Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ — the Lutheran Edition

5 February 2010 by Wes Bredenhof

The other day I received this fine-looking volume, Concordia: the Lutheran Confessions.  I’ve been browsing through it and becoming more familiar with Lutheran confessional orthodoxy.  There’s an extensive and helpful index at the back.  One of the interesting omissions is the word ‘covenant.’  Maybe it’s used in this volume somewhere, but it’s not important enough to make it into the index.

Another (possibly related) point of interest is the Lutheran confession of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.  In the explanatory words before article 4 of the Augsburg Confession, the editors write,

“Through his life, Jesus satisfied God’s demand for perfect obedience.  Through his sacrificial death, Jesus took God’s wrath and atoned for the sins of the world.  The Holy Spirit through the means of grace, works in us saving faith, which personally apprehends what Christ has done for us.  Our justification before God, therefore, is brought about by the one who lived, suffered, and died for our salvation.  We cannot merit God’s favour through our obedience; we cannot offer sacrifices to pay for our sins.  But what we cannot do for ourselves, Christ has done for us.  He is the solid Rock on which God builds His Church.  On Him, and Him alone, we stand forgiven”  (32-33).

Except perhaps for hint of a problem with the intent of the atonement, that’s beautifully stated.

Later, the Formula of Concord says the same thing:

“Therefore, the righteousness that is credited to faith or to the believer out of pure grace is Christ’s obedience, suffering and resurrection, since He has made satisfaction for us to the Law and paid for <expiated> our sins.  Christ is not man alone, but God and man in one undivided person.  Therefore, He was hardly subject to the Law (because He is the Lord of the Law), just as He didn’t have to suffer and die for His own sake.  For this reason, then, His obedience (not only in His suffering and dying, but also because He was voluntarily made under the Law in our place and fulfilled the Law by this obedience) is credited to us for righteousness.  So, because of this complete obedience, which He rendered to His heavenly Father for us by doing and suffering and in living and dying, God forgives our sins.  He regards us as godly and righteous, and He eternally saves us.  This righteousness is brought to us by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel and in the Sacraments.  It is applied, taken, and received through faith.  Therefore, believers have reconciliation with God, forgiveness of sins, God’s grace, sonship, and are heirs of eternal life.  (538)

The remarkable thing is that this doctrine does not seem to be explicitly tied to any particular covenant theology.  Hmm….just like the Belgic Confession in article 22.

3 responses to “Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ — the Lutheran Edition”

  1. shane says:

    Hope you’re enjoying this! I found the word “covenant” in there just a few times, but the instances weren’t overly significant. I may have written down the page numbers if you’re interested.


  2. Stuart Staal says:

    Me confused. Yes, Christ did not have to subject himself to the Law in a sense (though because of his divinity, it would be against his nature to violate the Law which originated from the Divine, right?) but he subjected himself to the Law as the Second Adam voluntarily, to be our representative, or champion, to succeed when humanity failed. Are we imputed his acts of obedience because he obeyed without really being required to? Or was he required to obey so that his death would have the power of atonement, rather than just condemnation? I guess I am having trouble with this doctrine of Christ’s imputed active obedience, it doesn’t seem to be in line with how I was raised or my impression of Reformed thinking, even though a laundry list of wonderful theologians would condemn my heresy.

    • Stuart:

      I would put it in these terms: Christ *agreed* to come into this world to live, die, and be raised again for the salvation of the elect. His passive (suffering) obedience is imputed to us for the removal of our sins (expiation) and the turning away of the wrath of God (propitiation). All our sins are paid for — the debt we owe to God is accounted for. However, the demand of the law for perfect righteousness remains. Christ takes care of that through his perfect active obedience which is also imputed to us. Because of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, God as judge regards us as being perfect law-keepers. We can truly be declared just and righteous in every respect. Not just without sin, but also *with* perfect obedience. Not just a clean slate, but a slate full of perfect good works which please God. All of this is received through true faith in Jesus Christ.

      I hope that helps.

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