Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

31 Aug 2012

The Active Obedience of Christ and Dispensational Theology: A Follow-Up


Being a major election year, attention to voter eligibility has again become an issue. Each side wants to make sure that every person who might vote for its candidate is eligible and registered to vote. But there is one class of citizens that in many states is permanently disbarred from voting: convicted felons. The legitimacy of this practice is fiercely debated, but the rationale is simple: even though felons may have “paid their debt to society” through fines, probation, and incarceration, the privilege to vote is extended only to those who have never incurred a “debt to society” in the first place.

The practice actually has biblical precedent. The principal problem that the human race has is not merely that we have incurred a debt of guilt, but also that we lack the weight of righteousness (Rom 3:10; 3:23)—we lack the positive merit necessary for the reception of divine favor. We need a righteousness ad extra: a righteousness from without that we do not and cannot possess on our own (Phil 3:9; cf. also Rom 1:17; 3:21–22; 4:3–6; 5:17; 10:3–4; 1 Cor 1:30; 5:21; 2 Pet 1:1; etc.).

It is for this reason, then, that the Protestant doctrine of justification has traditionally been cast in terms of a “great exchange.” The believer’s guilt, firstly, is imputed to Christ, who bears the full weight of God’s wrath against the collected guilt of all believers on the cross. But secondly, Christ’s righteousness of perfect obedience is imputed to the believer, rendering the believer fit for the meritorious reward of heaven. Heaven is not for people merely declared “not guilty” by virtue of the payment of debt—such would be contrary to the divine order. Instead, heaven is for people who have received righteousness by virtue of an obedient life vicariously lived by Christ.

It has long been a distinction of Chaferian dispensationalism to reject the idea of Christ’s active obedience as the source of this righteousness ad extra. And as John Aloisi has recently observed, this rejection has re-emerged recently in the summer 2012 issue of the Faith Pulpit in an article written by Myron Houghton titled “The Active Obedience of Christ.” The purpose of this (rather lengthy) post is twofold: (a) it asks the question why some dispensationalists have been hesitant to embrace the active obedience of Christ as the source of the believer’s righteousness ad extra, and (b) it considers whether this is a necessary conclusion for dispensational theology.

(1) Dr. Houghton’s first and greatest concern is that the dominant focus of the NT record relative to Christ’s crosswork is the removal of guilt through his “passive” or, better, his suffering obedience. Against this point I have little complaint. I might quibble with one of his supporting arguments (that the righteous “act” of Christ in Rom 5:18–19 must necessarily be the singular act of submitting to crucifixion), but in the main, he’s right.

(2) His second concern is that the righteousness credited to the believer is specifically connected to Christ’s deity, and not to his human obedience. Dr. Houghton argues that it is the not the righteous activity of human works (Rom 4:6) that saves, but the righteousness that Christ possesses intrinsically by virtue of his being God (so 2 Cor 5:21; 2 Pet 1:1). The argument from Rom 4:6 I will dismiss fairly hastily (perhaps too hastily) with the interpretive observation that, within the context, Paul’s point in Rom 4:6 is that righteousness does not come through the works of fallen humanity. The other two texts, though, demand a more substantive reply. While Christ’s deity surely means he possesses perfect righteousness, it is his human righteousness as the second Adam that is at issue here. And it is here that some dispensationalists develop a bit of angst. If you hear me saying (as a dispensationalist) that the first Adam failed in his responsibilities within the divine government and a Second Adam fulfilled them, you are hearing me correctly. Am I affirming the dreaded Adamic Covenant? Well, I might avoid the term “covenant” for lack of sufficient biblical detail (though see Hosea 6:7), but not the concept. Within the divine government, Adam failed to do something as the representative of the human race and his failure to obey consequently infected his whole progeny with guilt. The Second Adam was thusly charged with doing what the first Adam failed to do with the result that by his obedience he consequently credited righteousness to his whole progeny (Rom 5:12–19). And how is Christ’s righteousness credited to us? Certainly not by some seminal connection, but rather by imputation. Our need is the perfect righteousness of God, but it is only as that righteousness assumes human expression that it is of any benefit to mankind’s peculiar need—Christ could only save what he became. We need more than the dutiful death of the Second Adam to restore God’s order: we need him to accomplish in his life what the first Adam failed to accomplish—perfect obedience. This is not a “Reformed” understanding, but (from where I sit, at least) a biblical one. And from this same vantage I see nothing that prohibits this understanding from perfectly correlating with a dispensational model.

