Do This and Live: Christ’s Active Obedience as the Ground of Justification

Editor’s Note: The following is the complete chapter as it appeared in R. Scott Clark, ed., Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 229–65. In 2021, the publisher returned the publication rights to the copyright holder and the chapter is presented here as a service to the public by the Heidelberg Reformation Association. The material is copyrighted. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to link to this chapter but you are not entitled to reproduce it in any way without permission of the copyright holder.



In the controversy between Protestants and Roman Catholics there has been no question whether Jesus obeyed God’s law, but only to what effect. Did Jesus obey the law so as to make it possible for us to cooperate with grace toward future justification, or did he obey God’s law for us (pro nobis) to accomplish our justification once for all? The Protestants affirmed the latter and denied the former.

Nevertheless, despite the unity among confessional Protestants on justification, questions have persistently arisen among them concerning the nature, intent, and effect of Jesus’s law keeping and its relation to the justification of sinners. What of Jesus’s obedience is imputed to believers? Did Jesus obey the law as a qualification for


his sacrifice on the cross only or did he accomplish more? Is it proper to distinguish between two or more aspects of his obedience? Are believers only forgiven, or are we also positively righteous before God? Should we say that Jesus has earned our righteousness and a place in heaven for us?

Given their opposition in this discussion, the terms active and passive might tend to create the impression that the work of Christ is being distinguished chronologically, but this is not the intent at all. These terms might also be misunderstood to denote a distinction between something done by Christ and something done to him.1 Again, no such distinction is intended. In this context, active denotes Christ’s intentional and positive fulfillment of God’s law for his people at every moment of his life, and passive (from the Latin adjective derived from the verb patior, to suffer) speaks to the concept that, in the course of his obedience, “all the time he lived on earth, but especially at the end of his life, he bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race” (HC 37 [Schaff 3.319]). Christ’s was, as Jürgen Moltmann says, “no unwilling fortuitous suffering; it is a passio activa.”2 Both adjectives are meant to describe, from different aspects, the entirety of Christ’s work from the moment of his conception until his resurrection.3


The essence of the doctrine of the imputation of active obedience is the view that Christ’s obedience and our justification have two parts: the remission of sins and the imputation to sinners of Christ’s obedience to the law for believers. This is what one finds in the major Reformers.4 From the moment Luther became a Protestant he taught that Christ’s merits, which was nothing more than shorthand for “Christ’s

1. Robert Reymond seems to reject the terms active and passive on the grounds that passive refers to something done to Christ; see A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Nelson, 1998), 631.

2. Jürgen Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom (trans. Margaret Kohl; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 75.

3. See Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (New York: Scribner, Armstrong, 1873), 3.143.

4. J. I. Packer argues for an organic development of the doctrine of the imputation of active obedience out of the Protestant doctrine of justification; see “The Doctrine of Justifica-


obedience to the law for me,” are imputed to the believer.5 Calvin was heartily one with Luther on the doctrine of justification and from him inherited the foundation of what came to be articulated as the doctrine of the imputation of active obedience. The mere absence of the later technical terms obedientia activa et passiva (which did not come into use until the 1570s) should not deter us from observing the substance of the doctrine in Calvin. It should also be remembered that the Karg controversy did not begin until 1563, just one year before his death and after he had finished the final revisions to the Institutes of the Christian Religion.6

In fact, Calvin wrote repeatedly of Christ’s entire obedience, under which discussion he included Christ’s obedient life before his passion and by which he says Christ earned our redemption. This is evident in his 1539 commentary on Romans (at 5:19) and in the 1559 edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion, where he argued that it is not sanctity that forms faith (makes it efficacious) but rather Christ’s obedience to the law (Institutes 3.11.23). God accepts sinners only because the obedientia Christi is imputed to us.7 Against Osiander’s doctrine of justification by “essential justice” (the infusion of Christ’s person into the Christian), Calvin argued that the righteousness that is “reputed” (reputari) is the obedience and sacrificial death of Christ.8

Among the early orthodox, the doctrine of the imputation of active obedience is found in Ursinus (e.g., Summa theologiae [1561]) and Olevianus (e.g., De substantia [1585]).9 Certainly the substance

tion among the Puritans,” in By Schisms Rent Asunder: Papers Read at the Puritan and Reformed Studies Conference, 1969 (London: N.P., 1970), 21.

5. See Luther’s Works (trans. and ed. J. Pelikan and H. T. Lehmann; Philadelphia: Fortress/ St. Louis: Concordia, 1955–), 44.286–87; 26.122–33. See also Luthers Werke Kritische Gesamtausgabe (ed. J. K. F. Knaake, G. Kawerau, et al.; Weimar: Böhlau, 1883–), 391, 82–126.

6. The question “what did Calvin say on active obedience?” is anachronistic. I am not arguing that Calvin taught the later doctrine in all its detail. Rather, I am arguing only that ideas that the orthodox later exploited were present seminally in Calvin.

7. T. H. L. Parker and D. C. Parker, eds., Ioannis calvini commentarius in epistolam pauli ad romanos (Opera omnia series 13; Geneva: Droz, 1999), 115.8–14; P. Barth and W. Niesel, eds., Joannis calvini opera selecta (Munich: Kaiser, 1926–54), 3.485.38–39, 486.1, 486.4–13, 511.7–8; 4.207.6–9. Francis Turretin appealed to this locus in Calvin for support of his doctrine of the imputation of active obedience (Institutes 2.454 §14.13.32).

8. Institutio 3.11.5; OS 4.186.13–15. See also 3.11.8; OS 4.189.16–21.

9. See Catechismus minor 42 and Summa theologiae 16, 18, 23, 63, 131–39, 211 in K. Sudhoff, C. Olevianus and Z. Ursinus: Leben und ausgewählte Schriften (Elberfeld: Friderichs, 1857), 154–55, 160, 171–72, 206. For Olevianus, see Caspar Olevianus, In epistolam d. pauli apostoli ad


of the imputation of active obedience is present in the Heidelberg Catechism, when it says that God “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” (HC 60 [Schaff 3.326–27]).10 It hard to imagine what other expression the catechism might have used to teach the substance of the imputation of active obedience more clearly. This is certainly how the catechism was understood by Johannes Wollebius (1586–1629) and Amandus Polanus (1561–1610), who also taught the imputation of active obedience.11 A few, however, within confessional circles (e.g., the Lutheran Karg; and Pareus, Gattaker, and Twisse among the Reformed) denied the imputation of active obedience. Outside confessional circles, there have been more critics, among them Socinians, Arminians, Amyraldians, and neonomians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Johannes Piscator (1546–1625), an influential German Reformed theologian of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, defined justification as only the forgiveness of sins (remissio peccatorum).12 In his scholia in Romans 5:19 he argued that Paul was speaking of only justification through Christ’s blood, not his law keeping.13 Christ owed obedience to the law for himself and therefore could not have rendered it purely for the elect.14 Piscator’s reasoning was that it is unjust that God should punish Christ twice for Adam’s sin by requiring of him

romanos notae, ex concionibus G. Oleviani excerptae (ed. T. Beza; Geneva, 1579), 196, 197, 205, 206, 209, 210; idem, In epistolam d. pauli apostoli ad galatas notae, ex concionibus G. Oleviani excerptae (ed. T. Beza; Geneva, 1578), 57.

10. David Pareus (1548–1622) said he wanted to reconcile both positions, but on every essential question he sided with Piscator. He adopted Piscator’s definition of justification as only the remission of sins and appealed to HC 37 in support of his contention that the catechism teaches the same thing. His explanation of HC 60 ignored the language of the catechism and begged the question. See his letter on active obedience written in 1598 to Count Ludwig of Wittgenstein (a patron of the seminary in Heidelberg) in Zacharias Ursinus, The Summe of Christian Religion (trans. H. Parrie; London, 1645), 791–806.

11. Johannes Wollebius, Compendium christianae theologiae (ed. E. Bizer; Munich: Moers, 1935), 1.18.8; 1.30.15–18.

12. Johannes Piscator, Aphorismi doctrinae christianae (3rd ed.; London, 1595).

13. Johannes Piscator, Analysis logica epistolae pauli ad romanos (Herborn, 1595).

14. Johannes Piscator, Theses theologicae de iustificatione hominis coram deo (Herborn,


both active and passive obedience. Further, if Christ fulfilled the law for us, then his death was meaningless.15 He rejected the conclusion that because sin is duplex Christ’s obedience must also be duplex. He also rejected the argument that because of Christ’s virgin birth he owed active obedience for only the elect. Piscator also took issue with the language of Heidelberg Catechism 60, which God imputes Christ’s obedience to believers “as though we ourselves had performed it, the consequence will be, that we are delivered from yielding obedience to the law, since according to the hypothesis, Christ has performed it for us, or in our stead.”16

According to W. Robert Godfrey, one of the chief concerns of the orthodox Reformed about Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) was his doctrine of justification.17 For example, most of his 1609 Apology concerned not predestination, but justification.18 Whatever he actually believed (the Reformed accused him of redefining faith so that it justifies because of some quality in it or us), it is clear that he understood the issues surrounding the imputation of active obedience.19

Though Arminius professed ambivalence about the imputation of active obedience, the trajectory of his soteriology certainly led away from it, and the Remonstrants became active defenders of Piscator. Like Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1224–74), they taught the necessity of gratia praeveniens et cooperans but also the resistibility of that grace.20 In this case, Christ made redemption possible for all who will cooperate,

15. See the editors’ note in The Works of James Arminius (trans. James Nichols and William Nichols; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 1.696–700.

16. Quoted in ibid., 1.698n (emphasis original).

17. W. R. Godfrey, “Tensions within International Calvinism: The Debate on the Atonement at the Synod of Dort, 1618–1619” (PhD diss., Stanford University, 1974), 40.

18. See Jacobus Arminius, Opera theologica (Leiden, 1629), 135–39, 145–46, 151–52, 156–61, 171–78, 180–83; idem, Works of James Arminius, 1.738–50, 763–65; 2.6–9, 16–25, 42–63.

19. See Arminius, Opera theologica, 127; Works of James Arminius, 1.696. The Remonstrants certainly took up that position, and it was rejected flatly by the Synod of Dort (Rejection of Errors 2.4) and the Westminster Divines. WCF 11.1 denies that we are justified “by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness,” and WLC 73 says that it is not as if “the grace of faith, or any act thereof were imputed to him for his justification” (quoted from Westminster Confession of Faith [Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1994], 57, 167). Unless noted, all references are to this edition.

20. See Arminian Articles 4–5 (Schaff 3.547–48).


but not certain for anyone. From this platform, the rejection of the imputation of active obedience necessarily followed.

In response, the Synod of Dort (1618–19) repudiated the doctrine that God has willed to save those “who would believe and would persevere in faith and in the obedience of faith” (Rejection of Errors 1.1).21 Rather, they argued, we believe and persevere because we are elect. Believing and persevering do not, however, become grounds or instruments of justification.22 Dort declared that if the “act of faith” or our “incomplete obedience” is a condition of justification, the “merit of Christ is enervated” (meritum Christi enervatur) (1.3 [Schaff 3.557]). They turned again to Christ’s “merits” (2.1) and rejected explicitly the idea that Christ merited only the possibility of the salvation of the elect (2.3). Rather, they declared, he achieved it for them (Schaff 3.563). The merits of our faith are contrasted with the merits of Christ’s obedience (2.4; see also Canons of Dort 5.8).

