Is the Christian’s Hope in Christ’s Active Obedience or Their Own Works

by Mike Ratliff

ὥσπερ γὰρ διὰ τῆς παρακοῆς τοῦ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου ἁμαρτωλοὶ κατεστάθησαν οἱ πολλοί, οὕτως καὶ διὰ τῆς ὑπακοῆς τοῦ ἑνὸς δίκαιοι κατασταθήσονται οἱ πολλοί. (Romans 5:19 NA27)

For as through the disobedience of one man, many were man sinners, so also through one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19 Possessing the Treasure New Testament V1) 

John Gresham Machen (July 28, 1881 – January 1, 1937), on the day before he died, wrote a note to his friend John Murray saying, “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ; no hope without it.” A study of Machen’s other writings make it clear that for him “the active obedience of Christ” refers to Christ’s perfect obedience to the Father during his time on earth which is imputed to all believers who trust in him for salvation. This is the righteousness the Father sees when he looks upon those in “the Body” rather than as we are in this temporal state of being declared righteous, but having to live in this in-between state of being sanctified. The Christian’s hope in their stand before the Father is not in how well they do in this process of sanctification, but rather in the finished work of Christ and his perfect obedience which has been imputed to their account. On the other hand, many so-called Christian leaders who are drenched in pragmatism and whose “gospel” is totally “man-centered” reject this as being “passive” as per Rick Warren’s Tweet on September 6th.


Rick Warren

Imputation is 1sided but fellowship with Christ is 2sided.Koinonia means PARTICIPATION! God want your passion,not passivity

6 Sep via web

Here is the link to the “Tweet” above.

Before we go into the passages dealing with Christ’s Righteousness imputed to our account let us look at the word Koinonia. It is used some 19 times in the New Testament. The following is from Bill Mounce’s Expository Dictionary:

Noun: κοινωνία (koinōnia)…koinōnia generally means “fellowship, communion, participation, sharing.” It can refer to the mutual interests and sharing of members in the community of faith, the church. This mutual sharing is seen in the description of the newly founded church in Acts 2:42, in which one of the four patterns of discipleship is the early Christians’ continuing together in koinōnia. In the context of the early church in Acts, such sharing involved not only associating with each other, but also sharing food and other necessities of life.

Paul uses this the word most often (13x). He too uses it for the sharing of material things—it is one of the works he uses for his collection of funds for the poor saints in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 8:4; 9:13). Such sharing requires a mindset that esteems others over oneself (Phil. 2:1). Paul also uses koinōnia  to refer to the intimate fellowship shared between the believing community and Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:9). In other contexts, he speaks of his koinōnia  in the sufferings of Christ (Phil. 3:10), the fellowship of the Spirit (2 Cor. 13:13), the participation in the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharistic celebration (1 Cor. 10:16), and the sense of “partnership” that Paul and the Philippians had in spreading the gospel (Phil. 1:5; note that they helped fund Paul’s mission work, 4:14-19; cf. also Phlm. 6). By contrast, we should have no fellowship with darkness (2 Cor. 6:14).

John uses koinōnia to refer to the Christian fellowship we have with the Christian fellowship we have with one another (1 Jn. 1:3,  7). This fellowship is centered in and based on our common fellowship with the Father and his Son, Jesus (1:3, 6).

Some may say, well isn’t that what Rick Warren meant? No, he was making an either/or contrast. He was saying that if we point and hold to our Christ’s Righteousness and His Work on our behalf as our hope then we are being passive. He then asserts that real Christians WORK with passion and that those of us who are looking to Christ as our hope rather than our works, are not pleasing God, but those who work with zeal are. Correct me if I read that wrong.

I am sorry, but my righteousness is as filthy rags. My hope is in Christ not me. I agree with J. Gresham Machen, “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ; no hope without it.” We have already read Romans 5:19 at the top of this post. What I like about that verse is that the part about us being made righteous is future. We have righteous imputed standing before God now, but when we do stand before him after this life, we will be made fully righteous with the righteousness of Christ.

