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A Defence of the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ to believers, against NCT
With the growth in the Reformed Baptist movement, and the corresponding adherence to New Covenantal Theology (NCT), problems have started to emerge. One of these is the denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, thus espousing some sort of theory of single imputation only. In this missive, I will briefly address this issue, through a review of the article Examining the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ — A Study in Calvinistic Sacred Cow-ism, by Steve Lehrer and Geoff Volker which can be found here, and the Appendix here.
Now, it must first be stated that not all Reformed and Particular Baptists believe in New Covenantal Theology, as distinguished here. Neither is it true that New Covenantal Theologians would necessarily go along with Lehrer and Volker in denying the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ to believers. Nevertheless, it is my opinion that such a denial flows naturally from the hermeneutical framework of New Covenantal Theology (NCT), which I will address later, and therefore must be addressed.
The authors in this article of theirs argued against the concept of the active obedience of Christ, stating that it is unnecessary and superfluous. Along the way, they deny the Covenant of Works, with such a denial being one of the NCT distinctives anyway.
Now, it must first be acknowledged that the authors have posted a disclaimer to deflect criticism that they have jettisoned the Gospel. Although they reject the imputation of Christ's active obedience to our account, they maintain their belief in the passive obedience of Christ upon the Cross. This doctrine of single imputation, while aberrant, is not heretical and therefore we must not think that they have thrown out the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ altogether, although they have truly thrown out something important.
Unlike the approach of the authors, who approach the issue first from various isolated texts and then to the paradigm of Scripture, I think it is much better to approach the topic from the broader perspective of the overall paradigm of Scripture first. This is because the biblical grammatico-historical method of interpretation of the Scriptures is to interpret the entirety of Scripture by itself. Therefore, interpretation should be done using the whole 'picture' painted by the whole of Scripture, and this 'whole picture' would thus constitute the governing paradigm of Scripture. Therefore, the method of interpretation of Scripture is first to discern the overarching metanarrative or governing paradigm of Scripture, before looking at individual texts, especially when it comes to overarching and finer theological issues such as the ones currently under discussion.
And therefore, the first issue to be looked at is the doctrine of the Covenant of Works, which is a much broader theological issue than the doctrine of active obedience. The authors of the article have stated their belief that the proof texts and exegetical work supporting this theological doctrine of the Covenant of Works to be sparse, and strongly believe that Scripture is being used as a prop to hold up the system, instead of the system being derived from Scripture itself. In other words, the authors believe that Covenant Theology (of which the Covenant of Works is an important distinctive) is a Tradition (with a capital T) which functions as colored glasses coloring the interpretation of Scripture of Covenantal Theologians to make it say what it does not actually say. However, is such a charge actually valid?
Before we look any further, we should look deeper and analyze the hermeneutical method utilized by the authors in particular, and New Covenantal Theologians in general.
The hermeneutical method utilized in this article has various errors in it. If such a method is indeed the hallmark of NCT, then this is indeed very troubling. We have already mentioned one which is to interpret individual verses without a functional Scriptural paradigm and then utilizing insights supposedly gained from them to attempt to disprove one particular governing paradigm, Covenant Theology. To be fair to the authors, they do not think that there are any valid proof-texts for Covenant Theology as represented by the Covenant of Works, which will be disputed and shown to be false later. Nevertheless, that they move from discussing individual texts to a broader governing principle seems to suggest a violation of the grammatico-historical hermeneutical grid, especially since the texts do not have anything whatsoever to do with the broader governing principle of the Covenant of Works. Also, it is not as if nothing whatsoever has been written about the subject, and Scripture verses have not been utilized by Covenant Theologians to support the theological paradigm of Covenant Theology. Therefore, a failure to interact with even the verses used to support the Covenant of Works (I'm not a stickler for interactions with human works and interpretations, but verses from the Bible? That should be the least required) does not suggest that the authors have at least shown that they have rejected the governing principle of the Covenant of Works by its Scriptural merits or demerits.
