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A Couple Objections to Christ’s Active Obedience, and Responses from Scott Clark

28 June, 2008

I’ve talked about the doctrine of Christ’s active obedience to the law on our behalf, and the imputation of that obedience to us in God’s declaration of justification, several times, here, here and here for example. But honestly, I don’t think anyone can talk about it enough. It is well summarized in Heidelberg Catechism 60 as part and parcel of our justification, along with the imputation of Christ’s suffering on our behalf (his passive obedience): “How are you righteous before God? Only by true faith in Jesus Christ: that is, although my conscience accuses me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such a benefit with a believing heart.”

The following two objections and responses are extracted from Scott Clark’s chapter “Do this and live: Christ’s active obedience as the ground of Justification,” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California. These are just a couple objections he treats, and only part of what he responds; be sure to check out the book for the rest of this excellent presentation and defense of Christ’s work on our behalf.

OBJECTION 1: The doctrine of Christ’s active obedience leads to antinomianism

RESPONSE: The assumption behind the charge of antinomianism needs close examination. Implied in this objection is the premise that Christians will pursue sanctity only if their justification depends upon it. Therefore, critics conclude, the message that Christ kept the law vicariously for believers can only weaken the Christian’s motivation for piety. This question was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. The material question of the Reformation was whether our sanctity (both Spirit-wrought and the result of our cooperation with grace) is in any way instrumental in or a part of the ground of our justification. Hence the Council of Trent (session 6, canon 24) declared:

If anyone says, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruit and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of the increase thereof: let him be anathema (emphasis added).

Rome understood the Protestant position: good works are merely evidence of sanctity and nothing more. Those who subscribe this criticism of the imputation of active obedience have to choose whether they wish to agree with the Reformation or Trent.

Those who confess the imputation of active obedience should find this criticism encouraging. It is, after all, the same criticism Paul faced (Rom 6:1). Regarding justification, “we are not under law, but under grace” (6:14). We know the terrible and righteous demands of the law. It does not say “try,” but “do.” Christians confess that Christ has “done” for us.

The law word of Scripture, “do this and live” (Lev 18:5), is neither designed nor has the power to produce sanctity. This much is evident from the structure of Paul’s epistles. He typically speaks the imperative (i.e., the law) after and on the basis of the indicative (i.e., the gospel). For example, the first three chapters of Ephesians are essentially gospel proclamation, sola gratia, sola fide [by grace alone through faith alone]. It is not until Ephesians 4 that Paul turns to urge believers to sanctity on the basis of what Christ has accomplished for us, following a benediction (see also Rom 12:1; Gal 5:1; 1 Thess 4:1; 2 Thess 2:17). This is because through the gospel word “Christ has done” God the Spirit “works [faith] in our hearts by the preaching of the holy Gospel” (Heidelberg Catechism 65). This scheme may be counterintuitive, but true nonetheless. Paul says, “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor 1:21). It is foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews, but “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:24).

OBJECTION 2: The imputation of Christ’s active obedience relies on a legal fiction

RESPONSE: …We do not live in a universe where God acts and speaks according to some extrinsic standard, by which both he and we can judge his speech-acts. Rather, we live in a world in which God acts and speaks according to his own nature. His speech-acts are creative, constitutive, nominative. In this universe, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to those who are not intrinsically and fully sanctified is no more a legal fiction than was God’s fiat lux (‘Let there be light,’ Gen 1:3) or naming of the first creation (1:5) or the new creation (2 Cor 5:17). God’s powerful word makes things so…. Having willed to justify his people on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, God grounds his declaration in the highest expression of his will, an actual, earned righteousness whereby justice was, in time and space, satisfied by the obedience and death of Jesus (Calvin, Institutes, 3.23.2). It is that actual righteousness that is imputed (Rom 5:12-19) to believers, and on that basis believers gain a right to eternal life. It is a gift to us, but that gift was earned by the obedience of our Savior (4:4-5).

