imputed active obedience (IAO), a must or a misdirection? (11)

I return after a few weeks gap to the topic of IAO.   NT Wright has a gripe with conservative evangelicals (among whom I firmly place myself).   His gripe is that too often we approach theology through thought categories of the C16,17 reformation rather than through those of the Bible.  Now I don’t always agree with Wright, but when it comes to the matter of justification and IAO, I believe he hits the nail on the head; IAO is a construct of the C16,17 more than it is a construct of the Bible.

Those who support the idea that the active obedience of Christ (his law-righteousness) is imputed to believers as their righteousness before God face a difficulty.  The difficulty is that the Bible (in my view) nowhere construes salvation righteousness in terms of IAO.  In the last post on this topic we argued that IAO is not part of the OT gospel paradigm.  We search the OT in vain for a principle, or a developing idea, or a framework, that teaches the righteous life of one person can be imputed to another.   Indeed the opposite is true; the basis for forgiveness lay in blood-sacrifice; a death died rather than a life lived is the OT basis of forgiveness and righteousness.   The NT commentary on the OT is this:

Heb 9:22 (ESV)
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

In this post. I wish simply to observe that the IAO  paradigm is also absent from the gospels.  Unfortunately, when disproving IAO it is necessary to keep pointing to its absence.   This is the case with the gospels.  If IAO is integral to the gospel then it is missing from the gospels themselves.

Let me say, there is no question that Jesus was born as a Jew under the Law, nor that he kept the Law.  The Law revealed the life of righteousness and God’s Servant would not rest until he brought righteousness, not only to Israel but to the ends of the earth (Isa 42:1-4).  In his life, God’s Servant, the true Israel, would ‘magnify the Law and make it honourable (Isa 42:21) where the nation had brought only shame upon it.  Thus in his life Jesus undoubtedly displayed the glory of a life that fulfilled the law.  He jealously upholds the Law in his teaching.  No aspect however small of the law could be ignored until all it required was accomplished (Matt 5:17-20).

However, the relationship between Jesus and the Law (the new covenant and the old covenant) is a complex one.  While we note that Jesus at the fulness of time was born as a Jew under the Law, honoured it and insisted that others honour it (Matt 15:3,6; 22:38), yet, even in fulfilling it, he dismantled it.  There are questions about this that need not concern us here but they are incipient in the gospel records; for example, we are told that Jesus, contrary to the teaching of the Law, declared all foods clean (Mk 7:19) and when asked regarding divorce he pointed behind Law to creation itself juxtaposing ‘Moses said’ with ‘but I say’ (Matt 19: 8,9; Cf.  Matt 5-7).  The sabbath was the sign of the old covenant (Ezek 20:12-20) yet Jesus declared himself Lord of the sabbath (Matt 12:28).  By implication he is superior to the Law itself.  He is indicating his right to bring to an end the whole period of Law.  The temple (another symbol of the old covenant) will be replaced by the temple of his body for one greater than the temple had arrived (Matt 12:6).  New wine requires new wine-skins (Lk 5:33-38).  The Law comes through Moses but grace and truth through Jesus Christ (Jn 1:17).  In other words, the thrust of the gospels is not that Christ came to keep the old covenant but rather that he came to introduce the new covenant (Matt 26:28), not to focus on Law but  preach the gospel of the Kingdom (Mk 1:14,15).  I note this to obviate simplistic notions about Jesus and the Law that often intrude into discussions about IAO.

Our question is twofold:

  • do the gospels emphasize the law-obedience of Jesus
  • do the gospels teach that Christ’s obedience was vicarious

The answer to both questions is negative.

The gospels (particularly the gospel of John) emphasize the obedience of Jesus but it is rarely (if ever) construed in terms of law-obedience.  Jesus’ obedience is based on a higher obedience than merely law-obedience.  His obedience is the obedience of a Son to a Father.  He had come to do all that his Father had sent him to do.  His food was to do the will and accomplish the work of he who sent him (Jn 4:34).   As an obedient son the things he saw his Father do he emulated (Jn 5:19, 36).  The commandments he followed were not sourced in the Law but his Father… ‘For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment-what to say and what to speak.‘ (John 12:49).