In the Irish Articles of Religion (1615) Archbishop Ussher spoke for the Reformed mainstream when he wrote that “we are accounted righteous . . . for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, applied by faith” (34). He defined that merit this way: “Christ is now the righteousness of all them that truly believe in him. He, for them, paid their ransom by his death. He, for them, fulfilled the law in his life” (35 [Schaff 3.532]).

Gijsbertus Voetius (1589–1676) understood Christ’s merits as a synonym for Christ’s active obedience. “Merit,” he argued, “is the work provided, to which a reward or retribution is due proportionate to the work.” This is, in effect, a Protestant version of condign merit, that is, the merit that God rewards because it meets the terms of divine

21. Since the proponents of the so-called federal vision seem to affirm both an eternal, unconditional election and a historical, conditional election that can be lost without perseverance, it is difficult to see how they escape the strictures of the Synod of Dort on at least half of their position. See John Barach, “Covenant and Election”; Steve Wilkins, “Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation”; and Rich Lusk, “New Life and Apostasy: Hebrews 6:4–8 as Test Case,” all in The Federal Vision (ed. Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner; Monroe, LA: Athanasius, 2004), 15–44, 47–69, 271–99; Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000), 79–91.

22. “Qui docent, ‘Voluntatem Dei de servandis credituris, et in fide fideique obedientia perseveraturis, esse totum et integrum electionis ad salutem decretum” (Rejection of Errors 1.1 [Schaff 3.557]; see also 1.5. It is hard to ignore the similarities between the program of the federal vision and the very thing condemned by the Synod of Dort here.


justice.23 Christ’s work, he said, was “voluntary,” and he provided “utterly perfect obedience” “in our behalf as sponsor of everything which God’s law required of us.”24

As the position of the Remonstrants, Amyraldians, and Socinians against the imputation of active obedience became fixed, the confessional Reformed response became more explicit in defense of the imputation of active obedience. For example, Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588–1638) taught the imputation of active obedience under the heading De Christo mediatore (locus 30).25 It is significant that the Reformed treated the imputation of active obedience under Christ’s priesthood since it called attention to the vicarious nature of Christ’s obedience for us. Those who rejected the imputation of active obedience seemed to be shortchanging Christ’s work for us in favor of his work in us. Reformed resolve would be tested by the opponents of the imputation of active obedience, eventually forcing a verbal compromise at the Westminster Assembly, but the center held, and the language of the confession remained sufficiently strong.26 According to Westminster Confession of Faith 11.1 both Christ’s obedience and satisfaction are imputed. Both “by his obedience and death” Christ

did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them; and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead, and both freely, not for any thing in them; their justification is only of free

23. Gijsbertus Voetius, Selectarum disputationum theologicarum (Utrecht, 1648–69), 2.228.

24. Ibid., 2.229.

25. J. H. Alsted, Synopsis theologiae (Hanau, 1627), 75.

26. On the controversy over the imputation of active obedience among the Westminster
Divines, Packer, “Doctrine of Justification among the Puritans,” 22, says: “Though the phrase ‘formal cause,’ and the distinction between active and passive obedience, do not appear in the statement on justification in the Westminster Confession, nonetheless this statement is a classic indication of the precision and balance of thought, as well as the polemical thrusts that were learned in these exchanges.” I agree and am suggesting here that the Westminster Divines removed the more explicit language (i.e., “the whole obedience of Christ”) regarding active obedience to allow the opponents of the imputation of active obedience (Twisse, Vines, and Gattaker) to subscribe the confession while providing language sufficient for the preservation of the doctrine. I am indebted to Tom Wenger and Chad Van Dixhoorn for their help on this issue, though I am not suggesting that they agree with my conclusion.


grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners. (WCF 11.3)

Westminster Larger Catechism 70 says that there is no ground in us for our justification, but rather the only ground is Christ’s “perfect obedience and full satisfaction” that is “imputed” to believers and “received by faith alone.” This bipartite logical distinction between obedience and satisfaction is substantially what the orthodox wanted.27

After the Westminster Assembly, John Owen defended the imputation of active obedience against Piscator, turning to Christ’s active obedience as a source of encouragement and consolation for the Christian.28 According to Owen, Christ had to provide active obedience because Adam was under the law (“do this and live”). The life promised to him “is not to be obtained unless all be done that the law requires.” By analogy, just as our first federal head, Adam, actively disobeyed God, so Christ our surety necessarily provided active obedience in our place. If he provided only remission of sins, then we still owe active obedience ourselves for justification. In other words, for Owen, either Jesus is a complete Savior or he is not.

Piscator had suggested that the imputation of active obedience might lead to less sanctity among believers, but Owen argued that because of Christ’s active obedience for us we are right with God, which is the basis for our communion with him and from which flows sanctity and the Christian life. Far from being a hindrance to a vital spiritual life, according to Owen, the imputation of active obedience is the source of it.29

27. Pareus recognized that this distinction was the essence of the argument for the imputation of active obedience; in Ursinus, Summe of Christian Religion, 793.

28. John Owen, The Works of John Owen (ed. W. H. Goold; New York: Carter, 1851–53), 5.254; 1.482. See also his reflection on the spiritual benefits of Christ’s obedience in Works 2.133–35, 154–57.

29. Ibid., 2.162–63; see also 5.240–75. Owen’s approach is in contrast to that proposed by the new perspective on Paul (and the federal vision), who in the words of Peter Stuhlmacher “propagate afresh the old two-part analysis of Pauline soteriology in terms of a juristic stream and a participatory stream, already proposed by William Wrede and above all by Albert Schweitzer.” According to Stuhlmacher, “this distinction becomes superfluous as soon as we notice Paul’s own clear connection between justification, atonement and reconciliation and furthermore recall that Christ Jesus is for Paul always a corporate, representative figure, even as the Messiah and the Son of Man are”; Peter Stuhlmacher, Revisiting Paul’s Doctrine of


In the later seventeenth century, the European Reformed theologians continued to advocate the imputation of active obedience. Francis Turretin (1623–87) in his Institutes of the Elenctic Theology (1679–85) argued against Piscator and Karg by name (Institutes 2.445 §14.13.1). By the last quarter of the century, Turretin could justly claim that the imputation of active obedience was “the common opinion and the one received in our churches” (sed communis et in Ecclesiis nostris recepta sententia) (2.445 §14.13.2). He rejected Piscator’s argument that the imputation of active obedience has God demanding a double payment. Christ’s righteousness is one, though complex. The law binds sinners to obedience and punishment, and thus Christ’s obedience liberates us from death and merits our right to life (2.454 §14.13.29).

Modern Discussion


Certainly one of the strongest twentieth-century advocates for the imputation of active obedience was J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937). He argues that without the imputation of active obedience, we would be worse off than Adam, but because of the imputation of active obedience, we are better off than Adam before the fall, since now, for Christ’s sake, “we are beyond the possibility of becoming unrighteous.”30

Despite his discomfort with the traditional and confessional doctrine of the covenant of works, John Murray (1898–1975) affirmed the imputation of active obedience repeatedly.31 He reminded readers that

Justification: A Challenge to the New Perspective; with an Essay by Donald A. Hagner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 57.

30. J. G. Machen, God Transcendent and Other Sermons (ed. N. B. Stonehouse; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 172–80.

31. See John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959–65), 1.204–5; idem, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 26–29. James B. Jordan, “Merit versus Maturity: What Did Jesus Do for Us?” in The Federal Vision (ed. Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner; Monroe, LA: Athanasius, 2004), 152, makes much of Murray and others, such as Herman Hoeksema, S. G. DeGraaf, and C. Van Der Waal, rejecting the covenant of works as unbiblical and says that “a rejection of the idea of a meritorious covenant of works was commonly entertained in Continental Reformed circles.” It is true that Murray was uncomfortable with the traditional formulations of covenant theology, but he remained orthodox in his doctrine of justification. See John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976–82), 2.202–22. Jeong Koo Jeon, Covenant Theology: John Murray’s and Meredith G. Kline’s Response


the terms active and passive are but aspects of his one obedience.32 He argued that the imputation of active obedience was not just a biblical teaching, but a category, a way of comprehending all of Christ’s work for us: “The Scripture regards the work of Christ as one of obedience and uses this term, or the concept that it designates, with sufficient frequency to warrant the conclusion that obedience is generic [i.e., general] and therefore embracive enough to be viewed as the unifying or integrating principle.”33 Murray used and defended the terms active and passive obedience and noted with the tradition that all Christ did was both active and passive, inasmuch as he suffered in all he did and all he did was voluntary and active.34

Emil Brunner (1889–1966) described as “intolerably pedantic” and a “complete misunderstanding” the claim that only the passive obedience is imputed to the believer. He rejected the distinction between the active and passive obedience itself as “impossible.”35

Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) also followed the tradition by placing the imputation of active obedience in the context of the covenant of works and a twofold conception of justification as remission and imputation of Christ’s righteousness and in terms of Christ’s threefold relation to the law.36 He stressed a complementary relation between the two aspects of Christ’s obedience for us and argued for a “constant interpenetration” of the two.37

to the Historical Development of Federal Theology in Reformed Thought (Lanham: University Press of America, 1999), shows that Murray used a range of expressions throughout his career. That Hoeksema and the followers of Klaas Schilder rejected the covenant of works is beyond dispute, but Jordan’s conclusion does not follow. The Kuyperians continued to hold to the covenant of works, as did others such as Bavinck, Vos, Berkhof, Kersten, and Bosma, all of whom were Dutch. More importantly, the notion that so-called Continental Reformed theology did not hold the covenant of works contradicts mountains of evidence in the primary sources of Reformed theology. Continental Reformed theologians (e.g., Olevianus and Ursinus, who were German and Silesian and therefore Continental) were among its most important developers in the sixteenth century, and it was universally held by Continental Reformed theologians (e.g., Polanus, Wollebius, Voetius, Cocceius, Turretin, Witsius, Rijssen, Heidanus, Heidegger, à Brakel, Van Mastricht, Marckius, and Cloppenburg) in the seventeenth century.

32. Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 27.

33. Ibid., 19.

34. Ibid., 20–23.

35. Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption (trans. Olive Wyon;
Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952), 282–83.

36. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 214, 379. 37. Ibid., 379–80.


G. C. Berkouwer (1903–96) asked whether the dogmatic distinction between active and passive obedience is “subtle, scholastic, unfounded, and irreverent”? Properly understood, however, he concluded that it is not. He argued for the mystery of Christ’s “entire” and “uninterrupted” obedience. Denial of active obedience violates that mystery.38

New Testament scholar Richard Longnecker traces the New Testament and patristic uses of the ὑπακοή (obedience) and the adjective ὑπήκοος (obedient) and their cognates.39 Taken together with the understanding of πίστις as Christ’s faithfulness (following A. G. Herbert and T. F. Torrance) in certain passages, they denote Christ’s active obedience.40

Robert Letham advocates Christ’s “vicarious obedience” from, among other grounds, Jesus’s claim to sinlessness and his role as Second Adam.41 Robert L. Reymond affirms strongly the substance of

38. G. C. Berkouwer, The Work of Christ (trans. C. Lambregste; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 319–27.

