6 Arguments for the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ Examined and Refuted


On a couple of occasions, we have stated that the doctrine of the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ (IAO) has no textual support. Obviously, proponents of IAO disagree with that assessment and to be fair, we have spent little or no space on this blog dealing with the textual support that is cited by those proponents themselves. Our next two articles will address a total of twelve IAO exegetical arguments.

We have chosen to use the designation “IAO” in order to distinguish it from “AO.” AO refers to the perfect life of law-keeping that Christ lived – a doctrine that we do not deny and which was essential to Christ’s work on the Cross. IAO, on the other hand, is a doctrine stating that Christ’s perfect life of law-keeping has been imputed to the believer in addition to His work on the Cross as a necessary part of the believer’s justification. IAO has no biblical support.

In order to avoid misrepresenting the IAO exegetical arguments, I will be taking quotations word-for-word from an article, entitled “Active Obedience Revisited” written by Phil Johnson several years ago. The purpose in using this particular article is because Phil has been one of the foremost proponents of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. IAO is so important to Phil that he has actively worked to remove individuals from membership in the Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals (FIRE) on the basis of their rejection of this doctrine. “Active Obedience Revisited” is an attractive starting point for anyone wishing to evaluate the doctrine because Phil holds IAO so strongly and because his article provides a concise articulation of the exegesis that underlies much of IAO thought. Phil’s twelve citations will serve as useful examples of IAO textual argumentation throughout this post.

We would also like to point out that this discussion is not mean to be an attack on Phil Johnson personally. We appreciate much of Phil’s writing and were disappointed to learn of his retirement from blogging. His work on behalf of John MacArthur has been outstanding over the years and his critique of fundamentalism from a few years back was instructive. Team Pyro as a whole tends to be relatively faithful in pointing out some of the blatant heresy that exists within popular Christianity and Phil and his colleagues tend to be more faithful in supporting the biblical Gospel than most of the Christian blogosphere. For these reasons, Phil and the rest of the Pyromaniacs are to be commended.

However, Phil’s faithfulness in many areas does not earn him a pass when it comes to IAO. I should also emphasize that we are not accusing Phil of holding a false gospel. We do, however, ask him to reconsider his support of IAO since when IAO is consistently applied, it undermines the true Gospel’s call to lordship, full submission and intentional obedience on the part of the disciple. Thus, the erroneous doctrine of active obedience can lead to a false gospel, though we recognize that there are some who hold IAO and yet still teach the biblical gospel. This is a contradiction, but they get the gospel right, nonetheless.


Before going to the texts, it is noteworthy to understand that while Phil strongly supports the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ, he does have some reservations about the doctrine. In his introduction, he writes:

I’m not entirely happy with the way that classic Reformed theology bifurcates the obedience of Christ into two parts. But I’m [Johnson] convinced it is a far more egregious error to adopt any doctrine that suggests our justification simply overthrows or eliminates the relevance of God’s law rather than fulfilling it. I also think it is absolute folly to deny that Christ’s lifelong obedience to the law has anything to do with the righteousness imputed to those who are united with Him by faith.

Here, Phil strangely starts his defense of this doctrine in an apologetic way. He admits that his acceptance of IAO is mostly due to the fact that he feels that there is no satisfactory alternative and in the course of making this statement, he logical fallacies. First, he acknowledges and rejects only one alternative to IAO thereby committing the fallacy of the excluded middle since there is more than one alternative to the doctrine of IAO. Then Phil wrongly accuses the only alternative – of which he knows – of completely rejecting any form of imputation and of eliminating the relevance of God’s law. These last two statements cause him to fall into the ad hominem fallacy.

Phil is not allowing for the possibility of a biblically rigorous doctrine of justification which reconciles all of the required parts in a consistent manner without “bifurcating” the obedience of Christ or anything else. To Phil and any other of our readers, it is important to note that such a solution does exist! We do not need to create theological gimmicks such as IAO in order to understand the truth of justification and the Gospel.

