An Argument for the Imputation of The Active Obedience of Jesus Christ
There are many Christians who are perfectly comfortable saying that Jesus Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins. But the Historic Reformed Protestant Christians have wanted to say more than this. Reformed Christians have wanted to say that Jesus Christ not only paid the legal debt for our sins on the cross, but that Jesus also followed the demands of the law perfectly in our place1. In other words, Jesus' suffering the debt for our sins and his perfect obedience to God’s law is legally imputed to us in our justification. Jesus' suffering for the legal debt of our sin is referred to as the passive obedience of Christ, whereas Jesus following the law perfectly in our place for our justification is referred to as the active obedience of Christ. Evangelical Protestants who hold to justification by faith alone typically hold that justification involves the forgiveness of sins on account of Christ's death on the cross. However, there are many who hold to both passive obedience and justification by faith alone, but reject Christ’s active obedience, arguing that there is no clear scriptural evidence for this doctrine. This position is endorsed by evangelicals like Robert Gundry and Norman Shepherd, and also many federal visionist proponents2. The question of whether or not Christ's active obedience is imputed to us is very pressing because it concerns our justification: how we are made right before a Holy God. Moreover, many have cast much doubt on this crucial doctrine, which makes it all the more important to investigate. Therefore, it is my intent to argue that the active obedience of Jesus Christ is taught in scripture by a good and necessary inference from the doctrine of justification by faith alone. I do this by first giving a biblical and theological justification for the use of a good and necessary inference from scripture to support doctrinal positions. Secondly, I argue that justification requires perfect obedience to the law, which cannot be replaced by sacrifice. Thirdly, I argue briefly for the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Fourthly, I use the previous three points to establish that Christ is the ground of our active obedience, which is legally imputed to us. Lastly, I answer an objection to my thesis.
A Good and Necessary Inference
Many individuals object to the active obedience of Christ on the basis that there is no specific text that says "Christ's perfect obedience to the law is imputed to you". This is why it is essential to my argument that I demonstrate that, from scripture, a good and necessary inference is legitimate for establishing points of doctrine. To be clear, a good and necessary inference is an inference that is compatible with other biblical truths, and is reasonable to the degree that to doubt it would be unreasonable3. I will now give a theological justification of a good and necessary inference for establishing doctrine.
The two main reasons it is warranted to make a good and necessary inference are that we presuppose it in the doctrine of the two wills of Christ, and we see that Jesus makes use of a good and necessary inference when he reasons from the Old Testament during his earthly ministry. There is no text in the Bible that says that Jesus has two wills- a human will and a divine will. However, this is a legitimate inference when we read texts that tell us that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, because a fully divine nature will have a divine will, and a fully human nature will have a human will. So if the inference is legitimate with respect to the two wills of Christ, then it ought to be legitimate when formulating other doctrine. The second reason we should hold that a good and necessary inference is warranted when establishing doctrine is because the Bible, itself, teaches this method for establishing doctrine. This is what Jesus does in Matthew 22:31-32 when he argues for an afterlife by appealing to the Old Testament against the Sadducees, who rejected an afterlife. Jesus makes the inference that because God is God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, they will have an afterlife. He is implying that if God is your God, you will not be dead, but living. The text that Jesus appeals to does not explicitly say anything about them having an afterlife at all. Rather, Jesus infers from the text that the great patriarchs of the Old Testament will have an afterlife, based on the nature of God and his relationship to the patriarchs. Hence, because it was legitimate for Jesus to make a good and necessary inference from scripture to establish points of doctrine, it is also legitimate for us to make a good and necessary inference from scripture to establish points of doctrine.
Perfect Obedience For Justification
With this understanding of scripture and doctrine in place, I can move on to the second step in the argument, which is that God demands in his law perfect perpetual obedience for justification, which cannot be replaced by sacrifice.