39. Richard N. Longnecker, “The Obedience of Christ in the Theology of the Early Church,” in Reconciliation and Hope: New Testament Essays on Atonement and Eschatology Presented to Leon Morris on His 60th Birthday (ed. Robert Banks; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 142–52. Stuhlmacher, Revisiting Paul’s Doctrine of Justification, 64–66, takes the opposite approach to πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (e.g., Gal 2:16), arguing that it refers not to Jesus’s “own faith or faithfulness, but rather our faith in Jesus.” While Stuhlmacher’s understanding seems to accord better with the sense of the text, in either case the vicarious active obedience of Christ is upheld, either as the faithful one or the obedient one in whom sinners trust. On the contemporary turn to the subjective reading of the genitive, see C. E. B. Cranfield, “On the Πίστις Χριστοῦ Question,” in On Romans and Other New Testament Essays (Edinburgh: Clark, 1998), who concludes: “The absence of any clear statement that Jesus ‘believed,’ ‘had faith’ (πιστεύειν) and of any unambiguous use of πίστις of Christ’s own faith, and the fact that there are quite unambiguous references to faith in Christ are surely persuasive arguments against the subjective genitive interpretation and for the objective” (95). Contrast Cranfield’s careful judgment with Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000), 19, who recklessly assumes the subjective genitive in speaking of Jesus’s “living, active, and obedient faith” as if he were more Christian than Christ. The popular penetration of this view and its effects on the doctrine of justification are also evident in John Armstrong, “The Obedience of Faith,” in Trust and Obey: Obedience and the Christian (ed. Don Kistler; Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1996), 79–117.

40. Longnecker, “Obedience of Christ,” 146–47.

41. Robert Letham, Contours of Christian Theology: The Work of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 113–21; see also G. H. Kersten, Reformed Dogmatics: A Systematic Treatment of Reformed Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Netherlands Reformed Book and Publishing Committee, 1981), 1.262–71.


the doctrine of double imputation.42 And William Berends defends active obedience by interpreting Philippians 2:5–11 in light of Paul’s two-Adam scheme.43

The publication of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration” in June 1999, with its endorsement of the imputation of Jesus’s “flawless obedience” and his righteousness, sparked a controversy that continues to reverberate in the broad evangelical world, with some effect in the confessional Reformed community.44 Robert H. Gundry responded with a declaration that he would not sign it because of its doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Thomas C. Oden responded by defending the doctrine of imputation, sparking a further exchange with Gundry.45 John Piper entered the fray in 2002 by restating the traditional Reformation doctrine of the imputation of active obedience.46 This triggered further responses from Gundry and Mark A. Seifrid, among others.

Nicolaas H. Gootjes argues for Christ’s active obedience as a biblical and confessional (e.g., Belgic and French Confessions) doctrine and the basis for Christian obedience.47 In dialogue with the proponents of the so-called federal-vision theology, Morton Smith also defends the imputation of active obedience.48

42. Reymond, New Systematic Theology, 631.

43. William Berends, “The Obedience of Jesus Christ,” Vox Reformata 66 (2001): 26–51. See also Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1966), 365. Berends, “Obedience of Christ,” 42, says that Hoeksema denied active obedience.

44. Christianity Today (June 14, 1999): 51–56.

45. See Robert H. Gundry, “Why I Didn’t Endorse ‘The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration’ . . . Even Though I Wasn’t Asked To,” Books and Culture (Jan./Feb. 2001): 6–9; Thomas C. Oden, “A Calm Answer . . . to a Critique of ‘The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration,’” Books and Culture (March/April 2001): 12–13, 39; Robert H. Gundry, “On Oden’s Answer,” Books and Culture (March/April 2001): 14–15, 39; Thomas C. Oden, “Answering Critics of ‘An Evangelical Celebration,’” Books and Culture (May/June 2001): 6–7. See also the debate in the pages of Pro Ecclesia 9 (Spring 2000): 133–49; and Oden’s discussion of active obedience in his Word of Life: Systematic Theology (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), 2.358–62.

46. John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), esp. 121–25.

47. Nicolaas H. Gootjes, “Christ’s Obedience and Covenant Obedience,” Κοινωνία 19 (2002): 2–22.

48. Morton H. Smith, “The Biblical Plan of Salvation, with Reference to the Covenant of Works, Imputation, and Justification by Faith,” in The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and



In his analysis of John Owen’s doctrine of justification, Amyraldian theologian A. C. Clifford suggests that the doctrine of the imputation of active obedience removes the necessity for the Christian’s own obedience.49 He argues that the orthodox quite misunderstood Calvin, who actually taught that justification is “no less dependent on the believer’s obedience than it is on Christ’s righteousness.”50 According to Clifford, Piscator and not Theodore Beza (and the Reformed orthodox following him) understood Calvin’s doctrine of justification correctly. Clifford links Calvin, Piscator, Arminius, and Wesley in support of his own rejection of the doctrine of double imputation.51

Among New Testament scholars, Mark Seifrid, influenced by Clifford’s interpretation of Protestant orthodoxy, says that it “added the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the forgiveness of sins.” The distinction between active and passive righteousness is “unnecessary and misleading” and arose from a “failure to grasp that Christ’s work represents the prolepsis of the final judgment and an entrance of the age to come.”52 N. T. Wright rejects the imputation of active obedience on the ground that it “gives the impression of a legal transaction, a cold piece of business, almost a trick of thought performed by a God who is logical and correct but hardly one we would want to worship.”53

Some federal-vision proponents also reject the imputation of active obedience.54 Rich Lusk argues that the imputation of active obedience

Cons: Debating the Federal Vision (ed. E. Calvin Beisner; Fort Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), 109.

49. A. C. Clifford, Atonement and Justification (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 174.

50. Ibid., 175.

51. Ibid., 190–91. From a dispensational perspective, Andrew V. Snider argues that the doctrine of Christ’s vicarious obedience is unbiblical and turns the focus away from Christ’s penal substitution and death on the cross; “Justification and the Active Obedience of Christ: Toward a Biblical Understanding of Imputed Righteousness” (MA thesis, Master’s Seminary, 2002).

52. Mark A. Seifrid, Christ Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification (Leicester: Apollos/Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 175. Clifford’s account of Reformed orthodoxy is substantially discredited by Carl R. Trueman, The Claims of Truth: John Owen’s Trinitarian Theology (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1998).

53. N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 110. I am grateful to David VanDrunen for directing me to this quotation.

54. For example, Norman Shepherd, a former professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), gave public speeches in 2003 and 2004 rejecting


is premised on post-Reformation federal theology, which, he suggests, makes it illegitimate.55 More importantly, he says that “justification requires no transfer or imputation of anything” suggests that the very notion of merit “has some incoherencies.”56 Any notion of “strict merit,” he says, runs afoul of many biblical passages and has been rejected by leading Reformed theologians such as Herman Bavinck.57

Because creation is inherently gracious, Adam, Lusk argues, could never have merited life with God. Grace is before all. Adam’s relation to God was not legal, it was filial—family relations are not legal.58 His sin was a not a failure to obey, but a failure to trust and obey.59 The traditional view, he argues, introduced an unbiblical nature/grace dualism.60 He denies that Jesus performed active obedience for us, since such a notion would rely on unbiblical notions about law and gospel and merit and on a contractual construction of the covenant. According to Lusk, Reformed dogmatics erred rather seriously by placing such freight on the imputation of active obedience, when it should have

the doctrine of the imputation of active obedience for the same reasons as Piscator. In his book The Call of Grace (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000), Christ is not presented as our law keeper, whose obedience is imputed to us, but rather as the first believer whose faithfulness we are to emulate.

55. Rich Lusk, “A Response to ‘the Biblical Plan of Salvation,’” in The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision (ed. E. Calvin Beisner; Fort Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), 120. Lusk relies on the research of those influenced by J. B. Torrance (1924–2004), who saw Reformed federal theology as a corruption of Calvin’s theology. Lusk makes many sweeping historical claims, concluding that the historic doctrine of the covenant of works is a “minority report in the Reformed world today.” In so doing, he ignores a considerable amount of modern scholarship that corrects the claims made by Torrance and others; see Richard A. Muller, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986); idem, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (2nd ed.; 4vols.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003); Carl R. Trueman and R. S. Clark, eds., Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1999); Willem J. Van Asselt and Eef Dekker, eds., Reformation and Scholasticism: An Ecumenical Enterprise (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001); Lyle D. Bierma, German Calvinism in the Confessional Age (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997); and R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ. Rutherford Studies in Historical Theology (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 2005).

56. Lusk, “Response to ‘the Biblical Plan of Salvation,’” 142.

57. Ibid., 120, 125. Lusk supplies no proof for this claim. See Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith: A Survey of Christian Doctrine (trans. H. Zylstra; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956), 452–68, who argues for the very classical Protestant doctrines Lusk rejects, including the imputation of active obedience and sola fide.

58. Lusk, “Response to ‘the Biblical Plan of Salvation,’” 122, 124–25, 137. 59. Ibid., 125.

60. Ibid., 126.


been placed on the resurrection. Machen’s famous telegram should have read, “So thankful for the resurrection,” not “so thankful for the active obedience of Christ.”61 According to Lusk, the great problem with the imputation of active obedience is that it “de-eschatalogizes” the work of Christ: “The new age is not brought by the fulfillment of the old law, it is inaugurated in his resurrection.”62

The solution, Lusk says, is to turn away from the imputation of active obedience and toward union with Christ: “With regards to justification, this means that my right standing before the Father is grounded in Christ’s own right standing before the Father. So long as I abide in Christ, I can no more come under the Father’s negative judgment than Jesus himself can!” He continues: “This justification requires no transfer or imputation of anything. It does not force us to reify ‘righteousness’ into something that can be shuffled around in heavenly accounting books.” This approach, he says, does not downplay Christ’s active obedience, since without it “his body would still be in the tomb.”63

In an even more improbable essay, James Jordan rejects the covenant of works as Pelagian.64, Because he was created immature, Adam’s probation was not to obey the law but to mature.65 In this scheme, merit per se is inappropriate and unnecessary, and Jordan concludes that Jesus did not “earn” anything from God’s justice. Rather, he says, Jesus “became the first mature man.66


I contend that, as the voluntary surety entailed by the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son (pactum salutis) and as

61. Ibid., 140–41.

62. Ibid., 141.

63. Ibid., 142.

64. Jordan, “Merit versus Maturity,” 152–53. Among the more fanciful elements of his account of prelapsarian existence are Jordan’s hypotheses that God promised to Adam and Eve that, upon maturity, they would be allowed to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and that Adam might have had to die to protect Eve from continued onslaughts from Satan (180–81).

65. Ibid., 158, 178–82.

66. Like Lusk, Jordan too commits the etymological fallacy of deducing the meaning of ἐχαρίσατο in Phil 2:9 from its root rather than its usage and context (ibid., 193).


the Second Adam required by the covenant of works, God the Son became incarnate to fulfill the legal obligations of these covenants. By his active suffering obedience to God’s law as expressed in these covenants, he not only propitiated the divine wrath and expiated sin but also merited justification and eternal life for his people.

Biblical Teaching of the Imputation of Active Obedience

According to Romans 1:18–2:16, the divine demand for obedience has existed since before the fall.67 From creation (1:19) the divine attributes and requirement for justice have been manifest (φανερόν). The phrase ἀπὸ κτίσεως κόσμου (1:20) frames the discussion in terms of Adam and the fall. Even in paradise, the demands were unequivocal and the standard unforgiving: “You may eat from any tree in the garden except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The day you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Gen 2:16–17). The essence of the law (Rom 2:6) is that God shall “give to each man according to his works [κατὰ τὰ ἔργα αὐτοῦ].” In this case, the formal “doing” required by the law was abstinence, but the material obedience was loving God and obeying him completely.