It is also interesting to note that Phil’s admitted uncertainty about IAO is fairly typical. In discussions with individuals about imputation and justification, we have observed that IAO is the first tenet jettisoned when hard questions start to come. IAO proponents seem to accept that it does not stand up to biblical scrutiny, but because they cannot come up with a satisfactory alternative, they are unwilling to train any focused thought upon it. Therefore, they explain away IAO as a gray area or an area of “legitimate exegetical debate.” When pressed, IAO proponents tend to quickly concede defeat on the subject IAO even though most popular theories of justification require it as a major building block. (Even such eminent theologians including D.A. Carson, J.I. Packer, Mark Seifrid and Michael Bird have stated that there is scant if any exegetical support for IAO in the New Testament.) Why do such attitudes and actions surround IAO? I have three theories:

  1. Some fear that they might be pushed off of a position and left without a clear alternative.
  2. Some fear that a denial of IAO will result in separation from others who bear the name “Reformed.”
  3. Some fear that the removal of IAO from their theological equation will result in some form of legalism.

As a result of these fears (and possibly others), critical thought is rarely focused on IAO in popular evangelical and reformed circles. It has become a settled, accepted building block of doctrine and treated as an a priori assumption. If it is called to account at all, most defenses of the doctrine start and end with a citation of J. Gresham Machen’s telegram, despite the fact that Machen’s telegram provides no exegetical support for IAO. The few people who dare to question IAO are typically marginalized and ignored. There is little desire to defend the nuts and bolts of theory by those who hold to IAO, but they still practice dogmatic commitment to it within their soteriology.

By contrast, we believe that the theological validity of IAO should not be assumed. In order to have the most biblically accurate theology possible, all ideas and thoughts must be subjected to biblical and logical questioning. We cannot afford to leave any doctrine outside the bounds of “legitimate exegetical debate” because if given enough time, any doctrinal error will destroy the gospel.

If the doctrine of IAO is sound, it will stand up under the pressure of hard questions and biblical analysis. Let us see what happens when we apply some pressure to the exegesis underlying IAO. Here is Phil Johnson’s first argument:

1. In Matthew 3:15, Christ explicitly said His baptism was necessary “to fulfill all righteousness.” Those who deny Christ’s active obedience are in effect claiming that nothing but the absence of sin and guilt is necessary to fulfill all righteousness. Of course, Christ was completely devoid of any sin or guilt; yet He insisted on undergoing John’s baptism (symbolic of repentance) in order to “fulfill . . . righteousness.” On whose behalf did He submit to this ordinance? Clearly He did not do it for His own sake. He had no need of repentance. But He was identifying with—and substituting for—His people. That is why He rendered an obedience that was by no means obligatory for His own sake, and yet He regarded it as necessary.

Response: First, Phil’s implication that the absence of sin and guilt is NOT righteousness is wrong. A person or entity that is without sin is . . . righteous! What other biblical option can there be? A person without sin does not need atonement or a Savior. Christ followed the Law because the law is the definition of righteousness. To not do all that the Law required would have been to be unrighteousness.

The more important issue here is that Phil is wrong about the purpose of Christ’s baptism. There was no Jewish law that commanded Christ or anyone else to be baptized. Christ was not offering obedience to the Jewish law and even if He was being obedient to the Law, the Law cannot justify. Therefore, His baptism was necessary, but the question is: In what way was it necessary? The answer is cannot be that His baptism earned or merited righteousness for himself or anyone else – even though that is the exact claim of IAO proponents. That solution is a non-starter because righteousness does not come through law-keeping.

His baptism was not substitutionary in the sense that He was being baptized for us in the vicarious sense because if He was baptized for us vicariously, why would believers need to be baptized today?

