by Mike Ratliff
21 τὸν μὴ γνόντα ἁμαρτίαν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἁμαρτίαν ἐποίησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς γενώμεθα δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ
(2 Corinthians 5:21 NA28)
21 The one who knew no sin, on our behalf, was made sin that we might become the righteousness of God in him. (2 Corinthians 5:21 translated from the NA28 Greek text)
Mirrored in the YRR movement and probably overlapping it quite a bit is something called New Covenant Theology. Especially amongst Reformed Baptists who grew up ignorant of it (like me), but who are now enthusiastically grasping its depth and how Reformation Theology’s strengths are all found in how it is rooted in Biblical exegesis rather than the philosophies of men, most are determined “to get it right.” Unfortunately, within New Covenant Theology is a determined attack on what many call “Calvinistic sacred cows” within Reformation Theology. One of these “sacred cows” is “The Covenant of Works,” which includes the double imputation of both Christ’s active and passive obedience to the Christian at their justification. Why would they attack these things?
If you want to read their “arguments,” go here.
Here is my defense. Steve Lehrer and Geoff Volker state that they firmly believe that Christ’s ‘passive obedience’ is sufficient to save believers without the imputation of his active obedience. What we shall see, however, is that they are actually denying the hermeneutical principle of Necessary Consequence.
The first proof-text they use to attempt to disprove the doctrine of Active Obedience is Hebrews 10:11-14.
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Hebrews 10:11-14 ESV)
This passage seems to state that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, which is his passive obedience, perfects all believers. Lehrer and Volker firmly believe that this text teaches that Christ’s passive obedience is sufficient for believers. Instead of putting us in neutral, and thus we must be saved by Christ’s active obedience, they believe that this text teaches the sole sufficiency of Christ’s passive obedience without the need to invoke the doctrine of active obedience. When faced with statements like this based upon proof-texting, we must always note the context.
This passage as well the one following, Hebrews 10:15-22, is based within the overall theme of the book of Hebrews, which is the supremacy of Christ and his sacrifice over that of the Old Testament types and shadows. Therefore, was the writer of the book of Hebrews looking to discuss such issues as the active and passive obedience of Christ here in this context? That would be a stretch; therefore, to infer that Christ’s passive obedience was what the writer of Hebrews had in mind when he wrote those words is to be presumptuous at best. What is being contrasted here is the inability of the Old Testament multiple sacrifices offered by priests to save and perfect the Old Testament saints as compared with the one sacrifice offered by Jesus Christ which is effective in its working. Therefore, this context is relating to the priesthood, not to forensic issues such as the active and passive obedience of Christ. It is telling that these people fail to notice the context and interpret this passage using wrong presuppositions.
Steve Lehrer and Geoff Volker next point us to Romans 3:21-4:12.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Romans 3:21-4:12 ESV)
They state that exegesis of this passage proves that the righteousness of God as stated here is mainly talking about Christ’s passive righteousness, and, therefore, there is no necessity of ‘positive’ law keeping involved or mentioned in this passage. That is true, for salvation is through believing in Christ apart from works. However, to say that this righteousness is talking about Christ’s passive righteousness is to read into the text something that is not stated. Actually, the righteousness spoken of in this passage is talking about both active and passive righteousness. Nowhere in this passage are we told as to what exactly this righteousness of Christ refers to. We do know that it includes his passive obedience because it talks about Christ’s sacrifice and his propititiation for our sins, however, it still does not say anything about the reality of Christ’s righteousness except that it includes his passive obedience.
They use other texts of course, but they all suffer from the same issue. Let us move to 2 Corinthians 5:21 and put it context to close our case for doctrine of Double Imputation.
