Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

26 Aug 2012

The Active Obedience of Christ: A Brief Reply

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During the summer of 2000, my wife and I travelled through Iowa on the way to visit family. Along the way we stopped in Ankeny to attend church and catch up with some old friends. After the evening service, Myron Houghton took us out for pie at Baker’s Square. It was a generous gesture, and we had a delightful time. Myron has a very dry wit, and in casual conversation he rarely strings together a few sentences without including a pun. He’s an engaging person to be around. Over the past few decades Myron has taught theology to hundreds of students—my wife and several other relatives among them. So it is with significant respect and appreciation that I’d like to examine briefly a subject which he recently wrote about.

The summer 2012 issue of the Faith Pulpit includes an article written by Myron titled “The Active Obedience of Christ.” In that article, he argues against the idea that Christ’s perfect obedience to the law of God comprises the righteousness which is credited to the believer’s account. At the risk of seeming to use biased language, I’m going to call the view he rejects the “traditional view” of the active obedience of Christ. Hopefully the remainder of this post will bear out that designation.

Although I affirm the traditional view of Christ’s active obedience and therefore disagree with the central argument of the article, in this post I’m not going to directly address the article’s main argument. Instead, I’m going to confine my comments to a couple of statements in the article, and I’m going to try to reframe the issue in light of some relevant historical facts. The statements in question appear at the beginning and end of the article respectively:

Many Bible-believing Baptists today are influenced by groups which identify themselves as centered on the gospel but in reality are teaching a Reformed view that the imputed righteousness of Christ is the result of His active obedience to the law.

Two well-known organizations today hold the view that the active obedience of Christ was part of His substitutionary atonement [omitted: quotes that demonstrate The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel affirm the view in question]…. From my perspective, this view of the active obedience of Christ is not consistent with Scripture and even distorts the truth of justification.

Taken together these two statements seem to imply that the traditional view of the active obedience of Christ is something foreign to Baptist life and to the theology of “Bible-believing Baptists.” I’d like to suggest that a brief survey of Baptist history suggests a rather different picture.

In 1677 Particular Baptists living in and around London produced a confession of faith that summarized the views they held in common with each other and to a large extent with other Protestants. Following the Act of Toleration, messengers from more than one hundred Baptist churches in England and Wales approved and published this confession, now known as the Second London Baptist Confession (1689). In this confession, English Particular Baptists affirmed the traditional view of the active obedience of Christ. They wrote, “The Lord Jesus by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself…hath fully satisfied the Justice of God” (LBC 8.5). A few chapters later, these early Baptists declared, “Christ by his obedience, and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are justified…his Obedience and Satisfaction accepted in their stead” (LBC 11.3). In using this language, the Particular Baptists expressed their agreement with both Presbyterians (Westminster Confession) and Congregationalists (Savoy Declaration) concerning the active obedience of Christ. However, Particular Baptists were not the only Baptists to affirm this view.

In 1678 General Baptists living in England decided to follow the example of their more Calvinistic brethren by drawing up a statement of their own. Like the Particular Baptists, they also asserted that the righteousness secured by the active obedience of Christ is imputed to believers (Orthodox Creed 16).

During the seventeenth century, a significant number of English Baptists affirmed the traditional view of the active obedience of Christ. The same can also be said of early American Baptists. By 1742 the Philadelphia Confession had become one of the mostly widely accepted confessions of faith among the Calvinistic Baptists living in Colonial America. In this confession, Baptists affirmed that God justifies sinners “by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness by faith” (Philadelphia Confession 11.1). They essentially reaffirmed what English Baptists had confessed in the previous century.

In addition to such confessional statements, many individual Baptist theologians and pastors have taught the traditional view of Christ’s active obedience. For example, James Petigru Boyce (1827–1888), founder of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, once wrote, “Our justification is due also to the active obedience of Christ, and not to passive obedience only…. It thus appears, that the ground of justification is the whole meritorious work of Christ. Not his sufferings and death only, but his obedience to, and conformity with the divine law are involved in the justification, which is attained by the believer” (Abstract of Systematic Theology 35.2).