How are we justified?

τί γὰρ ἡ γραφὴ λέγει; ἐπίστευσεν δὲ Ἀβραὰμ τῷ θεῷ καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην. (Romans 4:3 NA27)

For what do the Scriptures say? Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness. (Romans 4:3 Possessing the Treasure New Testament V1)

I suppose we should have started with that verse, but isn’t it clear that our justification is a declaration and an “accounting” by God to our account of righteousness. Whose righteousness? It is Christ’s and it is based upon what? It is based upon us turning from unbelief to believing God.

τὸν μὴ γνόντα ἁμαρτίαν ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἁμαρτίαν ἐποίησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς γενώμεθα δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ. (2 Corinthians 5:21 NA27)

The one not knowing sin, on behalf of us, was made sin that we might become the righteousness of God in him. (2 Corinthians 5:21 Possessing the Treasure New Testament V1) 

Here we have one of the most important verses in God’s Word for understanding the meaning of the atonement and justification. Who is it that knew no sin? That is Jesus Christ. God the Father made him (Christ) sin. This does not mean that he made Jesus actively sin, but that he made Christ to be regarded and treated as “sin” even though he never sinned. Why did God do this? It was “on behalf of us.” In other words, God treated “our” sin (the sin of all who would believe in Christ) as if our sin belonged not to us, but to Christ himself. Hence, in Christ’s death, he died for “all” (2 Corinthians 5:14) and as Peter said, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). In this, our Lord Jesus Christ became our propitiation or substitution. This is what we call the substitutionary atonement. In all of this, Christ became sin and suffered on our behalf “that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” Here we see the other part of the imputation. Our sins were imputed to Christ on the cross, but at our justification, his perfect righteousness and his perfect obedience is imputed to our account. We are imputed a righteousness that is not our own. Even though we are still in the process of sanctification in this life, God regards and treats believers as having the legal status of “righteousness” because Christ bore their sins. These believers belong to Christ because they are in him.

We have just scratched the surface here and we could go much deeper into the doctrines and the passages that support them, but I am sure that if you have wisdom and discernment that belong to all in Christ, you see the shallowness and surface level foolishness of what Rick Warren is saying in that “Tweet.” It is as if he is kicking sand in the face of all the work Christ has done on the behalf of His church and now they have to just forget all that and work to get right with God. Sigh..

Again, I agree wholeheartedly with J. Gresham Machen, “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ; no hope without it.”

Soli Deo Gloria!

29 thoughts on “Is the Christian’s Hope in Christ’s Active Obedience or Their Own Works

  1. Rick Warren will have none of that, no, if you cant earn and work for it(righteousness that is), then you cant have it…..
    sadly many people i come across truly believe this same gospel of self and works and that “natural” righteousness is in us and waiting to be utilized. Always, and i mean always they respond in the same way, as you mention mike, “you cant be passive and blah blah blah.” If only the lord would truly open their eyes to see that all that they bring are but filthy rags and to trust in Gods work.


  2. Mike, this is so well spelt out…
    Rick Warren is forgetting most of John 15….
    “Without me you can do nothing”! It’s only as we abide in Him that His righteousness becomes ours… and we are then enabled to have true koinonia.. with Him and in His body…
    Am I understanding this right?


  3. George, several years ago I wrote another post on this same subject and a friend came to me and said that everything I said was biblically sound, BUT come-on man, when we get saved WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING! I remember after God drew me into my understanding of reformed theology that I too struggled in this same area, but then I saw that what I was hanging on to amounted to pride. We still want control. Only reformed theology dashes our pride and does not give us an out at all. God does it all. You are right, what we have to offer is nothing, but filthy rags and after God gives us the ability to believe, we do so and then we trust in His Word and THEN we grow in Him through cooperation in our sanctification.


