Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Obedience of Christ in Hebrews

As I've tried to wrap my mind around the food fight known as "The Federal Vision Controversy", one point stands out. Some who identify themselves with The Federal Vision believe that it is a mistake to speak of Christ's active obedience imputed to us:

We deny that faithfulness to the gospel message requires any particular doctrinal
formulation of the “imputation of the active obedience of Christ.” What matters is that we confess that our salvation is all of Christ, and not from us.
FV Statement 6

In my reading, I have understood their reluctance to stem from a controversy between Kline and Murray concerning the appropriateness of the term "Covenant of Works" to describe Adam's covenantal situation in the Garden: Do Adam's and Christ's works "merit" damnation and salvation, respectively, OR do Adam's and Christ's statuses secure damnation and salvation? That's probably an oversimplification, and for those who don't know the inside baseball (I'm a novice!), the appropriate question is probably "Who cares?!"

In any event, the argument has then proceeded on systematic lines. IF we abandon active obedience, the Kline camp urges, then we abandon the gospel. No, IF we allow for Adam to "merit" something in the Garden, then we make God beholden to His creation, say the Murrayites. Part of this discussion can be found here and here.

Hold the is a discussion in which Anthony Cowley examines precisely the passages I was thinking about in worship this morning. But he goes in a different direction with it, so I'll keep writing.

Anyways, what I wanted to say is this: I think the book of Hebrews provides a sufficient basis for a legitimate use of the phrase "Imputation of Active Obedience of Christ."

And here's the case:

During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. Heb. 5.7-10.

Important to the writer of the Hebrews is this point: though Jesus already had the status of Son, he went beyond this status and actively obeyed God, reaching some state of "perfection" or "completion." What that state is and how it goes beyond being the eternal son of God (Heb 1.2-3), the author doesn't say. But his obedience is needed in order for him to have the status of our high priest.

Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.
Heb 7.23-28

Here, our salvation is necessarily contingent on Jesus' particular characteristics: ever-livingness, holiness, blamelessness, etc., down to being exalted above the heavens. Notably, he is appointed because he had previously been made perfect, which connects back to his obedience from chapter 5.

...How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.
Heb 9.14-15.

Here, the author develops the idea of our salvation. We are saved (a) because our consciences have been cleansed, because (b) Jesus the unblemished sacrifice -- connecting back to the language of ch. 7, which in turn rests on ch. 5 -- offered himself for us.

And then finally,

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
"Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
Then I said, 'Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—
I have come to do your will, O God.' "

First he said, "Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them" (although the law required them to be made). Then he said, "Here I am, I have come to do your will." He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Heb. 10.5-10

Here the author makes explicit that Jesus' obedience to God's will not only qualifies him to be our sacrifice (as developed in ch. 5-->7-->9), but also that his sacrifice makes us holy.

What can we conclude from this? First, that Jesus' righteousness includes, as one aspect, his active obedience to the Father. Above and beyond his nature as the second person of the Trinity, above and beyond his status as Messiah (Phil. 2.9), he also acted in a way that resulted in his worthiness as our sacrifice.

Second, that Jesus' righteousness becomes ours and makes us holy.

Put it together, and we have this: Jesus' active obedience becomes a part of the package by which I am reckoned -- logizomai -- to be holy.

Hence, in this sense at least, Christ's active obedience is imputed to me.

Does this answer the question of mechanism? No. Does it settle the dispute over merit? No.

But what is clear from the Scriptures is that there is a legitimate sense in which Christ's active obedience is imputed to me. For those who dislike an Anselmian sense of merit, or a Thomistic sense of merit, or a Klinian sense of merit -- here's your antidote: Affirm the IAOC in the sense that the author to the Hebrews affirms it.



Jeff Meyers said...

Jeff, there's a lot to agree with here. A couple of notes.

Heb. 5:7-10 is not about Jesus being made "perfect" (teleios) but about his "maturity." It fits the context better, both before and after.

