Charles M. Wingard
Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ in the Westminster Standards, by Alan D. Strange. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2019, xviii + 158 pages, $7.79, paper.
The doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ in the justification of believers is vital to Reformed pastoral care. It is the desire of my heart that every sheep in my flock come to the assurance “that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (WCF 18.1).
Active obedience, correctly understood, is a joy and comfort to the believer, assuring him of his right standing before God. God is righteous and requires that all who come before him be righteous. The good news of the gospel is that Christ has satisfied the demands of divine justice for all who believe. By bearing the wrath of God due to us for our sin (passive obedience) and by perfectly keeping the commandments of God for us (active obedience), Jesus has secured our salvation. Christ died and lived for us. The Sovereign Judge of all the world credits the righteousness of Jesus to the one who, by faith, receives and rests in Christ alone as he is offered in the gospel (WSC, 33 and 86).
In this small volume Alan D. Strange offers a spirited defense of the doctrine of Christ’s active obedience. He convincingly demonstrates that the Westminster Assembly affirmed this doctrine from the start and never wavered in its commitment.
Before turning to the Assembly and its work, he surveys earlier witnesses to the doctrine. Although neither fully developed nor its articulators numerous, the doctrine appears in seed form early in Christian history (for example, in Irenaeus from the second century and his “recapitulation theory”).
The Reformation and the century that followed saw a broad consensus emerge among early and later Reformers affirming the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, either implicitly by the incorporation of its key elements into their theologies or by explicit affirmation.
Of special concern to the author is the Westminster Assembly (1643–1649). Critical to the author’s argument was the Assembly’s parliamentary mandate to revise the Church of England’s Thirty-nine Articles, and specifically article eleven on justification. Among the Assembly’s revisions to the Thirty-nine Articles, which the Assembly made but was never adopted by Parliament, was the addition of the word whole as a modifier of obedience:
We are justified, that is, we are accounted righteous before God, and have remission of sins, not for nor by our own works or deservings, but freely by his grace, only for our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’s sake, his whole obedience and satisfaction being by God being imputed unto us …
The entire Assembly understood whole obedience as “a shorthanded way of affirming active obedience” (53). Opponents to the revision were few but vocal. Among their concerns was that antinomians would twist the doctrine to support their position.
In the end, support for the revision exceeded 90 percent of the Assembly (63). Although the term whole obedience does not appear in the Westminster Standards, the author contends that there is no evidence that the Assembly later repudiated active obedience. By careful exposition of the Standards, he demonstrates that their teaching on justification is fully aligned with the doctrine of active obedience.
The author explores objections to active obedience by Johannes Piscator soon after the Reformation, from the doctrine’s comparatively few opponents within the Assembly, and from contemporary proponents of the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision.
Of special interest to today’s presbyters is the author’s reminder that in constitutional interpretation, not only is original intent to be considered (what did the Westminster Assembly affirm) but also the intent of the church judicatories who impose the standards upon its office-bearers (what do they understand the Westminster Standards to affirm). The church courts both of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America have affirmed that the doctrine of Christ’s active obedience is grounded in the Scriptures and confessed in the church’s standards.
I am grateful for this book. Only those pastors and elders who know and affirm this doctrine will be able to offer the full comfort of the gospel to their flocks. The dying words of J. Gresham Machen must be ours: “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”
Charles Malcolm Wingard is associate professor of pastoral theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Yazoo City, Mississippi (PCA). Ordained Servant Online, October 2020.