So, in what way was Christ’s baptism necessary? It was necessary because Christ was “identifying with His people” – the people who he would redeem by virtue of His substitutionary atonement and not his substitutionary law-keeping. We see this because just prior to His baptism, John the Baptist utters the words recorded in John 1:29: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” indicating that the context here is in relation to Christ’s work as the Sacrificial Lamb. John the Baptist is telling us that Christ would undertake the role of the scapegoat as pictured under the Jewish law meaning that this is a Passive Obedience passage, not an Active Obedience passage!

The baptism of John was one of repentance and washing. The picture was of the cleansing of the people that occurred when their sins were repented from and they were baptized. Obviously, Christ had no need of repentance of washing from sin, so the water became the touch point between the people and the Lamb. The water is the way in which the sin was symbolically transferred to Christ. The people were washed and left their sin in the water. Christ then bore their sin out of the water to Calvary where He paid the penalty for that sin. Therefore, Christ’s baptism points to the Cross alone as the means by which the elect will be made righteous. There is no teaching of IAO here. Other passages that support this idea include Acts 19:1-7; Colossians 2:11-15; Galatians 3:27; 1 Peter 3:21.

2. Romans 10:4 says “Christ is the end [telos: the completion or the goal and fulfillment] of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” To deny the role of Christ’s active obedience is to teach that the law and Christ’s relationship to it are utterly irrelevant to the reckoning of righteousness to believers.

Response: No. The existence of the Active Obedience of Christ, the fact that he had to be perfectly righteous is not the issue. The fact that Christ’s Active Obedience is/was intact and played an important role is not denied. What is in question here is whether or not His AO is something which must be imputed in addition to His PO, in other words, IAO is under question here, not AO.

Beyond that, Phil never really tells us the role of the law in the believer’s life that is being taught in this verse. I think he just assumes that role to be the imputation of that perfectly kept law.

The AO of Christ and the Law played a role in His mission. Christ fulfilled the law in every respect and His obedience to the law was essential. It was essential to His sacrifice because only a spotless Lamb could atone for the sins of the people. Nowhere in this text or any other text for that matter, does Scripture teach that the perfect, obedient life lived by Christ has been imputed to the believer.

3. In other words, those who deny Christ’s active obedience are teaching that redemption is accomplished by the setting aside of the law’s absolute demands, not by Christ’s perfectly fulfilling the law on our behalf. That overturns the clear teaching of Christ in Matthew 5:17: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” [sic]

Response: Here again, we have the problem: Phil confuses the importance of AO itself with the imputation of AO. They are not the same thing! No one denies that Christ needed to be obedient to the Law, He fulfilled the Law. The question is, was the purpose of this obedience in order to qualify Him to be the sinless Sacrifice or was His obedience meritorious for the purpose of earning salvation? Galatians 2:20-21 settles that question:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousnesswere through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.

So, IF Christ’s perfect life of law-keeping could earn or merit righteous and IF that life (His AO) could have been imputed to the believer, then He died for no reason. We could have been made righteous through simply the imputation of His Active Obedience and that would have been the end of it. But as Paul repeatedly states throughout his epistles: law keeping cannot, nor ever could earn righteousness or justification (Galatians 3:21). Furthermore, it is only through the “shedding of blood” that we can have redemption, reconciliation, justification, cleansing, forgiveness and righteousness.

The assumption that anyone, even Christ can earn righteousness through law-keeping is one of IAO’s fatal flaws.

4. 2 Corinthians 5:21 teaches that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers in exactly the same sense that our guilt was imputed to Him. In other words, justification involves a double imputation: Just as our violation of the law was imputed to Christ, His fulfillment of the law is imputed to us. Any other view destroys the parallelism of that verse.

Response: Phil is making the unwarranted assumption that the righteousness of Christ equals the righteousness of God. This is a false assumption first, because Paul never mentions the term “righteousness of Christ,” it is Phil who brings that term into the equation. Paul does however; mention Christ’s work of reconciliation and according to the context of 1 Corinthians 5, this work is clearly His death on the Cross. Thus, Paul is telling us that Christ bore our sin and then atoned for that sin on the Cross. If the “righteousness of Christ” is present in this passage, it is His death that is His righteousness. As a result of the Atonement, the believer is made to be the righteousness of God, i.e. is made to be righteous as a result of the imputation of Christ’s righteous act. There is little if anything in this text that refers to Christ’s perfect life of law-keeping, except for the implication that He was the perfect Sacrifice and His perfect life qualified Him to be the Lamb.