  4. Hi Mike,
    Excellent article, thank you.
    “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ; no hope without it.”
    I am thankful too…grateful and rejoicing for this great gift. Justified by faith and at peace now with God, forever. Rom 5:1

    “Imputation is 1sided but…”
    Honestly, what a strange thing to say. The whole tweet doesn’t make sense. I know there is a works mandate in there somewhere… and is he saying that if by understanding and acknowledging imputation then we are being passive? Or, that we do not have real fellowship with Christ because of our understanding of imputation and its complete perfection–which obviously must lead to passivity? If because I believe in Christ’s imputation, then I am not in fellowship with Him, not really, or passionate enough, and am therefore declared passive?

    Is he saying that imputation really isn’t one sided–since that little word -but- disregards that phrase and the focus is on what comes next…something I must do? Be passionate, participate and have fellowship.

    Imputation is the great news that is the source of all my joy and passion and participation and fellowship with Christ.
    OK–I am passionate about Christ’s imputation for me…. and my understanding of what He did for me greatly enhances my participation in wanting to know my Savior more and my fellowship with Jesus. Is that what Rick means? 🙂 Sure hope so.


  5. Diane, I think that what Rick Warren means is that we should not be passionate about God imputing Christ’s Righteousness to us and depend on that ALONE, but should seek to be passionate about relationships, serving and works instead. What he doesn’t understand is that those who are truly regenerate will do that anyway.


  6. Hi Mike, Clarification: Do you think the church mixes up justification and sanctification? We know that God is just and He alone is the justifier. He is the one who began a good work in us and will be faithful to complete it. So, from the beginning (regeneration) to the end (glorification) and all in between (sanctification) He is the One, who in His Sovereign will, brings this about. It is not our efforts or anything we have done to merit or earn righteousness. It is NOT our ground of/for justification. It does seem to me that many in the church today mix up justification and sanctification (neither of which are done apart from God nor done in the strength of any individual alone). At the same time, a true believer will have evidence or fruit of what has taken place and is taking place in his/her life by God if they have been truly justified. There is no after-care (our own merit) nor is there a prior work (our own merit) that needs to be done in order to be justified. However, true saving faith will have evidence which cannot come apart from Christ but is manifested in our lives. A profession accompanied with a life that is not changed and habitually/continually lives like the devil does not exhibit the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. What do you think?


  7. Michael, I came from a SBC background, but in it, I was a Bible teacher and had some pretty deep doctrinal training. When I became reformed, I had no problem with the difference between Justification and Sanctification. In fact, it was no different from what I had believed and taught for many years. The main difference was in what is involved in the imputation, in the SBC that involves how our positional sanctification and our continual cooperative sanctification is understood. At least it was by me and by those from whom I learned it. However, when I did teach it, there was always a level of resistance and misunderstanding in some about the purpose and end result of this progressive sanctification. Since we are positionally sanctified (set apart) when we are justified, why go through all these tests and trials and spiritual growth if all that does is end up going away and we end up fully sanctified in Christ in eternity anyway? I always taught it that there are God mandated and controlled rewards subsequent to this progressive sanctification. There is a purpose in it and the main reason is that as we grow in Christlikeness, we bring glory to God. True saving faith will result in a person going through this process. Those who appear to be Christians, but who are not, will bail at some point. On the other hand, a false professor can progress far in the counterfeit church as we are witnessing all around us…


  8. Hello Mike, i am glad i have found this website as a recent Chritsian convert. The Lord has saved me from the Luciferian new age nonsense i used to be involved in and my wicked and selfish past dabbling in the occult. For the past few years i have seen the wickedness and deception of the world and felt for persecuted Christians, My conversion came when everything clicked together, realization of the prince of the world, the saviour, the nonsence of evolution and big bang theories and the agenda to get rid of God from the minds of men and to get mankind to celebrate their sins as well as my own state of being a worthless, selfish and wicked sinner worthy of eternal punishment.
    Thank you Lord for choosing me out of the world and thank you for showing me true men of God who have the holy spirit to be guides. The UK Baptist Church i attend is somewhat aposate i realize now but i don’t rely on the Minister only for my spiritual education but the Bible and trusted Guides and books and i do still to want to mix with other Christians as these are the only ones i know in the flesh as it were.


