The Error of Vicarious Law Keeping

IMAG2504

(by William R. Newell, in his Romans commentary under Romans 5:19)

Even so through the obedience of the One (Romans 5:19)—This was our Lord‘s death, as an act of obedience: “He became obedient unto death, yea, the death of the cross.” He was of course always obedient to His Father, but it cannot be too strongly emphasized that His life before the cross,—His “active obedience,” as it is called, is not in any sense counted to us for righteousness. “I delivered to you,” says Paul, “first of all, that Christ died for our sins.” Before His death He was “holy, guileless, undefiled, separated from sinners.” He Himself said: “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Do you not see that those who claim that our Lord’s righteous life under Moses’ Law is reckoned to us for our “active” righteousness; while His death in which He put away our sins, is, as they claim, the “passive” side, are really leaving you, and the Lord too, under the authority of the Law?

“Justified in (the value or power of) His blood,” and of that alone, gives the direct lie to the claim that man must have “an active righteousness” as well as “a passive righteousness.” The specious assertion is, that “inasmuch as we have all broken the Law (although God says that Gentiles were ‘without law’—and those in Christ are not under it!) and inasmuch as man cannot by his works himself recover his righteous standing, Christ, forsooth, came and kept The Law in man’s place (!) ; and then went to the cross and suffered the penalty of death for man’s guilt so that the result is an ‘active righteousness’ reckoned to man:—that is, Christ’s keeping The Law in man’s place; and, second, a ‘passive righteousness,’ which consists in the putting away of all guilt by the blood of Christ.”

Now, the awful thing here is the unbelief concerning man’s irrecoverable state before God. For not only must Christ’s blood be shed in expiation of our guilt; but we had to die with Christ. We were connected with the old Adam; and the old man—all we had and were in Adam, must be crucified—if we were to be “joined to Another, even to Him that was raised from the dead.” Theological teaching since the Reformation has never set forth clearly our utter end in death with Christ, at the cross.

The fatal result of this terrible error is to leave The Law as claimant over those in Christ: for, “Law has dominion over a man as long as he liveth” (7.1). Unless you are able to believe in your very heart that you died with Christ, that your old man was crucified with Him, and that you were buried, and that your history before God in Adam the first came to an utter end at Calvary, you will never get free from the claims of Law upon your conscience. [Footnote: "Both Calvinists and Arminians think that the flesh is not so bad that it cannot be acted on for God by Christ using the Law of God and giving it power through the Spirit"---This is William Kelly's shrewd and correct comment]

I say again, that the Law was given to neither Adam. The first Adam had life: God did not give him law whereby to get life! Not until Moses did the Law come in, and then only as an incidental thing to reveal to man his condition. The Law was not given to the first Adam, nor to the human race; but to Israel only (Deut. 4:5-8; 33:1-5; Ps. 147:19,20). Again, the Law was not given to the Last Adam! “The Last Man Adam became a life-giving spirit”: this is Christ, Risen from the dead, at God’s right hand, communicating spiritual life. Is He under law? It is only the desperate legality of man’s heart, his self-confidence, that makes him drag in the Law, and cling to the Law,—even though Christ must fulfill it for him! “Vicarious law-keeping” is Galatian heresy!

Our Lord said plainly that His work in this world was to die: “The Son of Man came to give His life a ransom” ; and indeed, “through the Eternal Spirit He offered Himself without blemish unto God.” True, He must be a spotless Lamb. But for what? For sacrifice! He did not touch our case, had no connection with us, until God laid our sins upon Him and made Him to become sin for us at the cross. He was the Son of Man, indeed, for God prepared for Him a body (Ps. 40; Heb. 10), by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1.35). But, though He moved among sinners, He was “separated from sinners,” and had no connection with them until God made Him their sin offering at the cross.

Christ Himself, Risen, is our righteousness. His earthly life under the Law is not our righteousness. We have no connection with a Christ on earth and under the Law. We are expressly told in Romans 7:1-6, that even Jewish believers who have been under law were made dead to the Law by the Body of Christ, that they might be joined to Another, even to Him who was raised from the dead. One has beautifully said, “Christianity begins with the resurrection.”

The Righteousness of Christ

(by David Dunlap, used with his permission)

In the late 18th century a group of intrepid British Dispensational leaders began to raise their voices in uncompromising opposition to, what seemed to many, an established doctrine of the church. This doctrine was called the “Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ.” This doctrine was so accepted at the time that few imagined that it could be challenged. It was a doctrine that grew out of the Reformation period and was first articulated in the writings of Reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther. But when British Dispensationalists such as John N. Darby and William Kelly opposed this doctrine on Biblical grounds, they were bitterly denounced as unorthodox and even heretical. At that time, a book by William Reid called Heresies of the Plymouth Brethren was issued as an attack on these Dispensationalists; and Dr. Robert Dabney set forth a similar attack in a work called Theology of the Plymouth Brethren in 1891. However, in the years to follow and up to the present day, leading evangelicals have concluded that this Reformed doctrine of imputation was not based upon the bedrock of the Word of God, but rather on the shifting sand of human reason. Today, this doctrine is not generally accepted among evangelicals; in fact, there are few serious-minded Christians who would even be familiar with it. Reformed writer Dr. R. C. Sproul laments that among present-day evangelicalism this doctrine is largely unknown and overlooked [R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), p. 103]. However, in recent years there has been a growing interest in this doctrine due to the popularity of Reformed theology.