The failure to construct or just state any governing paradigm by the authors (important especially since they are critiquing another governing paradigm) also suggests a rather disjointed method of interpreting Scripture, as if Scripture has no one governing paradigm or that if there is, it is non-uniform. This is much more similar to the hermeneutical method of Dispensationalism than it is to Scripture. Of course, the authors can always question whether there is such a thing as ONE governing paradigm, and their statement that "Scripture uses the term [covenant], almost without exception, to illustrate discontinuity" seems to show that they do deny the existence of ONE governing paradigm of Scripture. We would examine this statement later, but clearly, how can the assertion that there be no ONE governing paradigm stand in the light of Scripture? We can see how the various biblical themes run within the entirety of Scripture, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the theme of salvation, whereby salvation was initiated before the foundation of the world within the Godhead, and historically initiated at the time of the Fall as seen in the proto-Evangel in Gen. 3:15 (which is in the first book of the Bible), and is consummated in the last book of the Bible (Revelation) in the coming of Christ and the new heavens and the new earth. Clearly, there is in some sense a governing paradigm within Scripture. It may of course be objected that the paradigm may be uniform mostly, but discontinuous in the 'minor' or detailed parts, but then there is no Scriptural proof for that, nor for the distinction as to which parts are 'major' and which 'minor'. Using the descriptive narrative to prove which parts are 'minor' by showing discontinuity is just not going to work, in the same way as to why it is wrong to prove God actually repents because the narrative account states Him as doing so (Open Theism).
As one reads the article, one can see the strange manner of how the authors interpret Scripture. They seem to be "strict literalists", as they refuse to connect and string various Scriptural truths together unless there is explicit mention of such a linkage named and described in Scripture. For example, they believe in the basic concepts of the Covenant of Works but refuse to name it a covenant because the Scriptures does not so name it (besides Hosea 6:7 in which they dispute the rendering). In the Q&A section at the end of their article, they wrote:
Q: Do you mean to say that you actually need a specific text from the bible to establish a biblical doctrine or practice?
A Yes. For if by "establish a biblical doctrine or practice" you are saying that this is something God wants me to believe or do, then you must have the clear and unambiguous witness of Scripture to back that up. If you don’t have a text from scripture to establish your view, you have no word from God and therefore no view worth defending.
Such strict literalism leads us to the next error which the authors fall into: the denial of the Scriptural-ness of valid logical deductions from Scripture; the theory of necessary consequence. In fact, this is by far the governing principle of their exegesis, thus leading to believing in specific 'local' doctrines while denying their logical conclusions. Thus, they can say that they believe in the Principle of Works (which comprise the 'local' doctrines in the Covenant of Works without it being termed a covenant ('global'), with all the logical conclusions that follow) but not the Covenant of Works.
To such, I would just state plainly that such a practice is inherently wrong and is in fact anti-Scriptural, though it is perfectly fitted for the irrational times we live in. Christ is the Logos (Jn. 1:1) and to hate logic; misology, in theology is therefore demeaning to Christ. This denial of the theory of Necessary Consequence is thus irrational and unbiblical (as well as against the Westminster Confession of Faith). That NCT as expressed in the authors' rejection of the Covenant of Works and the Active Obedience of Christ involved such a denial immediately cast a shadow over the entire enterprise, so to speak.
The NCT hermeneutic as seen in this article thus suffers from 3 major errors: 1) Rejection of an overarching theological paradigm by appeal to isolated texts; reversal of interpretive direction, 2) Denial of or ignoring the application of ONE hermeneutical matrix for all of Scripture, and 3) Denial of the theory of Necessary Consequence. Such major faults in hermeneutics would have consequences, which can be seen in the various doctrinal errors in the article by Lehrer and Volker, which we shall now turn to
The denial of the Active Obedience of Christ and also of the Covenant of Works is a result of a flawed hermeneutical method used by the New Covenantal Theologians Steve Lehrer and Geoff Volker. We would now look and analyze the verses used to support their position, to see whether their arguments against the two positions hold.