  9. I also want to share my testimony. I came out of the apostate charismatic Church of God in Christ denomination by the grace of God and was introduced to the doctrines of grace (by John MacArthur) and reformed theology. To my horror (and dismay) I was (for the first time) convicted of my sin and realized that I wasn’t even saved. My faith was in a false Christ I had created based of how I felt and not scripture.

    Although I had a zeal for God’s word it wasn’t according to knowledge. I propagated lies and error because that was what I was taught.

    This issue of justification by faith alone is rejected in most black charismatic churches. And false teachings run rampant as a works based salvation rules the day. I thank God so much that he Gave His only Son and by faith I have peace and no longer the wrath of God. I pray everyday that He will do the same for all my immediate family. They still attend the false church and have rejected any of my attempts to speak the truth in love….

    Mr. Ratliff please continue to speak the truth as I am almost certain that many read and never comment….

    Grace and Peace….

    Brandon Davison


  10. If Rick Warren ever Tweets – or otherwise communicates Truth – it will shock me as much as if the Pope declares Sola Scriptura.

    What sweet news to read of Andrew and Brandon being made new by the grace of the Lord Jesus – who is the One who is faithful to to keep us until the Day of His return.

    I join with the others, Mike, in thanking the Lord for your faithful witness. Grow not weary my brother.


  11. Brandon, sorry it took so long to reply. I have been editing pictures that I took on my trip so I can have them ready to send to my daughter in a couple of days. In any case, as I did with Andrew’s testimony, I rejoiced as I read yours brother. I have friends and relatives in the same darkness from where you came from so I know about that… As you said, the only thing we can do is to continue to pursue God’s truth, proclaim it, and live as Christ would have us live. Again, I rejoice that God has drawn you into this light and you are always welcome here brother.


  12. Mike, We know the Word of God tells us to rejoice and be thankful and in prayer at all times and in all circumstances. Easy to read, not so easy to walk. When my father was dieing at far too young an age, the devotional I was using at the time drew me to 1 Thess 4:13ff and my personal Bible reading a few days later put Galatians 6 in my face, with verse 9 standing out to encourage me in my time of need. Christ is SUFFICIENT! What a glorious Truth upon which we can stand firm until He come again!


  13. In Luke 9:23, Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” We know the Father has already honored the cross Christ took up (on our behalf) but will God honor the cross many pastors tell us to take up and carry? Is not picking up our cross and crucifying the flesh the same as doing good works? I have always felt that a true Christian will crucify the deeds of flesh without making an effort to do so even though at times there will be struggle. In other words, we crucify the flesh when we walk in the spirit (Galatians 5:16). Do you agree?

    After salvation and with words too sobering to ignore, the apostle Paul in his epistle to the Philippians, instructed believers to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). This is not a work for salvation but a labor to learn and understand what they have been given in order to apply the Gospel in an experiential way to their daily walk with the Lord. Paul goes on to say believers should do this labor with a sense of awe and accountability before the Lord because their salvation is indeed a precious gift. Just to be clear, sanctification is God working in the believer to do His will (Hebrews 13:20-21). However, Philippians 2:12 is also suggesting that we play a cooperative role in sanctification. If this is not true, the why would Paul have said it?

    Jim S


  14. Quite simply, this is the power of the Gospel in the lives of those made alive by the Holy Spirit. Further, it shows that when a man, functioning as a guide, or shepherd/servant, brings forth God’s Word, Power is manifest. Thanks Mike for being faithful to this calling. You are a cyber-shepherd/elder who has been freely given, so you freely give!