What is Salvation by the “Obedience” of Christ?

Reformed theology, since the time of the Reformers, has taught that Christ provided a two-fold foundation for justification. It has been asserted that our Lord’s sufferings from His birth until His death were His “active obedience” and His sufferings and death on the cross set forth Christ’s “passive obedience.” These two aspects combine to form the basis for the believer’s justification. All evangelical Christians affirm that Christ’s death on the cross is the Biblical foundation for justification. However, Reformed theology insists that the obedience and sufferings of Christ prior to the cross are essential for our salvation. Calvinism affirms that the death of Christ, His “passive obedience,” dealt with our guilt, while the merits in the life of Christ, his “active obedience” provides for our justification. Reformer John Calvin, in his most important theological work, The Institutes of Christian Religion, sets forth this view,

. . . when it is asked how Christ, by abolishing sin, removed the enmity between God and us, and purchased a righteousness which made him favourable and kind to us, it may be answered generally, that he accomplished this by the whole course of his obedience. This is proved by the testimony of the Paul, “As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). And indeed he elsewhere extends the ground of pardon which exempts from the curse of the law to the whole life of Christ, “When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his son, made of a woman, made unto the law, to redeem them that were under the law” (Gal. 4:4-5). Thus even at his baptism he declared that a part of righteousness was fulfilled by his yielding obedience to the command of the Father. In short, from the moment when he assumed the form of a servant, he began, in order to redeem us, to pay the price of deliverance . . . (Italics mine) [John Calvin, Calvin's Institutes, vol.2, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962), p. 437].

The implication of what Calvin is saying must not be lost on us. It is not the death of Christ alone that redeems and justifies; it is also the sufferings and obedience that Christ endured during His life prior to the cross. Every act of obedience, as a child, was redeeming, every drop of blood shed, in early manhood, was atoning, in every act of obedience from the time He assumed the form of a servant, from the time of His birth, he was “paying the price of deliverance.” At times, so much weight is given to the redemptive work in the life of Christ by Reformed authors that one wonders why the death of Christ was necessary at all. Some Reformed writers press this issue so much so that they attribute a redemptive quality to specific events in the life of Christ. The hymnwriter and Reformed theologian Horatius Bonar details events in Christ’s life which he considers to be redemptive sufferings prior to the cross. He writes,

Christ’s vicarious life began in the manger . . . there his sin-bearing had begun . . . when He was circumcised and baptised it was as a substitute . . . and He was always the sinless One bearing our sins… [Horatius Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, (London: J. Nisbet & Co., 1879), pp. 26, 27, 29, 32].

As alarming as this may seem to many serious Bible students, this Reformed position of justification persists to our present day. The popular Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul has set forth this view in the most extreme terms. He asserts that the cross alone was insufficient, for the death and the life of Christ are on equal footing in the work of justification and redemption. Therefore, without the redemptive work in the life of Christ, the death of Christ could not justify the believer. He writes,

The cross alone, however, does not justify us . . . We are justified not only by the death of Christ, but also by the life of Christ. Christ’s mission of redemption was not limited to the cross. To save us He had to live a life of perfect righteousness. His perfect, active obedience was necessary for His and our salvation . . . We are constituted as righteous by the obedience of Christ which is imputed to us by faith [R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), p. 104].

Christ’s holy and spotless life is of great interest to those who are spiritually minded. Contemplation of His perfections displayed prior to the cross evokes true worship, for worship does not arise from our appreciation of His death alone but also from consideration of all that He was in Himself and for the pleasure of God (Matthew 17:5). This is not to say that His life contributes directly to our redemption. Rather His Holy character was something essential to His own nature as well as qualifying Him to become the sacrificial Lamb. For God made it clear in the establishment of the Passover that “your lamb shall be without blemish and without spot” (Exodus 12:15) and Peter confirms that He fulfilled this divine requirement (1 Peter 1:19). His holiness was, as we have said, essential to Him personally but it is not vicarious or made over to us in some way. The Gospel is not that Christ lived His life for our benefit but that He “died for our sins.. .was buried and rose again” (1 Cor. 15:3, 4).

Reformed Arguments Examined

Reformed theologians struggle to find clear and unambiguous Biblical support for this view of justification. However, one verse that is consistently quoted by Reformed writers is Romans 5:18, “Therefore, as by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” Reformed writers understand the phrase “by the righteousness of one” to mean the righteous, obedient, and law-keeping acts in the life of Christ prior to the cross. This righteousness, it is theorized, becomes imputed to us by faith. However, is this what Romans 5:18 teaches? Does the phrase “righteousness of one” refer to His life or to His once for all death on the cross? William MacDonald provides needed clarity on this point when he writes:

The righteousness of Christ mentioned in Romans 5: 18 does not mean His righteousness as a Man on earth or His perfect keeping of the law. These are never said to be imputed to us. If they were, then it would not have been necessary for Christ to die. The New American Standard Bible is on target when it translates: “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.” The “one act of righteousness” was not the Savior’s life or His keeping of the law, but rather His substitutionary death on Calvary’s cross [William MacDonald, Justification by Faith (Romans), (Kansas City, KS: Walterick Publishers, 1981), p. 62].