DEFENSE OF THE COVENANT OF WORKS
In this article, Lehrer and Volker treated the Covenant of Works almost as an afterthought, as they didn't make much of the topic. Nevertheless, they mention what they felt were key pointers in Scripture which occasion the rejection of this doctrine. In summary, they reject it because it is not found in the Bible, the word 'covenant' indicates discontinuity of which the Covenant of Works is not, and the word 'covenant' was never used to describe the relation between God and Adam in the Bible and such a theory is mere speculation.
First of all, contrary to their assertion, the Covenant of Works is abundantly found within the pages of Scripture. As I have shown in an earlier article, the Covenant of Works is implicitly stated in Scripture. Lehrer and Volker certainly did not dispute for example the argument that the elements of a covenant (parties, stipulation, promise, threat) were present. They disputed the rendering of Hosea 6:7 as talking about Adam as a person, or as talking about the covenant being with Adam, which is not supported exegetically. Regardless, we can concede that to them, since the Covenant of Works, and Covenant Theology, does not depend on only one single text for support. Nevertheless, this verse still stands as not been sufficiently addressed and the point still remains.
A fundamental issue with Lehrer and Volker is their view of the various biblical covenants being an indication of discontinuity. As stated, this is more in line with the views of Dispensationalism. Nevertheless, let's look and see whether such a view is supported by Scripture. Lehrer and Volker certainly did not defend this point of theirs in this article, which is regrettable. And it can be seen abundantly within the pages of Scripture just the opposite; that the biblical covenants indicate continuity in Scripture. For example, the Mosaic Covenant was made to the people of Israel as a continuation of the Abrahamic Covenant to bless them as God's Covenant people. And such continuity can be seen in the doctrines of grace, which the New Covenantal Theologians profess to believe. The Covenant of Grace runs throughout the entire history of the OT and the NT, and the entire history of the world. Most definitely, seen in that light, the Abrahamic Covenant with its promise that all the nations would be blessed through Abraham, and the Davidic Covenant of the eternal throne of David's line, would find fulfillment in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. And the New Covenant instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh certainly is the full revelation of the Covenant of Grace. Since that is so, what kind of discontinuity is possible with the introduction of the differing covenants? If the doctrine of grace with its attendant Covenant of Grace be admitted, how can anyone find any discontinuity in the covenants? Unless you are talking about surface differences, or difference in the way they are administered, but then if you use that, then virtually anything done in a different era would be a discontinuity. Since the worship of God before and after the exile was different (compare the worship of God during David's time with Solomon's time with Nehemiah's time), are there any true discontinuities? Or how about God's plague upon Israel for immorality (Num. 25:1-9) compared with God's seeming indifference (as in no direct punishment) against it later, especially in the times of prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah? Was there a discontinuity then? We can thus see that the assertion that covenants mark discontinuity to be a position totally unsupported by Scripture.
Regarding the Covenant of Works being not described as a covenant, Lehrer and Volker concedes that even if is not being described as such in Scripture, the term is valid if it is taught in Scripture. However, since the concept of 'covenant' has an important place within theology, and they think that the Covenant of Works does not have ample evidence to warrant it being a covenant, thereby the term should not be used. Thus, they reject it being a covenant while labeling the central concept the "Principle of Works". So the question before us is whether it is truly a covenant. Certainly, their acknowledgement of the central concept and the various elements that make it a covenant, while renaming it the 'Principle of Work' is logically suspect. Most definitely, since the concept describes a covenant by definition, it is wrong to deny it being called a covenant; the only thing before us therefore is not whether it is or is not a covenant, but what part and importance does this covenant have in Scripture. To think otherwise is logically inconsistent, and would be analogous to saying that it is wrong to call Rick Warren a heretic even though it may be admitted that he denies the Gospel. Or to make it simpler, it would be to say that sodium chloride on a chemical bottle is not salt because the label on it contains the words 'Sodium Chloride'. Ridiculous!
