The Denial of the Imputation of Christ’s Active Obedience: Piscator on Justification

This post (I deem) is a bombshell dropped on the playground of Reformed theologians. It is a paper intended to shift the entire debate about Shepherdism away from the (still important) point of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, and toward the place of works in the ordo salutis. It is also intended to prove that Shepherdism is out of accord with the Westminster Standards. This paper was written by TE Rev. Wes White.


The recent controversy over the so-called Federal Vision and the views of Rev. Norman Shepherd has focused our attention on many issues, including the denial of the active obedience of Christ. On the one side, Norman Shepherd claims that the classic Reformed theologians such as Calvin and Ursinus did not hold to the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.1 On the other side, Shepherd’s opponents have countered that Calvin and Ursinus did hold to the active obedience and that the denial of the active obedience of Christ must be soundly condemned, pointing particularly to the French synods of Privatensian (1612) and Tonneinsian (1614).2 What are we to make of this issue? Should a denial of the active obedience of Christ be tolerated in the Reformed Church? Was it tolerated historically? If Shepherd or the proponents of the so-called federal vision do deny it, should they be driven from the ministry?

Historical Orientation

To begin with, even though this denial was condemned by the French Reformed Churches (though this view was later tolerated even there), a great part of the Reformed Churches did not reject as ministers those who denied active obedience, let alone count them as heretics. For example, clearly Gataker, Twisse, and Vines denied the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, but they and their views were tolerated by the Westminster Assembly. Second, there were various ministers throughout the Reformed Churches who held this viewpoint, such as John Jacob Alting who taught at Groningen in the Netherlands.3 Third, the theologians of Saumur also denied the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Of course, the Swiss Reformed Churches condemned this viewpoint and other Salmurian views in the Formula Consensus Helvetica, but other Churches did not. Fourth, this denial was extremely common amongst the German Reformed Churches including theologians such as Piscator, Ursinus, Pareus, Crocius, Marinius, Wendelin, and Scultetus (among others!). Consequently, we can see that a significant minority did deny the imputation of the active obedience of Christ often with toleration.

Some have particularly objected to the view that Ursinus denied the active obedience of Christ because his views have implications for the Heidelberg Catechism, which the continental Reformed Churches hold as a secondary authority. We believe that Shepherd is probably right (though we do not believe that he himself has offered convincing evidence of this) that Ursinus did deny the active obedience of Christ. There are three prominent authorities that say that he did. First, Heinrich Heppe, the great historian of German Reformed history, claims this in his Reformed Dogmatics.4 Second, Johann Gerhard, the great Lutheran scholastic, placed him alongside Piscator as one who denied the active obedience of Christ. He simply lists him along with several other German Reformed theologians.5 The great theologian of the 18th century, Bernhardin de Moor in his Commentarius Perpetuus, dealt at length with this issue, citing rare (to us!) sources shedding light on this issue. De Moor was an ardent opponent of this view, but he admitted that Ursinus held to it. De Moor cited John Jacob Schultens who demonstrated at length that Ursinus held to this position;6 however, Schultens also added that Ursinus did not hold to this position before 1566. Ursinus wrote the Heidelberg Catechism in 1562/3.7 This seems likely from the fact the Heidelberg says that three things were imputed to us: his satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness.8 This follows Beza’s viewpoint, and Ursinus had studied in Switzerland in 1558 under Calvin and in 1660-1 in Zürich. What happened after 1566? Ursinus was in Germany and probably came under the influence of Piscator.9 His denial of the active obedience is further confirmed from the fact that Ursinus’ great pupil, David Pareus, also denied the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. So, we agree that Ursinus held to the imputation of the passive obedience only, but we deny that this is found in the Heidelberg, as Shepherd suggests.

Shepherd’s implicit claim that Calvin held to this opinion is dubious at best and for the same reasons listed above. Whether it is Heppe, De Moor, or Gerhard, none of them speak of Calvin as holding to this position, even though Heppe and Gerhard had no reason to refrain from mentioning it, had such been the case. Moreover, this is true of other works as well. When this issue is brought up, writers refer to Piscator, not Calvin, following the Lutheran George Cargius. Finally, Turretin provided quotations demonstrating that Calvin held to the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.10

In order to understand this better, we would like to look briefly at Piscator’s view. He is the patriarch of this view among the Reformed, and he sets forth his views in his A Learned and Profitable Treatise on Man’s Justification.11 It is a polemical work against the famous Papist apologist, Robert Bellarmine.

