06
Oct
10

imputed active obedience (IAO), a must or a misdirection? (4)


I had intended by now to beginning addressing the three issues I said I would in the first blog (historical, biblical, and theological difficulties with IAO and attempts to make it a necessary part of gospel orthodoxy).  However, before tackling these I want to point out a couple of worries I have with where IAO seems to lead.

IAO seems to detract from the cross.

Now let me be clear.  I am not saying at all that those who champion IAO intend to detract from the cross.  Protagonists of IAO of whom I am aware are jealous for the cross and what it achieves.  Yet I notice that often when commenting on justification and gospel righteousness by far their greatest emphasis is on the life of Christ rather than the death of Christ.  Gresham Machen is an example of this.  Machen was a real warrior of the gospel who challenged the liberalism of his day heroically and in ways that have yet to be answered.  For Machen, the gospel was paramount and the cross was central.  Yet, as he lay dying (a day before his death), the American Presbyterian theologian, sent a final telegram to his friend John Murray, a fellow theologian, containing the words, ‘I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.

Now I am not aware of other circumstances surrounding the telegram.  Perhaps at that point Machen was still heavily involved in debate over IAO.  Indeed, he may have mentioned the cross too in his telegram, I don’t know.  But it seems to me strange that when dying Machen’s hope focussed on the life of Christ (active obedience refers specifically to Christ’s life) rather than his death.  To my mind, to focus with gratitude at the point of death on Christ’s righteous life rather than his sin-bearing death is to put the emphasis in the wrong place.  That so many quote these words of Machen with evident approval suggests that many others do the same.  This I think is far removed from the emphasis of Scripture which lays hope overwhelmingly in the death and resurrection of Christ (as I hope to show in a later blog).

A theological construct that results in godly believers placing their central eternal hope anywhere other than the death of Christ is for me deeply worrying.

IAO seems to promote expanding Christ’s substitutionary sin-bearing death into a substitutionary sin-bearing life.

One way to make acceptable such an emphasis on the life of Christ as opposed to his sin-bearing redemptive death is to say that his life too is sin-bearing and redemptive.  Indeed, if his righteous life is vicarious then logically must it not be sin-bearing?   This is exactly what many teach.

The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 asserts,

‘…during his whole life on earth, but especially at the end, Christ sustained, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race’.

This is echoed by Gresham Machen in “The Active Obedience of Christ,” in “God Transcendent” (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), 191.] where he writes,

Every event of his life was a part of his payment of the penalty of sin, and every event of his life was a part of that glorious keeping of the law of God by which he earned for his people the reward of eternal life.

Horatious Bonar wrote,

It was as the Substitute that He was the outcast from the
first moment of His birth. His vicarious life began in the manger. For
what can this poverty mean, this rejection by man, this outcast
condition, but that His sin-bearing had begun?
[Horatius Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, (London: J. Nisbet & Co., 1879),  pp. 26, 27, 29, 32].

A. A. Hodge in his work on the atonement wrote,

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].

John Piper too, in ‘Counted Righteous in Christ‘ speaks of the crucifixion as ‘the climax of his atoning sufferings’.

Indeed John Calvin himself promoted this belief.

. . 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 . . .   [John Calvin, Calvin's Institutes, vol.2, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962),  p. 437].

Notice how IAO and a wrath-bearing life are allied.

Such views astonish me. We are not simply being told that the life of Christ is part of the whole of God’s redeeming plan which none dispute, nor that the victory the atonement would accomplish was displayed in his miracles that overcame the effects of sin, we are being told that his incarnation is wrath-bearing , paying the penalty for sin, and atoning. As a baby Jesus was bearing God’s wrath, sin-bearing and atoning!  Are we really to believe such views are basic to mainstream evangelical orthodoxy?  They may be part of forms of reformed orthodoxy but are they mainstream evangelical?  More importantly still, are we to believe they are biblically warranted?  Was Christ suffering vicariously for my sins throughout his life?  Was he vicariously experiencing God’s wrath against my sin as he attended the wedding at Cana, dined with Mary and Martha, rested with his disciples? As we read the epistles where are we taught  that Christ’s life was vicariously atoning, sin-bearing, and wrath-bearing (Calvin’s quoted texts are misinterpreted as I will try to demonstrate in a later blog).

It takes only a little knowledge of the Bible to know that he bore our sins on the tree (1 Pet 2:24) where also he bore the curse (Gals 3:13).  It is not his life but his blood shed in death that cleanses us from sin (1 Jn 1:7).  Scripture after Scripture in the NT makes this plain.  In the garden, his place of greatest agony prior to death, he anticipated ‘the cup’ but he did not drink it (Matt 26:39).  Christ was not forsaken by his Father in life – indeed they worked together in full and perfect communion.  It is on the cross he is forsaken as he becomes the curse.  It is there, in abandonment, that he ceases to address God as Father and calls him ‘My God’ as he becomes the sin-bearer.  It is at the cross he was ‘delivered for our offences’ (Roms 4:24).  In life he experienced the opposition and wrath of men and suffered at their hands for righteousness sake, he learned obedience and all it cost in a fallen world, but it is only in death he suffers at the hand of God and bears divine wrath.  It is shed blood that atones.    A fact the Lord deeply engraved on the hearts of Israel through the sacrificial system.

Lev 17:11 (ESV)
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.

In my view claiming Christ’s life is vicariously sin-bearing is not only misguided but detracts from the unique glory of Christ’s death.

IAO can lead to some strange places.  Error does this of course.  A mistaken idea in one area so easily has a knock-on effect and often leads to ideas more mistaken than the first.  IAO seems to do just this.

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1 Response to “imputed active obedience (IAO), a must or a misdirection? (4)”


  1. 1 njmackison
    October 8, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    Great blog.

    A passage from Hebrews is illuminating: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Heb. 10:14 ESV) If this text was to be re-written by a Reformed covenant theologian it might state, “For by his whole life lived, he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” In this (CT) scheme, Christ’s death only expiates sin; it does not provide the righteousness required to perfect the sinner. I’ve heard various explanatory illustrations employing monetary metaphors, e.g. Christ’s death brings you from being “in the red” in the heavenly accounts, to zero, while Christ’s life brings you back “into the black”. It’s perfectly astounding that this logic is completely absent from the NT. Again and again the text points me to the fact that I am justified, i.e. declared righteous extra nos, by Christ’s blood and not by his life.


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