One of the strongest biblical arguments in favor of God demanding perfect perpetual obedience for justification is Luke 10:25-28. In verse 25 we see that the Lawyer asks Jesus this question: "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" The Lawyer is asking a question that has to do with how someone can have the right to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers in verse 26 by asking the Lawyer his understanding from the law, of what one needs to do to have the right to inherit eternal life. The Lawyer answers in verse 27 by saying that one needs to love God with all that he is and that one should also love his neighbor as himself. Jesus confirms his understanding in verse 28 by saying "You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” To firmly establish that Jesus is teaching that in order to have the right to inherit eternal life one needs to be perfectly perpetually obedient, two points from this text should be considered. The first point is that when Jesus says "do this, and you will live" he is not speaking of earthly life, but of eternal life. Given that the context indicates that the nature of the lawyer’s question in verse 25 has to do with eternal life, this is the most plausible reading of the text. The second point is that the conditions for eternal life in the passage are that "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind," and this entails perfect perpetual obedience to God’s law. The reason for thinking that this entails perfect perpetual obedience to God's law is that if a person does not follow just one commandment, then he could not be loving God with all that he is. If the person were loving God with all that he is, then he would follow all of the commandments perfectly. To delineate this more precisely, suppose we have two persons, Jones and Smith. Jones follows all of the commandments except one, whereas Smith follows all of the commandments perfectly. It seems we would say that Smith is loving God with all that he is and Jones is not loving God with all that he is. Therefore, it follows that if one were to love God with all that he is, then he would have to follow the law with perfect perpetual obedience; this, according to Jesus, is what it takes for one to have the right to inherit eternal life.
The general testimony of the scriptures affirm that in order to be justified one needs to follow the law with perfect perpetual obedience. For instance in Romans 2:13 Paul writes "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. " Paul writes this verse in the context of a larger argument that shows that both Jew and Gentile are guilty before God on the basis of their works (Rom. 3:19-20). Therefore, the sense in which dikaio,w is being used in this passage is not demonstrative, but it is in the sense that those who do and follow God’s law will be declared righteous4. According to James 2:10, if one fails to do and follow the law at just one point, he or she is guilty for all of it. So, in order to do the law at all one has to do all of it perfectly, because if one were to fail at any point, he or she would be held accountable for all of it. This is further clarified in Galatians 3:10 were Paul argues that all who want to be justified by keeping the law are under a curse because a person has to do "all" of the things in the law or else be under a curse. Clearly, Paul says that all are under this curse because everyone has failed to do all of the things in the law. This curse is contrasted by the blessing of justification by faith alone, and Paul’s implication is that one who is under this curse cannot be justified. In addition, when Jesus is communicating the true meaning of the Mosaic Law at the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5, he reveals to us God's standard in his law. Verse 48 states "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." When this phrase in verse 48 is used, it occurs within the context of Jesus quoting and commenting on a commandment contained in the Mosaic Law, so it is evident that this phrase has to do with God’s obligation to us in the Mosaic Law. Therefore, the scriptures clearly teach that in order to be justified one needs to "do" with perfect perpetual obedience.
Another reason for thinking that justification requires perfect obedience is Anselmian Perfect Being Theology5. Perfect Being Theology starts with the premise that God is the most perfect being, and from that premise infers certain characteristics about the nature of God6. The reasoning for the law requiring perfect obedience for justification is as follows: God is the most perfect being, and because he is the most perfect being, he will have every property that is better for him to have rather than lack. It is better for God to have the property of requiring perfection in his law for justification, rather than not requiring perfection in his law for justification. A perfect being would obligate perfection for justification rather than be satisfied with imperfection for justification. Therefore, it follows that God, a perfect being, obligates perfection for justification. It also seems likely that it would be better for the most perfect being to have the highest quality of righteousness, rather than lack this property. The highest quality of righteousness would require perfection for righteousness. God has the highest degree of righteousness, and therefore requires perfection for righteousness.
The requirement for perfect perpetual obedience for our justification cannot be replaced by any sacrifice or a payment of the debt we owe as sinners, but rather obedience in addition to sacrifice is required. It is not that sacrifice or payment of debt can replace obedience, but rather obedience must be in addition to a payment of debt or a sacrifice. The example given by Dr. David VanDrunen suffices to demonstrate this point: Suppose there was a father who told his son that if he completed all of his homework he would receive dessert as a reward, and if he failed to complete this task he would be punished7. The boy, in fact, fails to complete the task and is punished. It would then be counter-intuitive to think that because the boy was punished he is rightfully entitled to the reward of dessert that he was initially promised, if he then completes his homework8. This is analogous to the position that Adam was in when he was asked by God to follow a command to receive eschatological life, as symbolized by the tree of life. As demonstrated in previous paragraphs, God requires perfect perpetual obedience to his law for justification, thereby meriting the attainment of eschatological life. Therefore, in order for a person to be justified he or she would need to pay the debt of the sins committed, and to obey the commandments given by God. It would be irrational to think that this could be replaced by any mere sacrifice or payment of debt.