Piscator’s View

First, in the matter of the justification of a sinner, Piscator says “Man by himself and his own nature unjust is accounted for just.”12 Piscator emphasizes that man is accounted just or righteous not because of anything in man, even faith. “For to speak properly, that which is in a man, is not said to be imputed to him, but that which is without a man. And faith is in a man, but Christ’s satisfaction which faith apprehends is outside a man.”13 Furthermore, even the works that we do by faith and grace are not the ground of our justification, as Piscator says that Paul excludes all of our works from justification “whether they be done by the strength of free will or by grace.”14 Consequently, Piscator could readily agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith XI.1 that says that God does not justify sinners “for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness.”

What, then, is the source of man’s righteousness? It is Christ’s satisfaction imputed to the believer. “[God] accepts Christ’s satisfaction for the elect…imputes the same unto them; and thereupon receives them into favor, and adopts them for sons and heirs of eternal life.”15 Many objected to Piscator’s view that to have forgiveness of sins is not the same as being accounted righteous. If Christ’s active obedience is not accounted as our righteousness, then how can Christ be our righteousness? Piscator responds that when sins are forgiven, someone is counted not only as not having done any sins but also as having done all things required. In other words, as he says, “The reason of which thing is this, that remission of sins, wherein man’s justification consists is remission of all sins: and therefore not only of sins of committing, but also of sins of omitting.”16 Thus, Christ is our righteousness “by a metonymy of the effect,” that is, once Christ’s satisfaction is imputed to us, we are counted as being righteous, even though we ourselves remain inherently unrighteous. Piscator would not agree that if only Christ’s passive obedience is imputed to us, then we ourselves must supply positive righteousness. Rather, once Christ’s satisfaction is imputed to us, we are in a state of having done everything required because our sins of omission are forgiven. Thus, for Piscator, the source of our righteousness in justification is only Christ’s satisfaction imputed to us.

This becomes even clearer when we examine Piscator’s view of faith. Faith is simply the instrument by which a sinner applies to himself Christ’s righteousness. He writes:

And therefore that man is justified by faith only because he is counted just, and by consequence pronounced just, for Christ’s satisfaction only which is imputed to him by faith only: for that He does not apprehend and apply it to himself but by faith.17

He emphasizes that even faith itself is excluded as a part of our righteousness before God.18 Moreover, “There is no other instrumental cause whereby Christ’s satisfaction is apprehended.”19 Piscator clearly teaches that faith is the alone instrument of justification and insists upon it over and over again throughout this work. This is, of course, one of the central disputes between Bellarmine and himself.

The consequence is that all of our works are excluded from our justification. While Christ’s satisfaction imputed to us is the sole source of our righteousness, we are by nature unrighteous. Further, even the righteous acts that we do after grace and faith are excluded from our justification, which, according to Piscator, continues to rest solely in the satisfaction of Christ imputed to us. He argues against Bellarmine that all of our works are excluded from our justification before God. He argues from the fact that Paul “speaks of works in general, whether they be done by the strength of free will or by grace, [because] he entreats [in Romans 4] of Abraham’s works, those which he had done of grace and faith, as that he was obedient to God’s commandment.”20 Piscator holds strongly to the sola in sola fidei. He does not say that we are forgiven of our sins and then become righteous people who are justified. Even those works that flow out of faith are clearly excluded from our justification. Even our final justification at the judgment day will simply be a repetition of the same justification that occurred in time in our consciences by the Holy Spirit, as Piscator says,

And in that day of judgment, Christ being appointed of the Father Judge of all, will with His mouth openly before all angels and men, pronounce just, and crown with life eternal the reward of justice, all those that before were justified in this life, both by imputation of justice, and by that secret testimony of the Holy Ghost.21

The same pronunciation that gave us comfort in this life that we have a righteous standing before God will then be pronounced openly by the Lord Jesus Christ: “You are righteous on the basis of My satisfaction imputed to you.”

Finally, what are the results of this justification? For Piscator, we are not only forgiven of our sins, but when we receive Christ, we also have a right to eternal life, for when someone is justified, God “receives them into favor, and adopts them for sons and heirs of eternal life.”22 The reason why this can occur, according to Pisactor, is because God has said, “Do this, and you will live” (Lev. 18:5, Mt. 19:17, Gal. 3:12).23 Once our sins are forgiven, “it comes [about] that he to whom God forgives sins, is so accounted, as if he had not only committed nothing which God has forbidden in his law, but also omitted nothing of that which he has commanded: and therefore, as if he had perfectly fulfilled the law of God.”24 Consequently, Piscator goes on to say, “God gives eternal life as a reward to those unto whom He has promised it, to wit, unto those that keep His law, such as He accounts all those whose sins He has forgiven.”25

