Is the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ a Biblical Doctrine?

Is the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ a Biblical Doctrine?

by David Dunlap

In the late 18th century, a group of intrepid British Dispensational leaders began to raise their voices in uncompromising opposition to, what seemed to many, an established doctrine of the church called the “Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ”. This doctrine was so accepted at the time that few imagined it could be challenged. It was a doctrine that grew out of the Reformation period and was first articulated in the writings of Reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther. When British Dispensationalists such as John N. Darby and William Kelly opposed this doctrine on Biblical grounds, they were bitterly denounced as unorthodox and even heretical.

At that time, a book by William Reid called Heresies of the Plymouth Brethren was issued as an attack on these Dispensationalists. Dr. Robert Dabney set forth a similar attack in a work called Theology of the Plymouth Brethren in 1891. However, in the years that followed, and up to the present day, leading evangelicals have concluded that this Reformed doctrine of imputation was not based upon the bedrock of the Word of God, but rather on the shifting sand of human reason. Today, this doctrine is not generally accepted among evangelicals; in fact, there are few serious-minded Christians who would even be familiar with it. Reformed writer Dr. R. C. Sproul laments that among present-day evangelicalism this doctrine is largely unknown and overlooked (R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997, p. 103).  However, in recent years there has been a growing interest in this doctrine due to the popularity of Reformed theology.

What is Salvation by the “Obedience” of Christ?

Reformed theology, since the time of the Reformation, has taught that Christ provided a two-fold foundation for justification. It has been asserted that our Lord’s sufferings from His birth until His death were His “active obedience” and His sufferings and death on the cross set forth Christ’s “passive obedience”. These two aspects combine to form the basis for the believer’s justification. All evangelical Christians affirm that Christ’s death on the cross is the Biblical foundation for justification. However, Reformed theology insists that the obedience and sufferings of Christ prior to the cross are essential for our salvation. Calvinism affirms that the death of Christ, His “passive obedience”, dealt with our guilt, while the merits in the life of Christ, his “active obedience” provides for our justification. Reformer John Calvin, in his most important theological work, The Institutes of Christian Religion, sets forth this view:

“…when it is asked how Christ, by abolishing sin, removed the enmity between God and us, and purchased a righteousness which made him favourable and kind to us, it may be answered generally, that he accomplished this by the whole course of his obedience. This is proved by the testimony of the Paul, “As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). And indeed he elsewhere extends the ground of pardon which exempts from the curse of the law to the whole life of Christ, “When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law” (Gal 4:4-5). Thus even at his baptism he declared that a part of righteousness was fulfilled by his yielding obedience to the command of the Father. In short, from the moment when he assumed the form of a servant, he began, in order to redeem us, to pay the price of deliverance…[Italics added]” (John Calvin, (Calvin’s Institutes, vol. 2, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962, p. 437).

The implication of what Calvin is saying must not be lost on us. It is not the death of Christ alone that redeems and justifies; it is also the sufferings and obedience that Christ endured during His life prior to the cross. Every act of obedience, as a child, was redeeming, every drop of blood shed, in early manhood, was atoning, in every act of obedience from the time He assumed the form of a servant, from the time of His birth, he was “paying the price of deliverance”. At times, so much weight is given to the redemptive work in the life of Christ by Reformed authors that one wonders why the death of Christ was necessary at all. Some Reformed writers press this issue so much so that they attribute a redemptive quality to specific events in the life of Christ. The hymnwriter and Reformed theologian Horatius Bonar details events in Christ’s life which he considers to be redemptive sufferings prior to the cross. He writes;

“Christ’s vicarious life began in the manger…there his sin-bearing had begun…when He was circumcised and baptised it was as a substitute…and He was always the sinless One bearing our sins…” (Horatius Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, London: J. Nisbet & Co., 1879, p. 26, 27, 29, 32).

As alarming as this may seem to many serious Bible students, this Reformed position of justification persists to our present day. The popular Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul has set forth this view in the most extreme terms. He asserts that the cross alone was insufficient, for the death and the life of Christ are on equal footing in the work of justification and redemption. Therefore, without the redemptive work in the life of Christ, the death of Christ could not justify the believer. He writes,

“The cross alone, however, does not justify us…We are justified not only by the death of Christ, but also by the life of Christ. Christ’s mission of redemption was not limited to the cross. To save us He had to live a life of perfect righteousness. His perfect, active obedience was necessary for His and our salvation…We are constituted as righteous by the obedience of Christ which is imputed to us by faith” (R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995, p. 104).