Those who lived under the Mosaic system will be judged accordingly (2:12–13), and those who did not (2:15) shall face judgment on the basis of the “law written on their hearts” (τοῦ νόμου γραπτὸν ἐν ταῖς καρδίας), but they are substantially identical. All humans live under the same law: “do.”68

67. Paul did not have Barth’s opinion of natural law. See Karl Barth, Nein! Antwort an Emil Brunner (Munich: Kaiser, 1934); see Brunner’s response in Natural Theology (London: Bles, 1956).

68. Paul refers to such principles as στοιχεῖα (elemental principles) (Gal 4:3, 9; Col 2:8). The στοιχεῖα are ruthless taskmasters requiring performance. These are difficult verses to be sure, but the best reading of Paul’s use of στοιχεῖα is not to infuse it with the classical meaning (i.e., the four natural elements) or a philosophical sense, but rather to understand it as a shorthand reference to the natural-law principle of creation under which all humans who are not in Christ exist. Eduard Schweizer, “Slaves of the Elements and Worshipers of Angels: Gal 4:3, 9 and Col 2:8, 18, 20,” Journal of Biblical Literature 107 (1988): 455–68, correlates Paul’s use of στοιχεῖα to the classical and pagan use. Philipp Veilhauer, “Gesetzesdienst und Stoicheiadienst im Galaterbrief,” in Rechtfertigung: Festschrift für Ernst Käsemann zum 70. Geburtstag (ed. J. Friedrich, W. Pöhlmann, and P. Stuhlmacher; Tübingen: Mohr/Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1976), 543–55, takes roughly the same view as espoused here.


Because the moral law issues from the divine nature, Jesus was categorical about its demands, its unbending nature, and constitutional function. Not a “yod or dot shall pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18–19). Whoever tries to “loose” (λύσῃ) the law or teaches others that the requirements of the law have been relaxed will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. The law must be “accomplished” and “fulfilled”; it must be “done.” What the law requires must be performed. To the self-righteous lawyer, Jesus did not say, “Do your best,” but rather, “Do this and live” (Luke 10:25–28).

Paul says that the one “having done” (ποιήσας) righteousness (Rom 10:5) shall live “by the law” (ἐκ [τοῦ] νόμου).69 This is why it is “not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (2:13, emphasis added). This is how Paul interprets Deuteronomy 27:26: “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do [ποιῆσαι] everything that is written in the book of the law’” (Gal 3:10).70 This “doing” is essential to understanding the perfect performance of his law that God expects of his image bearers. The demand is not only for the absence of sin or even just punishment for sin but also for positive performance of all requirements.

Our Lord summarized his entire earthly missio by saying that, as the Son, he was “unable [οὐ δύναται] to do” anything on his own initiative. He does only “what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19). To John the Baptist he declared that he had come “to fulfill all righteousness” (πρέπον ἐστὶν ἡμῖν πληρῶσαι πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνην) (Matt 3:15). Righteousness was something he had to do. Inaugurating formally his threefold office at his baptism was part of that fulfilling. To hungry disciples he declared, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). In the key terms in this verse, ἵνα ποιήσω, Jesus did not say he came to “trust” his Father, though he certainly did, but he said he was sent to “do” his Father’s will and to “fulfill his work” (τελειώσω αὐτοῦ τό ἔργον).

69. James noted three times that the law requires “doing,” not just “hearing” (Jas 1:22–27; 4:11).

70. The examples of the demand for justice come from postlapsarian revelation, but are fairly considered here since the demand published before the fall has never been revoked.


This is also why Jesus did not simply appear in history as an adult and promptly die, nor did he obey the law only as preparation for his passion. Rather, we should say with the Heidelberg Catechism that he suffered “all the time he lived on earth” (HC 37), and in so doing he “accomplished all the obedience” we owed (60). Christ was born “under the law” (Gal 4:4), to redeem those under the στοιχεῖα (4:3), that is, those “under the law.” God the Son became incarnate for the purpose of performing the demands of the law (John 6:38–40; 17:3–6; Gal 4:4–5).

This is how we should read Romans 5:12–21. According to Paul, there are two heads of humanity—one disobedient and the other obedient. Sin and death entered the world through Adam, the first head of all humanity (5:12).71 He broke the law (5:13). His disobedience became the instrument through which death entered the world.

The disobedience of ὁ πρῶτος ἄνθρωπος (the first man) (1 Cor 15:47) creates an expectation concerning remedial obedience to be performed by ὁ ἔσχατος Ἀδάμ (the final Adam) (15:45). Thus, Paul says, “through the obedience of the one” (διὰ τῆς παρακοῆς τοῦ ἑνός) the many, that is, those who are united to Christ through faith alone (Gal 2:16), “shall be constituted righteous” (δίκαιοι κατασταθήσονται)

71. Though most of the Western church has followed some version of Augustine’s interpretation (e.g., City of God 16.27), the grammar of ἐφ ̓ ᾧ in Rom 5:12 has not historically been decisive for its interpretation. On the history of interpretation, see C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans (International Critical Commentary; Edinburgh: Clark, 1975), 1.274–79. The logical connection tends to be interpreted in the light of one’s broader reading of Scripture. Calvin took an Augustinian (anti-Pelagian) position, interpreting 5:12 somewhat realistically, but with his conclusion the Reformed agreed that Paul here describes how Adam “in himself vitiated, corrupted, and depraved our nature.” For Calvin, there was not a strict parallel between the fall and justification; the fall was partly forensic and partly realistic; John Calvin, Commentarius in epistolam pauli ad romanos (Geneva: Droz, 1999), 108.33–34; 1013.30–34. Justification, however, is totally forensic. The ground is Christ’s righteousness, not ours. James Dunn rejects the strict Augustinian/realistic view but is vague about the link between Adam and us; Romans 1–8 (Word Biblical Commentary 38A; Dallas: Word, 1988), 273–74. Murray, Romans, 1.184–87, argued that this passage teaches not inherent original sin and inherent righteousness (Augustine’s view); rather it teaches that the sin of 5:12 refers to the same event as the “one trespass” of 5:15–19. For Murray, the frame of reference was not realistic but forensic, with realistic effects. Murray eliminated the tension in Calvin’s view between the forensic and the realistic in favor of a totally forensic view; see Meredith G. Kline, “Gospel until the Law: Romans 5:13–14 and the Old Covenant,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (1991): 433–46.


(Rom 5:19).72 We are declared righteous because Jesus’s obedience was that δικαίωμα and met the terms of divine justice.

Paul’s grammar, contrasting the calamity that came δι ̓ ἑνὸς παραπτώματος (through the one unrighteous act) or διὰ τῆς παρακοῆς (through the disobedience) and the δικαίωμα (righteous act) of another, is particularly pointed here.73 The force of this contrast is to establish a forensic frame of reference. The events in view are justification and condemnation (cf. Prov 17:15, which has a similar structure).

There is discernible logical progression in Romans 5 from the general to the particular, from cost/benefit of gift/trespass in 5:15 to obedience/disobedience in 5:19.74 In 5:15–16 Paul contrasts the παραπτώματα (transgression) and παρακοῆς (disobedience) with the χάρισμα (grace). Adam brought penalties and death, but Jesus brought gifts (δωρεά) and life. The legal and logical basis for the gifts that accrue to believers is Christ’s ὑπακοή (obedience).75

In 5:16 the nature of the gifts (δώρημα) and graces (χάρισμα) come into focus. The end of the gifts is our δικαίωμα (justification).

In 5:17, what Christ earned is described as “the gift of righteousness” (δωρεᾶς τῆς δικαιοσύνης).

In 5:18 Paul is a more precise about how the penalty was incurred and how the benefit was acquired. The penalty was incurred “by

72. Longnecker, “Obedience of Christ,” 145, is right to see “obedience” (ὑπακοή) here as referring to Jesus’s active obedience, to Christ’s “humble submission to the Mosaic law” and his fulfillment “of its obligations.” N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 37–39, connects Jesus’s obedience with his role as the Second Adam and as the true Israel. This view seems to support the very doctrine he elsewhere rejects.

73. This same logic is evident in Rom 6:23. The “wages” (ὀψώνια) of sin is death. Wages, as Paul said, are not a gift, but earned (4:4). Disobedience is not something that happened to Adam. He was not a recipient of sin but its perpetrator. In 1:32 and 2:26 δικαίωμα refers to legal righteousness. In Rom 4:25 and Eph 2:1 παράπτωμα stands for transgressions of law. B. F. Westcott, St. Paul and Justification (London: Macmillan, 1913), 226–28, takes these nouns as neuter. Cranfield takes δικαίωμα as “righteous conduct” in parallel to παράπτωμα (Romans, 1.289–90); so too Peter Stuhlmacher, Paul’s Letter to the Roman: A Commentary (trans. Scott J. Hafemann; Louisville: WJK, 1994), 88. Dunn (Romans 1–8, 283) and others take these nouns as a masculine, thus “through one man’s trespass.” Westcott traces the masculine reading to the influence of the Vulgate: per unum delictum (228–29).

74. I am grateful to David VanDrunen for comments that stimulated this reading of these verses.

75. Murray, Romans, 1.194–96; Calvin, Ad romanos, 113.6–8.


one act of disobedience” (δι ̓ ἑνὸς παραπτώματος). The benefit was accrued “by one act of obedience” (δι ̓ ἑνὸς δικαιώματος). Both phrases express instrumentality. Both use abstract nouns concerning legal unrighteousness and righteousness. Both refer to historical actions by historical persons, not to the divine decree.76 Adam’s “act” was “unto judgment” (εἰς κατάκριμα), but Christ’s “act” was “unto righteousness of life” (εἰς δικαίωσιν ζωῆς). In 5:19, Jesus’s one act is specified as his ὑπακοή (obedience).77

The case for the imputation of active obedience is further strengthened when one considers that Paul does not compartmentalize Jesus’s obedience chronologically or logically. He does not describe Christ’s obedience as if it began only at Golgotha or on the cross. Obedience characterizes Jesus’s entire existence, just as Adam’s entire life to that point is characterized by his disobedience.

This same logic also appears in Philippians 2:8.78 Paul’s appeal to redemptive history comes in the service of moral argument. He grounds his parenesis in the gospel of the obedience of Christ. Jesus humbled (ἐταπείνωσεν) himself, and this humiliation began with the incarnation: “having been found in human form” (καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθείς). The Son came to be “obedient” (ὑπήκοος), all the way to the holocaust of the cross. For Paul, Christ’s crucifixion was not the totality of his obedience, it was its consummation. This the force of the grammar and meter of the last clause of 2:8: μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ (unto death, even the death of the cross). In the context (2:1–4, 12–17) Paul’s exhortation is most compelling if the model to which obedience appealed was vicarious. Just as Jesus poured himself out

76. Barth’s reading of δικαίωμα as “righteous decision” is quite implausible, as it moves the sphere of discourse from Christ’s saving work in history back to the decree; Christ and Adam: Man and Humanity in Romans 5 (trans. T. A. Smail; New York: Harper, 1957), 41–42. The focus is not on election here but on obedience to the law.

77. Calvin, Ad romanos, 113.38–114.1, says that this verse “signifies the gracious imputation of righteousness.” “The righteousness of Christ is regarded in its compact unity in parallelism with the one trespass” (Murray, Romans, 1.201).

