The Active Obedience of Christ

Tullian Tchividjian blogged today that he “is concerned” about the neglect, in the neo-Reformed movement, of the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ. He raises a good point. It is just as likely for one to be shallow in his understanding of the Bible’s teaching on salvation, all the while emphasizing election, as it is for one emphasizing free will. It is just as likely one could be shallow in his soteriology while accentuating monergistic salvation as it is while accentuating synergistic salvation. History has well shown that many who call themselves Calvinists have utterly lacked the biblical depth of insight and awe in the Gospel found in Calvin’s own writings. This is especially a danger at a time like this when Calvinism is cool. In conversations with other Evangelicals, even with Reformed types, I almost never hear mention of Christ’s active obedience. But this doctrine is just as pivotal as the passive obedience of Christ. In fact, the doctrine of justification rests on it. After all, the Protestant Reformation clarified that to be justified is not to have righteousness imparted to believers, but to have Christ’s righteousness imputed to believers by faith. Christ’s righteousness. His right works of obedience to God. The Westminster Confession emphasizes Christ’s active obedience in articles 11.2 and 11.3:

“WCF 11.2  Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.  WCF 11.3  Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to His Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, inasmuch as He was given by the Father for them, and His obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead, and both, freely, not for anything in them, their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.”  (WCF 11:2-3 WCS)

“Faith” says Westminster, rests “on Christ and His righteousness…” and “His obedience… [is] accepted in [the place of all those that are justified]…”. Paul emphasizes the active obedience of Jesus in Romans 5:19, in context contrasting the righteousness of Jesus which is imputed by faith to all who believe with the sin of Adam which is imputed to all his descendants:  “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.” (Rom 5:19 ESV) If Adam’s active sin brings about our condemnation, it is fitting that Christ’s active obedience is instrumental in our redemption!

There is a knee-jerk reaction, among Evangelicals I have noticed, to the suggestion that we are saved by works. And of course this is not usually wrong, for what most Evangelicals mean to convey by denouncing the suggestion of salvation by works is that our works could not be effective in our own salvation because in that case, as Paul insists in Romans 4:5, those whom God justifies do not work to prove their righteousness to God, but instead believe “in Him who justifies the ungodly”. However, to categorically declare that we are not at all saved by works is to misunderstand the importance of Jesus’ baptism and the pronouncement at that time by God of His intense pleasure in His Son.

” 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.””  (Mar 1:9-11 ESV)

God’s good pleasure in His Son, whom He so loved, was in response to the obedience of Jesus by which the Son demonstrated His love for His Father:  “…But I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.” (Joh 14:31 ESV) Did God’s love for Jesus depend on Jesus’ obedience? No, of course not. But the Divine statement in Mark 1:11 that God was “well pleased” was not simply repeating God’s confession of love for Jesus (i.e., “You are my beloved Son”): it was the affirmation of God’s extreme pleasure in the active obedience of Jesus for 30 years to that point, in human flesh, showing the world how much He obeyed His Father by how well he obeyed Him.

That’s why the very next scene in Mark 1 sees Jesus being driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit in order to be tempted by Satan. Jesus was substituting Himself, in that temptation, for the nation of Israel. He was in the wilderness for 40 days; Israel was in the wilderness for 40 years. Israel failed to obey God, falling to the temptation to sin over and over again; Jesus withstood the temptation Israel could not, perfectly obeying His Father in all righteousness. Right up to and including His struggle in the garden, shortly before His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus continued to perfectly obey God. His whole life, He perfectly obeyed the Law—fulfilling the Law! So that when He died in the place of sinners, taking their sin on Himself, His Father could legally and justly credit any sinners who trust in Him with the perfect righteousness earned by Jesus. We are saved by works: His works.

” 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.  8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.  9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him,”  (Heb 5:7-9 ESV).


  1. In my study on this topic of imputed righteousness, the Greek term “logizomai” is the English term for “reckon/impute/credit/etc,” (all terms are basically equivalently used) and when I look up that term in a popular lexicon here is what it is defined as:


    QUOTE: “This word deals with reality. If I “logizomai” or reckon that my bank book has $25 in it, it has $25 in it. Otherwise I am deceiving myself. This word refers to facts not suppositions.”



    The lexicon states this term first and foremost refers to the actual status of something. So if Abraham’s faith is “logizomai as righteousness,” it must be an actually righteous act of faith, otherwise (as the Lexicon says) “I am deceiving myself.” This seems to rule out any notion of an alien righteousness, and instead points to a local/inherent righteousness.

    The Lexicon gives other examples where “logizomai” appears, here are some examples:


    Rom 3:28 Therefore we conclude [logizomai] that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

    Rom 4:4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted [logizomai] as a gift but as his due.

    Rom 6:11 Likewise reckon [logizomai] ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

    Rom 8:18 For I reckon [logizomai] that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.


    Notice in these examples that “logizomai” means to consider the actual truth of an object. In 3:28 Paul ‘reckons’ faith saves while the Law does not, this is a fact, the Law never saves. In 4:4 the worker’s wages are ‘reckoned’ as a debt because the boss is in debt to the worker, not giving a gift to him. In 6:11 the Christian is ‘reckoned’ dead to sin because he is in fact dead to sin. In 8:18 Paul ‘reckons’ the present sufferings as having no comparison to Heavenly glory, and that is true because nothing compares to Heavenly glory.

