The Active-Passive Obedience of the High Priest

I mentioned a few things recently in my Hebrews series about Christ’s active and passive obedience. I received some blowback for these comments as well as some questions, so I figured it would be best to take this opportunity to quickly clarify a few things.

First, the terms “active” and “passive” are terms we use to identify Christ’s sinlessness (law obedience) and His death.

Secondly, we wouldn’t need to differentiate and divide His law obedience and His death had the progressive sanctificationists, the Lordship Salvationists, the hypothetical universalists and
Covenant Theology not insisted that the pardon resulting from the imputation of Christ’s death is insufficient to make His people righteous.

If the pardon resulting from the imputation of Christ’s death is insufficient to make His people righteous, then His death is not enough to save the elect. A resultant wedge is thereby driven between Christ’s active and passive obedience. In response, we find ourselves now forced to talk about His death apart from His sinlessness, because it is the efficacy of His death rather than His sinlessness that is under attack. The argument is that if Christ’s resurrection required a history of law obedience (covenant keeping), then so does ours. The death is not enough.

Lastly, we cannot ignore this fact. We cannot continue to think that we can answer the doubt and confusion these men have injected into the efficacy of Christ’s sacrificial death while refusing to differentiate between His sacrifice and His sinlessness. We aren’t addressing the doubt when we do this. We are only fueling it.

Most Calvinists today falsely believe that Antinomianism rather than Arminianism is the main threat to Christianity today. This is why so many Calvinists count Arminians as brothers even while castigating every sovereign grace believer who refuses to bend the knee to Lordship Salvation and progressive sanctification. And this isn’t a new tragedy either. Many of the Puritans held to the same false belief. The Marrow Controversy was born of it.

This is why we find so few Puritans from yesterday and so few Calvinists today talk about the imputation of the elect’s sins to Christ. Tolerant Calvinism does not want to talk about it. Covenant Theology does not want to talk about it. Lordship Salvation certainly does not want to talk about it. They all want to ignore it, because if we make this imputation a major part of our gospel, then where do works fit in? I mean, think about it. If all my sinning has been imputed to Christ, all my past, present and future sinning, if it’s all been imputed to Christ, then what might that mean for my motivation to change my behavior? The bogeyman of Antinomianism might rear its ugly head. We can’t have that.

My response to this silence has consistently been and continues to be that the elect do not even need His sinless imputed to them. What they need instead is His death imputed to them. I do not think I am overreacting here either. I think we have enslaved ourselves to the tradition of always just saying for a long time without even bothering to give it a second thought that we need His law obedience and His death both imputed to us. John Owen himself made this very mistake.

Consider Owen’s essay concerning those who denied the imputation of Christ’s active obedience. Nowhere in it does he address the imputation of the sheep’s sins to Christ. In addition, his arguments often beg the question. For example:

“As our Lord Jesus Christ owed not in his own person this obedience for himself, by virtue of any authority or power that the law had over him, so he designed and intended it not for himself, but for us. This, added unto the former consideration, gives full evidence unto the truth pleaded for; for if he was not obliged unto it for himself,–his person that yielded it not being under the law,- -and if he intended it not for himself; then it must be for us, or be useless.”

Here, Owen argues that since Christ did not owe Himself the obedience of His law, He must therefore have meant His obedience to be for us. This is all well and good except that it begs the question. The Scriptures state that the law was given so that sin might abound; and elsewhere that the law was given so that it might imprison everyone under sin. The Bible tells us why God designed the law. He designed the law to imprison everyone under sin and to also make every sinner want to sin more should there be anyone who thinks they can use it to establish themselves as righteous. We don’t need to speculate then about why He designed the law as Dr. Owen does. God told us why He designed it. It wasn’t for the same reason Dr. Owen says it was.

Another example –

“It is said, ‘That this obedience was necessary as a qualification of his person, that he might be meet to be a mediator for us; and therefore was for himself.’ It belongs unto the necessary constitution of his person, with respect unto his mediatory work; about this I positively deny. The Lord Christ was every way meet for the whole work of mediation, by the ineffable union of the human nature with the divine, which exalted it in dignity, honour, and worth, above any thing or all things.”