78. See, e.g., Caspar Olevianus, Expositio symbolici apostolici (Frankfurt, 1576), 111; idem, In epistolas d. pauli apostoli ad philippenses et colossenses ed. Theodore Beza (Geneva, 1580), 19–20; William Ames, The Marrow of Sacred Divinity (London, 1642), 91–92; Owen, Works, 2.156; Leonard Van Rijssen, Compendium theologiae didactio-elencticae (Amsterdam, 1695), 149; Johannes Marckius, Compendium theologiae christianae didactico-elencticum (Amsterdam, 1749), 397–98.


(ἐκένωσεν) as a drink offering for us (2:7), so Paul is being poured out (σπένδομαι), and so ought we to be (2:17).79

Theological Context of the Imputation of Active Obedience

It seems clear that the two sides in this discussion hold different views of divine justice, sin, and the nature of Christ’s work.80 According to the proponents of the imputation of active obedience, divine justice requires both obedience and punishment for sin such that Christ had to provide obedience and suffer the penalty for his elect. Proponents of the imputation of active obedience held to a twofold nature of sin and consequently a twofold remedy: the imputation of active obedience and remission of sins.

Divine Justice and Sin

Is God’s justice such that not breaking the law is the same as keeping it? This was the argument of Piscator and Pareus. They argued that either not breaking the law or “punishment is the fulfilling of the law.”81 They argued that it is unjust to require both obedience to the law and punishment. It must be one or the other. This approach, however, fundamentally misconstrues the nature of divine justice as expressed in the law. The command in the garden was a prohibition, but according to Paul, we owed more to God than mere abstinence: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom 1:21 ESV).

79. See Robert B. Strimple, “Philippians 2:5–11 in Recent Studies: Some Exegetical Conclusions,” Westminster Theological Journal 41 (1979): 247–68. Wright, Climax of the Covenant, chap. 4, presents a useful survey of interpretations of this passage.

80. Geerhardus Vos notes this same connection; “‘Legalism’ in Paul’s Doctrine of Justification,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos. ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1980), 399.

81. Pareus, in Ursinus, Summe of Christian Religion, 797–800. Given Pareus’s patent concern to eliminate ammunition for Counter-Reformation critics (e.g., Robert Bellarmine, 1542–1621), it is quite surprising that he compared justification to “whitening” a wall, thus inviting unhappy comparisons to our Lord’s teaching in Matt 23:27 and strengthening the Roman complaint that the Protestant doctrine of justification really depends on a “legal fiction.”


This understanding of divine justice best explains the sanctions promised to disobedience: “Cursed is anyone who does not continue to do [יָקִ֛ים] (Deut 27:26). So Paul says that it is not the hearers, but the doers (ποιηταί) of the law who shall be justified (Rom 2:13). In James those who profess faith in Christ (2:14) must “put away [ἀποτίθημι] impurity and the abundance of evil” (1:21–22). The notion of active obedience to the law conditions James’s use of “doers.”

Adam owed total, active obedience to the law, and the law continues to require nothing less than active and perfect fulfillment. Before the fall, God demanded obedience and threatened death for disobedience. After the fall, God continued to insist on total obedience to his law (Deut 11:1; 13:3 [MT 13:4]).

First John 3:4 says that “sin is lawlessness [ἀνομία].” To be sure, lawlessness is the absence of righteousness, but it is more. It is, as Westminster Larger Catechism 24 has it, “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of” God’s law. Sin incurs guilt, that is, moral stain and punishment. The threatened punishment was executed. Adam died and we in him (Rom 5:12; Eph 2:1). As a consequence of our sin, “no good dwells” in us (Rom 7:18), and where we are required to will and do the good, we will and do the opposite (7:20).82 We are no longer capable of the required performance, thus further exposed to liability (Deut 27:26; 28:58). This is why it is “evident that no one is justified before God by the law” (Gal 3:11).

Christ’s Work

Criticisms of the imputation of active obedience raise fundamental questions about the work of Christ. Rome and the Remonstrants argued that Jesus came to make salvation possible for those who do their part by cooperation with divine grace. Such soteriology is a serious challenge to the Reformation doctrine of justification and at

82. The general confession of sin in the Book of Common Prayer (1662) captures the Spirit of Paul’s lament: “We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.”


variance with the language of Scripture. Our Lord said he came to be the perfectly obedient Son of Man for two purposes: “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). The verb save (σῶσαι) does not denote make possible, but accomplish (see Matt 1:21; 8:25; Mark 13:13; John 3:17; 12:47; Acts 2:21, 47; 11:14; 16:31; Rom 5:9–10; 10:9, 13; 1 Tim 1:15). Before he went to the cross, Jesus testified to his Father that he had “completed” (τελειώσας) the work that the Father had given him (John 17:4).

Like Arminian theologian Richard Watson, some critics of the imputation of active obedience call into question Jesus’s mediatorial office and work.83 According to the apostle Paul, however, “there is one mediator [μεσίτης] between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). Hebrews 9:15 and 12:24 say that Jesus is the “mediator of a new covenant” (διαθήκης καινῆς μεσίτης). The result of calling Jesus’s mediatorial work into question is to subvert the doctrine of Jesus’s representative work for us and imputed to us.

The intention of the incarnation was Christ’s substitution for his people. Paul says that in the “fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” in order to “redeem those under the law” (Gal 4:4–5). Contra Piscator, the implication of 4:5 is not that, by virtue of his humanity, Jesus was under the law for himself, but rather, the implication is that he came as our federal head, our high priest, our mediator, solely to obey the law in our place. To say that he was “under the law” for himself ignores the substitutionary force implied in the combination of “born of a woman” and “under the law” and turns the passage on its head. It makes more sense of Paul’s language to interpret it as another example of his doctrine of Christ’s substitutionary obedience.

Paul repeatedly describes Jesus’s obedience and death as being ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν (for us). Nowhere does he say or imply that Christ obeyed for his own sake. He was “constituted” (ἐποίησεν) sin “for us” (2 Cor 5:21). Christ “gave himself for us” (Titus 2:14) and “died for us” (Eph 5:2; 1 Thess 5:10). He became “a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). This last phrase especially corresponds very closely to Galatians 4:4–5. Both

83. Richard Watson, Theological Institutes (New York: Carlton & Lanahan, 1850), 2.216.


passages use the same verb: ἐξαγοράζω (redeem). Christ came “in the fullness of time” not to qualify himself to be a redeemer, but to redeem those under the law.

Objections to the Imputation of Active Obedience

It Makes God Unjust

Since Piscator, critics of the imputation of active obedience have all assumed a priori that God is unjust, but it is an assumption that Scripture will not tolerate. Scripture does not consider that punishment is a substitute for obedience. Rather, punishment is the consequence of disobedience, but obedience is still required. The demand remains: “do.” It is not as if one can break a law, suffer the punishment, and then carry on as if the law no longer requires active obedience. After the fall, we were still obligated to perform righteousness either personally or vicariously (Rom 8:3–4; Gal 3:12).

It Leads to Antinomianism

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.84 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 any one says, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof: let him be anathema” (Schaff 2.115, emphasis added).85 Rome

84. This is implicit in Council of Trent, session 6, canons 11 and 24 (Schaff 2.112–13, 115).

85. H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum (30th ed.; Freiburg: Herder, 1955), §834.


understood the Protestant position: good works are merely evidence of sanctity and nothing more.86 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” (Luke 10:28), 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. It is not until Ephesians 4 that Paul turns to urge (παρακαλέω) 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” (HC 65 [Schaff 3.328]). 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).

It Diminishes the Cross

Piscator, Pareus, and the Arminians alleged that if Christ achieved our righteousness before the cross then his death was superfluous. The charge reveals a basic misunderstanding of Christ’s work. The distinction between active and passive obedience is logical, a distinction between aspects of the one, whole, complete obedience—not between chronological phases in his work.

86. See John Calvin, John Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (trans. J. W. Fraser et al.; ed. D. W. Torrance and T. F. Torrance; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960–75), 3.282–88.


In the orthodox scheme, the cross is the highest expression of Christ’s righteousness for us. This is just how Paul connects the two. When Paul says that Christ “humbled himself” (ἐταπείνωσεν), “having become obedient” (γενόμενος ὑπήκοος), he does not restrict it to the cross. Rather the logical movement of Philippians 2 is from eternity to incarnation to humiliation, of which the cross is the culmination, not the beginning. In Philippians 2 the cross qualifies Christ’s obedience: “until death, even the death of the cross” (μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ).

The same logic is evident in Galatians 3:13, where Paul says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (ESV). Jesus did not become accursed only on the cross. The cross was the seal of his accursedness that endured for us. Scripture says that Jesus was born under the law and under the curse (Gal 4:4). This is the paradox of the gospel. Only because he is the beloved Son (Matt 3:17) is he eligible to bear the curse for us. Because of the curse he had to flee to Egypt and make his exodus as the obedient Son (2:15), battle Satan in the wilderness (Mark 1:13), and suffer the humiliation of being hunted by the scribes and Pharisees (John 5:18; 7:1). The cross was not the beginning but the consummation of the execution of the sanctions brought by the curse. Because of sin, there is a “record of debt.” Paul reckons that Christ canceled that record on the cross because he actively obeyed the law for us (Col 2:14).

It Relies on Roman Categories of Merit

Shepherd and his followers have suggested for thirty years that the category of “merit” is unbiblical and illegitimate.87 If this complaint

87. About 1974, Norman Shepherd began criticizing the notion that Adam might have merited a reward in the covenant of works. The Board of Trustees of Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) concluded in their “Reason and Specifications Supporting the Action of the Board of Trustees in Removing Professor Shepherd” (February 26, 1982) that “Mr. Shepherd rejects not only the term ‘covenant of works’ but the possibility of any merit or reward attaching to the obedience of Adam in the creation covenant. He holds that faithful obedience is the condition of all covenants in contrast to the distinction made in the Westminster Confession.” They further concluded that “by rejecting the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace as defined in the Westminster Standards, and by failing to take account in the structure of the ‘covenantal dynamic’ of Christ’s fulfillment of the covenant by his active


were conceded then we should have to reverse not only the Reformation doctrine of justification, which was premised on the notion of Christ’s merits, but we should also have to repudiate most of two millennia of Western theology. In fact, merit is a central theological and hermeneutical category.88

Contrary to Jordan’s claim that merit is a “hangover of Medieval theology,”89 the notion of Christ’s worthiness is rooted deeply in Scripture. Where Revelation 4:11 proclaims Christ the Lamb to be “worthy” (ἄξιος), the Vulgate translated it with dignus.90 According to the writer to the Hebrews, Jesus was “made a lower than the angels” but because of his suffering (διὰ τὸ πάθημα τοῦ θανάτου) he was “crowned with glory” (2:9) In order for “many sons” to be led to glory, the τὸν ἀρχηγὸν τῆς σωτηρίας had to “be made perfect [τελειῶσαι] through suffering [διὰ παθημάτων]” (2:10). As used in Hebrews τελειόω does not denote deification, but rather completion of an assignment, that is, the semantic field is moral rather than ontological. The expression διὰ τὸ πάθημα establishes the causal link between Jesus’s completion of his obedience and the “bringing of many sons to glory.”

