More to Theology Than Admiring the Cape

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I have made a great theological discovery. It’s a really hot one, worthy, it seems to me, of an honorary Th.D. or something like that. We have many worthy seminaries in a position to grant this honor, and so once I have published it here in just a few minutes, I will wait a couple days, and then go out to hold vigil by my mailbox. But lest you think I have gotten above myself, whilst I am holding vigil, I will not be holding my breath.

Now some of the paragraphs after this one will be tightly reasoned, or, as we theologians like to call it, “turgid,” and so I will give you the basic thesis here, to hold your interest through the rough patches. Here it is. Those who hold that the covenant of works was not gracious must, of necessity, deny the imputation of active obedience of Christ. There, that should do it.

One of the bones of contention in the FV controversy has been over the “works” in the covenant of works with Adam. When Adam fell, did he do so by rejecting the grace of God, or did he do so by failing to accomplish, on his own steam, the task assigned to him?

Now I have maintained that the covenant of life, as I prefer to call it, was a covenant dependent upon Adam’s obedience. But the word obedience, unlike the word works, reminds people that there is a relationship involved. There is someone on the other side who has required the obedience, and provided the resources necessary for it. The context of all true obedience is grace. The context of works, as some are arguing for it, is autonomy — raw conformity to a raw standard. Now I understand that in the history of the Reformed tradition, many who use the language of “works” here have been careful to define this as gracious, which makes it what I am calling obedience. I would not quarrel over words, lest I then come to be accused of being anti-Semantic, thus adding to my troubles.

And so here is the problem. If we must have raw merit imputed to us, and this raw merit, as a result of Christ’s sinless life, atoning death, and justifying resurrection, is imputed to us, what happens when we are confronted with undeniable evidence that the life that Christ lived on our behalf was not “raw” at all, but was empowered by the Holy Spirit sent from the Father?

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18),

“And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost” (John 1:32-33).

Got that? Everything Jesus did through the course of His ministry was gifted to Him through the empowering of the Holy Spirit. That means that if raw merit is essential to whatever gets imputed to us, the life of Jesus cannot be imputed to us. And conversely, if the life of Jesus is imputed to us, as I affirm heartily, with my hair in a braid, then what is imputed to us is the obedience of a faithful man, in faithful relationship with a gracious God.

Good and necessary consequence can be a bear. Here is the cash value of this point. Anyone who says that grace is not a consideration in the covenant of works is also saying (whether he wants to be saying this or not) that the active obedience cannot be imputed to us.

Now I am aware that there is another discussion on the other side of all this. There are some who say that they are FV who deny the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. They say they can get the same result by pointing to the great justification of Christ in His resurrection from the dead. Since He rose from the dead, everything He did is entailed in that, and so all that is His is imputed to us.

But there are three problems. First, to appeal to Christ wholesale is to speak more broadly than Scripture does. It is more of an American “bottom line” approach than it is a scriptural one. Scripture shows us Jesus, the new Israel, coming up out of Egypt, and doing it right. It shows Him getting baptized, and being a beloved Son in that baptism, with whom the Father was well-pleased. It shows Him resisting temptation in the wilderness, and actually doing so faithfully. Finally, an Israel that stands, an Israel that is obedient. We are Israelites, and so that obedience is ours. He, the new Israel, invades Canaan, and conquers it. He dies, and rises, and in all of this, in every detail of His life, He is living obediently on our behalf. All of it, out to His glorification, is ours.

“Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours; Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; And ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3:21-23).

There it is, the active obedience of Christ, along with everything else. Keep in mind that the active obedience of Christ is an incoherent concept if we try to separate it from His passive obedience on the cross. To do that would be as silly as saying that we have imputed to us the obedience of Jesus on even numbered days, as well as, in a separate category, His obedience of odd numbered days.

Second, to center everything on Christ’s resurrection sidesteps the great problem in all “union with Christ” arguments. The resurrection and ascension are the crowning moments of all that Christ did. This is the time when Christ can be said to have persevered. The resurrection is nothing if not the glory of Christ’s perseverance. But what of those who are united to Christ covenantally who do not persevere (John 15:1-8; Rom. 11:20-21)? Those in Christ who do not persevere cannot have as their only point of entry the perseverence of Christ. This needs to be developed a lot more, and I have been concerned with how easily it just gets ignored in an Olé! kind of way. It reminds me of N.T. Wright playing matador to the pointed horn on the raging bull of John Piper’s central point. But there is more to doing theology than admiring the cape.

And third, just as a denial of the basic FV insights requires (logically) a denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, so also a denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ requires (logically) a rejection of the basic FV insights. I have shown above that the former is necessary. Perhaps someday I will be able to devote some time to that, when it is time for another honorary Th.D.

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