In Piscator’s view, we are not righteous because God sees us as having done all that Christ did. Rather, we are considered righteous because our sins of commission and omission are forgiven on the basis of Christ’s satisfaction. Thus, we are still dealing with a view that causes men to look wholly outside of themselves and to Christ for their righteousness. We agree with the conclusion of De Moor who said, “However much these learned men may be deceived on this point, it must be confessed that they place our right to eternal life in Christ alone without any of our works.”26

Norman Shepherd and Piscator

Does this mean that Shepherd’s viewpoint should be tolerated in Reformed Churches? We should not draw this conclusion because Shepherd’s viewpoint deviates radically not only from the majority position but also from Piscator’s. We shall illustrate this from a few comparisons.

First, they have a very different exegesis of the key passages on justification. Romans 4:5 says that for the one who believes his faith is credited as righteousness, following Gen. 15:6. Piscator interprets this as teaching “that man is justified by faith inasmuch as he lays hold on, and applies to himself Christ’s satisfaction.”27 On the contrary, Norman Shepherd does not believe that these and other texts refer to the justification of a sinner alone. Norman Shepherd believes that this text refers to the way that any creature would be justified by God. Thus, Shepherd says that Jesus Christ’s “faith was credited to him as righteousness.”28 When Shepherd writes of Adam he says, “The method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall: ‘The righteous will live by faith’ (Rom. 1:17).”29 Piscator would say that these texts refer only to the justification of a sinner. Shepherd says that they refer to the only justification possible whether for sinners or Christ or Adam before the fall.

There is also a difference in the texts that refer to the law. Piscator takes the “Do this and live” passages as referring to the perfect obedience to which God promises eternal life. Piscator says that when God forgives our sins on the basis of Christ’s satisfaction, this includes our sins of omission and so we are reckoned as having obeyed the law perfectly. Shepherd says that this statement in Leviticus was meant not to show that perfect obedience was necessary for eternal life but rather that it “was designed to nurture the righteousness of faith,” which means, for Shepherd, that “Israel’s welfare depended upon her faithfulness to the Lord.”30 According to Shepherd, if this verse is taken out of context, it might mean that there is salvation by works. However, rightly understood, this passage teaches that salvation is by faith and grace. In other words, Shepherd is saying that in their proper context, “Do this and live,” means the same thing as “The just shall live by faith.” This is something with which Piscator would have certainly disagreed.

We also see the difference between Piscator and Shepherd in their exegesis of James 2.31 Shepherd describes the attempts to say that James and Paul are speaking of justification in different senses are “various exegetical and dogmatic devices of dubious validity…used to defuse and tame these texts so that they…fit.”32 On the other hand, Piscator concurs with the classic Protestant exegetical tradition in affirming that Paul and James are speaking of faith and justification in different senses. He comments on James 2:

But it is to be diligently noted before all things that the question of this place is not over how a man is justified, which Paul treats in Romans and Galatians. Rather, after it is established that a man is justified by faith alone, he inquires what sort of faith it is or with what sort of faith man is justified.33

Piscator emphatically distinguishes the questions treated in James and Romans. Shepherd says they are the same.

The second difference is in their definition of justification. First, for Piscator, the righteousness of faith is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, that is, His satisfaction credited to our account by faith. For Shepherd, the righteousness of faith is the result of obedience to the law. “The righteousness of those who obey the law is not the righteousness of meritorious achievement, but the righteousness of faith.”34 For Shepherd, faith itself is the righteousness by which we are justified, and this is why he can say that Jesus’ “faith was credited to Him as righteousness.” On the contrary, Piscator says that faith is credited as righteousness because of what is connected to faith, namely, Christ. He then goes on to say, “For to speak properly, that which is in a man is not said to be imputed to him, but that which is without a man. And faith is in a man, but Christ’s satisfaction which faith apprehends is without a man.”35 Thus, the difference between Piscator and Shepherd is that Piscator says that Christ’s satisfaction is our righteousness before God, whereas Shepherd says that faith itself is our righteousness before God.

It hardly needs to be said here that Piscator and Shepherd disagree on the instrumentality of faith. Piscator believes that faith is an instrument taking hold of the righteousness of another. Shepherd does not. Shepherd believes that faith itself is our righteousness. He says that for pre-fall Adam and for us, the method of justification is the same, “The just shall live by faith.”36 Since faith in pre-fall Adam cannot be understood as an instrument, the faith that justifies sinners cannot be understood as an instrument either. For Shepherd, faith is our righteousness, not an instrument taking hold of the righteousness of another. For Piscator, faith is not our righteousness before God.

