Tag Archives: N. H. Gootjes

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


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.


1580 Handwritten Belgic Confession

Handwritten BC title page

In his book The Belgic Confession: Its History and Sources, N. H. Gootjes notes the existence of a handwritten copy of the Belgic Confession dating to 1580 (see pages 117-118).  This edition is based on the 1566 revision made at the Synod of Antwerp.  This manuscript has now been digitized and is available online from the University of Leiden.  Unfortunately, I don’t know if I can provide a direct link.  To find it, you’ll have to go here and then search for “geloofsbelijdenis.”  That will take you to the search results.  Click on the picture for the third item.  That should take you to the viewer where you can examine the document.  My thanks to Albert Gootjes for drawing my attention to this fascinating item.

One of the most interesting things about this copy of the Belgic Confession is that it was used for subscription in the Walloon churches in the Netherlands.  Starting right after article 37, there are a number of pages filled with signatures of Reformed ministers, including some notable figures from our Reformed church history.  Here’s the first page:


Jean Taffin signed his name here — he was a notable early Reformed minister, author of a book that has been translated into English, The Marks of God’s Children.  Following this, there are several pages of signatures up until 1667.  Then there’s a gap and then another group of signatures under what appears to be a type of Subscription Form.  One of the first names there is Johannes Polyander, one of the delegates to the Synod of Dort 1618-19 and also one of the authors of the Leiden Synopsis.  Here’s the image of that page:

Polyander signature

Another interesting feature about these signatures is that some of them are on behalf of churches or synods.  Last of all, if you survey the names you might come across a David Stuart.  That doesn’t sound Dutch or Walloon, does it?  Who was David Stuart and how did he come to serve as a pastor in the Netherlands?  Perhaps someone reading this knows, but I don’t, at least not yet.

This is a remarkable document, not only for being an early exemplar of the Belgic Confession, but also for what it might tell us about the history of subscription to the Belgic Confession.  The signatures begin in 1580 and run till 1667, a period of 87 years.  It definitely bears a closer look!

Some Recommended Resources on the Doctrine of the Covenant of Grace

As mentioned here previously, I’ve been preaching a series of catechetical sermons on the doctrine of the covenant of grace.  Someone asked me to provide a list of recommended resources.  First, some caveats.  The list is not comprehensive, not by far.  These resources are in no particular order.  My mentioning them does not mean that I agree with every single detail, term, or formulation in them — indeed, some of them do contradict each other at certain points.  In sharing them, all I mean to say is that I have learned something valuable from them and perhaps you can too.

The Covenant of Grace, John Murray (Philippsburg: P&R, 1953, 1988).

This was the very first thing I ever read about covenant theology.  It’s a dense little booklet of 32 pages.  It’s not included in Murray’s 4 volume Collected Writings.

The Main Points of the Covenant of Grace — Klaas Schilder.

This was a speech delivered by Schilder in 1944.  It’s a fairly good summary of his covenant theology.  He emphasizes the dynamic and relational nature of the covenant of grace.

Covenant and Election, J. Van Genderen (Neerlandia: Inheritance Publications, 1995). 

A good overview of the history of this topic.  The author also proposes helpful ways of outlining the similarities and differences between covenant and election.  This was one of our textbooks in seminary.

Teaching and Preaching the Word: Studies in Dogmatics and Homiletics, Nicolaas H. Gootjes (Winnipeg: Premier, 2010).

Here I’m thinking especially of chapters 4 (Christ’s Obedience and Covenant Obedience), chapter 8 (Sign and Seal), chapter 9 (The Promises of Baptism) and chapter 17 (Can Parents Be Sure?  Background and Meaning of Canons of Dort, I, 17).  Dr. Gootjes was my dogmatics professor in seminary and probably the biggest single influence on the way I think about the covenant of grace.  I hope that his material on covenant theology in the Reformed confessions will someday yet be published.

Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).

Bavinck tackles the covenant of grace in volume 3 and he’s worthy of careful study.  In volume 2, he also has a notable discussion of the covenant of works.

An Everlasting Covenant, J. Kamphuis (Launceston: Publication Organisation of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, 1985).

This is a more technical work which traces some of the finer details in the debates over covenant theology leading up to the Liberation of 1944.

Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, ed. R. Scott Clark (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2007).

This is a collection of essays by the faculty of Westminster Seminary California.  There are some important cautionary notes sounded in this volume directed against the false teachings of Federal Vision theology.  In a series of articles in The Outlook, I addressed the question of whether some of the authors mentioned above should be condemned with the Federal Visionists.  You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.  It’s also available in Korean here.

Resource Added


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. 

Book Review: The Belgic Confession

In honour of the Belgic Confession’s 450th birthday this year, I’ll be posting a number of items related to it in the next while.  This review dates back from 2008.  I’ve updated a few small details in it.  Let me add that this book continues to be well-used in my Belgic Confession research.

The Belgic Confession: Its History and Sources, Nicolaas H. Gootjes, Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2007.  Paperback, 229 pages, $37.00.

Over the years, numerous commentaries have been published on the firstborn of our confessional family, the Belgic Confession.  Most of these commentaries give a brief overview of the history of the Confession, but these introductions are typically regurgitated from the research of others.  Moreover, up till the publication of this book, we did not have a work in English dedicated to the study of the history and background of the Belgic Confession.

The author, retired professor of dogmatics at Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, has carefully studied all the available source documents and presents some fresh, surprising results.  Since the publication of his earlier research on the subject, we knew for certain that the authorship of the Confession rests with Guido de Bres.  But what we didn’t know was how much of a threat de Bres presented to the Roman Catholic Church.  This knowledge comes through a relatively unknown painting of the era in which de Bres is included with other Reformers such as Calvin, Beza, and Luther.  Gootjes includes a reproduction of the painting along with some valuable commentary.

Besides his fascinating discussions of the history and authorship of the Confession, the author also explores the influence of Calvin and Beza.  The mention of the latter is especially interesting, since he is often overlooked in discussions (in English) regarding the sources of the Confession.  Through the course of three chapters, Gootjes traces the development of the authority of the Confession, noting that it was adopted by the churches in the Netherlands very early on, probably even before its publication in 1561.  Chapter 7 deals with the Synod of Dort and the discussions concerning the Confession at the Synod and leading up to the Synod.  This is an engaging section, especially for its portrayal of Arminius and his fudging with the Confession.  With an eye to discussions of our day, it was also remarkable that the Synod of Dort discussed the inclusion of the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ.  The chairman of the Synod, Bogerman, attempted to have article 22 rephrased so as to make room for a denial of this doctrine.  In the end, all the delegates except for two (Bogerman and one other) voted this down and instead decided to strengthen the statement about this matter.  The book concludes with a chapter surveying the various translations – this chapter is meant to be a survey, so it is not comprehensive (the early history of the Confession in Spanish is not mentioned, for instance).  Nevertheless, it does reveal the widespread adoption of this creed.

Being a student of the Belgic Confession myself, I long anticipated the publication of this work.  Gootjes did not disappoint!  I am confident that this will be the definitive English source on the Confession’s history for many years to come.