Here again, Dr. Owen begs the question. Scripture again states clearly that He inherited a name more excellent than angels, and that He did learn obedience through what He suffered. While I confess He was from eternity always the Son, yet I cannot deny Scripture and confess with Dr. Owen that He was in every way meet for the criterion of mediation by the mere fact of His incarnation. Christ became the perfect Savior. He was not born the perfect Savior. He became the perfect Savior. He was not always the perfect Savior. He became the perfect Savior by taking the form of a servant and then learning obedience through what He suffered.

While Christians are quick to talk about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to His elect, they are far too often forgetting the flip side of that coin – the imputation of their sins to Christ. Consider the following argument taken from the notes of a sermon:

“Here we have it (Hebrews 10:14): by Christ’s one offering, the believer is made or constituted ‘permanently perfect’. This is far more than being pardoned.”

One of the problems with this argument is the fact it ignores everything that has preceded this verse. From chapter 1 onward, the author’s argument has been that Christ’s sacrifice was a superior sacrifice that has forever perfected His people, because His priesthood was a superior priesthood to that of Aaron’s. It was never the quality of the priest’s law obedience that provided the efficacy which made the people perfect, but rather the quality of the priest’s sacrifice. The deaths which Aaron offered daily could never atone for the people’s sins, while the death which Christ has offered once for all did.

Here is the question Christians need to start asking and answer. What exactly did His sinlessness purchase for His elect that His death didn’t? His death accomplished His people’s redemption. It redeemed them from God’s wrath and the just penalty for their sins. It atoned for their sins. It propitiated God’s wrath that had stood against them for their sins. It expiated their sins. It purchased their faith, their resurrection, their new birth, their sanctification. His death is His righteousness. He who had learned obedience through what He suffered and had obeyed His Father perfectly, now obeyed even to the point of death. His death is the fulfillment of His perfect obedience. So what do His elect need from His sinlessness that they did not get from His death?

. . . .

. . . .

. . . . ?

Tell you what, let me know if you think of something.

About David Bishop

Gospel of Grace Church
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8 Responses to The Active-Passive Obedience of the High Priest

  1. I think you are correct about “the bogeyman of antinominianism” . The next time we hear a preacher say that Christ “satisfies both law and justice”, we need to ask them what that means. Is the distinction between law and justice the distinction between preceptive obedience and penalty. Or is the preacher merely repeating a soundbite? The next time we sing “blood and righteousness”, we need to ask questions—Is the bloody death also the righteousness, or only part of the righteousness? Is the bloody death not the righteousness?

    I am thnakful, though, that many who teach vicarious law-keeping, also do teach God’s imputation of sins to Christ. Here’s one good example.

  2. Scott F. Sanborn teaches that Christ’s death is not His righteousness, and that only Christ’s life of vicarious law-keeping life is His righteousness. In this thinking, the death of Christ is not imputed to us, but only the life of Christ is imputed to us. According to this “active/passive”distinction, we don’t receive His death by imputation, and His death is not part of His righteousness. “It is not death that is the ground of life in Christ. Rather, it is the righteous life of Christ that is the ground of our life.

    Sanborn — “God had an end for creating the world apart from the fall and redemption.Jonathan Edwards had this in mind when he wrote his work The End for Which God Created the World…… only the end of creation was revealed in creation, not the end of the fall and redemption. The end of redemption was not revealed in the person of Adam at that time .Adam was not a type of Christ at that time….The infralapsarian position suggests that we cannot assert that God intended to create Adam in such a way as to be a type of Christ later. ”

  3. Donald Macleod (Christ Crucified, 2014, p 219)—There is a great discontinuity between Christ and those he came to save. They were sinners and Christ was not. Christ could not trust in God’s forgiveness because he had no need of forgiveness. He could not be born again because he required no changed of heart. He could not be converted because His life demanded no change of direction.

    If we move from the idea of Jesus as a believer to the idea of Jesus as the one who is believed IN, does Jesus believe, vicariously, in Himself?….It is not his faith that covers the deficiencies of our faith (as it is given to us by God). It is Christ’s death that covers the deficiencies of our faith…Our faith is not in the Son of God who believed for us, but in the Son of God who gave Himself for us.

    According to Torrance, Christ condemned sin by saying no to the flesh and living a life of perfect faith, worship and obedience. But this would mean that the condemnation of sin did not take place on the cross, but in the daily life of Christ. But Romans 8:3 says that it not Jesus but God the Father who condemns sin in the flesh. While it was indeed in the flesh of his Son that God condemned sin but it was not only in his Son as incarnate, but in his Son as a sin-offering.. God condemned sin by passing judgement on his Son.

