In Defense of the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ

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!

20 thoughts on “In Defense of the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ

  1. Dear Mike,

    Would Christ’s active obedience not be assumed because if He had not been “sinless” He could not have been the perfect, unblemished lamb to accomplish the one time sacrifice?
    Christ came and died on the Cross by active obedience to the Father’s will: “saying, ‘Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.'” Luke 22:42 Jesus again stresses the importance of His active obedience to His Father: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of the one who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.” John 6:38-40
    Also, what does it mean when Jesus says “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Matthew 5:17-18

    If I missed the point I apologize in advance…. charisse

  2. Them that hold to New Covenant theology have myriad theological issues and this one is perhaps the biggest. If all we need is the passive obedience of Christ, as someone else asked, why didn’t He die as an infant? As the Bible makes clear, He earned the right to be the Passover Lamb. Without the life of sinless human existence Jesus would not have been able to give His righteousness to the redeemed – He would have needed it for Himself.

  3. Hello Mike, i find theological issues to be very confusing so i hope you dont mid a few points for a new christian trying to understand as i have probably missed some your points made from your recent posts.
    Abraham was justified by faith alone which was seen as righteousness before God centuries before the “law of works” existed for example as he knew of no law and i am led to believe that the Saviour saved us from the curse of the law when we died with him on cross thus dying to the curse of the law and were risen with him as a new holy creation. In Galations Paul concludes “not by works of the law” was the spirit of life adminstered but by the hearing of faith showing that faith stands alone. We take it for granted that Jesus fullfilled the law as the only spotless person to have ever lived and to have fullfilled the demands of the law but like Abraham could this not have been faith it could be argued as well as his works under the ceremonial law with his faith and new spirit imputed to believers from the death that comes from the fall?
    The seed of abraham by which all nations could be saved where abraham was justified by faith alone i am led to believe.
    We know that Moses and Elijah both disapeared and only christ remained when the father said this my beloved son hear ye him indicating glorify Jesus only, not the old law perhaps.
    Christ transended the laws of Moses in Matthhew 17 making them to live in the heart not the mind showing that the Saviour went way beyoond just fullfilling the law on behalf us all which i would have would be also imputed into us.

  4. Andrew, believers are not just those who believed since Cross and the Resurrection, but go all the way back to all those Old Testament Saints who believed God. The imputation to their account went back to them as well even though they did not have the same revelation of what was going on that we have.

  5. Thus we have the teachings from Romans, justified by faith then and justified through faith now. Romans 4, 5.

  6. The myth of our perfect obedience is just that, a myth. Can anyone claim his mind is free from sin or slight compromise (also sin) every minute? Surely not! Only Christ was sinless, everything else has no power to redeem.

    A believer passively sins but actively seeks perfection.

    An unbeliever actively sins, always.

  7. Such simplicity in Him and His Work….But no, men have to build a new thing around every wind of doctrine, so that, like Babel they can elevate themselves, and be lifted up like God, and benefit from drawing all men to them… Here I thought extra-biblical revelation was always wrong…silly me…only as it relates to those other forms of error…hmmm
    Mike, keeping all this straight must really wreck your recreation time, but then, I saw how well the chiefs did…Here, the Steelers and Browns fans must watch the Bills each week, but even in this the Lord was merciful…to them, as the Bills actually won, and spared the Browns and Steeler fans the agony of defeat…
    Thought I would give you a moments worth of comic relief. LO?L

  8. :-) Mickey :-)
    I am from Oklahoma ya know. My favorite college team is Oklahoma State which is 2-0 and ranked in the top 10. They are number 2 in offense and could probably beat the Browns, Steelers and Chiefs. :-)

    As far as this doctrine stuff goes, there are some pestering little gnats who continue to bother me with their “yeah buts” that cause me to research and clarify. What do I find? The truth is quite simple. God is sovereign, the Atonement is all His Work and we do absolutely nothing to become born again. God does it all. Why anyone wants to dispute that is beyond me.

  9. Mike – My wife and I both graduated from Oklahoma State! I was born in Texas, my wife is an Okie. Both my folks were Okies. Unknown to me when we married, she is a Redskins fan – which is bliss because I had been one since high school :-) We both hate (is that a sin?) the Dallas Cowboys.

  10. Manfred, well, well, we may have much more in common than I thought. I was at OSU 1969-1971 then 1984-1986 (Tulsa University Center) and 2000-2001 (Tulsa University Center). Not to mention the dozens of I.T. classes I took at OSU-OKC in the 1990’s. I lived in the Washington D.C. area from November 1973 through May 1980 and love the ‘Skins. My son lives there now and is an ER doctor at a hospital in Reston. How can you hate the Dallas Cowboys whose kicker is from OSU and their best wide receiver is Dez Bryant? :-)

  11. As the cult of Disney would say, It’s a small world, after all!

    My wife and I graduated from OSU in 1979. Thurman Thomas was nearly a decade away – and then there was Barry Sanders :-)

    I have admired many Dallas Cowboy players and a coach or two. But I hated the slogan, “America’s Team” from the beginning and am firmly convinced that one cannot be a ‘skins fan without hating the Cowboys. And I also believe I have a native born right right to hate the Cowboys of Dallas, having been born in Fort Worth. But free agency makes the NFL less and less interesting year by year.

    And the active obedience of Christ keeps increasing in importance to this wretched sinner, week by week :-)

  12. That makes sense Mike as God is eternal and outside of space and time thus the Saviours sacrifice would transend linear time from our human point of view so all believers could be saved no matter they were born before christ. Someone wrote once finding the salavation Christ in the OT is as easy as finding “Smiths” in the phone book.
    Cheers.

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