Saturday, July 04, 2009

4 Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ as Taught by William Ames

In William Ames's treatment of Lord's Day 23 in his recently re-published work, A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, we find an example of yet another early orthodox Reformer speaking clearly for the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's active obedience as necessary for our justification. The Catechism questions covered in Lord's Day 23 are:
59. Q. But what does it help you now that you believe all this?
A. In Christ I am righteous before God and heir to life everlasting.[1]
[1] Hab. 2:4; John 3:36; Rom. 1:17; 5:1, 2.

60. Q. How are you righteous before God?
A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.[1] Although my conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned against all God's commandments, have never kept any of them,[2] and am still inclined to all evil,[3] yet God, without any merit of my own,[4] out of mere grace,[5] imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ.[6] He grants these to me as if I had never had nor committed any sin, and as if I myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me,[7] if only I accept this gift with a believing heart.[8]
[1] Rom. 3:21-28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8, 9; Phil. 3:8-11. [2] Rom. 3:9, 10. [3] Rom. 7:23. [4] Deut. 9:6; Ezek. 36:22; Tit. 3:4, 5. [5] Rom. 3:24; Eph. 2:8. [6] Rom. 4:3-5; II Cor. 5:17-19; I John 2:1, 2. [7] Rom. 4:24, 25; II Cor. 5:21. [8] John 3:18; Acts 16:30, 31; Rom. 3:22.

61. Q. Why do you say that you are righteous only by faith?
A. Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith, for only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God.[1] I can receive this righteousness and make it mine my own by faith only.[2]
[1] I Cor. 1:30, 31; 2:2. [2] Rom. 10:10; I John 5:10-12.
In his treatment of this Lord's Day, Ames expounds the doctrine of justification from the text Romans 3:24-25: "So that they who are justified by grace, that is, by His grace, through the redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ, whom God offered as a means of appeasement by faith in His blood, as a demonstration of His own justice."

In lesson 3, Ames treats of the doctrine as stated, The obedience of Jesus Christ imputed to us constitutes us righteous and is the foundation of our justification. In this part of his exposition, Ames is focusing on the final portion of verse 25: "as a demonstration of His own justice." Ames's contention is strongly put - there is no justice without the imputation of Christ's full righteousness to His people - both His passive payment of the penalty of sin, and His active obedience, imputed to His people for the righteounsness that God requires. Ames writes:
"It is deduced from the text 'through the redemption accomplished.' For (1) whoever is justified through redemption by another, the free value of the latter is imputed towards the free redemption of the former." (p. 119, A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, William Ames)
That is, if one looks at the Old Testament teachings concerning redemption, the full price of redemption was exchanged for the redeemed. That is, whatever was required for the redemption of whatever or whomever was being redeemed, was paid and accounted in its full value unto that which or whom was redeemed. Complete righteousness under the Law is required for acceptance by God… this is impossible for those bearing Adam's sinfulness (i.e. all of us) and their own sins. Christ's full value, His complete virtue must be accounted to believers for them to be rendered acceptable before God. He continues:
"(2) If Christ is the appeasement for our justification, then we are pleasing to God. As it is said in the text, then we are pleasing to God on account of whatever has been offered by Christ toward our good.

(3) If faith justifies to the degree that it regards Christ and His blood, then whatever is in the blood of Christ or in His obedience all the way through to the death, we are justified by His virtue.