16 Ὥστε ἡμεῖς ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν οὐδένα οἴδαμεν κατὰ σάρκα· εἰ καὶ ἐγνώκαμεν κατὰ σάρκα Χριστόν, ἀλλὰ νῦν οὐκέτι γινώσκομεν. 17 ὥστε εἴ τις ἐν Χριστῷ, καινὴ κτίσις· τὰ ἀρχαῖα παρῆλθεν, ἰδοὺ γέγονεν καινά. 18 τὰ δὲ πάντα ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ καταλλάξαντος ἡμᾶς ἑαυτῷ διὰ Χριστοῦ καὶ δόντος ἡμῖν τὴν διακονίαν τῆς καταλλαγῆς, 19 ὡς ὅτι θεὸς ἦν ἐν Χριστῷ κόσμον καταλλάσσων ἑαυτῷ, μὴ λογιζόμενος αὐτοῖς τὰ παραπτώματα αὐτῶν καὶ θέμενος ἐν ἡμῖν τὸν λόγον τῆς καταλλαγῆς. 20 Ὑπὲρ Χριστοῦ οὖν πρεσβεύομεν ὡς τοῦ θεοῦ παρακαλοῦντος διʼ ἡμῶν· δεόμεθα ὑπὲρ Χριστοῦ, καταλλάγητε τῷ θεῷ. 21 τὸν μὴ γνόντα ἁμαρτίαν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἁμαρτίαν ἐποίησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς γενώμεθα δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ. (2 Corinthians 5:16-21 NA28)
16 So that from now on we know no one according to the flesh. Indeed, we once knew Christ according to the flesh, but we know him thus no longer. 17 So that if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation, the old things passed away, behold, he has become new. 18 And all things are of God the one having reconciled us to himself through Christ and having given to us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning their trespasses against them, and having put in us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors on behalf of Christ, God entreating through us. We ask on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 The one who knew no sin, on our behalf, was made sin that we might become the righteousness of God in him. (2 Corinthians 5:16-21 translated from the NA28 Greek text)
What is the context of 2 Corinthians 5:16-21? It is undoubtedly salvation. In v17 we have, “So that if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation, the old things passed away, behold, he has become new. ” This is talking about our new being in Christ which we have received through God’s grace in regeneration. In vv18-20 Paul talks about God’s ministry of reconciliation. This is his reconciling the world to himself and giving believers, us, the ministry of reconciliation. Knowing that this whole passage is talking about salvation and God’s grace and God working to reconcile people to himself, how should we look at v21? Here it is again:
“The one who knew no sin, on our behalf, was made sin that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”
Here we clearly see that the sins of all those Christ came to save were imputed to him as he died on that cross. This is his passive obedience when he took the penalty of sin on behalf of all of his people. He was the “one who knew no sin.” He was sinless. He was not made to actively sin, but to be regarded as being guilty of the sins of those whom he propitiated. This is definitely the teaching of Sacred Scripture that God imputes our sins to Christ.
Part two of this verse is where the controversy is. What does it mean, “that we might become the righteousness of God?” The “we” there is all believers and they are to actually become righteous either through imputation or otherwise. When we are justified we are forgiven, but that is not this. This is an imputation of positive righteousness before God.
This is a perfect case of parallelism. The first part of the v21 mentions our sins being imputed to Christ, while the second part talks about making us the righteousness of God. Part one teaches the passive obedience of Christ, part two teaches the active obedience of Christ and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to our account. The Greek sentence structure is solidly behind this as well.
The New Covenant Theologians or anyone denying this doctrine have a problem. How can we be said to become not only righteous, but the righteousness of God if only our sins are imputed to Christ? Surely, it is only Christ who is the righteousness of God and we can only be said to be the ones made righteous or the recipient of the righteousness of God, but never that we are also the righteousness of God. Why? It is because we cannot be said to actively possess righteousness before God, but only passively considered righteous because of Christ’s sacrifice for us.
In the New Covenant Theology model, believers are only passively righteous before God, but not actively, which is not what 2 Corinthians 5:21 teaches. Instead, it teaches that all believers actually become the righteousness of God IN CHRIST.
Soli Deo Gloria!