The Law was a covenant of works.  It offered life to those who kept it (Lk 10: 25-28).  When his Jewish contemporaries ask him how they may earn eternal life they are thinking in terms of humanly achieved righteousness by law-keeping and he answers them on their own assumptions agreeing that life, at least theoretically, may be gained by perfect law-keeping  (Lk 18:18-20; 10:25-28).  Jesus however never speaks of ‘life’ as something he hopes to earn’ or achieve.  He comes with ‘life’ already his, granted from his Father (Jn 5: 26).  He had no need to gain life or ‘earn’ life, he had life in himself (Jn 5: 25,26).  He was the giver of life (Jn 1-4).  His obedience did not gain life it gained his father’s approval and kept him in the centre of his Father’s love (Jn 15:10).  His Father’s command was not that he obey so that he may gain life but that he obey in giving his life.  His charge was a charge to die, not live…

John 10:17-18 (ESV)
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

Unlike the command of the Law the commandment of the Father results in eternal life (Jn 12:49,50).  Jesus’ obedience in John’s gospel is described in terms of  life-giving ‘words’ and ‘works’ (miraculous signs  Jn 5:20).  These words and works that belong to the Father he has given to his Son (Jn 14:10).  These ‘salvation’ words and works are not what the Law demanded they are what the Father through the Son in grace supplies.  The Law did not reveal the Father’s glory (indeed it hid God’s glory behind a veil), it is Jesus who does this (Jn 1:14-18, 14:8-10).  And so in Jesus we find one who pleases the Father (Jn 8:28, 29), reveals the Father (Matt 11:27; Jn 1;14-18), and brings glory to the Father (Jn 12:28).  All of this he does, not through the power of the flesh by which Adam obeyed and which Law addressed (Roms 7:1-6), but by the power of the Spirit the hallmark of new covenant (Jn 1:32,33).  He did not keep the old covenant that he may win new covenant status.  He was ‘new covenant’.  He lived as ‘new covenant’ and died that we may share in his new covenant life and receive forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:28).   As Hebrews points out,

Heb 9:15 (ESV)
Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.

The gospels reveal many gospel threads.  Jesus is the King, the Son of David, who will inaugurate Kingdom of God (Matt 1).  By his life-giving liberating words and accompanying works he will overthrow the Kingdom of Satan (Lk 11:14-23; Jn 12:31).  He is Isaiah’s Servant who comes with new covenant power in salvation with “The Spirit of the Lord upon him, anointed to proclaim liberty to captives and oppressed, good news to the poor, and sight for the blind (Lk 4:18 etc).  He is the Son of Man who sows the good seed of God’s word (Matt 13:37) and has authority on earth to forgive sins (Matt 9:6).  Jesus is the true Vine, the one true Son, who would bring pleasure and joy to the heart of God (Jn 15).  We could go on. Yet, wherever we read in the gospels, and however carefully we scrutinize them, we will not find a hint  that the life of Christ or the obedience of Christ earns a righteousness that will be imputed to others. Not a trace of such a notion is to be found.  It is conspicuously absent.

On the one occasion when Jesus’ speaks plainly about the way a man may be righteous it is to make a stark contrast.  Righteousness he insists is not to be found in trusting one’s own works  (we may even say law-works) but in casting oneself entirely as a sinner on the mercy of God (Lk 18:9-14).