A careful reading and study of this verse shows that the word “righteousness” (Gr. “dikaioma”) should be rightly rendered “act of righteousness.” It refers to that which was accomplished at His death, and stands in contrast to righteousness as a quality. The discussion in verses 8-10 of the same chapter casts further light on the fact that it is a reference to the death of Christ. Moreover, the Word of God never teaches that we are justified by the righteous life of Christ, but rather by the righteous act of Christ on the cross, which permitted God to pour out His wrath against sin.

What are the Biblical Implications?

Every careful student of the Scriptures should be concerned about this teaching. At the very outset, this Reformed view of justification opposes the very tenor of New Testament teaching on justification. The New Testament repeatedly states that the basis of justification is found, not in the life of Christ, but in His death; and that justification was not through numerous events in the life of Christ, but by one event, namely, the death of Christ. The sheer weight of the Biblical record should make us pause. We read, “For Christ once suffered for sins, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh . . .” (1 Peter 3:18); “. . . being justified by His blood we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Rom.5:9); “So Christ was once offered to bear the sin of many . . .”(Heb. 9:28). Moreover, the gospel writers make it very clear that up to the time of the suffering of Christ on the cross, our Lord did not “drink the cup” of God’s wrath and become the sin-bearer. The righteous God did not forsake the Son prior to the cross. The Son, prior to the cross, never uttered the awful lament, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken Me . . .” (Mk. 15:34). The cross of Christ was the only place where the holy God poured out His unreserved and righteous judgment against sin. There the holy God poured out His unmitigated wrath without mercy, that we might receive the infinite mercy of God without wrath. In this regard our Lord states, “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father save Me from this hour. But for this cause came I unto this hour” (John 12:27). Is not Scripture exceedingly clear that it was upon the cross that our Lord suffered for our sins and bore the wrath of God against sin?

There is yet another serious consequence of this Reformed doctrine of justification. This doctrinal perspective turns the salvation through the grace of God into a works-salvation through a focus on the keeping of the Mosaic law. The Scripture is very clear on this point; no one shall ever be saved by keeping the law. Paul unequivocally proclaims, “ . . . to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5); “…no man is justified by the law in the sight of God” (Gal. 3:11); “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ…”(Gal. 2:16). Nevertheless, in the Reformed view of justification, we are instructed that we are reckoned righteous by the keeping of the law. However, there is an unusual twist; it is not our individual law-keeping that justifies, us but that of Christ who kept the law representatively for us, so His merits of keeping the law are imputed to us. Notice the words of respected author and Reformed theologian Dr. J. I. Packer:

In classical (Reformed) Protestant theology the phrase “the imputation of Christ’s righteousness,” means, namely, that believers are righteous and have righteousness before God for no other reason than that Christ, their head, was righteous before God, and they are one with Him, sharers of His status and acceptance. God justifies them by passing on them, for Christ’s sake, the verdict which Christ’s obedience merited. God declares them to be righteous because He reckons them to be righteous; and He reckons righteousness to them, not because He accounts them to have kept His law personally, but because He accounts them to be united to the one who kept it representatively [J. I. Packer, Justification, in Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology, (Ed.) Harrison, Bromiley, Henry, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), p.306.]

Christian righteousness begins with the death and resurrection of Christ. The risen Christ Himself is our righteousness, not Christ fulfilling the law in our place. The Christian’s connection to the law is broken through the death and resurrection of Christ. The apostle Paul in Romans chapter seven expands upon this important theme. The law’s power is only in force as long as a person is alive, or in the words of the apostle, “Law has dominion over a man as long as he liveth” (Rom. 7:1). Paul then sets forth our complete deliverance from under the law when he says that those who were under the law were made dead to the law by the death of Christ, that they might be joined to another, to Him that was raised from the dead (Rom. 7:1-6). A dead man is not subject to civil or religious law; in like manner, the believer is not subject to the law of Moses because he is dead and risen in Christ. Therefore, to those who believe on Christ, the law has lost its authority to bring either condemnation or righteousness through the obedience of Christ. Paul finally concludes this argument in Romans by writing, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believes” (Rom. 10:4). If the law is powerless to make righteous, what then is the true character of justification? Justification is the declaration by God unto us of a high and measureless righteousness, in that the whole value of the death of Christ was credited to the believer by faith, irrespective of the law, according to grace. Through the resurrection of Christ the believer now has a new standing in the risen Christ in glory (Rom. 4:25). Dispensational scholar William Kelly beautifully describes the basis and character of the righteousness of God through Christ when he writes:

Had Christ only kept the law, neither your soul nor mine could have been saved much less be blessed as we are. Whoever kept the law, it would have been a righteousness of the law, and not God’s righteousness, which has not the smallest connection with obeying the law. Because Christ obeyed unto death, God brought in a new kind of righteousness —not ours, but His own favor. Christ has been made a curse upon the tree; God has made Him sin for us that we might be the righteousness of God in Him [William Kelly, Lectures on the Epistle to the Ephesians, (Addison, IL: Bible Truth Publishers, 1979), pp. 104-105].

John Nelson Darby sets forth the important connection between the resurrection of Christ and our new standing in Him. He writes,

What I deny is the doctrine that, while the death of Christ cleanses us from sin, His keeping the law is our positive righteousness; and that His keeping the law is imputed to us as ourselves under it, and that law-keeping is positive righteousness. I believe that Christ perfectly glorified God by obedience even unto death, and that it is to our profit, in that, while His death has canceled all our sins, we are accepted according to His present acceptance in God’s sight,…being held to be risen with Him, our position before God is not legal righteousness, or measured by Christ’s keeping the law, but His present acceptance, as risen…, and we accounted righteous according to the value of His resurrection [J. N. Darby, Collected Writings, vol.14, (Kingston-on-Thames, GB: Stow Hill Bible and Tract Depot, ND), p. 250].