Finally, they differ significantly on what works are excluded from our justification. Shepherd rightly says, “We have to ask what are the works of the law that Paul sets over against this faith and excludes from justification.”37 But Shepherd wrongly answers, “By works of the law Paul means obedience to a limited selection of laws found in the Scripture.”38 In contrast, Piscator says, “He speaks of works in general, whether they be done by the strength of free will or by grace.”39 Shepherd says, “These works of the law were not good works; they were not the obedience of faith wrought by the power of God (emphasis mine).”40 Piscator says otherwise, “He entreats there of Abraham’s works, those which he had done of grace and faith,” and “Moreover, it is false that the Apostle understands those works only which are done according to God’s law by the strength of free will.”41 Here is the major difference. Piscator excludes all of our works from our justification, and Shepherd only excludes some. In other words, Piscator says we are justified by faith alone, and Shepherd says that we are justified by faith and works.


There were certainly theologians amongst the Reformed who denied the active obedience of Christ, and they were tolerated in many places. The reason for this is, as De Moor says, “However much these learned men may be deceived on this point, it must be confessed that they place our right to eternal life in Christ alone without any of our works.”42 But neither De Moor nor we can say the same about Shepherd. Shepherd views the righteousness of a sinner as his own righteousness by the help of Jesus Christ. Piscator says that we have everything for justification in Christ. Piscator’s view still points people to Christ alone. Shepherd points people to Christ and then back to themselves. This is a radical difference. Perhaps we can tolerate Piscator’s views, but we cannot tolerate Shepherd’s or any other view that mingles faith and works in our justification.

1. See Norman Shepherd, “Justification by Works in Reformed Theology” in Backbone of the Bible, ed. by Andrew Sandlin (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2004), pp. 103-120.

2. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 2, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), XIV.xiii.33.

3. Bernhardinus De Moor, Commentarius perpetuus in Joh. Marckii compendium theologiae christianae didactico-elencticum, vol. 3 (Ludgdunum Batavia, 1765), p. 968.

4. Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, trans. G.T. Thomson, rev. & ed. Ernst Bizer (London: Wakeman Great Reprints), p. 460.

5. See Johann Gerhard, Loci Theologici, Vol. 3 (Berlin: Gust. Schlawitz), XVI.57.

6. De Moor, Commentarius, p. 969. The work is called Omstandigen Brief aan den hr. Nic. Holtius over de zaak van A.v.d. Os, pp. 117-360.

7. Ibid. De Moor refers his reader to pp. 158 and 213-219.

8. Note in Heidelberg.

9. Q/A 60.

10. Turretin, Institutes, XIV.xiii.32.

11. London, 1599.

12. Ibid., p. 5.

13. Ibid., p. 30.

14. Ibid., p. 32.

15. Ibid., pp. 5-6.

16. Ibid. p. 106.

17. Ibid. p. 5.

18. See fn. 3 above.

19. Ibid., p. 91.

20. Ibid., p. 32.

21. Ibid., p. 4.

22. Ibid., p. 6.

23. He says this on p. 107.

24. Ibid., p. 106.

25. Ibid., p. 108.

26. De Moor, Commentarius Perpetuus, p. 968.

27. Piscator, p. 29.

28. Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2000), p. 19. “All of this is made possible through the covenantal righteousness of Jesus Christ. His was a living, active, and obedient faith that took him all the way to the cross. This faith was credited to him as righteousness.”

29. Norman Shepherd, “Law and Gospel in Covenantal Perspective,” Reformation and Revival Journal 14/1 (2005): 76.

30. Shepherd, The Call of Grace, p. 33.

31. Norman Shepherd, “The Grace of Justification.”

32. Shepherd, The Call of Grace, p. 62.

33. John Piscator, Analysis logica Septarum Epistolarum Apostolurm que Catholicae appellari solent (London: John Wolf, 1593), p. 15.

34. Norman Shepherd, “Justification by Faith in Pauline Theology” in Backbone of the Bible, p. 94.

35. Piscator, On Justification, pp. 29-30.

36. Shepherd, “Law and Gospel in Covenant Perspective,” p. 76.

37. Shepherd, “Justification by Faith in Pauline Theology,” p. 95.

38. Ibid., p. 97.

39. Piscator, p. 32.

40. Shepherd, Ibid., p. 99.

41. Piscator, p. 34.

42. De Moor, Commentarius, p. 968.