Thoughts on the Active Obedience of Christ (a)

The subject of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience has long intrigued me. Students of the Bible, it seems, are often adept at answering the question, why did Christ die? The more difficult question is, why did Christ live?

I tend to think that Reformed folk in history have grappled with the question with integrity and in so doing have proposed some reasonable answers. One such answer, and perhaps the most popular, is that Christ came to keep the covenant of works which Adam failed to keep. Christ’s keeping of this covenant is often denominated his active obedience. Christ, it is quickly acknowledged, did far more as our Mediator: he also suffered eternal death as the punishment Adam had deserved by breaking the covenant of works. Christ’s suffering of this punishment is often denominated His passive obedience. This sensible answer to the question, why did Christ live, has tremendous appeal, in large part because of its logical coherence.

There’s a particularly disturbing variation of this answer which suggests that Adam, in the covenant of works, could merit reward from God, according to the dictates of strict justice, by being perfectly and perpetually obedient. Adam’s obedience, therefore, would put God in his debt and God would owe him the eschatological reward of his labours. Adam, however, disobeyed God and therefore failed to merit his reward. Thankfully, Jesus comes along and through his obedience earns a whole treasury of merits which he then lavishly shares with believers so that they can enjoy the eschaton Adam was promised.

This particular formulation of a meritorious covenant of works fails to grapple with the Creator/creature distinction and does not account for, inter alia, the disproportion between the human work and the divine reward. It seems far more biblical to insist that even if Adam had done everything God had commanded, he still would have been the unprofitable servant, only having done what God had been commanded. Moreover, there is nothing in the text of Scripture which suggests that eschatological life must (or can) be earned by humans, even if it is Jesus doing the earning.

Sensing the problem, some Reformed folk have preferred (a) to talk about “merit” in quotation marks to denote that it’s not merit, strictly speaking, or (b) to introduce the language of “covenantal merit” which, I suppose, can then be distinguished from “judicial merit.” I find myself in agreement with the theology of these folk though I continue to question the usefulness of the term “merit” given these necessary qualifications.

At some level, I can agree with this system. I do believe that Christ succeeded and obeyed where Adam failed and disobeyed and that because of Christ’s perfect obedience God reckons us righteous, even though we are sinners.

I wonder, however, if there’s another paradigm which is more faithful to the text of Scripture. It’s this paradigm I’ll talk about in my next post.

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