The Pernicious Doctrine of the Dispensational Premillenarian

The Dangers of

The Danger of Teaching the Erroneous Doctrine of “Vicarious Law-Keeping”



Vicarious Law-Keeping


“For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners,
so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous”
(Romans 5:19).

The contrast in this verse is between Adam’s one act of disobedience which plunged the entire race into sin and Christ’s one act of obedience which provided salvation for all.

Romans 5:19 is often misinterpreted by Reformed men who say that the obedience of Christ mentioned in this verse refers to His obedience throughout His life in keeping the law perfectly.  And while the Lord Jesus Christ did keep every jot and tittle of the law perfectly, the obedience spoken of in Romans 5:19 is the same obedience referred to in Philippians 2:8, namely Christ’s obedience to the Father’s will by going to the cross.  It refers to His one act of redemption which took place on Calvary’s cross.

Reformed theologians hold to a theory which is sometimes referred to as “vicarious law-keeping.”   This theory says that Christ not only died for us as our Substitute (a truth which we fully agree with), but that Christ also lived for us (during His pre-cross days) and kept God’s commandments for us as our Substitute. They teach that the debt man owed to God was paid and fully satisfied not only by Christ’s substitutionary death but also by the obedience of His life (which they call Christ’s “active righteousness”). They teach that justification is grounded not only in Christ’s death on the cross where He bore the penalty of God’s judgment against us, but it also “is grounded in Christ’s lifelong obedience in which He fulfilled the precepts of God’s law for us” [Reformation Study Bible, see note under Romans 3:24]. Concerning this “obediential righteousness of Christ,” they assert and maintain that Christ atoned by His life as well as by His death, and that this was absolutely necessary and essential in procuring our righteousness.  They say that when we get saved, God imputes to us the law-keeping righteousness of Christ.

The 1999 document entitled, The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration (signed by many leading Evangelicals including Hybels, Hayford, MacArthur, Robertson, McCartney, Swindoll, Lucado, Stott, Ankerberg, Neff, Stowell, Stanley, etc.) expressly states:

God’s justification of those who trust in him, according to the Gospel, is a decisive transition, here and now, from a state of condemnation and wrath because of their sins to one of acceptance and favor by virtue of Jesus’ flawless obedience culminating in his voluntary sin-bearing death.

It later adds:

We affirm that Christ’s saving work included both his life and his death on our behalf (Gal. 3:13). We declare that faith in the perfect obedience of Christ by which he fulfilled all the demands of the Law of God on our behalf is essential to the Gospel. We deny that our salvation was achieved merely or exclusively by the death of Christ without reference to his life of perfect righteousness.

Clearly, this statement perpetuates the erroneous idea that our justification is based upon Christ’s legal obedience in life as well as His death and resurrection.

Note: Not all Reformed men have held this view. Mitchell, who wrote a history of the Westminster Assembly (the group of Bible scholars who created the Westminster Confession of Faith), states: “The main question on which the long debates on the Article of Justification turned was whether the merit of the obedience of Christ as well as the merit of his sufferings was imputed to the believer for his justification. Several of the most distinguished members of the Assembly, including Twisse the Prolocutor, Mr. Gataker, and Mr. Vines maintained…that it was the sufferings or passive obedience only of Christ which was imputed to the believer” [Alexander F. Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly: Its History and Standards, 1992 reprint from the 1883 edition (Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books), p. 149.]

In answering this theory, we must first strongly affirm that the Lord Jesus Christ lived a perfect, sinless life and that He perfectly obeyed God’s commandments, always doing those things that pleased the Father.  He was the spotless, sinless Lamb of God. No Bible believer could deny the flawless, sinless life of our Saviour.  These facts are indisputable.  He kept the law perfectly.

However, the righteousness by which we are justified does not flow from the earthly Jesus, but it becomes ours because of the risen and glorified Son of God and our union with Him.   Please notice that Romans 4:25 does not say this:  “Who was delivered for our offenses, and who obeyed the law for our justification.”  Reformed theology, in this case, looks for righteousness on the wrong side of the cross.  We do not find our righteousness in the law or even in Christ’s keeping of the law, but we find our righteousness only in Him, the risen Christ (2 Cor. 5:21).

Our righteous standing in Christ is due to the fact that we have been united to the risen Christ, and He has become our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30).  The righteousness of God, which we receive by faith, is “without [apart from] the law” (Rom. 3:22), and has no legal basis whatsoever.  In Romans 3:24 we learn that the basis of our justification is found at Calvary:  “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”    The verse says nothing of His law-keeping as being the basis for our justification.  Likewise, Romans 5:9 declares that we are justified by His blood, not by his pre-cross obedience.  And having been justified by His blood, we are saved by His life (Rom. 5:10), even His resurrection life (Rom. 4:25).

Remember, if Christ had not been raised from the dead, we would still be in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17), in spite of Christ’s perfect pre-cross obedience.

For an excellent discussion as to why “vicarious law-keeping” is an erroneous doctrine, see the discussion of this point in William Newell’s commentary on Romans Verse By Verse (see pages 190-193, his discussion under Romans 5:19)This material is also reproduced below, along with other very helpful articles on this subject.

George Zeller

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