The fact that sacrifice and payment of debt cannot replace perfect perpetual obedience to God’s law is not just a truth of reason, but a truth of scripture, which is specifically taught in Mark 12:28-34. In Mark 12:30, Jesus teaches that the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our ability. In verse 33, the scribes say this about the nature of the relationship between obedience and sacrifice: "And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." Affirming the scribes in verse 34, Jesus teaches that perfect perpetual obedience to God's law cannot be replaced by sacrifices to pay the debt for our sins, because perfect perpetual obedience is the most important element in keeping God's law9. If obedience is better than sacrifice from God’s perspective, then it is implausible to suggest that Christ’s sacrifice could replace God's demand for our perfect perpetual obedience. Therefore, perfect perpetual obedience remains a necessary condition for anyone to be justified, and this demand cannot be replaced by any sacrifice.
Justification by Faith Alone
The doctrine of justification by faith alone is very relevant to the question of active obedience because if justification is truly by faith alone, then there are no works or upholding of the law that can contribute to one's justification. Therefore, when a person is justified by faith alone, the keeping of the law cannot be on the basis of the sinner’s work, but on the basis of a sinless person’s work. It is the purpose of this section to establish the forensic doctrine of justification by faith alone, so that in the next section I can make a good and necessary inference that Christ is the ground of our active obedience.
The scriptures explicitly teach the forensic doctrine of justification by faith alone. Romans 3:28 says "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law." Those who disagree with justification by faith alone try to object to this passage on the basis that "works of law", or e;rgwn no,mou, refers only to a specific type of works, therefore not excluding all types of works from justification. The problem with this response becomes apparent as Paul continues his argument about the nature of justification in Romans 4 as indicated by verses 1-2 and 5. Paul reaches a crucial point in verse 5 when he says that a person is ungodly when justified. The Greek word for justified is dikaio,w, and this word means to be declared righteous, to acquit, or to treat as righteous. But what dikaio,w can never mean is to be inwardly transformed to be righteous, and then declared righteous. So when Paul says in Romans 4:5 evpi. to.n dikaiou/nta to.n avsebh/ logi,zetai h` pi,stij auvtou/ eivj dikaiosu,nhn\, he does not mean to suggest that God transforms the ungodly sinner to be righteous and then the individual is declared righteous. Rather, what the text is suggesting is that the ungodly are legally declared righteous by God. This legal context is all the more apparent when one realizes that terms such as count or logi,zomai in Romans 4:5 can carry a legal meaning as well10. In addition, logi,zomai is also used in verse 4 with ovfei,lhma, which is a legal term for debt11. If the ungodly are justified by faith in Romans 4:5, then it would it follow that there are no type of works that have contributed to one's justification. If any work could count toward one’s justification, then it would be the same as the godly being justified, which clearly contradicts Romans 4:5. Therefore, when Paul speaks of e;rgwn no,mou in Romans 3:28, he is excluding all types of works since Romans 4:5 teaches that one is ungodly when justified by faith.
Another argument in favor of justification by faith alone is that works are incompatible with the gracious nature of justification. Romans 3:24 describes justification as ultimately gracious when it says that we have been "justified by his grace". If we then discover that grace excludes all types of works, I will have good reason for thinking that one is justified by faith alone when Paul speaks of being "justified by his grace" in Romans 3:24. According to Romans 11:5-6, if something is on the basis of one's works then it is no longer grace, because grace by definition excludes works as its basis. One may object to my understanding of Romans 11:5-6 by saying that e;rgon is being used to indicate a specific type of work, rather than good and bad works in general. However, the problem with this objection is that in Romans 9:11 e;rgon is being used synonymously with good and bad actions. Moreover, in Romans 4:16 we see Paul teaching that a promise is by faith in order that it can have a gracious character. Grace, in Paul's thought, is such that it excludes works as its basis, yet it is compatible with the nature of faith that he describes in Romans 3 and 4. Therefore, when Paul speaks of justification by grace in Romans 3:24, he is speaking of a justification that excludes all types of works, yet includes faith; this is the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Justification in Christ Alone
Now that I have established that necessary inference from scripture is legitimate, the requirement of perfect perpetual obedience to the law for justification, and justification by faith alone, we can infer from these three truths that Jesus's active obedience is legally imputed to us in justification. In order for us to be justified, God requires perfect perpetual obedience that cannot be replaced by sacrifice. When one is justified by faith alone, it cannot be because of one's own perfect perpetual obedience. There are two reasons for this assertion. The first is that every person has failed to meet God's demands for perfect perpetual obedience because all persons other than Jesus are sinners (Rom. 3:23; Heb. 4:15). The second reason why it cannot be one's own perfect perpetual obedience after he or she has been justified, is because the doctrine of justification by faith alone requires that no work contributes to justification. Since it cannot be our own perfect perpetual obedience that justifies, it follows that it is another person’s perfect perpetual obedience legally imputed to us in justification. There was only ever one person who was perfectly obedient to God's standards, and the scriptures teach that this is the God-man Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:15; 1 Jo 2:1). Therefore, it follows that Jesus Christ’s prefect perpetual obedience to the law is imputed to us in our justification.