This statement reveals another flaw in Phil’s reasoning (and in the reasoning of most IAO advocates), the fact that he diminishes the Passive Obedience of Christ (the Cross) to the point where His PO becomes the prerequisite for IAO. This is the complete opposite of the biblical order and worse, this idea makes the Cross to be somehow incomplete. In this line of thinking, the Cross alone is not sufficient for justification. (Wayne Grudem also subscribes to this error when he writes: If Christ had only earned forgiveness of sins for us, then we would not merit heaven . . . For this reason, Christ had to live a life of perfect obedience to God in order to earn righteousness for us. He had to obey the law for his whole life on our behalf so that the positive merits of his perfect obedience would be counted for us.)

Any doctrine that changes the biblical order to make the PO of Christ as the prerequisite for the AO of Christ must be dismissed as error. In the same way, any doctrine that makes the PO of Christ to be less than sufficient must also be rejected as heresy.

5. Romans 5:19 clearly teaches that Christ’s obedience is the ground of our righteous legal standing. Since a single act of disobedience makes a person disobedient by definition and sets the full weight of the law against him (James 2:10), the “obedience” of Christ in this context must include the whole course of His lifetime of obedience to God.

Response: Christ’s obedience is the ground of our righteous standing before God, but the immediate context of Romans 5 has in mind the obedient death of Christ, not His perfect life. Just as in 1 Corinthians 5, the whole chapter is about the sacrifice of Christ. To understand that Paul interrupted his flow of thought to all of a sudden drop in a statement about the imputation of Jesus’ righteous law-keeping is really a stretch. Romans 5:18, the parallel verse to Romans 5:19 makes specific reference to Christ’s “one act of righteousness” leading to justification making it quite an exegetical leap to see Romans 5:19 as teaching the imputation of the active obedience (aka, many acts) of Christ. Paul is comparing the one act of Adam with the one act of Christ. The two statements are perfectly parallel and could not be clearer. Adam’s one act plunged many into sin; Christ’s one act of righteousness, His death on the Cross provided atonement for many. Therefore, in this instance, the IAO advocate has destroyed the clear parallelism of the biblical author in order to support their system. There is no getting around the fact that the doctrine of IAO directly contradicts the plain sense of Paul’s statements in Romans 5:1819.

As for James 2:10, it is true that one violation of the law is enough to bring a person under condemnation. Thus, we need the mercy and grace that is provided under the covenant for salvation. Through exegesis, Phil is here using the truth of James 2:10 in order to make Romans 5:18-19 teach something that is incompatible with the plain sense of that text.

6. A host of other verses also make legal obedience (not merely forgiveness) essential to true righteousness. “And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the LORD our God, as he hath commanded us” (Deuteronomy 6:25; cf. Psalm 15:2;106:3119:172Proverbs 12:17Isaiah 58:2Romans 6:168:410:5). The distinction often made between “active” and “passive” obedience does not nullify this point: righteousness and obedience are inextricably linked in Scripture. A perfect righteousness clearly requires something more than just the forgiveness of sin.

Response: No, perfect righteousness does not require more than the forgiveness of sins (Psalm 32:2; Mark 2:7; Luke 5:21; Colossians 1:14; Ephesians 1:7).

This statement also reveals an assumption made by Phil and most IAO advocates: the existence of some kind of neutral state that is entered into on the basis of the forgiveness of sin, but to which something must be added for there to be “righteousness.” The problem is that this neutral state is found nowhere in Scripture and the Bible also states that the forgiveness of sin obtained on our behalf by the atonement of Christ is sufficient for our righteousness (Luke 5:23; Romans 4:7, 17; 1 John 1:9; 2:21).