The Importance of the Cross of Christ

Moreover, the death of Christ must never be trivialized. If Christ’s keeping the law could justify, if it was truly vicarious, then why did Christ die? Understandably, the Reformed Christian would raise his vigorous objection. He would strongly argue that the death of Christ was truly needful and essential for our salvation. This sincere objection is noted and respected. However, the most serious question still remains unanswered. If, as the Reformed view suggests, justification comes through the law, since Christ was fully obedient to the law in every respect, and if the merits of Christ’s righteous life were as truly redemptive as the death of Christ, then why did Christ die? Reformed theology strongly asserts that the obedience and righteous merits of the life of Christ are as truly redemptive as the death of Christ. The respected Reformed theologian Archibald Alexander Hodge explains:

The Scriptures teach us plainly that Christ’s obedience was as truly vicarious as was his suffering, and that he reconciled us to the Father by the one as well as by the other [Archibald Alexander Hodge, The Atonement, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1953), pp. 248, 249].

If this is all true, why did Christ have to die? Why do Old Testament prophetic passages such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 speak of the necessity of the death of the Messiah? Reformed theology has never given a satisfying answer to this important question. Reformed writers, due to the influence of Covenant theology, do not see a distinction between righteousness through the law in the Old Testament and righteousness through Christ’s death alone in the New Testament. Covenant theology fails to see significant distinctions between earthly Israel under the law and the New Testament church. Therefore, it suggests a doctrine of righteousness through the co-mingling of both law and grace. This will never do. God has set aside righteousness according to the law and has brought in something altogether new. The law came by Moses, but grace and truth through our Lord Jesus Christ. The cross of Christ must stand at the forefront and alone in any theology of righteousness. Therefore, it must be stated with great earnestness that the death of Christ, without dispute, was necessary. Any attempt to minimize or lessen its importance and its efficacy must be vigorously resisted. Respected Bible commentator John Ritchie has well summarized the Reformed view of justification and the phrase “the righteousness of Christ.” He writes:

The theological phrase, “The righteousness of Christ,” so much used, is not a scriptural term. The meaning usually read into it is, that the sinner having failed to keep the law, Christ has kept it for him, that His obedience is counted mans’ righteousness, and put on all that believe as a “robe.” But this would not be “righteousness apart from law” (Rom. 3:21). If God reckons the sinner to have kept the law because Christ kept the law for him, then righteousness surely comes by law, and the death of Christ was “in vain” (Gal. 2:21). In all this, justification by grace through redemption, has no place. The gospel is not that a sinner is made righteous by the imputation of Christ’s legal obedience on earth, and saved by His death, but rather that “being now justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” [John Ritchie, Romans, (Charlotte, NC : The Serious Christian, 1987), p. 161].

We must reject the conclusions of otherwise biblically sound believers that the law-keeping of Christ justifies, redeems, and reconciles. We must set aside the recent statements of Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul who states that “the cross alone, however, does not justify us . . .” (Faith Alone, p. 103) and that of Dr. D. James Kennedy who commented, “We are clothed in His righteousness alone . . . his perfect obedience provides our righteousness. This is all that is needed, and nothing less will suffice” (Is Jesus the Only Way to God?, Coral Ridge Ministries, pp. 8-9 undated). The Scriptures are clear and definitive on this point that no one is partially redeemed or justified in any degree by keeping the law.

However, this is not to say that the New Testament is silent concerning the glories and perfections of the life of Christ. Without question, our beloved Lord fully and completely satisfied the demands of God’s holy law during His earthy life. His obedient life was necessary to manifest the glories of God in Christ to the world and to His disciples. The Lord Jesus Christ lived a life of obedience as none other had ever lived, or will ever live. He always did that which pleased His Father (Rom. 15:3). No word that He ever spoke ever needed to be withdrawn, for He never spoke rashly or in exaggeration. No action of our Lord ever required apology, for our Lord never wronged another man. No thought or deed of our Lord ever needed confession, for He never sinned or transgressed the law of God. Our Lord never asked advice of another during His earthly ministry, for He was ever the all-wise and omniscient God. However, none of these perfections and glories of our Lord ever justified or redeemed man from a single sin. For it was only the matchless and infinite work of our Lord upon the cross of Christ that can redeem. New Testament scholar W. E. Vine summarizes the relationship of the earthly life of our Lord and His death upon the cross when he writes:

Neither the incarnation of the Son of God, nor His keeping of the law in the days of His flesh availed, in whole or in part, for the redemption of men…. His redemptive work proper began and ended on the cross; …Hence it is nowhere said in the New Testament that Christ kept the law for us. Only His death is vicarious, or substitutionary. He is not said to have borne sin during any part of His life; it was at the cross that He became the sin-bearer [C. F. Hogg , W. E. Vine, The Epistle of the Galatians, (London; GB: Pickering and Inglis, LTD.), 1959, p.186].

The Active Obedience of Christ

by Myron Houghton, Senior Professor of Systematic Theology, Faith Baptist Theological Seminary, Ankeny, Iowa

Many Bible-believing Baptists today are influenced by groups which identify themselves as centered on the gospel but in reality are teaching a Reformed view that the imputed righteousness of Christ is the result of His active obedience to the law. This article considers two important questions: What is meant by “the active obedience of Christ” and is it Scriptural?