Jesus was “faithful in all things” (3:2) to his Father who appointed him. Therefore, he is “worthy” (ἠξίωται) of more glory than Moses (3:3). Hebrews does not suggest that the Father graced Jesus with a reward, but quite the opposite. The Father recognized Jesus’s accomplishment of righteousness, and the reward is commensurate. More than that, his worthiness is the basis of our confidence and boldness before God (3:6).

We find a complementary conceptual framework in the Apocalypse. In 5:4 we read of the crisis of the sealed scroll. No one is “worthy”

obedience as well as by his satisfaction of its curse, Mr. Shepherd develops a uniform concept of covenantal faithfulness for Adam, for Israel, and for the New Covenant people. The danger is that both the distinctiveness of the covenant of grace and of the new covenant fullness of the covenant of grace will be lost from view and that obedience as the way of salvation will swallow up the distinct and primary function of faith. Obedience is nurtured by faith in Christ and flourishes precisely as we trust wholly in him” (15).

88. The Reformed confessions appeal to the category of merit repeatedly. See HC 21, 60, 63, 84, 86; Belgic Confession 22–24, 35; Canons of Dort, Rejection of Errors 1.3; 2.1, 3–4, 6–7; 5.8; WCF 16.5; 17.2; WLC 55, 174, 193.

89. Jordan, “Merit versus Maturity,” 192.

90. In the Vulgate, Rom 8:18 uses condignus for ἄξιος.


(ἄξιος) to open the scroll, that is, no one is qualified to do it.91 The resolution comes in the next verse, however, when we are told, that “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” is qualified to open the scroll. His qualification is that he has “conquered” (ἐνίκησεν) sin, death, and hell.

Interpreting this vocabulary within a realistic philosophical context, the medieval theologians distinguished between condign merit (meritum de condigno), whereby a work was said to have met the standard of divine justice, and congruent merit (meritum de congruo), whereby a work does not meet the standard of justice, but justice is graciously imputed to it nonetheless (Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I-II Q. 114.6). The Protestants rejected the medieval doctrine of justification through sanctification (or deification), but they did not reject the category of merit.92 They rejected the notion of congruent merit altogether and said that Jesus alone has condign merit that is imputed to us.93

91. See G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 350, who connects Christ’s worthiness to his overcoming of the enemy.

92. “Deus solus deificet” (Summa theologiae I-II Q. 112.1). The Reformed churches all confess that we are justified on the basis of Christ’s merits imputed to us and reject any notion that sinners can merit anything before God either condignly or congruently.

93. Pace Peter Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology. Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 171, who argues that Calvin taught that, under Christ, the law is no longer a harsh taskmaster demanding perfection, but now through faith in the gospel, the Spirit helping us, we can keep the law in a way that God will accept. This suggests that Calvin taught a version of congruent merit. Lillback continues (204) this argument and argues that Calvin appropriated and modified the Franciscan “covenant of acceptance” (facientibus quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam) so as to teach that God graciously accepts the works of Christians not merely as a response of gratitude, as Protestantism has traditionally taught (e.g., HC 2), but as a part of the way of justification. If this interpretation is true, one can only wonder why Calvin complained so vociferously about the Roman doctrine of the congruity of works as taught in session 6 of the Council of Trent. See C. G. Bretschneider, ed., Corpus Reformatorum (Berlin: Schwetschke, 1834–1941), 35.429–86; John Calvin, Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, trans. H. Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 3.116–17. See also Calvin’s rejection of congruent merit in his Articuli a facultate sacrae theologiae parisensi determinati . . . cum antidoto (Corpus Reformatorum 35.12–13; the English text is Articles Agreed upon by the Faculty of Sacred Theology of Paris . . . with the Antidote [Selected Works, 1.80–82]), where he argued that God accepts only those with perfect righteousness and contrasts the system of condign and congruent merit with doctrine of the “Lutherans,” who “place the righteousness of faith in the predicament of a relation, saying that we are righteous merely because God accepts us in Christ.” See also the Canons of Dort, Rejection of Errors 1.3; 2.4 (Schaff 3.557, 563). According to Herman Witsius (1636–1708), Christ’s active obedience merited a reward for himself and


What does Jordan offer in place of Christ’s merit imputed to sinners? By reinterpreting Adam’s probation in terms of “maturity” and immaturity,” he seems to be turning to Plotinus (204–70) and Aquinas (ca. 1224–74). Such a conception makes the human problem ontological (i.e., a lack of divinity) rather than legal. There is evidence for this claim within Jordan’s own essay. Following Scotus (ca. 1265–1308), he says that our humanity per se, not the fall, required God the Son to become incarnate.94 This ontological turn is quite at odds with confessional Reformed theology, which affirms that creation was (good), that Adam was created “in righteousness and true holiness,” by nature able to love and obey God (HC 6 [Schaff 3.309]).95

his elect, by virtue of the covenant of strict justice he made with his Father—Jesus earned his righteousness and ours by works—and by virtue of the condignity, that is, the inherent worth of his obedience; see Herman Witsius, De oeconomia foederum dei cum hominibus (Leeuwarden, 1677), 2.3.32–33; idem, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man, trans. William Crookshank 1803 (repr. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1990), 1.190–92.

94. Jordan, “Merit versus Maturity,” 184–86.

95. Historically, the turn to ontology has threatened the Creator/creature distinction since salvation becomes theōsis (deification). It was to avoid the problem of theōsis and the Thomistic (Summa theologiae I Q. 95.1) scheme of prelapsarian donum super additum that the Westminster Divines spoke not of a gracious covenant with Adam, but of God’s “voluntary condescension” (WCF 7.1) in establishing a legal covenant with Adam (see also 26.3). According to WCF 4.2 we were created with the “power to fulfill” the law in the covenant of works. Richard Muller observes similarities between the Reformed orthodox and Thomas on this point; see After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 184–85, 256–57n62. For example, Ursinus’s argument, in his exposition of HC 7, that God “withdrew” his grace from Adam is similar to Thomas’s doctrine of the donum; see Zacharias Ursinus, Opera theologica (ed. Q. Reuter; Heidelberg, 1612), 1.64–65 §II; and Lyle D. Bierma, “Ursinus’ Doctrine of the Natural Covenant,” in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, ed. Carl R. Trueman and R. S. Clark (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1999), 96–110. One might add, however, that prelapsarian grace did not function for Ursinus exactly as it did for Thomas. For Ursinus, the primary function of prelapsarian grace was apologetic. It did not lead to a conception of salvation as deification, as it did for Thomas. Ursinus used it as part of a theodicy, that God is not morally liable for the fall since grace, being undeserved, was properly withdrawn. This is distinct from Thomas’s nature/grace dualism whereby grace suppresses vires inferiores, which exist by the fact of creation. For Thomas, Adam fell from grace, but Ursinus did not assume that grace perfects nature. For Ursinus, Adam violated the law (e.g., Summa theologiae 23). Ursinus’s use of prelapsarian grace occurred in the context of the Protestant law/gospel distinction, which he expressed in terms of the covenant of works as law and the covenant of grace as gospel (Summa theologiae 36; Opera 1.325). See also R. Scott Clark and Joel Beeke, “Ursinus, Oxford, and the Westminster Divines,” in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century: Essays in Remembrance of the 350th Anniversary of the Publication of the Westminster Confession of Faith, ed. Ligon Duncan (Ross-Shire, Scotland: Mentor, 2004), 2.1–32. By contrast, Aquinas thought in terms of old law/new law. After Dort, the Reformed orthodox spoke of God’s grace in making the covenant of works, and some (e.g., William Bucanus, John Ball, Anthony Burgess) said grace was necessary for Adam to complete it, but others (e.g., Caspar


According to Reformed theology, our need of a mediator was not ontological, but legal and moral. In Romans 5:12–21, Paul characterizes the human condition in legal categories: death, sin, trespass, and condemnation. Reformed theology is not Hegelian. Adam was not commanded to “become” but to “do.”

It Relies on a Legal Fiction

Critics charge that the imputation of active obedience assumes a sort of philosophical realism (i.e., God can say what he does only because things are what they are) that Scripture does not teach, assume, or permit. In this scheme, God’s justice must be correlate to an extrinsic, eternal moral standard. This approach has been widely held by realists such as Aquinas, that is, those who would have the human intellective faculty intersect with the divine (Summa theologiae I-II Q. 1).96 The argument runs thus: The world is composed of universals and particulars. We abstract universals from particulars, but Thomas argued that a created intellect, with the help of grace, can see the essence of God. The contact between the human intellect and the divine substance occurs when the intellect apprehends universalia, which are expressions of the divine essence.97
However tempting such a scheme might be, for it seems to vindicate God’s justice, we should resist it because it necessarily subordinates God to some other entity, which contravenes the doctrine of God in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.” Yahweh is God and there is none like or beside him (32:39), and none other is to be worshiped (Exod 20:3). In Scripture and in confessional Reformed theology, God is not said to be accountable to any moral standard outside himself.
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

Olevianus, Robert Rollock, Johannes Wollebius, Amandus Polanus, James Ussher, John Owen, Johannes Cocceius, J. H. Heidegger, H. Witsius, W. à Brakel) said that Adam, by virtue of his creation, had natural ability to meet its terms.

96. See Jeffrey Stout, “Truth, Natural Law, and Ethical Theory,” in Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays, ed. Robert P. George (Oxford: Clarendon/New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 72; and R. S. Clark, “Calvin on the Lex Naturalis,” Stulos 6 (1998): 4–8, 13n43.

97. On the visio dei see Summa theologiae I Q. 12.1, 9, 12–13.


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, and 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 (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.98 Reformed theology has typically taught a sort of consequent realism. 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 (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).99

It Makes the Filial Superior to the Legal

German liberalism set Jesus’s religion of the love and fatherhood of God against justice and an allegedly “legalistic” doctrine of justification in Paul.100 As we have seen, however, Jesus made no such dichotomy between the filial and the legal. In one breath he speaks of the mutual interpenetration and intimate fellowship between the Father and the Son, and in the next he speaks of a judicial event. For Jesus, the two are inseparable (John 5:26–27).101

Jesus repeatedly described his own mission both in terms of his relation to the Father as Son and in terms of obligation to the performance of righteousness. In the case of a family business, the father may well love his son, and the son his father, but even in a family business,

98. The medieval scheme of meritum de congruo, at least within the nominalist context, and meritum de condigno really did rely on a legal fiction.

99. Turretin, Institutio, 16.3.8., distinguished between “imputed” and “putative” righteousness (distinguendum est imputatum à putativo seu fictitio). Such a charge ignores the reality of a judicial action. If God pronounced us iustos in nobis, that would be a judicial fiction. Christ’s iustitia is the solidum fundamentum for our justification.

100. E.g., Paul Wernle, Der Christ und die Sünde bei Paulus (Freiburg/Leipzig: Mohr, 1897). See also Vos, “‘Legalism’ in Paul’s Doctrine of Justification.”

101. See also Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Overland Park, KS: Two Age Press, 2000), 110.


an implicit contract exists between father and son. As much as they love one another, the son’s obligation to perform and the father’s obligation to justice remains. In this case, for the love of his people the Son has voluntarily taken on certain obligations, which neither his love for his Father nor his Father’s love for him precludes. Rather, the Father’s love for those whom he elected ἐν Χριστῷ (in Christ) (Eph 1:1–15; Rom 8:39; John 3:16) necessitates the Son’s “personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience” to the law for us (WLC 93).

