Active Obedience As Thematic Structuring Device

And with a sexy title like that, if you can avoid being dragged in then you are beyond all hope.

I know that I have been referring to Peter Leithart a bit lately, but that is just the way it goes. This last Wednesday, Peter presented an unpublished paper to the NSA faculty forum. The paper, not surprisingly, was fantastic. But this post is different than the discussions of postmodernism — in those posts I have just been repeating and reinforcing Peter’s deconstruction of faux-deconstruction. This is a little different. Peter’s paper was on the life of Christ in Matthew as a recapitulation of the history of Israel. In the course of his paper, another line of application entirely bounced into my mind unbidden. I think this application is compelling, but want to ask you not to blame Peter for any weirdness you detect in it.

First, the fact that the New Testament writers saw Christ as the new Israel seems to me to be beyond dispute. In Matthew, for example, Christ was baptized in the Jordan as Israel was in the cloud and in the sea. After the baptism Christ spend forty days in the wilderness, as Israel spent forty years. During the wilderness Christ was tempted as was Israel. Christ stood, and Israel failed. After the wilderness sojourn, Christ began His “invasion” of Canaan, and Israel invaded Canaan. Beyond these obvious sorts of parallels, Peter’s paper went on to show that Matthew presents the life of Christ according to the structure of Israel’s history throughout the course of the entire Old Testament. There is certainly room for discussion in the details, but Matthew is explicit in the central fact of this identification. When he quotes Hosea (out of Egypt I called my son) and applies it to Jesus, he is quoting a verse which in its original context applied to Israel and the Exodus. When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. This is an egregious misquote . . . unless Matthew rightly sees Christ as Israel.

So then, what does this have to do with the doctrine of active obedience? This is where my jeep left the road and went bouncing across the meadow. If the history of the Old Testament can be summed up as “Israel screws up,” then the story of Christ is summed up as “Israel does it right.” If Christ is fulfilling all the failed promise of Israel’s long story, then it is obvious that the perfect life of Christ is far more important than just a precondition for His sinless sacrifice on the cross (His passive obedience).

His entire life is obviously crucial to the justification of all Israelites (those who are in Him, the true Israel). The recapitulation of Israel’s history in the life of Christ shows that the perfect life of Christ is significant to believers in a soteriological sense. If it is undeniable that the New Testament shows Christ as the new Israel (and I believe it is), and if this is self-evidently because He is being the true Israel for us, so that we can be true Israelites in Him, it follows that we are participating in His obedient life. The perfect obedience that He rendered to God throughout the course of His life was a life lived before God, and He did it for us. This is nothing other than the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Jesus Christ. It is being stated at a broader level than perhaps some talk about it, but it is clearly and recognizably the same thing.

Some of the problems that some have with the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ is that is our focus is too individualistic — we put the thing under the microscope. What we see is accurate, but out of context. In that setting, a glorious truth can look outlandish or surreal. We think of Christ’s perfect individual righteousness being transferred to another individual, as an individual. This is true — that does happen at the end of day, but there is some broader context.

But if we look at it in the native habitat (say, in the gospel of Matthew), and not under the microscope of individual soteriology, we see that the active obedience of Christ is not an esoteric doctrine tucked away in some obscure part of the Bible for some Puritan divine to find in the seventeenth century. Rather, it is one of the grand structuring devices of the original writers. It is clearly Matthew’s thematic structuring device.

Think about it. If Matthew structures his entire gospel around the theme of Christ being an obedient Israel, and not a disobedient Israel, and He is doing this so that we could be a restored and true Israel because of His obedience, what else can we call this?

A shorthand form of the doctrine of active obedience is that Christ’s obedience throughout the course of His sinless life has been imputed by the grace of God to me. I believe this is true, but there is a fuller way to explain it, and this fuller way makes the doctrine not only true, but one of Scripture’s primary truths. Christ’s obedience as the true Israel has been imputed to us, to all of us who are the Israel of God, and therefore to me. The reason I can be an Israelite and not be destroyed is Israel is now obedient. And whose obedience was this? How did it happen? The active obedience of Christ began with His miraculous birth, and His exile in Egypt, and His restoration from Egypt. Out of Egypt God called His Son. And when God called His Son, we came too.

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