imputed active obedience (IAO), a must or a misdirection? (9)

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’

He writes,

…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!

Why I Didn’t Endorse The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration


6 Responses to “imputed active obedience (IAO), a must or a misdirection? (9)”

  1. December 1, 2010 at 12:12 am


    This has been a good series. I’m going to link to your first
    2 posts in my next blog. A couple questions come to mind…

    Some of the non-IAO’s you quote (like Gundry), when they deny
    the imputation of “Christ’s right.,” it sounds like that includes
    His right. based on His earthly life AND death/resurrection.
    True or false?

    For those who believe that God imputes right. to us based on
    Christ’s death and resurrection life, can’t that be called
    “Christ’s right.?” If so, is that imputed right. God’s attribute
    of right.? Thanks.

    • December 1, 2010 at 9:32 am


      Gundry believes that God counts faith as righteousness, that is, the faith itself = righteousness. For him, it is not that the faith is the instrument of righteousness or route through which righteousness comes, but faith is the basis, the equivalent of righteousness; faith IS righteousness.

      I think he is wrong in this. I think there is an imputed (reckoned, counted) righteousness from God. That is why I keep stressing I am not opposed to imputation but simply IAO. I think the proper way to think about reckoned righteousness is to realise that Christ paid the penalty for the sin of his people – death (wrath-bearing death). Thus the penalty is paid and we are acquitted. We are righteous.

      We didn’t need a transferred righteous life (something the Bible knows nothing about) we needed a sacrificial substitutional death (the model the Bible always teaches for forgiveness).

      Machen etc all want what they call a positive righteousness because they believe that righteousness must always be earned if not by us by someone else – ultimately it is based on a covenant of works. Their Covenant theology forces this on them. Whereas what the Bible teaches, to my mind, is that having died with Christ in his death we are completely removed from any claims of law or sin forever – its only claim on us (death) is met at the cross. Being united to Christ in death we share in God’s righteous verdict on his righteous son in resurrection. Our new righteous status is realized in resurrection.

      Machen’s mistake (and that of all IAO champions)is that they locate our righteousness in the wrong place (Christ’s life on earth plus his death) whereas the Bible locates it in our union with Christ in death and his resurrected life in heaven. What is reckoned however, is God’s verdict on a death (Christ’s) realized in the vindicated life of resurrection.

      Interestingly too, the righteousness of God, revealed in the gospel, is just that – God’s righteousness. It is not Christ’s righteousness but God’s. At the cross God is seen to be righteous in passing over previous sins; God is seen to be righteous in forgiving present sins. All this through the death of Christ our propitiation but God’s righteousness displayed nevertheless. The gospel is God’s righteousness glorified in opposition to Law which was about man’s righteousness.

      I don’t think we need to speak about an attribute of God imputed or a life imputed (Christ’s life). Rather God’s righteousness in the gospel is God acting consistent with who he is (righteousness in God is just that) and declaring a ‘righteous’ verdict on the ungodly on the basis of the death of Christ.

      There. That’s me said in a few words what it will take another half-a-dozen posts to do!

      Thanks for dropping in and reading.

  2. 4 Nick
    December 2, 2010 at 11:55 pm

    Hi John,

    Still enjoying your series.

    I just cannot get over the logical fallacy/dilemma that the IAO crowd keeps bringing up regarding Passive Obedience “merely” putting us in a state of pre-lapsarian Adam. If all punishment is forever satisfied, then the individual is not in “probation” like Adam since they can never fall and potentially deserve punishment like Adam. Any shortfalls in terms of keeping the Law are more than satisfied by the Cross, thus IAO logically has no place.

    Gundry did mention something that made me chuckle though: “The notion [of imputation of Christ’s righteousness] is passé, neither because of Roman Catholic influence nor because of theological liberalism, but because of fidelity to the relevant biblical texts.”

    What’s funny (if not down right disturbing) about this line of reasoning is that it casts a terrible smudge on centuries of Reformed and Lutheran theologians that fought with all their energy for the doctrine and did believe it was found in Scripture. For Gundry to say the doctrine is “passe” simply because a great majority of folks didn’t see the plain teaching of Scripture is akin to Luther’s claim the Church hadn’t understood Justification properly for 1400 years. Of course, many Reformed today would label Gundry a heretic (or at least deeply confused) for this and other comments.

    • December 3, 2010 at 12:16 am


      Yes, I find it frustrating. It is based ultimately, in my view, on a false theology in the Adamic covenant of works. The belief that Adam was on probation and could ‘earn’ eternal life by obedience. The belief is that ultimately eternal life must be ‘earned’. If we cannot earn it by our disobedience then it must be earned by another for us. Sin’s penalty paid by an infinitely valuable sacrifice is not enough there must be probational/earned/worked righteousness too. As you say the idea that we are put in the place of pre-laps Adam just flies in the face of all the Bible says about the cross.

  3. September 6, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    Outstanding article. Always happy to find someone with the courage to put hard questions to this erroneous doctrine. Currently working on my own piece along these lines. Thanks.

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


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