In previous posts I tried to demonstrate that it is mistaken to claim that IAO is to evangelical orthodoxy. In the next few posts I shall contend that IAO is inadequate biblically; the case is biblically wanting.
But first, a recap. Let’s remind ourselves of the basic position of those who argue for IAO. They argue that when God justifies he does two things. Firstly, he forgives sins through the death of Christ. This, we are told, makes us like Adam – innocent but not righteous. We need not only forgiveness but a positive righteousness before the Law. This positive righteousness is the Law-keeping righteous life of Christ which God imputes to us (namely, IAO), the second necessary component of justification.
G Machen writes,
“…if that (dying on the cross) were all that Christ did for us, do you not see that we should be back in just the situation in which Adam was before he sinned? The penalty of his sinning would have been removed from us because it had all been paid by Christ. But for the future the attainment of eternal life would have been dependent upon our perfect obedience to the law of God. We should simply have been back in the probation again.”
Machen goes on to say that Christ was
“our representative both in penalty paying and in probation keeping,”
and that for those who have been saved by him, the probation is over since
“Christ has merited for them the reward by his perfect obedience to God’s law. (J. Gresham Machen, “The Active Obedience of Christ,” in God Transcendent (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982),
I ask, who says so? Where is this distinction between penalty-bearing and probation-keeping so confidently asserted by Machen (and others) found in Scripture. Where is this limitation of the cross in justifying that Machen affirms? It is, I submit, the construct of a theological system without a trace of biblical evidence to support it. I want to discuss this ‘system’ in later posts but for the moment my contention, shared by many others, is that Machen’s construction is built on sinking sands, even thin air. I aver that while the Bible repeatedly locates justification, our righteousness, in the sacrificial death of Christ, it never locates it in his righteously lived life. We search in vain for a text that teaches – even vaguely – the imputed law-keeping obedience of Christ. There is no vicarious ‘probation-keeping’ biblical theology. There is no scent of it in Scripture, not even a whiff.
Now I want to repeat this point because, for me, it is the absolutely basic and fundamental point. I ultimately reject IAO as a construct in justification because in my view it is not evidently taught in the Bible. When the Biblical writers discuss the justifying righteousness of God (or indeed subjects like redemption, propitiation and reconciliation which the Bible closely aligns with justification) they locate it firmly and exclusively in the death of Christ and his subsequent resurrection, not transferred law-keeping obedience. IAO, despite the opining of a particular cast of theologians, is simply missing from the biblical text. It is conspicuous by its absence.
Even some who support IAO concede this.
G E Ladd writes,
“Paul never states explicitly that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers.” (George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament p.491)
Brian Vickers, In his book ‘Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness’ written to make the case for IAO writes,
‘The contention of this book is that the imputation of Christ’s righteousnes [by which Vickers means IAO] is a legitimate and necessary synthesis of Paul’s teaching. While no single text contains or develops all the ‘ingredients’ of imputation, the doctrine stands as a component of Paul’s theology (Brian Vickers ‘Jesus Blood and Righteousness’ Pg 18 Crossway 2006).
Vickers, proceeds to engage with each text considered to support IAO. In each case, true to what he wrote above, he acknowledges the text does not teach IAO as such. His thesis ultimately is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. However, if IAO is not the necessary conclusion of any one text, even those texts upon which it is supposedly based, as Vickers acknowledges, it is hard to see how any can affirm it is a core truth of the gospel. Are we to believe that one of the most fundamental and critical truths of the gospel has no text that explicitly teaches it?
D A Carson, a scholar and Bible teacher of the first calibre and one with whom I do not readily disagree, says,
‘the issues are extraordinarily complex’
…if we agree that there is no Pauline passage that explicitly says, in so many words, that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to his people, is there biblical evidence to substantiate the view that the substance of this thought is conveyed? And if such a case can be made should the exegete be encouraged to look at the matter through a wider aperture than that provided by philology and formulae? And should we ask the theologian to be a tad more careful with texts called up to support the doctrine? (Vindication and Imputation Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates Edited M Husband and D J Treiers IVP 2004 Pg 50)
For Carson, rather like Vickers, IAO, though exegetically inexplicit is systematically justifiable. Having said that, Carson’s understanding of imputation is so nuanced that it tones down more traditional book-keeping definitions of IAO. He is reluctant to make any hard and fast distinctions between active and passive obedience and locates Christ’s vindication and ours in Christ’s resurrection. In his own words, commenting on W Shedd’s traditional expression of imputation he writes,
Shedd presupposes that what God requires is perfect righteousness. I entirely
agree with this, although I would track the matter rather differently, as we
shall see.(Vindication of Imputation J:WSCD Pg 53).