Christ’s holy and spotless life is of great interest to those who are spiritually minded. Contemplation of His perfections displayed prior to the cross evokes true worship, for worship does not arise from our appreciation of His death alone but also from consideration of all that He was in Himself and for the pleasure of God (Matt 17:5). However, this is not to say that His life contributes directly to our redemption. Rather His holy character was something essential to His own nature as well as qualifying Him to become the sacrificial Lamb, for God made it clear in the establishment of the Passover that “your lamb shall be without blemish and without spot” (Exod 12:15) and Peter confirms that Christ fulfilled this divine requirement (1 Pet 1:19). His holiness was, as we have said, essential to Him personally, but it is not vicarious or made over to us in some way. The gospel is not that Christ lived His life for our benefit, but that He “died for our sins…was buried and rose again” (1 Cor 15:3-4).

Reformed Arguments Examined

Reformed theologians struggle to find clear and unambiguous biblical support for their view of justification. However, one verse that is consistently quoted by Reformed writers is Romans 5:18, “Therefore, as by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” Reformed writers understand the phrase “by the righteousness of one” to mean the righteous, obedient, and law-keeping acts in the life of Christ prior to the cross. This righteousness, it is theorised, is imputed to us by faith. Is this what Romans 5:18 teaches? Does the phrase “righteousness of one” refer to His life or to His once for all death on the cross? William MacDonald provides needed clarity on this point when he writes:

“The righteousness of Christ mentioned in Romans 5: 18 does not mean His righteousness as a man on earth or His perfect keeping of the law. These are never said to be imputed to us. If they were, then it would not have been necessary for Christ to die. The NASB is on target when it translates: “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.” The “one act of righteousness” was not the Saviour’s life or His keeping of the law, but rather His substitutionary death on Calvary’s cross” (William MacDonald, Justification by Faith, Romans, Kansas City, KS: Walterick Publishers, 1981, p. 62).

A careful reading and study of this verse shows that the word “righteousness” (Gr. “dikaioma”) should rightly be rendered as “act of righteousness”. It refers to that which was accomplished at His death, and stands in contrast to righteousness as a quality. The discussion in verses 8-10 of the same chapter casts further light on the fact that it is a reference to the death of Christ. The Word of God never teaches that we are justified by the righteous life of Christ, but rather by the righteous act of Christ on the cross, which permitted God to pour out His wrath against sin.

What are the Biblical Implications?

Every careful student of the Scriptures should be concerned about this teaching. At the very outset, this Reformed view of justification opposes the very tenor of New Testament teaching on justification. The New Testament repeatedly states that the basis of justification is found, not in the life of Christ, but in His death; and that justification was not through numerous events in the life of Christ, but by one event, namely, the death of Christ. The sheer weight of the Biblical record should make us pause. We read:

  • “For Christ once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh…” (1 Pet 3:18)
  • “…being justified by His blood we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Rom 5:9)
  • “So Christ was once offered to bear the sin of many…” (Heb 9:28)
Moreover, the gospel writers make it very clear that up to the time of the suffering of Christ on the cross, our Lord neither “drank the cup” of God’s wrath nor became the sin-bearer. The righteous God did not forsake the Son prior to the cross. The Son, prior to the cross, never uttered the awful lament, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken Me…” (Mk 15:34). The cross of Christ was the only place where the holy God poured out His unreserved and righteous judgment against sin. There the holy God poured out His unmitigated wrath without mercy, that we might receive the infinite mercy of God without wrath. In this regard our Lord stated, “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father save Me from this hour. But for this cause came I unto this hour” (John 12:27). Is not Scripture exceedingly clear that it was upon the cross that our Lord suffered for our sins and bore the wrath of God against sin?