(3) This leads, then to a third concern that Dr. Houghton does not raise, but might have: in the dispensational system, it is unanimously recognized that the specific responsibilities of mankind change from dispensation to dispensation. As such, it might be argued, Christ’s obedience to the whole Mosaic Law is irrelevant to the NT believer. After all, as a NT believer I have no obligation to keep the whole Mosaic Law, so how can Christ’s obedience benefit me? My answer to this is fairly simple: what links Adam’s law-keeping responsibilities and my law-keeping responsibilities with Christ’s law-keeping success is that they all reflect mankind’s obedience to God in their respective contexts. Just as the specific content of the believer’s faith developed as history unfolded, so also did the specific details of his obedience. And Christ’s representative life was such that it perfectly met the whole expectation of God for believers in every age.

Conclusion: While some dispensationalists have surely objected to the prevailing Protestant view of justification, this is by no means a dispensational sine qua non. And, for the record, we at DBTS represent a tribe of dispensationalist that unanimously affirms the representative headship of Adam and the active obedience of Christ as wholly compatible with dispensational theology.

5 Responses

  1. Mark,

    For posterity’s sake, could you footnote the statement, “It has long been a distinction of Chaferian dispensationalism to reject the idea of Christ’s active obedience as the source of this righteousness ad extra.” I was not aware of this seemingly thoroughgoing rejection, even though my early years of theological training were in the Dallas mold.

    I can see Chafer’s/Walvoord’s position is at best unclear on the matter in Major Bible Themes, p. 199-200 since they say that the believer is imputed the “righteousness of God.” However, they do write, “It [justification] is abiding and unchangeable since it rests only on the merit of the eternal Son of God.” In that subsection, they argue that imputed righteousness is the ground of justification. If imputed righteousness is logically prior to justification, then given that quote, it seems that imputed righteousness has to come out of this “merit of the eternal Son of God.” When I read “merit” I wonder just what they mean or what could be included in that.

    Might someone suggest that the “active obedience” view does not go far enough? That is, it seems to “stop at” his humanity. But there is a very important connection between Christ’s righteousness as God as His behavior as a human, a connection that pushes the source of his active obedience beyond his mere humanness to His inherent righteousness as God.

    Thanks for the post.

    1. Mark Snoeberger

      Good questions, Matt, and worthy of fairly lengthy answers.

      First, I will admit that I used the expression “Chaferian dispensationalism” because I think it is unfair to the faculty of present-day Dallas Seminary to speak of “Dallas dispensationalism.” So to be more precise, I am speaking of the dominant positions of classical dispensationalism expressed from the 1920s through the 1980s, represented first by Chafer and then by other DTS faculty such as Walvoord, Ryrie, Pentecost, and Lightner.

      Second, I will admit with others that Chafer’s personal position on this particular issue was mostly one of remarkable silence (so, e.g., Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 571, n. 4), and further, that when Chafer did make reference to the issue, his testimony is somewhat mixed (compare, e.g., his book Grace, p. 35, and Salvation, p. 70, with his Grace, p. 169, ST, 7:242).

      Third, I would appeal to Chafer’s successors as carefully spelling out the denial of the vicarious active obedience of Christ. The clearest statement of denial is in a 1970 BSac article by Bob Lightner that is reproduced as chapter 11 of his Sin, the Savior, and Salvation, pp. 92–99. It is pretty clear that this understanding does not begin with Lightner, as he is comfortable calling his the “usual” dispensational view. Ryrie seems also intimate a similar understanding on p. 262 of his Basic Theology. An online collection of explicit dispensational denials of vicarious active obedience can be found at Contrarily, for a dispensational affirmation of the vicarious active obedience of Christ see Phil Johnson’s comments at

      Fourth, while I would agree with you that the infinite righteousness of the God-Man is necessary to and inseparable from his hypostatic personhood, I would remain firm in saying that it was Christ’s human obedience that is of such great import to our justification. Jesus the man imputed to man what Adam the man failed to impute to man: explicitly human righteousness. That is why Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every way”–to successfully parry human temptation and thus “help” humans in a way that could not help angels (Heb 2:14–18).

      1. Mark,

        Your label is just fine on the Chaferian/Dallas issue. When I said “Dallas,” the thought in my mind was just what you said–“the Chafer/Walvoord/Ryrie version of DTS.” As you know, I was a student of Raymond Saxe, who himself was a student under Chafer and Walvoord in the 1940s and 1950s.

        Thanks for your “footnotes.” It is helpful to note “silence and mixed testimony” versus “clear and explicit denial.”

  2. “heaven is for people who have received righteousness by virtue of an obedient life vicariously lived by Christ.”
    i agree with this…