Answering an Objection
In this section I answer an objection to the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ. There are many common objections to this doctrine that are either implicitly answered in this paper, or are not compelling12. In this section I answer a unique objection to the active obedience of Christ that may seem to be compelling.
One of the most compelling objections against the active obedience of Christ is that the doctrine relies on an unbiblical notion of merit13. This argument has been leveled by many who are in involved in the so-called "Federal Vision" movement14. The argument made by federal visionist proponents is that active obedience presupposes merit, and merit is unbiblical, therefore, active obedience is unbiblical. Those who object to this notion of merit often just simply claim that it is not taught in the Bible, thus it is unbiblical15. However, James Jordan goes a step further and argues that Luke 17:7-10 teaches against the idea of meriting or earning a reward16. In this parable Jesus teaches that when a servant obeys his master’s commands, he does not expect a thank you because he is only doing what he ought to do. Likewise, when Christians do what God requires they should think themselves unworthy servants, because they have just done what they ought to do. Jordan then appeals to Philippians 2:7 to warrant the idea that Jesus was a servant, and because he was a servant of God he could not merit anything, because he would only be doing what was commanded of him by the Father17. Jordan then claims the reason we get redemption through Christ is on the basis of the Father's promise to Christ, and not on the basis of the Father rewarding Christ for what he earned.18
The fundamental problem with Jordan's argument from the parable is that this parable is in the context of sin, and it is illegitimately applied to Christ. The first clear indication that this parable is to be seen in the context of sin and fallen humanity is that Jesus is addressing this parable to his disciples, who are sinners (Luke 17:1). The second indication that this is being applied to sinners is that in verse 10 the servants are deemed to be avcrei/oj, which means worthless or unprofitable19. This parable is perfectly compatible with the idea of one meriting salvation as defended in this paper, and it is also compatible with the Reformed Protestant tradition, because only persons who are sinless are in a position to merit an eschatological reward. Furthermore, Jordan's contention that this applies to Jesus on the basis of the Philippians 2:7 language of Jesus being a "servant" is not plausible, because Jesus is indeed a servant, but it does not say that he is a worthless servant. In addition, it hardly seems appropriate to call the second person of the trinity assuming human flesh to be a servant who is worthless or unprofitable, as the Greek word avcrei/oj suggests. Jordan's view of this parable is without any support, and it seems that there are good reasons for doubting his interpretation of this parable. Therefore, this parable cannot serve as an argument to refute the idea that Jesus Christ merited justification for us.
Contrary to the claims made by Jordan and other federal visionists, the idea of merit is directly taught in the scriptures. Romans 4:4-5 contrasts two alternative means of justification: one of works meriting an eschatological reward and the other trusting in God for justification. In verse 4, the first means of justification is by working, and the person who works receives a reward. Paul makes it clear that this reward is not a gift, but it is rather something ovfei,lhma, or owed to the individual who has done these works. The idea that God owes us something for our works is inherent in the concept of meriting, or earning. Furthermore, verse 4 is clearly about justification because this is the context that Paul sets up in 4:1-2. Finally, Paul uses the Greek word de. to contrast verse 4, which speaks of earning a reward by doing works, and verse 5, which speaks of justification by trusting. This suggests that Paul is contrasting two alternative ways to salvation: one meriting justification by works and the other trusting in God for justification20. Therefore, the scriptures clearly teach the category of merit, contrary to the claims made by Jordan and the other federal visionists.
