Tag Archives: Christ’s Active Obedience

We Distinguish…(Part 5) — Active/Passive Obedience

Romans-5.19

In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

On the first of January, 1937, a dying J. Gresham Machen mustered up the strength to send one last telegram to his friend John Murray: “I’m so thankful for active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” One of the founding fathers of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church made a point of stressing Christ’s active obedience in his last hours on this earth. It would be, however, a grave mistake to assume that this doctrine is uniquely Presbyterian. Not only is it found in the Three Forms of Unity, it’s also shared with confessional Lutherans (as I’ve demonstrated here).

We speak of a distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience. We need to carefully define the terms, because they have sometimes been misunderstood as opposites. In normal English conversation, “active” and “passive” usually are opposites. “Passive” is typically denotes inactivity. However, in the context of Reformed theology, the word “passive” is derived from the Latin passio and it refers to Christ’s suffering – something in which he was definitely not inactive. Passive obedience, therefore, refers to Christ’s obedience in suffering the wrath of God against our sins. Christ’s active obedience speaks of his obeying the law of God perfectly in our place throughout his life – an active, positive righteousness that is imputed or accounted to believers. In Christ’s passive obedience we have the payment demanded so that our sins can be fully forgiven. In his active obedience we have the perfect conformity to God’s law demanded of all human beings. These must be taken together, and when they are, they form the basis of our justification (our being declared right with God as Judge).

This distinction is valuable because it points up how good the good news really is. We are not just promised forgiveness in Christ. In our Saviour, we are promised and given perfect righteousness in the sight of God. As God looks at us in Jesus Christ, he sees people who have been perfectly and consistently obedient to his law. Because of Christ’s active obedience imputed to us, God sees us as flawlessly obeying him not just in the externals, but also 100% from and in the heart.

When it comes to biblical support, there’s really no debating the passive obedience of Christ. The Bible is clear that he suffered in obedience to God’s will so that we can be forgiven all our trespasses (e.g. Hebrews 2:10-18). But what about the active obedience of Christ?   According to Romans 2:13, “doers of the law will be justified.” Galatians 3:10 reminds us that if you do not do everything written in the law, you are under a curse. God demands perfect obedience to his moral law. Romans 5 is one of the clearest places speaking to the fulfillment of this demand in Christ. There Adam and Jesus are contrasted in their disobedience and obedience. Says the Holy Spirit in Rom. 5:19, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” The “one man’s obedience” there refers to Christ’s work on our behalf, including and especially his obedience to all of God’s law. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 reminds us, all our sins were imputed to Christ, and all his righteousness is imputed to us.

Since it’s found in Scripture, it’s no surprise to find it in the Three Forms of Unity. For example, it’s implied in chapter 2 of the Canons of Dort, in the Rejection of Errors #4. The Arminians taught that God had “revoked the demand of perfect obedience to the law.” The Synod of Dort said that this contradicted the Bible and was part of “a new and strange justification of man before God.” At the bare minimum, the Canons of Dort maintain that God still does demand perfect obedience to his law. However, the Canons do not explicitly say how this demand is to be met.

But that is not to say that the Synod of Dort ignored this issue. Far from it! In fact, the denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ was an issue amongst the Reformed churches of that period. As a result, the Synod of Dort edited article 22 of the Belgic Confession on this point to clarify that Christ’s active obedience is essential to Reformed orthodoxy. The revised article 22 reads (the underlined words were added by Dort): [God] “imputes to us all [Christ’s] merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.” This result brought the Dutch Reformed churches into line with the English and the French – they had also previously ruled that Christ’s active obedience was a non-negotiable point of Reformed doctrine. Later, in 1693, the Walcheren Articles appeared in the Netherlands and these were even more resolute on this question. Denying the imputation of the active obedience of Christ is not an option for Reformed confessors.

Unfortunately, in our day there have been some who have either denied or minimized this point of doctrine. I’m thinking especially of some figures associated with the Federal Vision movement. I’ve briefly addressed their teachings in a booklet (which you can find here). Suffice it to say that attempting to sideline this doctrine: 1) requires a dishonest handling of the Reformed confessions, 2) requires a reconfiguration of the biblical doctrine of justification, and 3) robs Reformed believers of comfort, joy, and strength in Christ.  This is not making a mountain out of a doctrinal molehill.

For those who would like to read more on this important topic, Dr. N. H. Gootjes has an excellent essay entitled “Christ’s Obedience and Covenant Obedience.” It’s in chapter 4 of his book Teaching and Preaching the Word. I also have a copy available online here.

 


CanRC-URCNA Covenant Colloquium

From l to r:  Dr. Ted Van Raalte, Dr. Jason Van Vliet, Rev. John Bouwers, Dr. Cornel Venema, Dr. Bob Godfrey.