The juxtaposition of the filial and the legal is nothing new. What is new, however, is the naïve adaptation of this scheme by some in confessional Reformed circles in order to rescue Paul by transforming his doctrine into that of the pietists and liberals. This question arises as part of broader move either to diminish the forensic element of justification in favor of the relational or to replace the forensic with the relational altogether.102 Luther and Calvin

102. See, e.g., Michael F. Bird, “Incorporated Righteousness: A Response to Recent Evangelical Discussion concerning the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness in Justification,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47 (2004): 253–75, who follows Mark Seifrid’s argument in Christ, Our Righteousness that, as Bird puts it, “there can be no justification of the believer without the simultaneous justification of God.” See also Stephen Strehle, “Imputatio iustitiae: Its Origin in Melanchthon, Its Opposition in Osiander,” Theologische Zeitschrift 50 (1994): 201–19, who argues that Osiander was more faithful than Melanchthon to Luther’s doctrine of justification. Mark Seifrid, “Paul, Luther, and Justification, in Gal 2:15–21,” Westminster Theological Journal 65 (2003): 229n45; and idem, “Luther, Melanchthon, and Paul on the Question of Imputation,” in Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Controversies? ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Trier (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 137–52, argues for a split between Luther and Melanchthon by 1536. Melanchthon is said to have moved to a doctrine of justification by the “imputation of Christ’s righteousness” while Luther continued to teach that imputation is a divine declaration that includes our believing and union with Christ. According to Seifrid, Luther’s view agrees with Robert H. Gundry’s Arminian view in “The Nonimputation of Christ’s Righteousness,” in Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Controversies? ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Trier (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 17–45, and Melanchthon’s is said to agree with John Piper’s Melanchthonian-Calvinist view in Counted Righteous in Christ. Calvin’s doctrine of justification is also being radically reconsidered; see Carl Mosser, “The Greatest Possible Blessing: Calvin and Deification,” Scottish Journal of Theology 55 (2002): 36–57; and Julie Canlis, “Calvin, Osiander, and Participation in God,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 6 (2004): 169–84, who argue that Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ was more ontic and relational than legal. Craig B. Carpenter, “A Question of Union with Christ: Calvin and Trent on Justification,” Westminster Theological Journal 64 (2002): 363–86, argues that Calvin’s problem with Rome was not so much Rome’s doctrine of justification, but its doctrine of union with Christ.


both had a vibrant doctrine of union with Christ, as did Reformed orthodox such as Zanchi, Wollebius, Owen, Turretin, and Witsius, but they never found it necessary to juxtapose the forensic with the filial.103 We should agree with Geerhardus Vos that a “forensic treatment of man and a loving treatment of man are not to Paul in any sense mutually exclusive in God.”104 Indeed, as Vos observes, in Paul’s theology “the transfer of the fulfillment of the law from the sinner to Christ . . . safeguards the interests of the divine righteousness” while protecting the faith from the self-righteousness to which Paul was so opposed. This is why Christ’s active obedience is so important—because the “earthly life of Christ offers the only instance of the working of the scheme under normal conditions, outside of the original state of rectitude.” In his “perfect obedience,” Christ was aware of the eschatological glory that awaited him “as the prize of his obedience.” This vision, however it strengthened him, did not corrupt his motives.105

In this regard, the language of Hebrews 5:8 is instructive. The writer makes an point to contrast Jesus’s sonship (υἱός) with the discipline he suffered pro nobis. If critics of the imputation of active obedience are correct, one should not expect this contrast, since, they argue, he was obligated to offer obedience for himself. This verse, however, makes no sense in such a scheme. The point of the argument here is that he was serving as our representative. Hence, “Although [καίπερ] he was a son, he learned obedience by the things that he suffered.” The concessive particle καίπερ implies a state of things contrary to expectation. Given his status as son and not servant (3:5), one might have expected that Jesus would have received honor rather than discipline, but he was disciplined throughout his life, not for his sake but for ours. This vicarious federal obedience is the essence of the imputation of active obedience.

103. Though it is an important category in Calvin’s theology, his discussion of union with Christ as a locus proper is very brief (Institutes 3.11.10). This is all the more remarkable given the elaborate constructions given to his doctrine of union with Christ in some recent scholarship.

104. Vos, “‘Legalism’ in Paul’s Doctrine of Justification,” 392–93. 105. Ibid., 398.


It Should Be Replaced by Union with Christ

The federal-vision advocates suggest that we are justified so long as we are united to Christ, but we retain that union partly by cooperating with grace. Here is a subtle shifting of the indicative (gospel) “is” (“we are united to Christ”) into an imperative (law): “We must remain united to Christ.”106

There is no question whether we need both a legal and vital union with Christ, but these must be distinguished. By virtue of legal union with Christ our federal head and substitute, his obedience is credited to believers. This union is distinct (not separate) from that union that increases, of which Heidelberg Catechism 76 speaks when it says that, having been justified, we are now “united more and more to his sacred body by the Holy Ghost” (Schaff 3.332–33; this is also the view of WCF 26.3 and WLC 65–69, 79, 168). Like election, union with Christ is a precondition of regeneration (i.e., renewal from death to life), and regeneration is precondition of faith, since the dead do not believe. A precondition is not, however, identity. Union with Christ is not the same thing as faith, and faith is the sole instrument of justification.

Our legal union with Christ is objective (extra nos). This is the category at work in Romans 5:8. Christ died pro nobis (also 1 Thess 5:10). He became a curse “for us” (Gal 3:13). He gave himself up “for us” (Eph 5:2; Titus 2:14; 1 John 3:16). He opened a living way “for us,” into the sanctum sanctorum (Heb 10:20). In turn, we are accepted and regarded as righteous propter Christum.107 Vital union speaks of the subjective, progressive realization of Christ’s benefits and is premised on the objective accomplishment of redemption by Christ.

It Is Not Confessional

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, both Piscator and Pareus argued that the imputation of active obedience is not confessional. In both cases, however, they either ignored or challenged

106. See, e.g., Lusk, “New Life and Apostasy.”

107. This expression goes to the essence of Reformed federalism. See, e.g., Ursinus, Summa theologiae 31, 36, 141, 225, 232, 255, 284.


Heidelberg Catechism 60 and ignored the theological function of merit in the standards.

This is not only how most Reformed theologians have interpreted the Reformed symbols; it is how some synods have done. We have already seen that the Synod of Dort affirmed Christ’s merits as the ground of justification. In 1603 the 17th National Synod of the French Reformed Churches rejected Piscator’s view soundly, reaffirmed the imputation of active obedience, and remonstrated with the major Reformed schools to support them in their rejection of Piscator’s view.108 In 1604 Piscator answered the synod’s questions and restated his conviction that Scripture teaches that “the perfect obedience which Christ performed to the law is not imputed to us and his righteousness and purity are not given to us for the price of eternal salvation.”109 In 1607 the 18th National Synod rejected Piscator’s reply and his division of Christ’s work in favor of the statement that “the whole obedience of Christ, both in his life and death, is imputed to us for the full remission of our sins, and acceptance into eternal life: and in short, that this being but one and the self-same obedience, is our entire and perfect justification.”110 In 1612 the synod required ministers and professors to subscribe an authorized interpretation of the 1559 French Confession 18, which bound all ministers to teach that justification is not just the remissio peccatorum, but that it also consists in “the imputation of his active righteousness,” that Christ obeyed the law vicariously for believers, that his “whole obedience” is imputed to us.111

Following Calvin, Olevianus, and Ursinus, the synod interpreted Mark 10:45 (and Phil 2:5–11) to teach that, because he born of a virgin, Christ did not owe active obedience for himself, but rather he lived his entire life as our mediator and representative so that all his obedience is vicarious. They rejected the assumption implicit in Piscator’s denial of the imputation of active obedience that Christ

108. John Quick, Synodicon in Gallia; or, The Acts, Decisions, Decrees, and Canons of Those Famous National Councils of the Reformed Churches in France (London, 1692), 1.227.

109. Quoted in Works of James Arminius, 1.697n. 110. Quick, Synodicon in Gallia, 1.265.
111. Ibid., 1.348.


made salvation possible and the explicit argument that the imputation of active obedience would subvert Christian sanctity.

In 1614 the Synod of Tonneins settled the matter finally by propounding an authoritative explanation of French Confession 18 and of the oath of 1612, affirming that Jesus was “obedient unto his Father from the first moment of his birth, unto the last of his ignominious death upon the Cross, having most perfectly both in his life and death, fulfilled the whole Law given unto men.” They understood the “merit of this whole obedience” by which “we have, and shall obtain the forgiveness of all our sins” as an affirmation of the imputation of active obedience.112 The decrees of these synods make the doctrine of the imputation of active obedience more than just another theologoumenon. The imputation of active obedience is ecclesiastical doctrine.

That the Westminster Divines graciously formed the confession to allow a small minority who denied the imputation of active obedience to affirm it should not blind us to the external evidence (from the minutes) that the majority held and understood the Westminster Standards to teach the imputation of active obedience.113 The internal evidence supports this interpretation. Westminster Confession of Faith 7.2 speaks of Adam’s obligation to “perfect and personal obedience.”114 In that context, the force of the distinction between “perfect obedience” and “sacrifice of himself” (8.5), between “obedience” and “sacrifice” (11.1), and between “obedience and death” and “obedience and satisfaction” (11.3) seems clear.115 In other words, in this reading, “perfect obedience” refers to the active aspect of his obedience and “satisfaction” refers to the passive aspect of Christ’s obedience. This is how the majority of the Westminster Divines understood it.116

112. Ibid., 1.401.

113. See A. F. Mitchell and J. Struthers, Minutes of the Sessions of the Westminster Assembly of Divines (Edinburgh/London: Blackwood, 1874), lxv–lxvii; and A. F. Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly: Its History and Standards (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1884), 148–57.

114. WLC 20 has “personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience.”

115. WLC 38, 39, 70, 71 makes the same distinction. This is the same distinction with virtually the same language used by William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (trans. John D. Eusden; Durham, NC: Labyrinth, 1983), 92.

116. Mitchell, Westminster Assembly, 155.



This is not just another intramural Reformed scrimmage. In the nineteenth century, James Buchanan (1804–70) 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.”117 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.

117. James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification (repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1997), 175. Of course, this was not just a theoretical problem. The Socinian Racovian Catechism (1605) taught this very doctrine; see The Racovian Catechism, trans. Thomas Rees; 1818 (repr. Lexington: American Theological Library Association, 1962), 21–24, 280, 302–25.



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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Scott, a couple days ago I was alerted to the following from the above : “Calvin’s doctrine of justification is also being radically reconsidered; see Carl Mosser…” I realize this chapter was originally published before a similar comment appeared on your blog some years ago which you kindly corrected. My claim, of course, is simply that Calvin agreed with the patristic doctrine of deification just as several of his Reformed predecessors and contemporaries did. The idea that deification and justification are competing notions or that one must reject a forensic understanding of justification to have deification is a category error inherited from nineteenth-century Ritschlian theology.