Another reason for thinking that a perfect person can merit justification is as follows: if one rejects the idea of merit, then he or she has ultimately undermined the idea that God is the most perfect being21. For God to be the most perfect being entails that he will have the highest degree of justice. It would be entirely unjust of God not to reward a creature who were to follow all of his demands perfectly. If God did not reward the perfectly good creature with a good reward, then God would not be a perfect being. God is a perfect being, however, so out of the necessity of his nature, he has to reward the perfectly good creature with a good reward. Clearly, when one rejects the idea of a creature meriting by perfect perpetual obedience an eschatological reward from God, then one has ultimately undermined the perfection of God.
In this paper I have demonstrated that the active obedience of Jesus Christ is taught in scripture by a good and necessary inference from the doctrine of justification by faith alone. I established this by giving a biblical and theological justification for the use of a good and necessary inference from scripture to support doctrinal positions. Secondly, I established that justification requires perfect perpetual obedience to the law that cannot be replaced by sacrifice. Thirdly, I established the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Fourthly, I argued that these three truths lead to the conclusion that Christ is the ground of our active obedience, which is legally imputed to us. Lastly, I responded to an objection to this thesis. Throughout this paper we have seen that a rejection of the active obedience of Christ is not only unbiblical, but it either undermines the doctrine of God, or it undermines the doctrine of justification.
Clark, R. Scott. Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Pub, 2007.
Husbands, Mark, and Daniel J. Treier. Justification: What's at Stake in the Current Debates. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
Johnson, Gary L. W., and Guy Prentiss Waters. By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2006.
Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. The new international commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1996.
Morris, Thomas V. Anselmian Explorations: Essays in Philosophical Theology. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987.
Sandlin, Andrew. Backbone of the Bible: Covenant in Contemporary Perspective. Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2004.
Sandlin, Andrew, John H. Armstrong, Don B. Garlington, Mark Horne, Peter J. Leithart, Rich Lusk, and Norman Shepherd. A Faith That Is Never Alone: A Response to Westminster Seminary California. La Grange, Calif: Kerygma Press, 2007.
Spear, Wayne R., and Anthony T. Selvaggio. The Faith Once Delivered: Essays in Honor of Dr. Wayne R. Spear. Westminster Assembly and the Reformed Faith. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub, 2007.
The Westminster Confession of Faith
White, James R. The God Who Justifies. Minneapolis, Minn: Bethany House Publishers, 2001.
Wilkins, J. Steven, and Duane Garner. The Federal Vision. Monroe, La: Athanasius Press, 2004.
1 The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XI Of Justification, Paragraph 1.
2 Husbands, Mark, and Daniel J. Treier. Justification: What's at Stake in the Current Debates. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004,pg.17-45; Wilkins, J. Steven, and Duane Garner. The Federal Vision. Monroe, La: Athanasius Press, 2004, pg. 192-195; Sandlin, Andrew, John H. Armstrong, Don B. Garlington, Mark Horne, Peter J. Leithart, Rich Lusk, and Norman Shepherd. A Faith That Is Never Alone: A Response to Westminster Seminary California. La Grange, Calif: Kerygma Press, 2007, pg. 249-278.
3 Spear, Wayne R., and Anthony T. Selvaggio. The Faith Once Delivered: Essays in Honor of Dr. Wayne R. Spear. Westminster Assembly and the Reformed Faith. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub, 2007, pg. 171-190.
4 Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. The new international commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1996, pg. 147-148.
5 Morris, Thomas V. Anselmian Explorations: Essays in Philosophical Theology. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987, pg. 10-25.
6Morris, Anselm, 10-25.
7 Johnson, Gary L. W., and Guy Prentiss Waters. By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2006, pg. 136.
8 Johnston, By Faith Alone, 136.
9 Johnston, By Faith Alone, 137.
10 White, James R. The God Who Justifies. Minneapolis, Minn: Bethany House Publishers, 2001, pg. 209.
11White, Justifies, 209.
12 Clark, R. Scott. Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Pub, 2007, pg. 252-265.
13Sandlin, Andrew. Backbone of the Bible: Covenant in Contemporary Perspective. Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2004, pg. 85-101.
14Wilkins, Federal Vision, 192-195
15 Sandlin, Never Alone, 276-278.
16 Wilkins, Federal Vision, 192-193.
17 Wilkins, Federal Vision, 192-193.
18 Wilkins, Federal Vision, 192-193.
20David VanDrunen, Class Lectures on Justification, Fall 2010.
21Morris, Anselm, 10-25.