On the other side of the Atlantic, Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) affirmed a similar understanding of justification. Concerning Romans 5:19, Spurgeon declared, “Now this is not Christ’s death merely, but Christ’s active obedience, which is here meant, and it is by this that we are made righteous” (sermon preached April 30, 1865).

In more recent years, Baptist theologians such as Wayne Grudem and John Piper have similarly argued for the traditional view of the active obedience of Christ (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 570–71; Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ, 123–24).

From this quick survey, it seems clear that many “Bible-believing Baptists” have affirmed the traditional view concerning the active obedience of Christ. The traditional view is not something foreign to Baptist theology. Rather, it is a doctrine that has been embraced by many of our Baptist forebears and included in many of their confessions of faith.

Theoretically, at this point one might object that the reason so many Baptists have been able to affirm the active obedience of Christ is because they are not dispensationalists. While it is true that the Baptists cited above did not embrace dispensationalism, a number of dispensationalists have held the traditional view of Christ’s active obedience as well. If you have been clicking the hyperlinks above, you may have noticed that the link to the Spurgeon citation takes one to a blog post by Phil Johnson. Phil is a dispensationalist, and he presumably posted the quote from Spurgeon about the active obedience of Christ because he agreed with it. Rolland McCune, former professor of systematic theology at DBTS, is both a Baptist and a dispensationalist, and for decades he has taught the traditional understanding of Christ’s active obedience (McCune, Systematic Theology, 2:198–205). In fact, concerning this issue McCune has written, “Any view of the atonement that cannot grant the merit of obedience as well as the just satisfaction of God’s outraged holiness is deficient. It calls into question, however minimally or inadvertently, the necessary, complete, and absolute ethical basis of one’s salvation” (201).

Myron Houghton’s article asserts that Bible-believing Baptists should reject the traditional understanding of Christ’s active obedience. This brief survey of Baptist history suggests that from seventeenth-century London to twenty-first-century Allen Park many Bible-believing Baptists have held the traditional view.

7 Responses

  1. John T. "Jack" Jeffery

    Unfortunately this doctrine suffers from guilt by association with the label “Reformed”, and Covenant Theology’s “covenant of works”. Many cannot get past what to them are red flag issues to an objective appreciation of the exegetical and Biblical theological bases for this doctrine.

  2. Whatever other Baptistic groups might have believed over time is irrelevant to the discussion. The doctrine of the imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ is one with no biblical support – according to Bird, Carson, Packer and others. (even though they still advocate for it)

    The doctrine is beset by several fatal flaws:

    1) the assumption that righteousness was earned under prior covenants
    2) the assumption that righteousness can be earned via law-keeping
    3) it makes the PO (death) of Christ to be the prerequisite for the imputation of the AO of Christ
    4) it makes the Cross to be less than sufficient for making men righteous
    5) if the perfect law-keeping of Christ could be imputed to men and if this law-keeping could merit righteousness, then Christ died for no reason (Galatians 2:21, 3:21)

    Dr. Houghton is correct to question this doctrine whether he is a dispensationalist or not.

    1. Jared Compton

      Hi Josh,

      Where do Carson and Packer, specifically, say that the imputation of Christ’s active obedience “has no biblical support.” I’m pretty sure I’ve read the pieces you’re referring to and that it would be more accurate to say they don’t think it has “direct, proof-text-like support” NOT that a biblical case cannot be made. Please do clarify. I’d hate for you to represent other Christians inaccurately. It’s really the least we can do as Christian scholars.


  3. I would say that Romans 4:6-8 also renders Active Obedience unbiblical, for in this verse it is shown that to “reckon righteousness” is a *synonym* for “not reckon sin” by being forgiven. So Justification is more similar to an acquittal than receiving a gold medal for finishing first in a race.

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