There is yet another serious consequence of this Reformed doctrine of justification; this doctrinal perspective turns the salvation through the grace of God into a works-salvation through a focus on the keeping of the Mosaic law. The Scripture is very clear that no one shall ever be saved by keeping the law. Paul unequivocally proclaims;

  • “…to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly” (Rom 4:5)
  • “…no man is justified by the law in the sight of God” (Gal 3:11)
  • “…knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16)

Nevertheless, in the Reformed view of justification, we are instructed that we are reckoned righteous by the keeping of the law. However, there is an unusual twist; it is not our individual law-keeping that justifies us, but that of Christ who kept the law representatively for us, and His merits of keeping the law are imputed to us. Notice the words of respected author and Reformed theologian Dr. J. I. Packer:

“In classical (Reformed) Protestant theology the phrase “the imputation of Christ’s righteousness”, means, namely, that believers are righteous and have righteousness before God for no other reason than that Christ, their head, was righteous before God, and they are one with Him, sharers of His status and acceptance. God justifies them by passing on them, for Christ’s sake, the verdict which Christ’s obedience merited. God declares them to be righteous because He reckons them to be righteous; and He reckons righteousness to them, not because He accounts them to have kept His law personally, but because He accounts them to be united to the one who kept it representatively” [J. I. Packer, Justification, Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology, (Ed.) Harrison, Bromiley, Henry, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999, p.306).

Christian righteousness begins with the death and resurrection of Christ. The risen Christ Himself is our righteousness, not Christ fulfilling the law in our place. The Christian’s connection to the law is broken through the death and resurrection of Christ. The apostle Paul in Romans 7 expands upon this important theme. The law’s power is only in force as long as a person is alive, or in the words of the apostle, “Law has dominion over a man as long as he liveth” (Rom. 7:1). Paul then sets forth our complete deliverance from under the law when he says that those who were under the law were made dead to the law by the death of Christ, that they might be joined to another, to Him that was raised from the dead (Rom 7:1-6). A dead man is not subject to civil or religious law. In like manner, the believer is not subject to the law of Moses because he is dead and risen with Christ. Therefore, to those who believe on Christ, the law has lost its authority to bring either condemnation or righteousness through the obedience of Christ. Paul finally concludes this argument in Romans by writing, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believes” (Rom 10:4). If the law is powerless to make righteous, what then is the true character of justification? Justification is the declaration by God unto us of a high and measureless righteousness, in that the whole value of the death of Christ was credited to the believer by faith, irrespective of the law, according to grace. Through the resurrection of Christ the believer now has a new standing in the risen Christ in glory (Rom 4:25). Dispensational scholar William Kelly beautifully describes the basis and character of the righteousness of God through Christ when he writes:

“Had Christ only kept the law, neither your soul nor mine could have been saved much less be blessed as we are. Whoever kept the law, it would have been a righteousness of the law, and not God’s righteousness, which has not the smallest connection with obeying the law. Because Christ obeyed unto death, God brought in a new kind of righteousness – not ours, but His own favour. Christ has been made a curse upon the tree; God has made Him sin for us that we might be the righteousness of God in Him” (William Kelly, Lectures on the Epistle to the Ephesians, Addison, IL: Bible Truth Publishers, 1979, pp. 104-105).

John Nelson Darby sets forth the important connection between the resurrection of Christ and our new standing in Him. He writes;

“What I deny is the doctrine that, while the death of Christ cleanses us from sin, His keeping the law is our positive righteousness; and that His keeping the law is imputed to us as ourselves under it, and that law-keeping is positive righteousness. I believe that Christ perfectly glorified God by obedience even unto death, and that it is to our profit, in that, while His death has cancelled all our sins, we are accepted according to His present acceptance in God’s sight…being held to be risen with Him, our position before God is not legal righteousness, or measured by Christ’s keeping the law, but His present acceptance, as risen…and we accounted righteous according to the value of His resurrection” (J.N. Darby, Collected Writings, Vol.14, Kingston-on-Thames, GB: Stow Hill Bible and Tract Depot, ND, p. 250).

The Importance of the Cross of Christ

The death of Christ must never be trivialised. If Christ’s keeping the law could justify, if it was truly vicarious, then why did Christ die? Understandably, the Reformed Christian would raise his vigorous objection. He would strongly argue that the death of Christ was truly needful and essential for our salvation. This sincere objection is noted and respected. However, the most serious question still remains unanswered. If, as the Reformed view suggests, justification comes through the law, since Christ was fully obedient to the law in every respect, and if the merits of Christ’s righteous life were as truly redemptive as the death of Christ, then why did Christ die? Reformed theology strongly asserts that the obedience and righteous merits of the life of Christ are as truly redemptive as the death of Christ. The respected Reformed theologian Archibald Alexander Hodge explains:

“The Scriptures teach us plainly that Christ’s obedience was as truly vicarious as was his suffering, and that he reconciled us to the Father by the one as well as by the other” (Archibald Alexander Hodge, The Atonement, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1953, pp. 248, 249).