I affirm the absolute necessity of Jesus' active obedience for our salvation/justification. What I don't affirm is that the merits of Jesus' pre-cross moral achievements somehow earned him the Father's favor and that that is then legally transferred (imputed) to us. I do not believe for one minute that Jesus did enough good works or even kept himself perfect enough to fulfill the conditions of the "covenant of works," thereby meriting life, which is then transfered to us. Nope. Sorry.

And you might consider this, too: The active and passive obedience paradigm seems to rest all of its soteriological weight upon Christ's death and his obedience to the Father prior to his death.
But that leaves out the most important thing: Christ's own justification/vindication in the event of the resurrection (Rom. 4). THAT is the source of our righteousness and justification: union with the resurrected Christ who was declared to be the Righteous One and the Justified One when
God raised him from the dead.

One gets all the forensic status one needs by being united to Christ so becoming a recipient of the same verdict and status that Christ received from the Father in the resurrection.

And since Christ's justification in the resurrection necessarily presupposes his life of perfect obedience, the verdict and status I receive in union with the resurrected Christ is a direct result of his obedience.

So my justifying verdict from God does grant me the (1) righteous status that Jesus had as the sinless Son of God and (2) the glory that comes from Jesus' life of faithful obedience, taking me to a place beyond where Adam began.

This is a much more biblical way of putting things.

Jeff Cagle said...

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for your comments!

What I don't affirm is that the merits of Jesus' pre-cross moral achievements somehow earned him the Father's favor and that that is then legally transferred (imputed) to us.

I wonder here about the phrase "moral achievements." I'm betting that the philosophical issues underlying this one phrase are the real sticking point.

Wright disparages the notion of "abstract righteousness" being imputed to us, citing Augustine as the culprit for introducing this category.

And yet in Augustine, I don't find that he abstracts righteousness at all; rather, for him, righteousness is a matter of caritas, love. It seems to me on first approximation that Augustine's concept of righteousness is intimately connected with "love God/love neighbor" -- which is Jesus' definition also. And that's not so far removed from Wright's "covenant faithfulness", in the end.

This all connects in a deep way to what van Til talks about in Christian Apologetics, about how there can be no knowledge outside of God.

In like fashion, there can be no ethics outside of God (Frame); no moral achievements outside of loving obedience to God.

Hence, I'm not sure that when *I* speak, in good Klinean fashion, of IAOC, that I *mean* that Jesus does a bunch of abstract good deeds that earn abstract merits that he then shoves across the table to me for my own use.

Rather, I *mean* that Jesus' obedience to the Father *is* the obedience reckoned to me (via UX, as it turns out).

And if someone wishes to label his obedience as "moral achievements", I can understand that. His obedience was a moral achievement, in the Augustinian sense!

And if someone wishes to assert that his obedience caused the Father to be well pleased, I can accept "earned the Father's pleasure" as reasonable language to describe that.

And if someone wishes to assert that the same good pleasure towards Jesus is the good pleasure towards me, then I'm all over that. I'm a well-beloved son because I'm in the Well-Beloved Son.

So I can say that Jesus' moral achievements earned the Father's favor, imputed to me.

And then in the same breath, I can vigorously agree with Wright that this has nothing to do with an abstract system of merit.

So I don't know where this puts me in relationship to the merit debate, but that's my soteriology and I'm stickin' to it.

Grace and peace,

AAFairmount said...

Hello Jeff:

Thanks for alerting me to your meditation on these passages from Hebrews. I guess it is some sort of Testimony that the Lord led us both to his Word, at least! :-)
Like me, you seem to be struggling to get your mind around just what is at issue with the debate related to the Active Obedience of Christ and its Imputation (IAOC).

You are right that we go in somewhat different directions. I can see how you are reading the passages. Yet, you don't come out with a very strong merit type of set up. You just allow room for something like merit to be found in the obedience leading to perfection/maturity. I note that Hebrews emphasized that Jesus "Learned Obedience" through the things that he suffered, and was thus "made perfect." I don't see this as an attainment by way of merit or credit, but by way of God granting him his prayer.
I am still a learner here, and along those lines I just posted something else on De Regno Christi which tries to show how Romans 7 can be taken pro-or-anti AIOC.

