In case you are unfamiliar with this debate: Anselm thought that Jesus had to qualify himself to be the Savior, so he divided Jesus’ obedience into phases. The 1st half (active obedience) was for himself, 2nd half (passive) for us. He divided Christ’s work chronologically. The first part of of his life was for himself, to qualify himself to be the Savior. The last part, Anselm argued, was for us, to suffer as our substitute. He did not actually address the question of Christ’s active and passive obedience but his chronological distinction became important when the debate arose after 1570.
The terms “active” and “passive” are potentially confusing because we tend to juxtapose active and passive differently. When we say “passive” in that context we mean “something done to us.” In this case, however, it is just Latin. It is from the deponent Latin verb, patior, to suffer. From that comes the abstract noun, passio, suffering.
There are two views regarding the imputation of active obedience (IAO). One distinguishes Christ’s work into two phases and says that the first phase was for himself, to qualify himself to be the Savior and that only his suffering (passive) obedience, rendered at the end of his life was for us. Those who deny IAO tend to think and say that Jesus’ suffering and death makes the believer innocent but, say the proponents of the IAO, it does not address the need for a positive righteousness. Those who deny IAO complain that it punishes Christ twice for the same crime. Those who affirm IAO understand the law to require two things: perfect obedience, or positive righteousness and punishment of those who transgress. They say Christ rendered both for us, perfect obedience (active obedience) and substitutionary suffering obedience. Those who affirm IAO do not make a chronological distinction in his work. They do not think that Christ had to qualify himself to be the Savior but rather that he was born under the law for us. He was qualified by virtue of his incarnation.
The first person to explicitly deny IAO was a Lutheran theologian, Karg(ius) c. 1570. He was roundly criticized by other Protestants for it. Caspar Olevianus’ son-in-law, Johannes Piscator, also notoriously denied it. For that was roundly rebuked by three French Reformed Synods. Three of the Westminster divines (a minority) denied it, Gataker, Twisse, and Vines. The Divines accommodated them by changing “whole obedience” to “perfect obedience.” We might wish that they had not been so accommodating. Since then affirmation of IAO has been the norm in Reformed orthodoxy. Today those who deny it tend to be associated with the Federal Vision theology or the New Perspective on Paul.
Those who deny IAO worry that it might license believer to be disobedient, that it takes away the motive for godliness and obedience. Those who affirm it are concerned that its denial tends to leave the believer in limbo. The denial leaves us innocent but not positively righteous. This leaves the door open for our own righteousness by cooperation with grace, or future justification, or even the doctrine of congruent merit (as distinct from Jesus’ condign merits imputed to us) whereby, it is said, God imputes perfection to our best efforts. Those who affirm IAO say that the gospel of the imputation of Christ’s whole, perfect actively passive obedience empowers believers to live lives of grateful obedience in union with Christ their substitute, in the Holy Spirit. Even though Heidelberg Catechism 60 was written more than 7 years before the controversy broke out, it addressed it in principle:
60. How are you righteous before God?
Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse 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 sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.
That phrase “as if I….had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me” is vital to godliness. We obey because we are no longer under the pedagogue, the law, for our justification. For Paul, it is only because we are free that we can obey and only because we are free that we want to obey. The denial of the IAO seems like a half-step toward putting the believer back under the law.
The dying words of J. Gresham Machen in 1936 came in a telegram to John Murray:
SO THANKFUL FOR THE ACTIVE OBEDIENCE OF CHRIST.
NO HOPE WITHOUT IT.
He was right.
- Audio: The Foolishness of the Gospel (2004)
- “Do This and Live: The Active Obedience of Christ,” in R. Scott Clark, ed. Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2006), 229–65.
- The Consensus of the Divines, Legalism, and the Covenant of Works (1)
- The Consensus of the Divines, Legalism, and the Covenant of Works (2)
- Calvin on Christ’s Active Obedience
- The Reformed Confessions on Merit
- Irish Articles on the Covenant of Law, Christ’s Merits, and Grace to Sinners
- Christ Fulfilled the Covenant of Works and Earned Condign Merit For Us
- Meritorious Works for Adam and Christ But Grace For Us
- Adam Would Have Merited
- Adam, Christ, Conditions, and Merit
- Christ Condignly Merited A Reward
- Adam Would Have Merited His Reward
- On Merit in the Covenant of Works
- On Christ’s Merits and Sola Fide
- Christ Condignly Merited His Glorification
- Wollebius: Christ Merited Our Justification By His Active Obedience As the Last Adam
- On Wright’s Denial of the Imputation of Christ’s Active Obedience
- With Lane Keister on the Imputation of Active Obedience (1)
- Heidelcast Ep. 29: Imputation of Active Obedience (2)
- Audio: With NoCo Radio on the Imputation of Christ’s active Obedience
- Perkins On Christ’s Active Obedience and Our Gratitude
- Brakel: Those Who Deny the Covenant of Works Misunderstand the Covenant of Grace
- Olevianus On the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness
- Owen Defended IAO Against Richard Baxter
- Answers to Objections Regarding Imputation of Active Obedience
- Forty Three Years of Federal Vision Theology
- Is There A Monolithic Reformed Doctrine of Justification?
- URCNA Nine Points on the Federal Vision and Justification
- Explaining the URCNA’s Nine Points
- Audio: Explanation of the Nine Points
- URCNA Report on the Federal Vision
- PCA GA Committee Report on the Federal Vision
- OPC Justification Report
- RCUS Justification Report (2004)
- RCUS Federal Vision Report