So, for the importance of such a covenant, which is also tied in with the objection that such is theological speculation on par with 'What is the weather in heaven like', I would most definitely submit that this Covenant of Works is definitely not as unimportant or as speculative as the authors would have it to be. The parallels made between Christ and Adam, an important evidence for the Covenant of Works, seen in for example Rom. 5:12-21 clearly shows the importance and non-speculative nature of the doctrine. As Christ is the federal representative of the New Covenant, so was Adam of the Covenant of Works. The denial of the Covenant of Works therefore undermines the parallel being built between Christ and Adam, and thus of the nature of the New Covenant as well.
Seeing as to how much proof has been offered for the Covenant of Works, perhaps the only reason why such proofs are refused is because of the NCT (New Covenantal Theology) hermeneutic they utilize which they refuse to give up. More specifically, it is the denial of the theory of Necessary Consequence that would allow the authors to deny the Covenant of Works while embracing its concepts, and to insist that unless it is explicitly stated as such, and not being a necessary consequence. Logically, what they are asking for is that in the conditional 'If p then q', they would only admit it (q) as biblical if the Bible says 'q', but would not if the Bible says 'p'.
Thus having defended the doctrine of the Covenant of Works, let us look into their denial of the doctrine of Active Obedience, which suffers from the same error.
ACTIVE OBEDIENCE OF CHRIST
The authors firmly believe that Christ's 'passive obedience' is sufficient to save believers, and that this is what the Scripture teaches. However, is this truly the case, or is it another case of the authors denying the hermenuetical principle of Necessary Consequence?
The first proof-text used by the authors to attempt to disprove the doctrine of Active Obedience is Heb. 10:11-14, which states thus:
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Heb. 10:11-14)
Since it is here stated that Christ's sacrifice on the Cross, his passive obedience, perfects all believers, the authors firmly believe that the text teaches that Christ's passive obedience is sufficient for believers. Instead of putting us in neutral, and thus we must be saved by Christ's active obedience, they believe that this text teaches the sole sufficiency of Christ's passive obedience without the need to invoke the doctrine of active obedience. However, is that so?
It would do well to note the context of this particular passage., and the later one in Heb. 10:15-22. This passage is from the book of Hebrews with its theme of the supremacy of Christ and His sacrifice over that of the Old Testament types and shadows. As such, the author of Hebrews was hardly looking to discuss such issues, and thus to infer that Christ' passive obedience was what the author of Hebrews had in mind when he penned down those words is wrong. The contrast here is being drawn between the inability of the Old Testament multiple sacrifices offered by priests to save and perfect the OT saints as compared with the one sacrifice offered by Jesus which is effective in its working. Therefore, the whole issue was related to the theme of priesthood, not to forensic issues such as the active and passive obedience of Christ. The failure to notice the context and interpret accordingly to the context and genre of the book led Lehrer and Volker to interpret the passage wrongly. Forensic issues are frequently alluded to in the book of Romans, so they should look to places like Romans instead of Hebrews with regards to this topic.
And this the authors have directed us to. In Rom. 3:21-4:12, the authors wrote pages of exegesis to prove that the righteousness of God here is mainly talking about Christ's passive righteousness, and thus there is no necessity of 'positive' law-keeping involved or mentioned in this passage. Indeed for the latter, there are absolutely correct, for salvation is through believing in Christ apart from works. However, to say that this righteousness is talking about Christ's passive righteousness is to read into the text something which is not stated. The fact of the matter is that the righteousness spoken in this passage here is talking about both active and passive righteousness. We can note that nowhere in this passage are we told as to what exactly this righteousness of Christ refers to. Although the passage talks about the sacrifice of Christ and His propitiation for our sins, this still dos not say anything about the reality of Christ's righteousness except that it includes His passive obedience. Therefore, Lehrer and Volker's point will only hold true if the texts were isolated from the entirety of Scripture. Of course, the question will be legitimately posed to to where I have gotten the idea that Christ's righteousness here encompasses both active and passive obedience, and this would be shown later in the exegesis of 2 Cor. 5:21, the most explicit verse teaching that concept.