Moreover, the obedience of Christ with respect to our justification has the following reasons, (1) It has the means of a meritorious or effecting cause, because the means was what the justice of God was demanding be furnished to Him, before grace could justify us; and (2) it has the means of a formal cause, to the extent that it is thus accepted on our behalf, as though we look to be clothed in that obedience by God, while He carries out the sentence of our justification. From these phrases there is in that obedience the fact of not having my own righteousness, but that which is Christ's (Phil. 3:9)" (p. 119, A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, William Ames)
One thing that cannot be denied is that whatever God requires has been granted the elect in Christ - if perfect righteousness before the Law, then that is what we who are in Him have. That perfect righteousness includes the fullness of Christ's obedience. To parcel out the passive submission to the penalty of death as though that were all that was necessary for us and for our justification is to miss a critical factor, as Ames next points out with a memorable and edifying set of reasons:
" This was especially suitable to God's justice and to His mercy together. For if our justification had been in the bare remission of sins without the imputation of justice, then only the mercy and grace of God would have a place in this business; there would be no means considered for divine justice to make satisfaction for it." (p. 119, A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, William Ames)
Yet the end of Romans 3:25 requires that justice be served. Divine justice requires the full righteousness of complete adherence to the Law - not simply payment of any penalties due. Without imputation of Christ's active obedience, we are left without that which justice requires, and God's act of justification of sinners would be without this important component. Mercy, yes - grace, yes - but not justice. Ames continues:
"If we were to be pronounced righteous apart from any imputation of justice, then there would be no foundation for the conclusion that, of course, that person might be pronounced righteous who has no righteousness, either inherent or imputed." (p. 119, A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, William Ames)
Here's the kicker, and the reason the denial of the active obedience of Christ is such a damning error. There is no way possible for a person to be declared righteous - that is, to be justified - apart from it! No justice, no peace. No way for salvation, for God cannot deny Himself. Thanks be to God, as Gresham Machen noted, for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it. (for a fantastic biography of Machen, see Defending the Faith by D. G. Hart)


Nick said...

Let me just say, I realize why you and others would say the Active Obedience is required...However, the reasoning is purely theological and not exegetical.

What Ames is saying is that Romans 3:24f teaches 'active obedience' (along with 'passive obedience'), yet that cannot be found in the text:

"So that they who are justified by grace, that is, by His grace, through the redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ, whom God offered as a means of appeasement by faith in His blood, as a demonstration of His own justice."

The only thing this describes is passive obedience, anything more (i.e. active obedience) is reading into the text something one wants to be there but is not really there. I flat out don't accept the idea that Rom 3, esp 25, is somehow including active obedience when passive is the only thing mentioned. We must take care not to let theology dictate exegesis.

Todd said...


I don't think Ames argues that Romans 3:24-25 teaches active obedience, but that Scripture does. He points, for instance, to Philippians 3:9, which clearly argues that we must have Christ's righteousness - which is not true righteousness without his active obedience. If you look a little more closely at the quoted text from Ames, you'll see that he's not drawing the doctrine of the imputation of active obedience of Christ from Romans 3:24-25.

I wouldn't have argued it from there, either, since as you say what is discussed there is the justice of God displayed by Christ's redemption. (though I would argue that the concept of justice goes beyond the merely passive and includes the active - in that true justice requires that the recipient of Christ's atoning sacrifice actually possess/obtain the righteousness of a perfectly obedient person)

Nick said...

Well, if that is the case - that Romans 3:24-25 does not teach active obedience - then I'd say that is cause for re-examination of whether 'active obedience' is even correct or not.

Romans 3:21-26 stands on it's own as far as addressing everything needed for justification. If active obedience were that important, I believe Paul would have mentioned it. It is even more significant that Romans 3:21-26 mentions "righteousness of God" - again noting 'active obedience' isn't taught here. And, to top that off, all this comes right before Romans 4:1-8.

Pointing to Phil 3:9 still leaves beyond reasonable doubts for two reasons: (1) Romans isn't teaching it and yet stands alone without it, and (2) nothing in Phil 3:9 suggests or demands 'active obedience'. Recall: The 'righteousness' mentioned in Rom 3:21-26 consists of the 'passive' aspect only, indicating the mere mention of 'righteousness' is not automatically (much less necessarily) comprised of 'active obedience'.

That, to me, is a pretty gaping hole for advocates of 'active obedience' and I believe needs to be taken seriously.

To add to that: Other major texts like 2 Cor 5:21 only mention the 'passive obedience' component: "He who knew no sin was made sin." Another is Isaiah 53, focused solely on 'passive obedience', says through his sufferings God's "righteous servant will justify many" (v11).

I want to stress that I understand why theologians have introduced the notion of 'active obedience', but I don't believe there is a solid basis for this doctrine in the Scriptures.

I don't say any of this to be mean or rude, but rather simply because I have looked to the Scriptures first and theologians second, and I believe it's my duty to speak out if something is being taught not in accordance with the Bible. Lastly, I didn't discover this on my own, many others of the past and present have studied and believe this as well.

Tamizh said...
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