From l to r: Dr. Ted Van Raalte, Dr. Jason Van Vliet, Rev. John Bouwers, Dr. Cornel Venema, Dr. Bob Godfrey.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a synod of the United Reformed Churches in North America.  One of the noteworthy things that happened at Synod Visalia was a colloquium or discussion about covenant theology between theologians of the URCNA and of the Canadian Reformed Churches.  Representing the URCNA were Dr. Cornel Venema from Mid-America Reformed Seminary and Dr. Bob Godfrey from Westminster Seminary California.  The CanRC representatives were both professors from the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, Dr. Ted Van Raalte and Dr. Jason Van Vliet.

The colloquium was an initiative of the URCNA Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity (CERCU).   It seems that fears and suspicions about covenant theology in the Canadian Reformed Churches continue to beleaguer efforts to work towards a merger of our federations.  Hence, this colloquium was proposed as a way to help clear the air.  Most reports that I’m hearing suggest that it definitely was a step in the right direction.  I commend CERCU for organizing it!

Prior to the colloquium, a couple of documents were prepared by the participants.  You can find those documents here, prefaced by a letter from the CanRC Committee for Church Unity to CanRC church councils.  The first document is from the URCNA representatives and lays out their position.  The second is from the CanRC representatives.  They answer some questions posed to them by Dr. Venema and Dr. Godfrey.

I want to note a few things about the CanRC contribution to this discussion.

First, it needs to be recognized that Dr. Van Raalte and Dr. Van Vliet are not presenting the “official” covenant theology of the Canadian Reformed Churches.  Apart from what our confessions say (which is not much), we do not have such a theology worked out in the kind of detail you find in this document.

Second, Dr. Van Raalte and Dr. Van Vliet are both professors at our seminary.  Thus, it can be said that this is representative of what is being taught to our seminary students.

Third, I endorse what Dr. Van Raalte and Dr. Van Vliet have written.  I might express myself somewhat differently on some points, but I have no substantial problems or questions about what they have set forth.  I particularly appreciate that they maintain:

  • The imputation of the active obedience of Christ in our justification.  They unambiguously state that this is the position of the Three Forms of Unity.
  • That, in justification, law and gospel are antithetical.
  • That covenant and election are not to be identified with one another, though they are connected.
  • That all the children of believers truly are in the covenant of grace
  • That there are different “outcomes” with regard to those in the covenant of grace:  life or death.
  • The activity of faith in justification is merely receiving or accepting the free gifts of Christ.

I could add more, but those are some important highlights.

I keep hearing that the colloquium was recorded on video, but I have not yet seen or heard of it being posted.  I will let you know if I run across it.  I do know there will be some further follow-up in Christian RenewalDaniel Hyde’s take on the colloquium will be published,  as will a response from Dr. Van Raalte and Dr. Van Vliet.  I look forward to reading that interchange and pray that all of this discussion will further the cause of unity.


Resource Added

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I’ve just uploaded an important article written some years ago by Dr. N. H. Gootjes, “Christ’s Obedience and Covenant Obedience.”  This was originally published in Koinonia 19.2 (Fall 2002).  You can download a copy here. 


Walcheren Articles

Yesterday I posted something about this new book, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism.  In the chapter on the period of high orthodoxy, there is a paragraph about a professor at the French Academy of Saumur, Josue de la Place:

De la Place, who became professor at Saumur in 1631, developed a divergent view on the imputation (imputatio) of Adam’s sin to his descendants.  According to de la Place, the imputation was based on actual sins, which implied a “mediate” transmission of Adam’s sin.  In France, the national Synod of Charenton (1644-1645) made pronouncements on de la Place’s views, led by opposition from Antoine Garissolles (1587-1651), who was the moderator.  However, de la Place’s views also made waves outside of France.  In the Swiss Confederation they were addressed in the Formula consensus Helvetica and in the Netherlands they were attacked by Samuel Maresius and others.  However, de la Place’s view was accepted by Johannes Vlak, pastor in Zutphen, but it was condemned in the Articles of Walcheren of 1693. (153).

The Articles of Walcheren were prepared by a Dutch Reformed classis and addressed several errors circulating in the late seventeenth century.  They are difficult to find.  I have posted a .pdf containing them here.  I believe this comes from the volume edited by J. N. Bakhuizen van den Brink, Documenta Reformatoria.  Unfortunately, it’s only available in Dutch.  Article IV specifically deals with Vlak.  Article III is also worth noting for its affirmation of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ in justification.  Ministerial candidates in the Walcheren classis were apparently required to subscribe this document.


John Calvin: Christ’s Active Obedience

“The second requirement of our reconciliation with God was this: that man, who by his disobedience had become lost, should by way of remedy counter it with obedience, satisfy God’s judgment, and pay the penalties for sin.  Accordingly, our Lord came forth as true man and took the person and the name of Adam in order to take Adam’s place in obeying the Father, to present our flesh as the price of satisfaction to God’s righteous judgment, and, in the same flesh to pay the penalty we had deserved.”  Institutes 2.12.3