Now, I've handicapped myself in trying not to take a firm stance one way or the other on the Covenant of Works. I certainly hear and sympathize with Murray's critique (correction?) and do not see orthodoxy hanging on the COW framework. I am not at all attracted to Kline's paradigm when it comes to works/merit/two kingdoms, which I tend to see as having gnostic elements.
But, all that aside, if one is going to argue FOR the IAOC as a distinct imputation of christ pre-resurrection righteousness, then one would have to use the texts the way you do. You don't try to bleed them for way too much. But, our different treatment of the matter shows how presuppositional this is becoming. If one presumes merit as part of the framework, one can find it everywhere. Once questioning it comes into your consciousness deeply, its hard to find it anywhere.

Its interesting to ask how many such conflicts have arisen over the years, generations, with in the church, due to shifts, mega shifts in perspectives, influencing how we see the authoritative scriptures.

Good thoughts - even if I don't go quite where you do.

Jeff Cagle said...

And you might consider this, too: The active and passive obedience paradigm seems to rest all of its soteriological weight upon Christ's death and his obedience to the Father prior to his death.
But that leaves out the most important thing: Christ's own justification/vindication in the event of the resurrection (Rom. 4). THAT is the source of our righteousness and justification: union with the resurrected Christ who was declared to be the Righteous One and the Justified One when
God raised him from the dead.

I need to do more research on this issue. At this moment, three thoughts stand out:

(1) When I preach the Gospel as "the great exchange" -- my sins imputed to Christ, his righteousness to me -- I emphasize his life, death, and resurrection in equal measure. For me, the package of "minimal sufficiency" is the *whole* package of life, death, and resurrection. So while I agree that we must not leave out the importance of the resurrection (lest we have Mel Gibson all over again), still and all, I would not feel comfortable with the exact formulation you have above, emphasizing the resurrection as THE source of justification.

I'm pretty sure you were just trying to correct the tilt, rather than make the resurrection the whole package.

(2) And in fact, the author to the Hebrews arranges life, death, and resurrection differently from Paul (one more evidence of non-Pauline authorship, I guess).

Paul places most emphasis on death and resurrection.

Jesus' death cancels the written code (Col, Gal) and is an act of righteousness that undoes Adam's act of disobedience (Rom). His resurrection is his vindication and claim to status as Messiah (Rom, Phil) and source of power for new life (Rom).

But the AtH places more emphasis on Jesus' life and death. His death satisfies the sacrificial requirements and placates God's wrath.

Because of his sacrificial theme, the AtH brings out the nature of Jesus' life more fully. He's anxious to demonstrate that Jesus is the unblemished lamb and the great high priest of righteousness. Hence, he connects Jesus' obedience to his fitness for office AND to the holiness that we receive from him.

And the resurrection, for the AtH, solves the need for an everliving intercessor and a permanent sacrifice for sins.

Both are cutting the same cake in approximately the same way, but they are decorating the cake in really different ways.

(3) Thus, I would not restrict τελειος to "maturity" only. That limited sense fits well in ch. 5, but in ch. 7, Jesus' perfection is in contrast to the weakness of other priests; specifically, their sinfulness, in that they could not offer themselves as a sacrifice for others. Ι would argue that τελειος is being used in a way that captures both completeness and perfection, in an "unblemished lamb" sense.


Jeff Cagle said...

darn. I meant "maturity and perfection" -- maturity in the sense of being the obedient son, perfection in the sense of being the unblemished lamb.

John Thomson said...


Far too late for this thread I know. However, just a comment or two.

I disagree with how you are reading 'perfected'. I think 'perfected' in Hebrews is functionally the equivalent of 'glorified' in Paul. Note that it is God who has perfected Christ. Heb 7 says 'he has been made perfect forever' that is, 'perfected' refers not to an accomplishment but a state into which he has entered - exaltation; it is what God has made him in the Spirit at resurrection. The 'days of his flesh' were the days of weakness/immaturity/interim while the new creation life is that of power/maturity/completion.