What Is Meant by “Active Obedience”?

Some people hold that the term “active obedience” refers to the fact that Christ kept the law in order to demonstrate His sinlessness, a Lamb without spot or blemish. This position is expressed in Article VIII, “Salvation,” in the GARBC Articles of Faith.

We believe that the salvation of sinners is divinely initiated and wholly of grace through the mediatorial offices of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Who, by the appointment of the Father, voluntarily took upon Himself our nature, yet without sin, and honored the divine law by His personal obedience, thus qualifying Himself to be our Savior [emphasis added]; that by the shedding of His blood in His death He fully satisfied the just demands of a holy and righteous God regarding sin; that His sacrifice consisted not in setting us an example by His death as a martyr, but was a voluntary substitution of Himself in the sinner’s place, the Just dying for the unjust, Christ the Lord bearing our sins in His own body on the tree; that having risen from the dead He is now enthroned in Heaven, and uniting in His wonderful person the tenderest sympathies with divine perfection, He is in every way qualified to be a suitable, a compassionate and an all-sufficient Savior. [http://www.garbc.org/?page_id=31 (accessed June 29, 2012).]

Many Reformed writers, however, hold to a different meaning of the “active obedience of Christ.” Their definition views the atoning work of Christ as a substitute for the elect not only by His suffering and death (His passive obedience) but also by His keeping of the law (His active obedience). These Reformed writers believe both Christ’s active and passive obedience were part of the atonement. The Bible teaches that justification is a two-fold change in God s records wherein all of our sins are blotted out (Rom. 4:8) and the righteousness of Christ is credited to us (Rom. 4:6; 2 Cor. 5:21). These Reformed writers believe our sins are blotted out because of Christ’s suffering and death, but the righteousness of Christ that is credited to us was His keeping of the law as our substitute.

Is It Scriptural?

I do not believe the view that Christ s obedience to the law is part of His substitutionary atoning work for the following reasons:

1. The gospel does not focus on our Lord’s sinless life but upon His death and resurrection. Paul stated, “Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1-4).

2. We are justified by Christ’s death rather than His sinless life. In Romans 5:6-10 Paul wrote, “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” In Romans 4:23-25 Paul made it clear that Christ’s “life” refers to His resurrection, not His obedience to the law. “Now it was not written for his [Abraham s] sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.”

3. Justification comes through Christ’s righteous act—a singular act rather than plural acts of righteousness. In Romans 5:18 and 19 Paul said, “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”

4. Christ’s sinless life qualified Him to be our sacrifice, but His death is the basis of our justification. “By that will [i.e., God s will] we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10).

5. The ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper relate to His death, not His sinless acts. Water baptism points to a believer s union with Christ in His death and resurrection as the basis of salvation (Rom. 6:1-5), and the Lord’s Supper focuses on a believer’s communion with Christ based on His wounded body and shed blood (1 Cor. 11:23-26). We “proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.”

6. Justification is a change in God’s records whereby our sins are blotted out (Rom.4:8) and the righteousness of Christ is credited to us. In Romans 4:6 we read, “just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works.” In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul stated, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Note carefully that what is imputed to us is not the obedience of Christ but the righteousness of God! Our Lord Jesus Christ possessed this righteousness by virtue of His deity. His obedience to the will of God is the result of that righteousness, not the basis of it!

7. In Philippians 2:6-8 the focus of Christ’s obedience was not His honoring the law but His willingness to die. “Who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation [lit. "emptied Himself"], taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”

8. Not all Reformed theologians affirm the active obedience of Christ as part of His atoning work. Alexander F. Mitchell, in his history of the Westminster Assembly, which created the Westminster Confession of Faith and catechisms, wrote:

The main question on which the long debates on the Article of Justification turned was whether the merit of the obedience of Christ as well as the merit of his sufferings was imputed to the believer for his justification. Several of the most distinguished members of the Assembly, including Twisse the Prolocutor, Mr. Gataker, and Mr. Vines maintained…that it was the sufferings or passive obedience only of Christ which was imputed to the believer. [Alexander F. Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly: Its History and Standards (1883; repr., Edmonton, Alberta: Still Waters Revival Books, 1992). 149.]

The Importance of This Issue

Two well-known organizations today hold the view that the active obedience of Christ was part of His substitutionary atonement. The Gospel Coalition, in its Confessional Statement #8, “The Justification of Sinners,” declares, “By his perfect obedience he satisfied the just demands of God on our behalf, since by faith alone that perfect obedience is credited to all who trust in Christ alone for their acceptance with God. Inasmuch as Christ was given by the Father for us, and his obedience and punishment were accepted in place of our own, freely and not for anything in us, this justification is solely of free grace, in order that both the exact justice and the rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.” [http://thegospelcoalition.org/about/foundation-documents/confessional (accessed June 28,2012).]

Together for the Gospel, another organization that focuses on the gospel, has a section on its website titled, “Today in Christian History.” The January 1, 2009, edition had the following entry:

J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) Died
On January 1, 1937, J. Gresham Machen, founder of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, and formidable defender of biblical Christianity, died in the hospital, having developed pneumonia while preaching in the cold of December in North Dakota. His famous last telegram to his dear friend and colleague John Murray: “Thank God for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” [http://14g.org/2009/01/today-in-christian-history (accessed June 29, 2012).]