The authors followed up with analyzing passages such as Rom. 5:18-19, Phil. 3:9, 1 Cor. 1:30, 2 Cor. 5:12 and Rom 8:3-4. We will reserve 2 Cor. 5:21 till later, but we can immediately note that passages such as Rom. 5:18-19 and 1 Cor. 1:30 suffer from the same problem as Rom. 3-4 passage they were analyzing, in their use of the term 'righteousness'. The righteousness in the passage in Phil. 3:9 also talks about both active and passive obedience, and the reason why this is so can be seen when we talk about the Law, which was mentioned there in contrast. Similarly, in Rom. 8:3-4, it is strongly disputed that only passive obedience is taught here, but both active and passive obedience.
The Law stated here, and the reference to its righteousness in the phrase 'righteousness under the law' always refer back to the laws instituted under the Mosaic Covenant. Paul's frequent comparison of Law compared to Gospel, and the righteousness or salvation derived from them, shows that the Gospel can save while the Law can't. Also, Paul made it clear in Gal. 3:10-13 that salvation through the Law can only be gotten if all the Law was fulfilled without even one small violation. Also, in Jas. 2:10, we can see that salvation via the Law must involve keeping the whole of it. (This of course shows the error of the New Covenantal Theologians who reject the fact that the Mosaic Covenant has a salvific or gracious character to it.) Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that salvation can only be achieved by total obedience to God. Therefore, Paul by contrasting the righteous under the Law as compared with the righteousness that comes from faith was showing that this righteousness that comes from faith delivered what was obliged by Man under the Law; perfect law keeping and sinlessness. The sinless part was satisfied by Christ's passive obedience, while the law keeping part was satisfied by Christ's active obedience (cf Mt. 5:17). Seen in this way therefore, Phil. 3:9 and Rom. 8:3-4 actually do not help the NCT position but rather undermines it.
Of course, the New Covenantal Theologians would ask for support for the Mosaic Law being taken into account here. Note however that Paul is the one who uses it, and a consistent reading of the text would show that Paul, the Pharisee and Hebrew of Hebrews, have that in mind when he penned those words down. The entire neglect of the Law is a result of the NCT position of the 'discontinuity of covenants' position, which we have already dispose of earlier on when discussing the Covenant of Works. Such Dispensational tendencies are certainly not helpful and it is seriously doubted whether Paul have such thoughts when he mentioned the Law. Certainly, he did not think that the Mosaic Law was obsolete since he told the Judaizers that there can be saved through works, in the impossible event that they are perfect keepers of the Law that is (Gal. 3:10-11).
Lastly, let us discuss the text of 2 Cor. 5:21, the most explicit proof-text for the Active Obedience of Christ, and Double Imputation, outside of a consideration of the Covenant of Works. If the Covenant of Works, which we have already shown to be biblical, is added, then the Active Obedience of Christ is firmly grounded and self-evident, based on the parallel drawn between Adam and Christ in Rom. 5:12-21 and 1 Cor. 15:21-22. Nevertheless, let us now exegete 2 Cor. 5:21, to show that this verse does teach the Active Obedience of Christ and the doctrine of Double Imputation.
EXEGESIS OF 2 COR. 5:21
The verse 2 Cor. 5:21 would prove to be the flashpoint, since it is hereby asserted that this verse is the most explicit verse teaching the active obedience of Christ and furthermore of Christ's righteousness. Let us now look at the verse in its context of v. 16-21.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says,
“In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.”
Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2 Cor. 5:16- 6:2; v. 17 in bold.)
As it can be seen, the context here is talking about salvation. Verse 17 is a wonderful statement of our new being in Christ which we have gotten through God's grace in regeneration. Verses 18-20 talk about God reconciling the world to Himself and giving us the ministry of reconciliation; in bringing people to salvation in Him, as it can be also seen in 6:3, while verses 1 and 2 are exhortation to believers not to trifle with the grace of God (not to receive the grace of God in vain) but to receive it in a reverent manner as manifested in a changed life, which is seen in the larger context of the 2nd epistle to the Corinthians.
Since the context of the passage talks about salvation, how then should we interpret verse 21? The verse reads:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The first part clearly teaches the imputation of our sins to Christ, and thus emphasizes the 'passive' obedience of Christ when he took the penalty of sin on our behalf. Such was done 'for our sake', Christ was said to 'knew no sin', in the sense that He was sinless, yet He was 'made sin' on our behalf. Since Jesus was personally sinless, He can only be 'made sin' either by infusion or imputation, and of course the book of Romans makes it clear that it is via imputation (ie God justified the ungodly cf Rom. 4:5). Thus, it is most definitely the teaching of Scripture that God imputes our sins to Christ.
The second part of the verse states simply 'so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God' is hotly disputed by those who deny the Active Obedience of Christ. The phrase however is clear within its context. The phrase is used 'that... we might become' shows that we would become actually righteous, either through imputation or otherwise. In other words, it is not just we are not evil, but that we are to be reckoned as positively righteous before God.
Looking further into this sentence will reveal the parallel being drawn here. The first part mentions the imputation of our sins to Christ, while the second part talks about 'making us the righteousness of God'. If this sentence is intended to be a parallelism, and I don't see why not, then this would prove that just as the first part teaches Christ's passive obedience and the imputation of our sins to Christ, the second part teaches Christ's active obedience and the imputation of Christ's righteousness to out account. Clearly, the sentence structure is conducive to such a rendering. The New Covenantal Theologian reading would create an insurmountable difficulty. How can we be said to become not only righteous, but the righteousness of God if only our sins are imputed to Christ? Surely then, it is only Christ who is the righteousness of God and we can only be said to be the ones make righteous or the recipient of the righteousness of God, but never that we are also the righteousness of God, because we cannot be said to actively possess righteousness before God but only passively considered righteous because of Christ's sacrifice for us. To put it simpler, if NCT is right, they can say that we are passively righteous before God, but not actively, which is what the phrase 'become the righteousness of God' states.
As stated, the context of this verse is regarding salvation. Therefore, it is invalid also to state that the phrase 'becoming the righteousness of God' refers to a life of active obedient living as a manifestation of our regenerate nature. For the entire context is on what salvation, which is NOT by works (Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 4:5), accomplishes, and therefore works should not be in the picture here at all. Unlike certain people who put works somewhere in the picture, in for example the equation of "Salvation +Works = Faith" or something to that effect, works should not be seen anywhere in the equation. Rather, works are the proof of a regenerate heart, and thus is linked only with a manifestation of salvation, nowhere in the salvation process itself. Therefore, it is invalid to read this as a remark on the manifestation of righteousness in active obedient living.
Therefore, in conclusion, 2 Cor. 5:21 is an excellent text teaching both the passive and active obedience of Christ and the doctrine of double imputation. The wording thus militates against any other position such as the NCT, just by itself. Also, we have defended the doctrine of the Covenant of Works against these NCT theologians. As we take into account the requirements of the Law, and the Covenant of Works, the proof for the doctrine of Active Obedience is overwhelming. Clearly therefore, it can be seen that the erroneous hermeneutics employed by New Covenantal Theologians such as Lehrer and Volker are to blame for such an error of theirs. Let us therefore strive to avoid their mistake and learn how to rightly divide the Word of Truth.