  4. Mark Jones–Anselm argued that Christ, as a rational being, owed obedience to God. But to make satisfaction on behalf of sinners, Christ had to go beyond a life of obedience – he had to die. As the God-man, Christ’s death was therefore supererogatory – a death above God’s requirement of him. His death is superabundant to make satisfaction for sins. Gataker and Vines, for example, used Anselm’s argument to reject the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Christ’s death was supererogatory and therefore his death merited eternal life. In other words, Gataker and Vines argued Anselm’s point that Christ’s obedience is required, but his death is not required; ergo: only the merits of Christ’s death are imputed to believers,

  5. Matto– “Did the Lord Jesus say ‘It is finished’ before He died or after He died? He said it before He died, which means the atonement was complete before He physically died, and the atonement was on a higher level than mere physical death. Jesus had already suffered the spiritual wrath of God, and that was the punishment, not death.

    Glenn Peoples—Yes, “it is finished” had to have been uttered before Jesus died. Jesus could not have said it after he was dead. But his declaration was based on the inevitable— He just about to die. John portrays Jesus saying these words virtually as he dies: “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” The gospel of John links the saying directly to the death of Christ. The atoning work of Jesus is finished when Jesus died.”

  6. Nettles quotes Andrew Fuller: “We could say that a certain number of Christ’s acts of obedience becomes ours as that certain number of sins becomes his. In the former case his one undivided obedience affords a ground of justification to any number of believers; in the latter, his one atonement is sufficient for the pardon of any number os sins or sinners.

    Nettles explains that Fuller “misconceives the biblical relation of imputation. Justification should not be considered as analogous to atonement but rather to the imputation of Adam’s sin”.

    More from Nettles’ refutation of Andrew Fuller
    Error one: it’s tantamount to identifying the doctrine of effectual calling with atonement. What one really means by definite atonement is that the difference is not in the atonement but in the Spirit’s work of calling.

    “A second error is subtle in nature and involves a shift in the understanding of the sacrificial death. Although Jesus’ death is spoken of as passive obedience–and though the concepts of reconciliation and propitiation are defined as activities accomplished in the Father’s setting forth God the Son–when the sufficiency of the death of Christ arises, the emphasis shifts from the Son’s passive obedience to what he actively accomplished by his infinite divine nature.”

  7. The basic task here is to define the word “righteousness”. You ask, “is the sinlessness the righteousness”? We could also ask, is the water baptism that “fulfills all righteousness” part of the righteousness? (Since active obedience folks don’t have a proof text, they often talk about John’s water baptism of repentance, but not when they are talking about infant water baptism). We could also ask, is the physical circumcision of Christ part of the righteousness? Is the incarnation itself part of the righteousness? What about Christ’s resurrection from the dead–is that part of His righteousness?

  8. One reason some people (not only covenant paedobaptists but also dispies) argue so strongly for “lawkeeping imputed” is that they want to sneak in the idea that the law we need to keep is still the Ten Commandments. ovenant theologians are not content to talk about one gospel for all time, because they want to talk about one covenant for all time. Even though they must say that the Mosaic covenant is part of their “one covenant of grace, some of them also want to insist that the Mosaic covenant was typological (with many aspects now fulfilled and ended) in a way that the Abrahamic covenant was not.

    Of course, even between the Abrahamic and the new covenant, they know there have been changes, since there was some typology. Though every son was circumcised during the Abrahamic covenant, those who speak of “the one covenant of grace” will now only “baptize” infant sons with one parent judged to be a believer. But this difference is regarded as “administrative” and not of the essence of “the one covenant of grace”.

    So the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant are of one “substance” but not so much as the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant.
    And the goal is to get to where you don’t talk about “covenants” at all, but simply reduce all the promises in all the covenants down to one gospel promise. But somehow, the “covenant promise” to “covenant children” is different from the “gospel promise” to those outside the covenant, to those without one Christian parent.

    We need to say clearly that the Abrahamic covenant is NOT the new covenant, despite the continuity between one of the promises to Abraham and the gospel promise to those effectually called into the new covenant. Of course these theologians do not actually say that the Abrahamic covenant is the new covenant. By talking about “the one covenant of grace, they implicitly agree that the Abrahamic covenant is not the new covenant.

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