    I am one who has said, “follow Jesus, and no man”…and I continue to say that. The difference from what I said and what you said in your post, is that the word follow is in 2 seperate contexts. I can follow an usher to a seat as he lights my way in an unfamilier and darkened theatre, yet not depend on him as my “Head.” By saying, “follow Jesus, and no man.” I mean as my Source, not my guide.
    Mike I will continue to follow your blog, as you usher us toward a better understanding of the Word. At the same time,we both walk together side by side as “living stones” and members of the body of called out ones, each following Jesus as Lord and the only Head of His Body/Bride/Ekklesia/ Church. Hopefully this analogy clarifies the word “follow,” at least from my perspective.. I am in complete agreement with your position regarding the need and function of true elders within a fellowship of believers. The greatest among men, in Christ’s Church is the servant of all. The greatest among men in the gentile hirearchy is the bully at the top of the pyramid. This is a straight and narrow path we walk in the Lord, and few there be that find it…according to Jesus Himself…thus the number of godly elders is by extention very, very few!
    Again, Mike continue to function as the godly cyber-elder you have become, brother!

    I too rejoice with the angels in heaven and folks on this blog for the blessed testimonies of our newer brothern!


  15. Jim, yes our Justification is 100% God’s work and we are also set apart in Christ (Sanctified) at the same time by him. However, in this life, we must cooperate with him, working out our salvation with fear and trembling. Why? It is all for God’s glory and our edification.


  16. Mike, Enjoyed the post and the testimonies that have been shared. Truly wonderful!
    “Those who appear to be Christians, but who are not, will bail at some point. On the other hand, a false professor can progress far in the counterfeit church as we are witnessing all around us…”
    So true (Acts 20:29-30). This, I think, is also exacerbated by the lack of confronting false teaching, biblical separation, practicing biblical church discipline and excommunication (not the first option but should be done in the end). I also think there is a great lack of accountability among leaders (pastors, elders, leaders within organizations, etc.). It seems there is a great unwillingness to lovingly, rebuke and confront as the Apostle Paul tells us in the Pastoral Epistles. I think it would be beneficial for many to reread or read for the first time Richard Baxter’s “The Reformed Pastor” and apply it. Lack of biblical confrontation leads to demise within the church.
    “Since we are positionally sanctified (set apart) when we are justified, why go through all these tests and trials and spiritual growth if all that does is end up going away and we end up fully sanctified in Christ in eternity anyway?”
    Could you clarify the underline portion please?
    Regarding ‘imputation’ then what do you think of the NPP especially NT Wrights version?
    my righteousness is as filthy rags. My hope is in Christ not me. I agree with J. Gresham Machen, “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ; no hope without it.”
    “Passion” is the latest SD/PD buzz word pointed toward ‘works’ especially a social gospel agenda. While I would state that there is nothing wrong with ‘passion’ per se, as I believe it will be in a true believer whose eyes, heart, and entire being are focused on Jesus Christ even though it may appear in various degrees within each individual, I do agree that RW’s tweet is in error and you have a good assessment of it.
    I have seen leadership who once cared for all members of all ages within the church change after adopting the SD/PD model. I even heard younger leadership say that this is the way we are going, there are going to be changes, and if you don’t like it…some will have to leave. This was all done while talking about supposed ‘passion’ and ‘following Jesus Christ.’ However, these actions are contrary to Holy Scripture not the least of which is found in 1 John.
    Have a blessed day Mike!
    In Christ Jesus Our Precious Lord and Savior!


  17. Michael, on #2 I don’t see a underlined portion, but that statement was actually a “quote” I have heard from people I have taught in classes who had issues with Christians being both set apart (sanctified) in Christ at salvation and how we must still work out our salvation with fear and trembling, et cetera. Their point being that didn’t seem to get the importance of how our sanctifying progress here brings glory to God and also brings us rewards in eternity.

    #3 I think the NPP is heresy, both NT Wright’s version as well as the Federal Vision version.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff


  18. I think reading all that into Romans 5:19 is a dangerous approach. All it says it Christ’s obedience makes men righteous – which is saying something important, but nothing ‘detailed’. For example, Christ’s “passive obedience” is still obedience properly speaking, so it should fit in Rom 5:19. If one is going to argue that Rom 5:19 is speaking of (a) active obedience alone, or (b) active obedience along with passive obedience, I think they must build their case from elsewhere in Scripture because this text simply doesn’t give that kind of information. It can be firmly taught that Christ’s Death was what brought us righteousness (e.g. Rom. 3:21-26; 2 Cor. 5:21), but texts saying Christ’s keeping of the Law was it’s own righteousness is not something I’ve been able to track down.