    In several pieces, now, I’ve discussed the way Ritschlian historians of dogma misled generations of scholars to believe the doctrine of deification is a Greek patristic and Eastern Orthodox doctrine alien to the Protestant traditions. Once that is laid bare, it quickly becomes apparent just how bizarre and unhistorical it is to think that Calvin or his contemporaries would have rejected patristic teaching. I mention this because after encountering the above chapter, I listened to a 2022 podcast in which you make several comments that are heavily colored by assumptions that Ritschl, Harnack, et al. bequeathed modern theology. You even rejected the idea that Christ’s humanity was deified. I thought that was particularly strange. After all, the deification of Christ’s humanity is a conciliar teaching of the church requisite for ecumenical orthodoxy. At the same time, your comments presumed a definition of deification that violates the creator/creature distinction which is not the one operative in patristic soteriology or conciliar Christology. So, I’m unsure if you actually disagree with the orthodox position or misunderstand its terminology.

    Either way, among other things I’ve written since the SJT article cited above, you may find my most recently published piece informative. I have another coming out in October that illustrates in greater detail how early Reformed churches and theologians affirmed conciliar teaching about the deification of Christ’s humanity in response to Stancaro and Brenz.

    • Carl,

      It all comes down to definitions and intent. I don’t find the verb “to deify” very helpful especially if all that is meant is “sanctification.” Are we speaking in analogical or ontological categories? It’s clear to me that there was a move to set participatory categories (without clearly indicating whether that was analogical or ontological) against forensic categories. I documented that in my piece on Luther vis a vis the Finnish school. Something like that also happened among the Reformed, where suddenly, union was being set against the forensic. See Muller’s critique of Canlis in ch. 7 of Calvin and the Reformed Tradition. See also J. V. Fesko, Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517-1700). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012.

      Are you claiming that Reformed writers used the language “deified”? I’m looking just now at Calvin’s lecture on Ezekiel where he rails against the very notion that Christ’s humanity was “deified.”

      The Reformed freely criticized the fathers just as freely as they followed and appreciated them. I remember here that Calvin refused to be made even to say the Nicene Creed on demand, not that he rejected the Nicene Creed but that he wouldn’t do it slavishly or on command. The relations between the Reformed and the fathers is complex.

      • Scott,

        I agree that it comes down to definitions and intent. “Deification” is one of the oldest words in the Christian theological lexicon. It is the operative definition and intent of the fathers that matters with regard to whether we conclude that the Reformers agree with their soteriology and Christology regardless of whether the Reformers use the same terminology. It is the intent of words like deifcare and deificatio in particular affirmations and denials by the Reformers that matters when we weigh the significance of their statements in relation to patristic teaching.

        I have never set participatory categories against forensic, so whatever anyone else has done, that does not apply to my work. To the contrary, I have repeatedly insisted that these categories are not in competition. I have also criticized the Finnish interpretation for the way it uncritically accepts the Ritschlian framework, therby leading its proponents to conflate these categories. I have read Fesko. I have also read Muller’s critique of Canlis. Nothing Muller says about Canlis applies to my work or that of scholars who agree with me like Todd Billings, A.J. Ollerton, and Mike Horton.

        Yes, Reformed writers positively use “deified” in reference to both soteriology and Christology. They also affirmed the substance of patristic doctrine in other ways. You will find quotations and references in the essays to which I linked earlier.

        If you are referring to Calvin’s lecture on Ezekiel 1:25-26, I am familiar with it and other places where Calvin speaks this way. In this lecture, Calvin describes Servetus’ heterodox teaching, not the patristic doctrine which it obviously contradicts. One can find similar denials in Bullinger and others. In each case, such comments are directed against heterodox notions or Lutheran teaching about ubiquity. So, these sorts of statements do not entail that early Reformed theologians rejected the Christological teaching of the ecumenical councils. To the contrary, they knew that ecumenical orthodoxy requires the deification of Christ’s humanity. They affirmed both the concept and expressely accepted the conciliar documents that teach it. Again, I refer you to the essays linked earlier for the relevant references. Feel free to get in touch if you would like to continue the conversation after you’ve had a chance to read them and examine the primary sources cited therein.

        • Carl,

          I’m happy to be instructed. As I always tell my students, it’s not about being right but about getting it right. E.g., Harrison Perkins’ work on the Franciscans vs the Dominicans has helped clarify my understanding of Thomas (on this very issue).

          I agree that it was a significant idea (although not always very clear) for some fathers. I’m skeptical about claims about “the fathers” because we’re talking about 500 years, multiple locations, languages etc.

          As to the importance of “deification” in Reformed theology, it’s not like I’ve not been reading sources for 30+ years. It’s not something I’ve seen a lot. Perhaps I’ve missed it but deification is not so prominent or basic, as you seem to be suggesting, so as to have been confessed by any of the Reformed churches.

          Certainly we believe in glorification (clarificare, to glorify, to cast light upon) but I don’t see it described explicitly as deification, certainly not in an ontological sense.

          When deification does come up, it seems to be treated as an error. E.g., the Nassau-Dillenburger Confession of 1578 says, “In particular, the human nature, although glorified through the resurrection and ascension—so that all its weaknesses are put away to which it hitherto had been subject—and is adorned above all angels and men, yet it remains a true human nature and retains in itself the same essential properties and is itself neither deified, nor like to the divine nature in the infinitude of the divine being or in other essential properties. Rather it is certainly and really flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone” (emphasis added). James T. Dennison Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: 1523–1693, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008–2014), 464.

          I checked the German text* in Heppe and Müller and the translation seems fair.

          The Bremen Confession (ch. 88) says the same.

          More significantly, the Second Helvetic Confession, ch. 11 says:

          Neque enim vel sentimus, vel docemus, veritatem corporis Christi a clarificatione desiisse, aut deificatam, adeoque sic deificatam esse, ut suas proprietates, quoad corpus et animam deposuerit, ac prorsus in naturam divinam abierit, unaque duntaxat substantia esse cœperit.

          Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations, vol. 3 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882), 255–256.


          Therefore, we do not teach that the divine nature in Christ suffered or that Christ according to His human nature is yet in the world, and so in every place. For we do neither think nor teach that the body of Christ ceased to be a true body after His glorification, or that it was deified, and so deified that it put off its properties, as touching body and soul, and became altogether a divine nature and began to be one substance alone….

          James T. Dennison Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: 1523–1693, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008–2014), 828.

          *Nach der menschlichen Natur aber ein Creatur sein und bleiben laßen, die weder an dem wesen undt eigenschafften, noch wirckungen, noch an der Maiestät und Herligkeit jemals got gleich worden sey, ob wohl die menschliche Natur sonsten neben immerdar bleibenden jhren wesentlichen eigenschafften, jhre besondere, wunderbare, hohe und große Herligkeit hat vor allen vernünfftigen Creaturen , beides vor und nach der Verklerung.

          • Scott,

            Deification is assumed in the patristic, medieval, and Reformation traditions far more often than quasi-technical words like theopoiesis, theosis, and deificatio appear. One would be hard pressed to find patristics scholars willing to dispute that a soteriology of deification motivated the Nicene Creed, Chalcedonian Definition, and later Christological judgments of the Ecumenical Councils.

            The deification of Christ’s flesh and will is explicitly affirmed by the Sixth Ecumenical Council. Bullinger and Vermigli were clear that the Reformed churches of their day accepted the teaching of that council. The relevant portion states:

            “Just as his most holy and immaculate flesh, animated by his soul, has not been destroyed by being divinized but remains in its own state and kind, so also his human will has not been destroyed by being divinized. It has rather been preserved.”

            If you’ve missed deification in your reading, there are several possible explanations. It could just be that your interests don’t take you to the relevant texts. It is also possible that you don’t always appreciate the significance of particular statements or formulas that appear in the texts you read. The suggestion made in my original SJT article may apply. Many people who specialize in early modern theology often miss deification in the texts they study because they are insufficiently familiar with the relevant patristic literature. When I commented on your blog some years ago, I suggested that you might benefit from reading my article in JTS on the origin of the doctrine in the second century fathers. It’s long, but it would help clarify some misconceptions I detected in your podcast comments.

            I am familiar with each of the confessional statements you cite. As you rightly said early, it is the intent and definitions at play in them that matter. I have quoted and commented on the article from the Second Helvetic Confession in the following essay and the basic point applies to the others. There you will also find a quotation from Bucanus in which he affirms patristic teaching about the deification of Christ’s humanity and distinguishes it from debates about the communicatio idiomatum. Bucanus’ work is an important witness because his goal was to systematize the theology he inherited from the second and third generation Reformers.


            • Well, I’ve been teaching patristics from original texts for 27 years. It’s not that I’m unaware of the category.

              Deification is assumed in the patristic, medieval, and Reformation traditions far more often than quasi-technical words like theopoiesis, theosis, and deificatio appear.

              Does this mean that the language of deification doesn’t occur that much in Reformed orthodox texts? If not, then it’s a matter of drawing inferences, right? Your contention is that those of us blinded by German rationalist influence have missed the Reformed debt to the East?

              • No, it is not simply a matter of drawing inferences. There are a number of well-known ways that the doctrine is expressed in patristic texts in addition to words like theopoiesis, theosis, and deificatio. Some patristic writers who famously express the concept do not ever employ those words or use them quite sparingly. We find the same patristic formulas and patterns in early Reformed texts. All of this is concretely illustrated in my publications. You might begin with the essay linked in the previous comment and my chapter in the Oxford Handbook mentioned earlier (l presume the WSC library subscribes to Oxford Academic).

                My longstanding contention is that deification is not a distinctively Eastern doctrine. It is and always has been an ecumenical doctrine of the church. That was overlooked by generations of scholars because folks like Ritschl and Harnack told an incredibly influential story that was uncritically accepted by historians of doctrine across the theological spectrum. Long after Ritschl and Harnack faded from the scene, their story continued to be parroted in textbooks and systematic theologies as fact. Thus, for more than a century, it was the lens through which nearly everyone in our disciplines thought about deification. Eastern Orthodox theologians even made that story part of their theological identity. The story, however, is flatly contradicted by the primary sources. A lot of scholars now recognize that.

                • Carl,

                  I’m not contesting your claims about “the fathers” (even though that phrase makes me nervous). I’m questioning your claims about the Reformed appropriation of it and exactly what they did with it, which is not clear to me. You’ve not indicated whether you think it’s just a way of speaking about sanctification/glorification or whether there’s more going on. This is my difficulty in trying to sus out the Eastern use of “theosis.” Is it just sanctification/glorification or is it an ontological transformation and participation in deity?

                  As to being victimized by Ritschl et al, I understand the influence of 19th & 20th century German scholarship. I’ve been battling it re Reformed orthodoxy for a long time but I’ve been Reformed reading sources for a while and working hard to discern that they were saying on their own terms, in their context. A persuasive argument will demonstrate from sources, clearly, that they did what you claim they did and exactly what they were doing with it.

                  • Scott,

                    Yes, more is going on than mere sanctification and glorification. The patristic and early Reformed sources are both very clear about that. They also prevent any violation of the Creator-creature distinction. I have pointed you to publications in which I lay these things out from the primary sources. At this point, all I can do is encourage you to read those publications. I think you will be surprised by some of the things Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Bucer, Calvin, and Vermigli say.

                    I, too, have spent more than two decades reading Reformed sources and working hard to discern what they mean on their own terms. I’ve also worked hard to understand the patristic origins of this doctrine and the history of how it came to be thought of as an Eastern notion absent from the Reformation traditions.

                    Your response seems to boil down to simple historical incredulity. Well, I addressed that issue as well ten years ago and even cited you (link below).

                    As I mentioned before, if you’d like to continue the conversation after reading some of the pieces I’ve mentioned, I am happy to do that. I don’t think it can go much further unless that happens, though.



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