didn’t subscribe to the covenant of works, and thus to Christ’s “active” obedience being imputed to the believer. This fact should not be lightly overlooked. At least a few godly men who partook in establishing Covenant Theology’s foundational document could not Scripturally support the “covenant of works” supposedly established in the Garden with Adam, hence undercutting their support for the doctrine of Christ’s “active” obedience. Forwarding the early Dispensationalists who also subscribe to Christ’s “active” obedience is a non-starter, since many of these were schooled in Presbyterianism. In short, then, the historical evidence points to the “active” obedience doctrine being a later outworking of Presbyterian theology, nearly unknown outside these circles (e.g., Lutheranism), and intimately tied to Covenant Theology’s Edenic “covenant of works”.
Luther as favorably viewing the imputation of Christ’s righteous to those born again,
bolster his argument on Rom 3:21-26,
A better evangelistic statement would be, “Adam’s one act of sin has already condemned you forever!” Van Court’s use of the Net Bible for Rom 3:21-26 is a bit unnerving, since it appears to support the faith plus works equals salvation concept in its translation. The passage is more traditionally translated as follows; please note the underscored translation of the Greek “pistis Christou”:
21But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. … 26to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (NKJV)
The Net Bible, however, translates thusly:
21But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed — 22namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. … 26This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.
the Net Bible, in its translation of the Greek “pistis
Christou,” helps promote the outlooks of the New
Perspectives on Paul (NPP) and of the Auburn Avenue Theology / Federal Vision
instead this passage is translated to mean the faithfulness of Christ, we can
thus easily dispatch Reformed soteriology. No doubt
parallel to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away our sins, should not be
missed. Indeed, where in the Old Testament is the spotless perfection of a
sacrificial critter said to be atoningly applied to
the Old Covenant worshiper? This silence is fatal to the belief that Christ’s
“active” obedience is an integral part of our salvation. In sum,
circular nature of