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

examineIn the last article on this topic, we dealt with six textual arguments that are meant to be in favor of the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ (IAO). The source of these arguments was an article written by Phil Johnson and posted at Pyromaniacs a couple of years ago. Today, we continue our look at IAO with the consideration of six more arguments that are accepted by the proponents of IAO. Our premise is that Scripture teaches that Christ had to live a perfect life of law-keeping (His AO) and this life was essential to His sacrifice. However, the idea that this life of law-keeping has been imputed to the believer as the grounds of our justification (IAO) is unnecessary to the doctrine of justification and more importantly, it is an idea that is completely without Biblical support.

We resume with Phil’s seventh exegetical argument in support of the doctrine of IAO:


7. To deny the role of Christ’s active obedience in justification is to distort what Paul meant when he described believers as “in Christ”—united with Him in such a way that our very life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). We are clothed in His perfect righteousness—not merely stripped of our guilt (Isaiah 61:10). Indeed, Christ is our righteousness (Jeremiah 23:61 Corinthians 1:30). Furthermore, Christ’s “righteousness” consists not merely in His sufferings, but in all his actions (1 John 2:29).

Response: We do not deny that the active obedience of Christ plays a role in justification, but that role must be biblically defined. None of these texts teach that the law-keeping performed by Christ during His life on earth has been imputed to the believer. Colossians 3:3 teaches that our life is hidden with Christ in God. According to the context, the intent of this statement is to impress upon the believer that he must now live Christ’s life. In other words, believers are to “set your minds on things above,” to put to death” things of the earth, to “put . . . away” anger, wrath, malice, etc. and to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” There is nothing of the imputation of Christ’s obedience in this passage. We are clothed in the righteousness of Christ – His sacrificial death on the Cross – through faith. We are justified by faith in His death alone; we are not and cannot be justified by virtue of His law-keeping.

However, once we have been clothed in Christ, once we have been placed in that state of “abiding,” we must then remain there through practicing righteousness. Phil’s statement that 1 John 2:29 is a reference to Christ’s law-keeping is almost laughable, because according to that verse, we do not remain in Christ because He practiced righteousness; we remain in Christ because we practice righteousness!

There is an important corollary passage to 1 John 2:29 that is found in the Gospel of John, chapter 15. Here, the truth of how to abide in Christ and the consequences for failing to abide in Christ are spelled out even more clearly:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 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. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. – John 15:1-11

Consider the truths found in these words:

  • One can be in Christ, but then removed, v. 2.
  • We are clean (righteous, justified, holy) in Christ, v.3.
  • “Branches” which do not abide in Christ are thrown into the fire, v.6.
  • How do we abide in Christ? By keeping His commandments, v. 10.

Do not miss that fact that it is we who keep these commandments “as” or in the same way that Christ Himself kept the commandments of the Father (v. 10) and Christ reveals that He kept His Father’s commandments in order to “abide in His [God’s] love.” Again, we are not speaking of gaining our position in Christ in these passages, because, clearly the gaining of our right standing with God can only be by grace, through faith. These passages are speaking of maintaining, keeping, remaining, abiding in that position in Christ. There is nothing to suggest that our abiding in Christ is the result of the imputation of Christ’s lifetime of obedience, instead, we are kept “in Christ” because of our own faithful obedience.


8. Philippians 2:8 suggests that Christ’s obedience only culminated in His death. The full scope of the obedience He rendered on our behalf was manifest in His whole life, not merely in His dying. See also Romans 8:3-4.

Response: At times, I’m not sure that Phil is even reading the passages that he cites because the words found in the verses do not support the statements that he makes about them. Philippians 2:8 points out that the obedience of Christ was “to the point of death.” Meaning that if His whole life had not been one of perfect obedience, His death would have been meaningless. The fact is that He was obedient for His entire life – but the point of this verse is . . . His death! Christ’s purpose for coming to earth was not only to live a perfect life, but to live a life that would qualify Him to be the perfect Sacrifice.

Romans 8:3-4 has even less to do with Christ’s law-keeping. In fact, the Romans passage is far more focused on the law-keeping of those who have believed than on the law-keeping of the object of that belief. Again, this law-keeping is not a means of gaining righteousness, but it is the means to maintain the righteousness that has come by faith alone:

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin,he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:3-4

It is only by a sacrifice of atonement that we can be made righteous and those who have been made righteous must then walk according to the Spirit if they are to see salvation (Romans 8:9-13). Rather than supporting, this verse undermines IAO on two fronts: first, it recognizes that the state of justification cannot come from obedience to the Law including Christ’s perfect obedience to the Law. Second, the fact that Christ fulfilled the requirement of the law does not exempt the believer from the requirement to personal, faithful obedience to the law of the Spirit. If Christ had obeyed for us, why does Scripture constantly include exhortations for the believer to obey? Are the calls to faithful obedience simply to give the Christian something to do?


9. Christ became man for us, not for Himself (2 Corinthians 8:9); and therefore the obedience He owed to the law was for us, not for Himself (Galatians 4:4).

Response: Yes, as previously stated, He did become man, He did obey the law and these actions were for our ultimate benefit. What is missing in these passages is Christ’s perfect life of law-keeping, especially as it relates to the imputation of His active obedience.


10. Scripture teaches that God’s own righteousness involves numerous positive elements—His goodness, His love, His mercy, and so on. So God’s righteousness (Romans 10:3) is certainly something more than merely the absence of guilt.

Response: Romans 10:3 has nothing to do with the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, furthermore, this statement reveals a major flaw in the doctrine of IAO. Here, Phil (along with most IAO advocates) makes the assumption that three categories exist in Scripture: unrighteousness, neutral righteousness and another category called “positive” righteousness. The problem is that the existence of three such categories is completely foreign to the biblical text. We only find two categories in Scripture: unrighteous and righteous.