Clark’s Conclusion

This is not just another intramural Reformed scrimmage. In the nineteenth century, James Buchanan (1804-1870) reminded his readers that by denying Christ’s active obedience as the “believer’s title to eternal life” Piscator thus “left a door open for the introduction of his own personal obedience, as the only ground of his future hope, after he had obtained the remission of his past sins.” With this temptation in view, it is well to remember that at his death our Lord did not say “I have made justification possible for those who cooperate with grace” when he cried, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). He testified to his performance of the law. The gospel is not just that we are forgiven, but that believers are reckoned as law keepers for the sake of Christ’s law keeping credited them (Rom 4:3; 2 Cor 5:19-21; Gal 3:6). Whoever trusts in Jesus and rests in his finished work alone is righteous before God. It is as if the Christian has performed all that the law requires.

  1. 28 June, 2008 11:36 am

    CJPM is such an important book for addressing the contemporary ( but not so contemporary ) confusion over the relationship and distinction between justification and sanctification, law and gospel, etc. I’ve found the Scripture index at the back very helpful as a reference while writing some of my favorite sermons concerning the work of Christ our Savior. I hope CJPM continues to grow in influencing the preaching of ministers in our day who would hear “well done!”
    I first began to understand something of Christ’s active obedience while reading Kline’s works in Dr. Eselle’s ‘Penteteuch’ class. When the notion finally hit me it was such a bright day. I remember riding my bike in circles in the culdesac and around the neighborhood meditating with a smile on my face on just how much Christ had done on my behalf. I’m in with the Holy God, all the way in, because Jesus did it all, every jot and tittle. Antinomianism my keister! I dare any Gnome to stand before God on the great day and offer up one ounce of his own law-keeping as a ground for standing in his presence. For those whom God has set his love upon, Christ has lived for them and does now live fruifully in them. God’s mercy that endures for ever to his elect is beyond our comprehension, but to embrace his mercy in Christ is life.
    CJPM really cements the doctrine that so excited me during my 2nd semester at Westminster Semiinary Cali. Spread the word!

  2. 29 June, 2008 6:37 pm

    I agree Brannan, we should never tire of speaking of these things in particular. In fact, G. Machen took these thoughts all the way to the end. Among his final words before dying are these: “Thank God for the active obedience of Christ; no hope without it.”

  3. creedorchaos permalink*
    30 June, 2008 1:55 am

    Clark notes in his essay that one of the big FV proponents has written that Machen SHOULD instead have said “Thank God for the resurrection…” — as if you could separate the two! Christ’s resurrection is nothing but condemnation if he has not fulfilled all righteousness on our behalf; his life would be our death. But as it is — thank God for the active obedience of Christ! — his resurrection means our justification for his sake, and by the Spirit we share in the everlasting life Christ enjoys and secures for us.

    No hope without it.

  4. 2 July, 2008 1:23 pm

    Thanks for the article including the responses by Dr. Clark. I agree that this is an important topic. As a layman, here are four Scripture passages that made the biggest impact on me:

    1. Romans 7:7 makes it clear that “the Law” refers to not just the ceremonial or Jewish law that we no longer need to be under or to which we should consider ourselves ourselves dead, but that “the Law” includes and is even foremost expressed by the Ten Commandments: “What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET.” “.

    2. Galatians 3:24-26 simply states the purpose of the Law for the Elect is to lead us to Christ so that we may be justified by faith, not justified by our own obedience to the Law. “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

    3. Galatians 3:5-6 also shows that what we should want is the Spirit, the Spirit’s work of miracles among us, and righteousness. We should not want proof of our own righteousness by our own obedience to the Law. “So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Even so Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.”

    4. John 6: 28-29 shows that God is not seeking man’s obedience to the Law but His own work. “Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.’ ” God changes the focus from what man should do (man’s obedience to the Law) to what God has done (including Christ’s obedience to the Law). God changes the focus from works to faith. God changes the focus from man generating his own faith to God even giving faith.

    Keep up the good work! It is a blessing to read your blog, and I eagerly check it just about every day.

    Yours truly,

  5. 2 July, 2008 3:08 pm

    I like number 4! Well said Bill! The Lord is merciful and faithful to his promises of old. The person and work of Jesus Christ is proof!


  1. Answers to Objections to the Imputation of Active Obedience « Heidelblog

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