We grant that this organization does not specifically teach this idea in its doctrinal affirmations and denials. It is, nevertheless, found on their website, which is supposed to focus on the gospel.

From my perspective, this view of the active obedience of Christ is not consistent with Scripture and even distorts the truth of justification. Pastors and church leaders today need to understand this matter clearly and communicate the gospel accurately in their speaking and writing.

Justification in the Risen Christ

(An extract from Charles Stanley, of Rotherham)

— An extract from Justification in the Risen Christ, by Charles Stanley of Rotherham, of the Plymouth Brethren (taken from a work entitled From New Birth to New Creation, complied by R.A. Huebner, pp.37-38)

On what other principle can God justify the guilty? To the. . . sinner this is a tremendous question, How can I be justified and have peace with God? It must be evident that if man cannot justify that which is not positively righteous, surely then God cannot justify anything short of righteousness. But in man there is no righteousness. All are guilty. “So that death is passed upon all men, for all have sinned.”

How does Scripture, then, deal with this amazing question — the justification of the sinner, and God’s righteousness in thus justifying him? I answer, Through Jesus, the resurrection from among the dead — Jesus and the resurrection — Jesus “bearing our sins in his own body on the tree” — the Just dying for the unjust. Yes, Jesus crucified and Jesus risen was what the Holy Ghost did set before lost sinners: His death for atonement — His resurrection for righteousness or justification. “Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).

Thus, while His precious blood clears from all sin, His resurrection brings me into a state of absolute righteousness in Him risen, and therefore complete justification. And it is on this positive righteousness for justification that ancient and modern teaching so widely differ — modern teachers…having left the Christian ground of a new life in resurrection, and gone back to the land of legalism and bondage, finding themselves, as they suppose, under law; say they, The law must be kept perfectly, and without this there is no justification. They thus go back to law for righteousness. But, then, finding that practically the believer thus put under it only breaks it, what must be done? Oh, say they, you are under it, and break it; but Christ kept the law for you in His life, and this is imputed to you for righteousness.

I would say, in answer to many enquiries on this solemn subject, I cannot find this doctrine in Scripture: it cannot be the ancient doctrine of God’s Church. The basis is wrong . . . Justification is not on the principle of law at all. “The righteousness of God without law is manifested.” [Author's footnote: The “righteousness of God” means exactly that — God's righteousness. That is not Christ's righteous law-keeping.. . .If God meant to speak of God's righteousness how should he express it so that we will believe He means exactly that, if “the righteousness of God” does not mean God's righteousness?] “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight; for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Read Rom. 3:19-26.)

Now every doctrine of God’s word is clearly stated, not in one verse merely, but in many. Take the atonement: “So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many” — “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree” — “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust:” and hundreds of other passages. But does Scripture ever say that Christ kept the law for us for justifying righteousness? I am not aware of a single text. And yet, if it were so, there are many places where it should say so. Take Rom. 8:33. “It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth?” Does it say that it was Christ that kept the law? No; but, “Christ that died, yea, rather that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.” Now is not this the full statement of Scripture as to God’s justification of the elect? And yet, plainly, not one thought in it of Christ’s keeping the law for the justified. And the most careful examination of every passage will be found in perfect harmony with this statement.

Look through the Acts. Not once does the apostle preach, Christ kept the law for us, but “Christ died for our sins,” &c. 2 Cor. 5 is a notable proof of this. The apostle does not say, We thus judge that all men are under the law, and that Christ kept it for them; no; but, We thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead.” There is not a thought of keeping the law for them, but “died for them and rose again. Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh; yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.” Does not this prove that the apostle did not go back to Christ under law for righteousness, but onwards to resurrection.

“Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away, behold all things are become new, and all things of God”…Thus the old things of the law, its righteousness and its condemnation, passed away. I am not taken back to Christ under it for righteousness, but taken forward to Christ in resurrection; and there I am made the positive righteousness of God in Him, as surely as He was made sin for me. “For he hath made him sin for us who knew no sin,” (surely that was on the cross,) “that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” What deep, solid peace this gives! It is thus risen in Him, one with Him, we are made “the righteousness of God in him.”

Thus, as our fall in the first Adam not only brought condemnation, but the actual death-state of sin, much more resurrection in Christ not only brings acquittal from condemnation, but an everlasting state of life and actual righteousness — absolutely perfect and sinless, the righteousness of God IN CHRIST. Thus, for the believer, Christ, by His obedience unto death, has become the end of the law for righteousness. The end of the law was the curse, and our adorable Jesus became a curse. In Him, our dying Substitute, the life once forfeited by us has been given up, the condemnation due to us fully executed. And when God raised him from the dead, He raised Him as our justified Surety. So the Holy Ghost applies Isa. 50:6-9 in Rom. 8:34…

With the apostle, if there were no resurrection gospel, then there were no gospel at all; “for if Christ be not risen, ye are yet in your sins.” But Christ is risen, and the believer is risen with Him, and therefore not in his sins, but righteous in the risen Christ, the beginning of the new creation. I have no doubt, that ignorance of the new creation in Christ risen, is the cause why men defend legal righteousness. No wonder that to one ignorant of {the full meaning of) resurrection, the gospel of the righteousness of God, in justifying the believer through the death and resurrection of Christ, is a new gospel. Jesus and the resurrection is as new a doctrine as it was at Athens 1800 years ago. Indeed it is one of the sad wonders of these last days, that the ancient doctrine of “through Jesus the resurrection” should have been so lost. The modern doctrine is, through Jesus the justification of the old man under law. The ancient doctrine was, death and burial to the old man, (see Rom. 6) and perfect justification, not of the old man, but of the new man, in the risen Christ Jesus.

