Are we justified by Christ’s LIFE or by his DEATH–or both?

Are we justified by Christ’s LIFE or by his DEATH–or both?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 10:27am

HERE IS ANOTHER QUESTION I received recently:

“I have been following a discussion on a Calvinist blog re: the ‘active obedience’ view of the atonement. I read your section in ‘The Faith Once for All’ [p. 323], wherein you call this a ‘serious error.’ I’d be interested to know why this is such a serious error, i.e. what it in fact might lead to. Thanks for any help.”

HERE IS MY REPLY: I usually speak of Christ’s “active RIGHTEOUSNESS” rather than “active obedience,” but I think these are close enough in meaning that we won’t quibble about it. Also, I see this as a view of justification, not of the atonement as such. I.e., is our justification grounded on Christ’s active righteousness, his passive righteousness (=the atonement), or both?

In this discussion it is assumed that God justifies sinners by imputing to us the righteousness (obedience) of Jesus. But Jesus’ righteousness is usually distinguished as (a) his ACTIVE righteousness, namely, his perfect, life-long obedience to the law code that applied to him as a human being; and (b) his PASSIVE righteousness, i.e., his submission to death on the cross as our substitute. (The latter is the atonement.) Which of these accomplishments of Jesus is imputed to our account as the ground for God’s justifying us?

Most Reformation-oriented Christendom says that BOTH aspects of Christ’s righteousness are imputed to us for justification. Some are very adamant about it and suggest that if one does not accept this view, the whole Christian gospel somehow is diminished. I do seriously disagree with this. In my judgment ONLY the PASSIVE righteousness (obedience) of Jesus is imputed to us: not his “doing,” but only his “dying.” Here are some reasons why I take this view.

ONE. Romans 5:18 specifically says that we are justified by Christ’s “one act of righteousness.” This can only be the cross. To claim that this refers to his entire life ignores the contrast that is being made with Adam’s ONE trespass, not with Adam’s whole life. See my commentary on Romans, re this verse: “What is this ‘one act of righteousness’? No doubt it means the atoning death of Jesus on the cross. Many try to expand this ‘one act’ so that it includes Jesus’ entire sinless life (e.g., Hendricksen, I:182; Cranfield, I:289). But Christ’s life as a whole hardly qualifies as ‘one act.’ More importantly, the comparison here is between ONE sinful act and ONE righteous act. To say that the latter includes the whole life of Christ compromises the comparison and forfeits the whole point of this passage (Dunn, I:283).” I came to this conclusion in the early 1960s while I was a student at Westminster Seminary, contrary to what was being taught in the classroom.

TWO. Jesus’ parable of the unprofitable servant in Luke 17:7-10 shows that even if any human being could live a perfect life, he is doing only what it is his DUTY to do; therefore there is no “extra merit” [profit] that can be used to cancel out sin—either for ourselves or for someone else. (See my book on grace, “Set Free!”, ch. 5.) Jesus was indeed a human being in every sense of the word, and thus under absolute obligation to live a perfect, sinless human life FOR HIS OWN SAKE. When he did indeed live his perfect life, he was only doing what he ought to have done; there were NO EXTRA MERITS from his perfect life that could be imputed to anyone else to offset their sins. This does not make his perfect life irrelevant for our justification, though. Only because he was perfect in his own active righteousness could he qualify to offer himself as an atoning sacrifice to bring justification to others.

THREE. There is absolutely NO NEED to impute both kinds of righteousness in order for justification to be made possible. To do so would be redundant, or overkill. The imputation of Christ’s passive righteousness (his propitiatory sacrifice) to us is ALL THAT IS NEEDED for God to justify us, i.e., cancel our debt of punishment in hell. If “Jesus paid it all,” then we are now accepted into fellowship with God and given the gift of eternal life by that fact alone. What more can be added by imputing to us Christ’s perfect life? On the other hand, if Jesus’ perfect life can be imputed to us for our justification, this too would be sufficient. But if that is the case, then it would be cruel and unnecessary for God to require Jesus to die on the cross also.

FOUR. Nowhere are we Christians spoken of and treated as if we are PERFECT, as if we had never sinned; we are spoken of and treated as if we are SINNERS who have been FORGIVEN. There is therefore now no condemnation (Rom. 8:1)—not because we are considered sinless, but because Jesus has already suffered that condemnation in our place. When God the Judge looks at us repentant, believing sinners and justifies us, he is saying to us “NO PENALTY FOR YOU”; he is not saying “NOT GUILTY.” Being justified does not mean God treats me “just if I’d never sinned,” but “just if I’d already paid my penalty.”

The inquirer wants to know why I think the “active obedience” view is such a “serious error.” The main reason is that it does not conform to the facts as revealed in Scripture, as seen above. I do not think those who hold to this false view are thereby led into serious doctrinal compromises in other places; that’s why I don’t make a very big deal of it.

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