His discomfit at Shedd’s traditional formulation of IAO (similar to Machen’s) is clear when he writes,
… however sympathetic one wishes to be with Shedd, however much one
wishes to defend the view that the imputed righteousness of Christ is worth defending,
however much one acknowledges that the perfection of Christ is something
more in Scripture than the set-up that qualifies him for his expiatory death,
however heuristically useful the distinction between the active and passive righteousness
of Christ, one is left with a slightly uneasy feeling that the analytic categories
of Shedd have somehow gone beyond the New Testament by the absolute
bifurcation they introduce.
In summary, Mark Seifrid’s observation must be noted and weighed,
“It is worth observing Paul never speaks of Christ’s righteousness as imputed to believers, as became standard in Protestantism.” (Christ, Our Righteousness IVP, 2000 p.174)
And so we begin this examination of IAO and the Bible by recognizing that even some who support it concede it does not jump out of the page of Scripture. My contention is, that unless completely ‘sighted’ by a confessional grid, the very least any honest exegete of Scripture will do is confess with Ladd, Vickers and Carson that IAO is hard to justify purely exegetically. I would go further and affirm, contrary to Vickers, that the sum of the parts in a biblically defined justification do not add up to IAO (imputed active obedience) plus IPO (imputed passive obedience, Christ’s death) but to the implications of Christ’s death and resurrection. Justification, biblically considered, is not located in Christ’s life-plus-death but Christ’s death-plus-life. Or, to be less cryptic, justification finds its synthesis not in ‘Christ’s-law-keeping-life-on-earth-and-his-sin-bearing-death‘ but in his ‘sin-bearing-death-and-his-vindication-in-resurrection-in-which-we-share’.
A degree of construction, of systematics, is inevitable as Carson argues, but this construction must be texted-based. It should be little more than joining the dots between texts. Gundry, responding to Carson says,
Of course theologians are not limited to repeating what the Bible says, but what they develop in and for their own circumstances should at least arise out of what the Bible says. So long as the Bible does not provide such statements, and in the present case says much that points in a contrary direction, an appeal to the difference between an exegetical field of discourse and a systematic theological field of discourse does no good for the putative doctrine.
This seems to me exactly right. JRW Stott writes,
‘I take it for granted that we will have a text. For we are not speculators but expositors’
The problem for IAO is it has no text and plenty that point in another direction.
But enough discussion. Time to look at the Bible. The question is, how to do so. I shall try to move from the panoramic to the particular. I shall first sketch the broad picture, considering some key texts in Scripture. Later, I shall consider in more detail the subject of ‘the righteousness of God’ in Romans and also the key texts forwarded in support of IAO. Clearly, this is not a scholarly inquiry. However, I console myself that it is not scholars who win the day in the doctrines of the church but ordinary believers who hold fast to what is plain in Scripture and have a healthy skepticism for arguments that are rarefied and abstruse. Though, I may add, as far as I can judge, few scholars of note outside confessionally Reformed circles are patrons of IAO. R Gundry writes,
It is no accident, then, that in New Testament theologians’ recent and current treatments of justification, you would be hard-pressed to find any discussion of an imputation of Christ’s righteousness . . . The notion is passé, neither because of Roman Catholic influence nor because of theological liberalism, but because of fidelity to the relevant biblical texts. Thus New Testament theologians are now disposed to talk about the righteousness of God in terms of his salvific activity in a covenantal framework, not in terms of imputation of Christ’s righteousness in a bookkeeping framework. (Why I didn’t Endorse The Gospel of Jesus Christ:An Evangelical Celebration Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debate IVP 2004)
At last…we turn to the Bible… in the next post!