Oh! my reader, if you are dead with Christ, are you not justified from all sin? If you are risen with Him, are you not righteous in Him? He is your righteousness: not was, but is (1 Cor. 1:30). You are God’s righteousness in Him (1 Cor. 5:21). Thus clothed in the risen Christ, is not this the righteousness which is of God by faith? (See Phil. 3:9,10.) Thus is your need met, fellow believer — so met, that there is now no condemnation. Dead with Christ, risen with Christ, “there is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ” (Rom.8).

A Response From Proclamation Magazine

Proclamation is a magazine written to help Seventh Day Adventists and to help those who have been delivered from Seventh Day Adventism. In the Summer 2012 issue there is a letter to the editor which raises the issue of vicarious law keeping. The editor wrote a very fine response which is printed below.

Disclaimer: Inclusion of this material does not necessarily mean an endorsement of every single point the editor makes, nor does it necessarily indicate an endorsement of everything written in the magazine.

Letter to the editor (from one who believes in vicarious law-keeping):

With all due respect for Proclamation, I really must take exception with Ms. Tinker’s article that our salvation “hangs entirely” on our sinless Savior’s death, burial and resurrection, to the exclusion of any law-keeping on the part of Jesus’ actual life. Romans 5:10 was frustratingly and without explanation, dismissed out of hand which says that we are indeed saved by both His life and His death, and as a matter of fact, “how much more…shall we be saved through His life.”…

It is of course true, that upon believing in the cross-work of the Redeemer, we are gifted with the presence of the Holy Spirit, and we are on solid ground to be incorrigibly cheerful, per 1 Thessalonians 5:16 bidding us to “rejoice evermore” as He lives His life through us. However, no matter how grand the work of the Spirit in us is, we will always fall short of perfection this side of heaven (Phil. 3:12). Ergo, our right standing before the judicial bar of the Almighty cannot be based on any imperfect law-keeping on our part—it is true, but it does have everything to do with the sinless, perfect law-keeping on His part. For it is by His obedience, that the many will be appointed righteous (Rom. 5:19). He obeyed, and thereby fulfilled the whole moral law, amounting to a full and sufficient righteousness for all to whom it would be imputed….

As happy as I am that Ms. Tinker embellishes the death of Christ on her behalf, I feel compelled to ignite a storm of controversy within her soul, suggesting that what may be missing from her theology is that His death is actually the climax of a perfect life of righteousness which is imputed to our account (Rom. 3:21-22; 4:6,11; 2 Cor. 5:21)…In just the same manner that our sins being imputed to Christ did not make Him (subjectively) a sinner, neither does His righteousness imputed to us make us (subjectively) righteous. It is a gift of righteousness (Rom. 5:17), so that He may be called, “The Lord Our Righteousness” (Jer. 23:6). Hence, salvation is not based on the holiness of the one who believes, but on the holiness of the One in whom the sinner believes, and that, therefore, includes the life He lived, not just His death.

Response by the editor:

I believe the writer above confuses the nature of Christ’s righteousness and obedience and also the nature of the righteousness imputed to us when we believe. The above letter makes the point that Christ’s righteousness was demonstrated by His perfect obedience to the law and that this perfect obedience amounted “to a full and sufficient righteousness for all to whom it would be imputed.” The writer also mistakes the “life” of Jesus by which we are saved, interpreting Romans 5:10 as suggesting it was Jesus’ life of perfect law-keeping prior to His death that is the life that saves us.

I challenge the writer to find one text of Scripture to support these interpretations. To be sure, Jesus’ life prior to His crucifixion was sinless, yet Scripture does not identify this “sinlessness” as being defined by or tied to law-keeping.

Romans 3:20 states that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified,” and this declaration applies to Jesus in the flesh as well. Moreover, the last part of this same verse identifies the actual function of the law: “through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” In other words, the law does not define righteousness, nor does law-keeping identify righteousness. Rather, the law identifies sin. Jesus law-keeping was the result of His sinlessness; it was not His law-keeping that qualified Him as our Substitute.

Romans 3:21 further says the righteousness of God has now been manifested “apart from the Law”. Moreover, this righteousness of God which is “apart from the Law” was witnessed, or foretold, by the Law and the Prophets. In other words, God’s righteousness (which is the righteousness of Jesus, God incarnate) is not defined by the law or law-keeping. Rather, the law as well as the prophets foreshadowed this surpassing righteousness that is above, beyond, and apart from law. Jesus righteousness has nothing at all to do with law, and His law-keeping does not qualify Him as our Substitute.

Furthermore, the writer above states that Jesus obedience to the moral law is what is imputed to us as righteousness, citing Romans 5:19. In fact, the context of Romans 5:19 has nothing to do with Jesus obedience to the law. Verse 18 contrasts Adam’s “one transgression” which “resulted in condemnation to all men” with Jesus’ “one act of righteousness” which resulted in “justification of life to all men.” This one act of righteousness was Jesus’ obedience to His Father in dying on the cross. Verse 19 restates the contrast presented in verse 18 in different words, stating, “as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” Contextually we cannot conclude that the “obedience of the One” is referring to law-keeping. Instead, Paul is emphatically stating that Jesus obedience to die is how we are made righteous, or justified.