  19. Nicholas, read your comment. It is your “opinion.” I gave scripture which clearly shows what I said it says. I also stated that we could have gone much deeper and done a great deal more exegesis, but then I just ran out of time. I think you are demanding too much from the text. Christ’s keeping of the Law is also imputed TO OUR ACCOUNT as part of our Justification. How else could we be justified before God as if we had not sinned?


  20. Hello Mike,

    Of course it is my opinion, but how is your claim not also an opinion? I re-read your original post, but I don’t see where you gave Scripture that clearly shows active obedience being taught.

    Also, I don’t see how I’m demanding too much from the text when I applied a simple test: The term ‘obedience’ is mentioned, now what kind of ‘obedience’ would that be, active, passive, or both? The text doesn’t say, and guessing is surely not an option.

    You asked me: “How else could we be justified before God as if we had not sinned?” I’d say by the Cross, and it alone. Why does Paul go on and on about the saving power of the Cross if the Cross is really insufficient on it’s own? Either the Cross is sufficient or it’s not; and I believe it is.

    Pastor Wes White (among other respected names) even admits the doctrine of Active Obedience has not been historically accepted by all:

    To begin with, even though this denial was condemned by the French Reformed Churches (though this view was later tolerated even there), a great part of the Reformed Churches did not reject as ministers those who denied active obedience, let alone count them as heretics. For example, clearly Gataker, Twisse, and Vines denied the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, but they and their views were tolerated by the Westminster Assembly. Second, there were various ministers throughout the Reformed Churches who held this viewpoint, such as John Jacob Alting who taught at Groningen in the Netherlands.3 Third, the theologians of Saumur also denied the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Of course, the Swiss Reformed Churches condemned this viewpoint and other Salmurian views in the Formula Consensus Helvetica, but other Churches did not. Fourth, this denial was extremely common amongst the German Reformed Churches including theologians such as Piscator, Ursinus, Pareus, Crocius, Marinius, Wendelin, and Scultetus (among others!). Consequently, we can see that a significant minority did deny the imputation of the active obedience of Christ often with toleration.

    Thus, historically the denial of active obedience does not constitute heresy; it is a ‘non-essential’. This means there are plausible reasons for accepting passive obedience alone.


  21. No Nick, it is the imputation of Christ’s Righteousness via the Cross through our salvation by grace through faith we are justified. It is this imputation that makes us right with God and in that imputation is also Christ’s perfect obedience to the Law. That was why He had to become incarnate as a man and become one of us. He had to keep the Law and it is this perfect keeping of the Law that is imputed to us at our justification. This is the Righteousness God sees when He looks upon us and why we can come boldly to the throne of grace, et cetera.


  22. Hello Mike,

    Well, if one doesn’t see “this perfect keeping of the Law that is imputed to us at our justification” in Scripture, and it’s not heresy to deny it, then ultimately it’s of the non-essentials category that Christians can freely disagree on (even if they hold strong opinions about it).


  23. Nick I don’t think this matter can be declared in the non-essential catergory that allows for different views because the word of God clearly teaches salvation accomplished, for those who believe, by Christ work alone. If I could direct your attention to Romans 4:1-5

    What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” Romans 4:1-5

    Paul clearly lets us know that Abraham was not justified because of his works so that there would be no chance to boast before God. It says that since Abraham believed God to be He who justifies the ungodly, his faith was counted as righteousness. The one who does not trust in His works but completely puts his trust in the work of Christ on the cross is the one who will be declared righteous before God. Not because of their works (although those who truly believe shall be conformed into the image of the Son by the power of the Spirit of God 2 Cor 3:18; 2 Thess 2:13; 1 Thess 5:15) but because of the work of Christ….

    Someone please correct me if I’m wrong….


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