If this is all true, why did Christ have to die? Why do Old Testament prophetic passages such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 speak of the necessity of the death of the Messiah? Reformed theology has never given a satisfying answer to this important question. Reformed writers, due to the influence of Covenant theology, do not see a distinction between righteousness through the law in the Old Testament and righteousness through Christ’s death alone in the New Testament. Covenant theology fails to see significant distinctions between earthly Israel under the law and the New Testament church. Therefore, it suggests a doctrine of righteousness through the co-mingling of both law and grace. This will never do. God has set aside righteousness according to the law and has brought in something altogether new. The law came by Moses, but grace and truth through our Lord Jesus Christ. The cross of Christ must stand at the forefront and alone in any theology of righteousness. Therefore, it must be stated with great earnestness that the death of Christ, without dispute, was necessary. Any attempt to minimise or lessen its importance and its efficacy must be vigorously resisted. Respected Bible commentator John Ritchie has well summarised the Reformed view of justification and the phrase “the righteousness of Christ”. He writes:

“The theological phrase, “the righteousness of Christ”, so much used, is not a scriptural term. The meaning usually read into it is that the sinner, having failed to keep the law, Christ has kept it for him, that His obedience is counted man’s righteousness, and put on all that believe as a “robe”. But this would not be “righteousness apart from law” (Rom 3:21). If God reckons the sinner to have kept the law because Christ kept the law for him, then righteousness surely comes by law, and the death of Christ was “in vain” (Gal 2:21). In all this, justification by grace through redemption has no place. The gospel is not that a sinner is made righteous by the imputation of Christ’s legal obedience on earth, and saved by His death, but rather that “being now justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (John Ritchie, Romans, Charlotte, NC : The Serious Christian, 1987, p. 161).

We must reject the conclusions of otherwise biblically sound believers that the law-keeping of Christ justifies, redeems, and reconciles. We must set aside the recent statements of Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul who states that “the cross alone, however, does not justify us…” (Faith Alone, p. 103) and that of Dr. D. James Kennedy who commented, “We are clothed in His righteousness alone…His perfect obedience provides our righteousness. This is all that is needed, and nothing less will suffice” (Is Jesus the Only Way to God?, Coral Ridge Ministries,  pp. 8-9, undated).

The Scriptures are clear and definitive on the point that no one is partially redeemed or justified in any degree by keeping the law. However, this is not to say that the New Testament is silent concerning the glories and perfections of the life of Christ. Without question, our beloved Lord fully and completely satisfied the demands of God’s holy law during His earthy life. His obedient life was necessary to manifest the glories of God in Christ to the world and to His disciples. The Lord Jesus Christ lived a life of obedience as none other had ever lived or will ever live. He always did that which pleased His Father (Rom 15:3). No word that He ever spoke ever needed to be withdrawn, for He never spoke rashly or in exaggeration. No action of our Lord ever required an apology, for our Lord never wronged another man. No thought or deed of our Lord’s ever needed confession, for He never sinned or transgressed the law of God. Our Lord never asked advice of another during His earthly ministry, for He was ever the all-wise and omniscient God. However, none of the perfections and glories of our Lord ever justified or redeemed man from a single sin, for it is only the matchless and infinite work of our Lord upon the cross of Christ that can redeem. New Testament scholar W.E. Vine summarises the relationship of the earthly life of our Lord and His death upon the cross when he writes:

“Neither the incarnation of the Son of God, nor His keeping of the law in the days of His flesh availed, in whole or in part, for the redemption of men…His redemptive work proper began and ended on the cross;…Hence it is nowhere said in the New Testament that Christ kept the law for us. Only His death is vicarious, or substitutionary. He is not said to have borne sin during any part of His life; it was at the cross that He became the sin-bearer” (C.F. Hogg , W.E. Vine, The Epistle of the Galatians, London; GB: Pickering and Inglis Ltd., 1959, p.186).

David Dunlap lives in North America. He is the author of The Battle is the Lord’s, His Dying Request, Replacement Theology, The Glory of the Ages, Limiting Omnipotence and No Little Places.