In fact, Paul continues in verse 20 to articulate again the purpose and function of the law: “the Law came in so that the transgression would increase.”

The righteousness imputed to us is not righteousness related to law-keeping, neither ours nor Jesus.’ Philippians 3:9 states that the righteousness we receive from Christ is a righteousness that is not “derived from the Law” but is, rather, that “which comes from God on the basis of faith.” In other words, our imputed righteousness is the intrinsic righteousness of God; it is completely unrelated to the Law.

Romans 8 explains further that we are saved by Christ’s resurrection life. When we are alive in Jesus, we are made spiritually alive by the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 8:10-11) and pass at that moment from death to life (John 5:24). Jesus explained in John 6 that He is the bread of Life, that whoever eats and drinks his body and blood has eternal life. That eternal God-life is what we receive when we believe. The righteousness credited to our account is Jesus Life, the unbroken connection with the Trinity that was lost when Adam and Eve sinned. It is not “kept laws” that God imputes to us; it is the Lord Jesus Himself who hides us in Himself. It is the Lord Jesus whom the Father sees when He looks at us, and He credits Jesus’ eternal Life to our account.

Our Righteous Standing in the Risen Christ

by John Darby

Two systems are in presence. One is, that we are all under the law —Christians and all men; that the fulfilment of the law alone is righteousness . . . That [propitiation that we may be forgiven] is not the means of being justified. In order to this, Christ has kept the law in our stead and then died for our sins; but that His death is the means of pardon, but not of justification.

The other [system] is, that we believers are not under law, but under grace; that Christ, while perfect under law in His own Person, did not keep it to make good our defects under it, or give us legal righteousness or justification by it; that He died for our sins, and thus put them away; but that we are viewed as being also dead with Him, and no longer in the flesh at all, to which law applied, but stand as risen in the presence of God, in the position in which He stands, with all the value of His work upon us, and accepted in His Person, according to His acceptance now that He is risen; that this is measured by His having perfectly glorified God in His work, and hence is glorified in and with God in heaven; and that this is our title to be in heaven and glory in due time with Him — conformed to His image —the firstborn among many brethren.

Here is the importance of the matter. The first opinion makes our righteousness to be a righteousness under law, in flesh, connecting us with Christ’s position before the cross, and making our righteousness purely legal, and putting us under the law; this being the measure and principle of it, we are justified by its being kept. “Do this and live.” The second holds us to be dead to that state of flesh under law altogether; that when Christ was in the body He stood alone, and that our standing in Him is as dead and risen, the old man entirely condemned, but crucified and dead for faith; we, alive to God in Christ, risen, delivered from the law, united to Christ risen, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God, because Christ has perfectly glorified God in dying, and that our place is that of having entered into God’s presence through the cross, that new and living way (that is, through death, by which it is all left behind, and all that related to flesh in its relationship with God, though in fact, having to contend with it as an enemy to be overcome). They put us behind the
cross under law. God has put us by the cross, and as now crucified with Christ, alive in His presence, as risen with Him.

Which is the scriptural truth? That is the question. I affirm [the first system] . . . to be unscriptural; and that it destroys the true Christian liberty insisted on by Paul, and the claims for holiness presented by scripture, according to the new position into which grace has brought us; that it lowers Christianity and disfigures it, and denies the depth of sin and the power of resurrection; that the gospel as taught specially by Paul in conflict with Judaism, is denied by it. We both admit propitiation by blood. But they put before us a man living in flesh, and righteousness provided for him by Christ under
law. Paul, I affirm, puts a believer in resurrection, and wholly dead to the former state, and accepted in Christ when he is no longer under law at all.

[John Darby, "A Letter on the Righteousness of God," Bible Treasury, 1862.]

For a more complete discussion of this important issue by John Darby, see the following documents in PDF format:

Darby 1

Darby 2

Darby 3

For further study on the issue of “vicarious law keeping” see Chapter 11, “Obedience and Suffering in Life” (pages 87-100), from the book, Sin, the Savior, and Salvation by Robert P. Lightner (Kregel, 1991). The author demonstrates from Scripture that Christ’s life obedience (including His suffering prior to the cross) was not substitutionary.

Dr. Robert Lightner

Did the Saviour
Pay the Penalty for our Sins
Prior to the Cross?

“Who His own self bore our sins in His own body ON THE TREE” (1 Peter 2:24).

A common teaching of Reformed men is that the Lord’s death on the cross was not the only place where sin’s penalty was paid, but that the payment of this penalty was also involved in our Lord’s sufferings apart from Calvary’s cross. They often point to the Lord’s sufferings in the Garden of Gethsemane as being a time when the Lord Jesus was suffering as the Divine Substitute for man’s sins.

In light of the Reformed doctrine of “vicarious law-keeping,” it is not surprising that they should hold to such a view. If Christ’s righteous acts were substitutionary, and if His law-keeping righteousness was imputed to the believer’s account, then it would follow that our Lord’s non-cross sufferings should also be substitutionary and expiatory. They teach that His sufferings throughout life were expiatory, but the Bible teaches no such thing.

For a full discussion of this doctrinal error, see Did the Saviour Pay the Penalty for our Sins Prior to the Cross?