No, the salvation hope presented in the gospels is not in law-keeping, not even the law-keeping life of Christ; it is in the sacrificial death of Christ.  He had come to give his life a ransom for the many (Mk 10:45).  He is the good shepherd who will lay down his life for the sheep (Jn 10); the living bread whose ‘flesh’ is given for the world at the cross (Jn 6:48); the Son of Man lifted up that those who look may live (Jn 3:14); the seed that unless it dies abides alone but if it dies it produces much fruit (Jn 12:48); the sacrificial lamb of God who bears away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29); the temple who would be destroyed and in three days rebuilt (Jn 2:19); the one man who should die for the people (Jn 11:50-52); the stone the builders reject (Mk 12:10); the prophet who must perish at Jerusalem (Lk 13:33-35); the obedient Son who says, ‘the cup that the Father has given me to drink shall I not drink it’ (Jn 18:11); and the ‘new covenant’ mediator whose  poured out blood would bring forgiveness of sins (Lk 22:20; Matt 26:28)

He is all this and more… but he is not the law-keeping Israelite earning life to be imputed to others.  In the gospels as in the OT there is not a whiff of IAO.  The whole thrust of the gospels is opposed to it; Christ comes not to keep the old but introduce the new, and through death establish new and end the old.  Gospel is not Law achieved, it is something entirely new in power and nature, namely Christ.  Christ is not life merited by obedience but the life of the Father revealed and remitted (given) by grace.

IAO, as N T Wright says, is the brainchild of systematics not of Scripture.

5 Responses to “imputed active obedience (IAO), a must or a misdirection? (11)”

  1. 1 Chris
    October 30, 2012 at 2:54 am

    As a long time proponent of IAO, your diatribe has definitely convinced me of my error. As most would have to admit, the concept of IAO could only have been born from the minds of men and canonized through tradition. This was the basis of my previous subscription. I even considered it borderline heresy to imagine it otherwise. It wasn’t until I came across your page that I struggled to defend my position biblically. Thanks again!

  2. 2 Susanne Schuberth (Germany)
    October 30, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    Hi John,

    Do you remember me?
    It’s Susi Schuberth, Germany :)

    I really remember
    Last year in December
    As I met you first
    While quenching my thirst
    For biblical food
    In the neighbourhood
    (I mean on Tullian’s blog
    Where I was clearing my fog)

    Yet some weeks later
    I felt it was greater
    To write on your site
    For it IS dynamite

    Your biblical knowledge
    Is better than college
    For you’ve learned it by doing
    And write without wooing
    About Gospel and truth
    With your heart and in sooth

    Your Centre is Christ
    All in all, nothing sliced
    I do admire your style
    Though it has been a while
    Since I read something new
    Briefly, “John, where are you?” ;)

    This poem is not really off-topic because I read your article today. And though I always felt that IAO must be wrong since Jesus broke the Mosaic law several times *, I never could rationalize my belief until I have read your posting on this. Extremely well written, John (God-inspired again, you remember?).

    Please, don’t stop writing new articles. It is a gift of God He has entrusted to you (1 Cor 12:4), and I am sure that He wants you to share it with others (1 Cor 12:7). Sometimes we might feel a lack of inspiration – as for me, daily – but as soon as I sit down, pray and wait, God always gives me an idea I didn’t consider before.

    John, it was meant to be that you’re the one who brought true light into my shadows…won’t you please return (get back in harness)? ;)



    (*) I simply thought, “OK, He was the lawgiver Himself – why shouldn’t He break the law and establish another one?” – I mean the “Law of Christ”

    • October 30, 2012 at 5:38 pm

      Hi Susanne

      Thanks for encouragement. I do intend to get back in harness. In fact I have been working on a short post this afternoon. I have had various jobs that have kept me busy over the summer and have got out of the way of thinking about the blog. Hopefully, I will be more disciplined in coming days. Trust you and family are well.

      • 4 Susanne Schuberth (Germany)
        October 30, 2012 at 5:45 pm

        Glad to hear about you writing again. Family is well, thanks. Hopefully yours too.

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the cavekeeper

The Cave promotes the Christian Gospel by interacting with Christian faith and practice from a conservative evangelical perspective.


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