Because of the existence of a third neutral category in the mind of the IAO proponent, they limit the power of the Cross. They make it impossible for Christ’s death to both absolve of guilt and to make one righteous. This is readily seen in Phil’s article when he states:

That is why so many of the leading critics of “active obedience” have concluded (quite logically, given the arguments they employ) that nothing positive is imputed to believers at justification. They teach instead that justification is nothing more than the forgiveness of sins, period. That kind of justification would leave believers with no better standing than Adam had before the fall.

Phil wrongly distinguishes between righteousness and “positive” righteousness. He also assumes that Adam was not “positively” (in his words) righteous. Yet Adam was declared righteous and would have lived forever had he maintained his state of righteousness. (Genesis 1:26-27, 31) Adam was in a right state with God from the start, there was no need for him to earn the so-called “positive” righteousness for which Phil seems to be arguing. When Adam sinned, he lost his state of righteousness (lost his justification) and thus needed atonement and the covenent. Both of which God graciously granted to him. Adam and Eve were restored to a righteous standing with God by virtue of the animal that was sacrificed on their behalf. (There is no IAO in the story of Adam and Eve, by the way.)

In the same way, Scripture makes it clear that it is only by virtue of the passive obedience of Christ that the believer enters into a forgiven, reconciled, cleansed and resurrected state of righteousness. The law-keeping of Christ (His AO) made His Sacrifice (His PO) possible, but His life of law-keeping cannot make us righteous and His work on the Cross does not need something additional in order to make it complete.

Another problem in statement #10 is that by Phil’s logic, God’s attributes of goodness, love and mercy comprise His so-called “positive righteousness.” The problem is that if this is true, Phil is logically implying that wrath and judgment must comprise “negative righteousness.” Besides being completely irrelevant to the topic at hand, that idea is idiotic. God is perfectly righteous in every aspect of what he does and that includes all of His attributes.


11. The law’s promise of life to those who obey would seem to be pointless if Christ somehow obtained life for us without obeying the law on our behalf. Why else would the law promise life for obedience (Leviticus 18:5Ezekiel 20:11Luke 10:28)? Note that the law promises life not to the one who suffers, but to the one who obeys. If Christ’s active obedience has no relevance to our justification, those promises would add up to nothing but an empty, pointless bluff.

Response: The commands to obey in exchange for abundant life do become an empty, pointless bluff . . . if one has it in mind that Christ obeyed vicariously for the believer.

Phil correctly sees obedience as a prerequisite for life, what he fails to accept is that these commands to obey are directed to the believer himself. Furthermore, while it is not implicitly stated, Phil seems to assume throughout his article that the covenant demands perfect obedience on the part of the believer. He rightly understands that perfect obedience is impossible for anyone, but he goes too far in assuming that since we cannot obey perfectly, we then must not be required to obey at all.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The obligation of the believer under the New Covenant (and all covenants) is faithful obedience and faithful obedience is indeed possible for the Christian! Because of the death of Christ, the believer has been restored to a righteous state before God and he is a Holy Spirit-empowered, new creation (Romans 2:29, 8:13-15; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15) with a new heart that is fully committed to obedience. God has not given a law that is impossible and therefore optional, instead, He has given a law to which His people must strive for faithful obedience:

For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. – Deuteronomy 30:11-14

And in the New Testament, Paul writes:

For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).  But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” – Romans 10:6-8a

And the writer of Hebrews:

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. – Hebrews 12:3-4

Phil correctly writes that “life is promised to the one who obeys,” but he falls into error when he makes those texts to be somehow directed toward Christ. The fact is that it is we who are called to obey. God has promised abundant life to all those who are reconciled to Him through faith in the Cross. Once we have been graciously given the gift of righteousness, we are called to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).


12. The context of Philippians 3:9 makes clear that the ground of the believer’s justification is an alien righteousness, not any degree of righteousness we obtain for ourselves. To deny that this is the righteousness of Christ is to diminish His unique role as our proxy, our mediator, and our substitute.

Response: The ground of the believer’s justification is Christ’s vicarious, substitutionary death on the Cross because without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:22). It is by the blood that we have peace and reconciliation with God (Colossians 1:20). But nowhere does the Bible teach that our righteousness is in any part due to law-keeping on the part of Christ.

Again, think about it: if the law possessed the power to justify and Christ’s obedience to that law could be imputed to our account, then does that not make the death of Christ needless? Paul wrote, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21).



There is no biblical basis for the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. In fact, in some quarters, IAO is destroying or has destroyed the Gospel itself. I am not so bold as to say that Phil himself is using the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ in order to teach a false gospel. However, his strong stance in support of a doctrine with scant biblical support opens the door for others to go much farther down the road toward preaching a false gospel that makes our own obedience irrelevant to salvation. This thinking results in selective obedience and even outright rejection of any obligation to obey on the part of the believer. In short, IAO leads to a false gospel of antinomianism. Remember that antinomianism is not just the rejection of all law, it can also manifest itself as partial or selective obedience (Matthew 5:19, 7:15-23).

Over and over, Scripture tells us that we are made righteous through the blood of Christ on the basis of faith alone (Romans 3:23-25; 2 Corinthians 5:14-18; Colossians 1:19-23). We are redeemed through His blood and will be glorified if we continue to walk in obedience – not an obedience performed vicariously by Christ – but a faithful, humble obedience empowered and enabled by the Holy Spirit, while at the same time it is performed by the believer himself.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross and you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation. – Colossians 1:19-23

For more on this topic, see the first article in this series. For a broader explanation of justification, please see Justification Rediscovered.