    To use logizomai in the “alien status” way would mean in: (1) 3:28 faith doesn’t really save apart from works, but we are going to go ahead and say it does; (2) 4:4 the boss gives payment to the worker as a gift rather than obligation/debt; (3) 6:11 that we are not really dead to sin but are going to say we are; (4) 8:18 the present sufferings are comparable to Heaven’s glory.

    This cannot be right.

    So when the text plainly says “faith is logizomai as righteousness,” I must read that as ‘faith is reckoned as a truly righteous act’, and that is precisely how Paul explains that phrase in 4:18-22. That despite the doubts that could be raised in Abraham’s heart, his faith grew strong and convinced and “that is why his faith was credited as righteousness” (v4:22). This is also confirmed by noting the only other time “credited as righteousness” appears in Scripture, Psalm 106:30-31, where Phinehas’ righteous action was reckoned as such. This is confirmed even more when one compares another similar passage, Hebrews 11:4, where by faith Abel was commended as righteous.

    1. Nick, perhaps I need to remind you that this blog takes a decidedly Protestant perspective. If you’re looking for a debate on the merits of a Catholic view of justification, you’re in the wrong place. So I’m not going to get into a long drawn out argument with you over the biblical teaching that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to sinners who trust in Him.

      Having said that, there are some basic flaws in your argument, impressive mental gymnastics notwithstanding.

      Romans 4:2 shows that Abraham was not justified by his own works. “Works” (ergon) is defined as something that is done, actively or passively produced by an undertaking whether material or mental. In other words, “works” could apply to “faith” if faith was understood to be something you do that merits reward of any kind. But then, verse 3 would make no sense and verse 5 would be nonsense. “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…” (Rom 4:5). In biblical categories then, “works” is something you do, but “faith” is relying instead on what God does. In other words, the point up for grabs in Romans 4 is whether one is justified on the basis of what he himself does or on the basis of what God alone does. Paul’s conclusion is that one is justified “who believe[s] in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:24-25). Just as in his example, Abraham did not hope in his own works–his ability to produce an heir–but “he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, FULLY CONVINCED THAT GOD WAS ABLE TO DO WHAT HE HAD PROMISED” (Rom 4:20-21). Faith depends on God’s works. The alternative is self-reliance. This is what Paul presents as the contrast between faith/works.

      The “popular lexicon” you quoted gives a lot more for the definition than you provided in your quote. For example, it also says that “logizomai” can be understood as “to pass to one’s account”–e.g., a transfer of funds. Moreover, the lexicon entry cites its authority from “Thayer’s and Smith’s Bible dictionary plus others”. The original entry from one of those sources, Thayer’s Lexicon, gives this definition: “…to reckon, count, compute, calculate, count over; hence, a. to take into account, to make account of: … Rom. 4:3,(4); metaphorically, to pass to one’s account, to impute (A. V. reckon): …1 Cor. 13:5; …2 Tim. 4:16 (A. V. lay to one’s charge)…” I could find nothing at all in Smith’s Bible Dictionary which supports your argument or your understanding of logizomai. It would seem that you have injected your bias into your interpretation of logizomai–maybe the compiler of the “popular lexicon” did the same?

      Thayer refers to the use of logizomai in 2 Tim 4:16 which reads, “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them!” (2Ti 4:16 ESV) The translation of logizomai then as “account” and “credit” and “impute” is not merely to tally up what is already in one’s bank account, but to credit to one’s bank account just as Paul prayed that those who deserted him would not have their guilt “charged” to them. So your definition of logizomai is far too narrow to account for the biblical range of meaning. The Protestant concept of “imputation” is well within the legitimate use of logizomai in the New Testament. Friberg’s lexicon gives this definition of logizomai: “from a basic meaning think according to logical rules; (1) as an objective reckoning; (a) as keeping a mental record take into account, keep in mind, count (up) (1C 13.5); (b) charge or credit to someone’s account, reckon to (RO 4.11); (2) as the result of an objective evaluation consider, look on as, regard as (AC 19.27); (3) as a subjective act of thought have in mind, ponder, think (about) (1C 13.11); (4) as the result of a subjective evaluation have an opinion, think, believe; followed by oti (that) (RO 8.18); followed by the accusative and an infinitive (RO 3.28)…”

      Therefore, since logizomail can naturally be understood in some uses as “credit”, “charge”, “apply to one’s account” and “impute”, the context of Romans 4, of the contrast between faith and works, determines how we should understand logizomai here.

      The overarching question in Romans 4 is “on what basis is a person justified?” And as I showed already, Paul’s conclusion is “on the basis of one’s dependance on God’s works”. So the use of logizomai then is with reference to accounting someone as “justified”, i.e., “righteous”. It can be seen then that “justification” here is an accounting, a declaration. It can also be seen then that the basis on which God will declare someone righteous is not according to one’s own works but one’s reliance on God’s works. So we see that A.T. Robertson’s puts it very well in his Greek grammar, that Abraham’s faith, in Rom 4:3, “was set down on the credit side of the ledger “for” (eis as often) righteousness. What was set down? His believing God (episteusen to theo).”

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