Now, Phil does make an important statement: obedience is essential to righteousness, but then he cites a host of passages on obedience, but then makes them to be referring to Christ’s obedience! Does he even consider that these commands might be directed toward believers themselves?

This reveals a major problem with IAO doctrine because it teaches or implies that the believer is not obligated or commanded to obey and some go so far as to say even that the believer cannot obey. As a result, IAO teaches that it is Christ who obeys for us. Phil might not go this far in his theology, but some of the more consistent IAO advocates certainly imply that there is no need for the believer to persevere in obedience:

Jesus is like, “Just trust me. Trust me. I’ve done it and it is finished. It’s a done deal. Just rest. – Tullian Tchvidian


The Christian life is not something you live for God. It’s something that God lives for you in Christ.@MarsHill


For every time I’ve stamped my foot and say, “This isn’t what I want!” the Father hears the Son’s, “Not my will but Thine” instead.@ElyseFitz


God imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed any sin, and myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me. – Jesus + Nothing = Everything


No one can act like a Christian. – @BurkParsons from Ligonier


You’ve been called to submit, but rest is never found in your submission, but Christ’s willing submission to the Father on your behalf.@PaulTripp

Yet, as Phil pointed out, we have been given a host of verses that clearly indicate that a believer himself is obligated to faithfully obey and Scripture teaches that a lack of faithful obedience will have dire consequences:

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. – John 15:10

The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful– Luke 12:46

But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? . . And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ – Matthew 25:26-30

For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. – 1 Corinthians 7:19

Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.– 1 Corinthians 10:12

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. – 2 Corinthians 5:10

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. – Romans 2:6-11

To whom were the commands to obey in the above verses directed? Christ? Is Christ the One who needs to “take heed lest he fall”? Is the Christ the one who will stand before Himself in order to be subjected to a judgment according to works? Of course not.

In the Old Testament, God promised life to those who would faithfully obey. In the New Testament, God promises life through His Son to those who are faithful to do all that God has commanded within the bond of covenant. Both “testaments” are in agreement: God expects and demands obedience from those who are His and individuals who do not render that full obedience will not be given life.

We must emphasize a critical distinction: Righteousness is not earned by our law-keeping. We are given the gift of righteousness on the basis of faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Once we are made righteous through the imputation of His death on the Cross, we are then called to persevere in walking in His ways. If we do not, we will forfeit that righteous standing that we gained by grace and through faith. There is no hint in the text that the biblical call to obey is actually the recognition of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience. The obedience to which the believer is obligated is not an obedience that was vicariously performed by Jesus Christ during His life; rather this obedience is to literally join the covenant community, to literally love the brethren, to literally keep from immorality, to expand the kingdom and to do all that God has commanded. Because if you are not faithful to carry out the entirety of what God has commanded, you run a great risk of falling away.

The issue of obedience is where things get a bit dicey for those who subscribe to IAO. Their position forces them to view the commands of Scripture almost as word games on the part of God. They read that God commands obedience, but then bend over backwards to avoid teaching that God has placed any actual demand for obedience on the believer. In this kind of a system, God becomes a type of cosmic practical joker who demands obedience, all the while secretly knowing that that no one can obey. But it turns out okay in the end because no one really has to obey after all because Jesus obeyed for them. Can that be true? Is God really saying:

Obey. Just know that you can’t. But don’t worry, Christ did it for you?

Is the Gospel really this convoluted?

No, the Gospel is simple: God has purposed to redeem an obedient people for Himself. This is a people who come into covenant with Him on the basis of the death of Christ by faith. The redeemed are then obligated to faithfully obey for the rest of their lives, thereby finishing the course and keeping the faith (2 Timothy 4:7).

In an upcoming article, we will examine 6 more exegetical arguments in support of IAO.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:

to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. – James 1:27

Be sure to read the second article in this series: 6 MORE arguments in favor of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ examined and refuted.