Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ and John Calvin

There is not any doubt that Calvin taught that we are justified by the imputed righteousness of Christ (see Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapter 13, and Book 4, Chapter 14).  Moreover, in general it seems that most Reformed historians conclude with Francis Turretin that Calvin taught that specifically the active obedience of Christ, and not only his passive obedience, is imputed to believers.

Nevertheless, since the question of whether Calvin taught that the active obedience of Christ is imputed to believers, I thought I would provide a link to Cornelius Venema's careful treatment of the matter (link to pdf), in contrast to certain rash treatments of the matter that exist.

The very short answer is that the "active/passive" distinction is a later development, but Calvin's doctrine with respect to imputation is more consistent with the imputation of active obedience, because he distinguishes between imputation of righteousness and forgiveness of sins, and because he treats all of Christ's obedience as indispensable.

- TurretinFan


John T. "Jack" Jeffery said...

Thanks for the Venema link! Anyone who carefully surveys Reformed systematics and dogmatics will discover that even those who teach the active/passive distinction qualify that usage. Any that I have read over the past 30+ years see these distinctions as emphases in aspects of one finished work that necessarily involves both elements to some degree at every stage. Those who fail to see Christ acting as our Substitute at every stage of His Humiliation need to take their theology back to the drawing board. We need to be able to confess without hesitation that, "He was born for me, He lived for me, He died for me, He was buried for me, He rose for me, He ascended for me, He is returning for me!"

J. Gresham Machen got it right. "Shortly before his death on January 1, 1937, Dr. J. Gresham Machen dictated a final telegram to his friend and colleague, Professor John Murray. The words of the telegram were short and sweet: "I'm so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it."" Source: Brian L. De Jong, "What Machen Meant", New Horizons (June 2006), on Banner of Truth Trust at [accessed 2 MAY 2012].

James Swan said...

I'm currently studying with Dr. Venema. He's an amazing Reformed scholar.

turretinfan said...

He certainly is an amazing scholar. If it ever seems appropriate (not that it will), give him my regards.

Nick said...

After reading that article, I would say you are jumping to conclusions. First of all, Venema admits that this issue has been disputed in Reformed circles for a long time, with both sides appealing to Calvin. Second, he frankly admits that there are no clear, definitive texts, only certain elements, but even these don't amount to any solid proof because he admits Calvin is unclear on what he means by Christ's Righteousness imputed.

If you look up the references he gives to Calvin's institutes, you will see they are embedded right within contexts speaking of Passive Obedience, and thus it's begging the question to think Calvin really implied more. If you look at the texts I cite mentioning Christ's whole "obedience" (all within the full contexts of Calvin's thoughts I cite), you will see that he has in mind Passive Obedience. On the all important quote of Calvin where he says: "justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ," Venema does not examine the context of it (and ignores Book 3: Ch11 in general), where as I go through and show Calvin gave no indication this distinction amounted to AO, quite the opposite. For example, look at how Calvin goes onto define this "imputation of righteousness":

To justify, therefore, is nothing else than to acquit from the charge of guilt, as if innocence were proved. Hence, when God justifies us through the intercession of Christ, he does not acquit us on a proof of our own innocence, but by an imputation of righteousness, so that though not righteous in ourselves, we are deemed righteous in Christ. Thus it is said, in Paul’s discourse in the Acts, “Through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins; and by him all that believe are justified from all things from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses,” (Acts 13:38, 39). You see that after remission of sins justification is set down by way of explanation; you see plainly that it is used for acquittal; you see how it cannot be obtained by the works of the law; you see that it is entirely through the interposition of Christ; you see that it is obtained by faith; you see, in fine, that satisfaction intervenes, since it is said that we are justified from our sins by Christ. Thus when the publican is said to have gone down to his house “justified,” (Luke 18:14), it cannot be held that he obtained this justification by any merit of works. All that is said is, that after obtaining the pardon of sins he was regarded in the sight of God as righteous.

It is stuff like this that Venema totally ignores in favor of going about hunting for this and that. And towards the end of Calvin's treatise on Justification, he recaps the thesis:

Let us now consider the truth of what was said in the definition—viz. that justification by faith is reconciliation with God, and that this consists solely in the remission of sins. ... It is evident therefore, that the only way in which those whom God embraces are made righteous, is by having their pollutions wiped away by the remission of sins, so that this justification may be termed in one word the remission of sins.

At no point and in no sense does Calvin indicate anything along the lines of forgiving of sins puts us in a 'netural' state, still requiring a perfect law keeping record imputed.

turretinfan said...

Venema doesn't totally ignore it, Nick. But thanks for your two cents.

Natamllc said...


one thing that is clear within me about your approach to obtaining, receiving the Truth that sets you free (anyone is set free when obtaining and receiving this Truth) comes from these Words of Isaiah:

Isa 2:20 In that day mankind will cast away their idols of silver and their idols of gold, which they made for themselves to worship, to the moles and to the bats,
Isa 2:21 to enter the caverns of the rocks and the clefts of the cliffs, from before the terror of the LORD, and from the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth.
Isa 2:22 Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?

I have been to the RCC embassy in Washington D.C. to see firsthand the idols of religious practice and faith in direct violation of the second Commandment. The Cardinal wore what seemed like pure gold for religious purposes, a chain and cross. The furnishings were very expense and the art work was wonderful to me to see seeing when in college I studied art history and learned something about some of the painters and their paintings adorning the walls of that place! I have flown with the Cardinal of Nigeria once from Lagos to London. He too was wearing an expensive pure gold religious chain and cross and fine clothing.

I would say succinctly that the difference I can glean from reading your words and reading Calvin's words is this, he writes as one who has stopped regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, not giving more account to them than the account he gives to Christ and God our Heavenly Father filled with the power of the Holy Spirit from Whom he draws breath and the divine wisdom one full of the Holy Spirit, too, realizes when reading his writings.

I followed the links provided by TF in this thread and quite agree with him you are quick and rash in your treatment of the Active and Passive obedience of Christ and Calvin's.

As I have said before quoting from Mark's gospel, and drawing from those words now I say to you you go beyond the Word of God to other things and sadly these other things choke the Good Word of God planted in your soul out of your lungs!

As for active obedience by the Saints, consider this revelation from the book of the Revelation shown to the Apostle John while exiled on the Island of Patmos:

Rev 19:5 And from the throne came a voice saying, "Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great."
Rev 19:6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
Rev 19:7 Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready;
Rev 19:8 it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure"-- for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
Rev 19:9 And the angel said to me, "Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb." And he said to me, "These are the true words of God."

The only activity the Saints are active in or with has been "granted to her, to clothe herself with fine linen, the righteous deeds we do because of the equitable deeds of Christ". Without the active and passive obedience of Christ there would be no gift of righteousness given to the Saints to reign in life through Christ alone and by!

I council you to give no account to men in whom is just breath and give your whole heart, soul, mind and strength to Christ that He would grant to you to be clothed with fine linen, too.

Act 20:32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.