Christians are accustomed to thinking of our salvation as it relates to the death of Christ. But what is the significance of his life? Did his sinless life merely qualify him to offer the perfect sacrifice for the sins of his people, or did he obey and suffer for our salvation? Reformed theology affirms the latter. We teach that the Christian is justified through a “double imputation.” Double imputation refers to the Biblical teaching that the guilt of our sin was imputed to Christ on the cross, while his obedience and righteousness is imputed to his people resulting in Justification (2 Cor 5:21).
Another way Reformed theologians described the teaching of double imputation is by affirming that both the active and passive aspects of Christ’s obedience were for our redemption (‘passive’ is antiquated language. Originally it meant “suffering” as in “passion”). We cannot separate these two aspects of Christ’s obedience. Throughout the entire life of Christ his suffering and obedience were intertwined – but it is particularly through his propitiation on the cross (passive obedience) that our sins were imputed to his account, and through the resurrection that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us (these benefits being received in time by faith alone).
The seventeenth century Arminians attempted to separate the inseparable by denying that the active obedience of Christ had redemptive significance. They argued that Christ needed his obedience for himself as a man; it cannot therefore be imputed to us. The consequence is that Christ procures for us only the forgiveness of sins through his sacrificial death. By faith we receive nothing more than a pardon, a gracious relaxing of the perfect demands of the law.
It is correct to say that Christ’s obedience qualified him as the perfect sacrifice. Some wonder what Christ could gain by his obedience, since by virtue of his divinity he is morally impeccable. Christ, by his obedience, of course gained nothing for himself. The purpose of the incarnation was not for his sake, but for ours! By assuming a human nature he became subject to the law in its federal aspect, the law as the condition of life in the covenant of works. As the last Adam he took the place of the first. When Christ voluntarily entered the federal relationship as the last Adam, keeping of the law naturally acquired the same significance for him. If Jesus merely paid the penalty for our sin without also imputing to us his righteousness, we would be left in the position of Adam before the fall, still confronted with the task of obtaining eternal life by way of obedience (with the help of forgiveness).
Can it be shown from Scripture that Christ’s entire life is redemptive? Yes. This is evident, first of all, in summary statements about the redemptive work of Christ that are general, which embrace the totality of his earthly ministry. For example, Gal 4:4-5, states that Christ was “born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Thus, Christ’s entire life of obedience is brought to bear on our redemption.
Second, this is evident from the Scriptural teaching on the resurrection. Romans 4:25 brings both his active and passive obedience together in our redemption by declaring that Jesus our Lord “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Thus Paul connects our pardon specifically with the suffering of Christ and God’s decree of Justification with the resurrection of Christ. Why does Paul connect Jesus’ resurrection with our justification? It is because the resurrection was Jesus’ justification – it was God’s declaration that his Son was righteous and therefore death had no hold on him. As Paul says in another place “he was justified [vindicated] by the Spirit” (1 Tim 3:5: i.e. when, by the Holy Spirit, Christ was raised from the dead). Why was Jesus declared to be righteous in the resurrection? Because he was righteous! Born under the law, he perfectly obeyed the law and therefore death did not have a legitimate claim on him.
Third, and most important, this is evident from the Scriptural teaching on the justification of the wicked. The word “justify” means “declare righteous/just.” Justification is not the same thing as pardon. It is one thing for a judge to acquit a defendant, declaring him clear of all charges, and quite another for a judge to issue a pardon. Yet Scripture states that God declares the wicked, righteous (Rom 4:5). He does this by imputing righteousness apart from works (4:6). This righteousness comes by the obedience of Christ, as Paul says. “By the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (The significant point here is not so much that this is brought about by Christ’s obedience; rather it is the result of being declared righteous).
And what (whose) righteousness is this? It is not the righteousness of the penitent, for it is said to be “apart from works.” It is the righteousness of Christ (his entire obedience) that is imputed to the believer. This is the import of Phil 3:9, “and being found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” Also relevant is 2 Cor 5:21, the classic text on “double imputation,” which states that Christ was made sin (i.e. condemned as a sinner) “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” That is, God declares us to be righteous because he regards his righteous Son as our substitute. Therefore, Calvin says in his Institutes (3.11.2) that “A man will be justified by faith when, excluded from the righteousness of works, he by faith lays hold of the righteousness of Christ, and, clothed in it, appears in the sight of God, not as a sinner, but as righteous.”
Today many argue that such theories of imputation and the righteousness of Christ are not part of the Gospel message. On the contrary, this truth relates directly to our understanding of justification and is most certainly an indispensable part of our gospel proclamation. The Reformed Symbols also left no doubt as to the importance of Christ’s obedience and double imputation.
Westminster Larger Cat q. 70, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them [my emphasis], and received by faith alone” (Compare also L. Cat q. 77, S. Cat. Q. 33, WCF 11.1).
Heidelberg Catechism q. 60. Q. How are you right with God? A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments and of never having kept any of them, and even though I am still inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without my deserving it at all, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me” (Compare also Belgic Confession Articles 20, 22, 23).
Finally, this doctrine is of enormous practical benefit because it teaches us that that Christ’s obedience is the grounds of our justification and we can therefore be confident of passing through God’s judgment because we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Thus, as J. Gresham Machen was dying of pneumonia he sent a final telegram to John Murray containing these words: “so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”