One of the foundational doctrines of the Bible, and therefore the Christian faith, is that believers in Christ are “justified” or “declared righteous” by God through faith in Jesus Christ.
This is a true and important doctrine, and biblical theologians agree that this gift of the righteousness of God is given through what is called “imputation”. That is, the Lord’s righteousness is “imputed” to us through faith in Christ.
But there is a common teaching, especially among Reformed believers, that the obedience of Jesus on Earth “earned” or “attained” for Him the righteousness which He then gives to us.
This obedience they call “active obedience”, and they teach that this “active obedience” on Earth is what is imputed to us. This is sometimes called “active obedience imputation”.
Though commonly taught, this “active obedience imputation” is not biblical.
I’ve prepared a mini-catechism to clarify some of the issues in this subject:
Q. What is imputed to us?
A. Christ’s righteousness.
Q. What is righteousness?
A. Right standing or right relationship with God, without guilt of sins.
Q. Is righteousness inherent in men?
A. No, they are born and live in wrong standing or wrong relationship with God, and stand guilty of sins, until they are justified, or declared righteous by God.
Q. Is righteousness inherent in Christ?
A. Yes, since He has always been in right standing and right relationship with God, and has always been sinless.
Q. When a man is regenerated and believes in Jesus Christ, is he justified or declared righteous, once forever?
Q. How is he declared righteous?
A. In the pattern of Abraham, his faith is credited to him as righteousness, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to him, and he is thereby declared righteous (that is, in right standing and relationship with God, without guilt of sins, which are forgiven).
Q. By what act or series of acts is this justification obtained?
A. By ONE act, the shedding of the blood of Christ in His death on the Cross.
Q. Is there a CLEAR scripture to prove this?
A. Yes, here are two:
Romans 5:18, “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through ONE ACT of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.”…and,
Hebrews 10:14, “For by ONE OFFERING He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.”
Q. What then of His life of obedience to the Father?
A. He did indeed live a life of “Active Obedience”, which should never be discounted, but it did not make Him righteous.
Q. Was His obedience instrumental in His righteousness?
A. By no means. His righteous is inherent in Himself. His obedience did, however, demonstrate and authenticate His righteousness, and identify Him as the Messiah and Son of God, along with many other prophetic and miraculous authentications.
Q. And it is this righteousness inherent in Him that He imputes to us?
A. Yes, through the instrument of the ONE ACT on the Cross.
Q. What’s the big deal? You act like the honor of Christ is at stake.
A. His honor is at stake. It is dishonoring to imply that Jesus had to EARN or ATTAIN righteousness, when the truth is He was always righteous, both as God and as man.
Q. Are you intimidated by the fact that so many godly Reformed men disagree with you?
A. Not in the least, though I am humbly willing to change my mind in a moment, if there might be an abandoning of red herrings, smoke and mirrors, Confessions and theologians…in favor of just a verse or two which might show that Christ’s “active obedience” is imputed to us….AND if the aforementioned Rom. 5:18 and Heb. 10:14 are honestly confronted, instead of evaded.