Review of “Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness” by Brian Vickers

Brian Vickers. Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Imputation. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006. 254pp. $14.99.

Anyone who has been paying attention to Evangelical theology in North America knows that the doctrine of Justification has become quite a hot topic. Not only has the “New Perspective” on Paul offered a challenge to the traditional Protestant formulation (e.g. James Dunn, N. T. Wright), but so have some dissenting voices from within the conservative sector of the evangelical fold (e.g. Robert Gundry).

In 1999, when Christianity Today published “The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration,” Robert Gundry responded by saying, “the doctrine that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believing sinners needs to be abandoned” and “that doctrine of imputation is not even biblical” (source). The opinion that Gundry expresses has become somewhat of a standard view among scholars of the New Testament, and this departure has caused no little controversy among evangelicals who continue to regard the doctrine of imputation as a crucial biblical teaching (see the exchange between Gundry and Thomas Oden in Books & Culture as well as the essays by Gundry and Carson in Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates?).

Brian Vickers enters this fray with Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Imputation. Vickers is a New Testament scholar by training, but he goes against the tide of his guild by defending the traditional Protestant formulation of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, though he does so in a way that interprets key Pauline texts in a non-traditional way.

After a brief introduction, chapter one introduces the reader to the history of interpretation of the key texts—a history that begins with Martin Luther and traces through the modern day. Chapters two through four consist of Vickers’ exegesis of three Pauline texts that have had a central place in discussions of imputation: Romans 4, Romans 5:19, and 2 Corinthians 5:21. In each of these texts, Vickers contends that there is a subject, an action, and a result.

Subject Action Result
Romans 4:3 Abraham Faith Reckoned Righteousness
Romans 5:19 Christ Obedience Made Righteous
2 Corinthians 5:21 God Made Christ Sin Became Righteousness

.

Though the subjects and actions are different, all of these texts result in righteousness to the sinner. Chapter five synthesizes the Pauline teaching with respect to imputation and answers objections to the tradition formulation of the doctrine. Chapter six concludes with a summary of the book’s arguments and a recapitulation of the book’s thesis that Paul teaches Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer.

I noted above that Vickers argues for imputation in a “non-traditional” way. What I mean by that is that he comes to his conclusions through an exegesis that is decidedly non-traditional. Vickers writes, “No single text contains or develops all the ‘ingredients’ of imputation . . . Taken alone, not one of the ‘key’ texts that have played such an integral role in the historical discussion [of imputation] argues decisively, or explicitly, for a full-orbed doctrine of imputation” (pp. 18, 235). For Vickers, not even Romans 4 (in which logizomai figures so prominently) teaches the full-blown doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

Thus, even though traditionalists may like Vickers’ theological conclusion affirming imputation, they may chafe at some of his readings of particular texts. But Vickers’ approach to these Pauline texts should not diminish the fact that his argument taken as a whole comprises a thoroughgoing defense of the traditional view. Vickers is showing that even though Christ’s righteousness is never explicitly named as that which is imputed (as Gundry charges), the doctrine is the necessary correlation of a synthesis of Paul’s teaching.

Traditionalists will continue to debate Vickers’ description of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience. In traditional formulations, Christ’s active obedience refers to the life of obedience to God’s law that Christ rendered in His incarnation. Such obedience to God’s law is the obligation of every person, but no person ever achieves it. Vickers thinks that Paul does not necessarily have this total obedience to the law in mind when speaking of Christ’s obedience in Romans 5:19. Rather, Paul has in mind Christ’s obedience to the point of death on the cross. This obedience cannot be neatly separated from Christ’s total obedience to God’s law, but this singular act of obedience on the cross is nevertheless the focus in Paul. Thus Vickers suggests a redefinition of Christ’s active obedience (pp. 196, 198, 226-28) that may not fulfill the so-called “covenant of works” (which is a central feature in covenant theology).

Vickers has done a masterful job in Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness. Not only is it an indispensible introduction to the issues at stake in the current debate, it also offers a compelling interpretation of Paul that affirms the traditional formulation of imputation. There are very few books like this one, and anyone who is concerned about having a biblical theology should give this volume careful consideration.

20 Responses to Review of “Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness” by Brian Vickers

  1. Alex Chediak January 24, 2007 at 1:06 am #

    I’ve started reading it yet, but have not finished it. Thanks for a great review.

  2. Garrett January 24, 2007 at 7:56 am #

    Denny,

    I would be interested in hearing your opinion of Vickers’ understanding of the imputation of Christ’s “active obedience”; could you give a brief critique?

    gh

  3. Jason January 24, 2007 at 8:02 am #

    I thought Brian Vickers was a race car driver.

    http://www.nascar.com/drivers/dps/bvickers00/cup/index.html

  4. Dan January 24, 2007 at 9:15 am #

    I also enjoyed Vicker’s book. I think his formulation of imputation would be hard to deny by anyone because of his “redefinition of Christ’s active obedience”. In fact, I can’t see any substantial difference between Vicker’s and guys like Gundry’s/Wright’s positions on justification, except for the fact that the former claims to hold and uses the term “imputation”. I wonder if Vicker’s book will get him in serious trouble with the traditional people or if the book will be used as a bridge to see that maybe Gundry’s/Wright’s position on justification are not outside the bounds .

    Blessings,

    Dan

  5. Dan January 24, 2007 at 9:39 am #

    Garnett,

    I don’t have my book with me, and I read it like 2 months ago. The impression I get from Vicker is that he believes the substances of our “righteousness” is based on the forgiveness achieved at the cross, and not the traditional idea of both forgiveness (passive obedience) and Christ’s merit (active obedience). If I also remember correctly, Vicker locates Christ’s obedience in parallel with Adam’s disobedience, and not the idea that Christ’s fulfilled some kind of law that all of humanity needed to fulfill. But think Denny can verify this better than I can now.

    Blessings,

    Dan

  6. Brian Vickers January 24, 2007 at 11:50 am #

    Maybe this will help:

    All I really say is that “active” and “passive” obedience can’t be neatly separated as if there could be an act of obedience defined only as “active” and obedience that could be defined only as “passive.” I do say however, in a footnote somewhere, that there is a place for making a distinction theologically. So, I don’t really think this counts as a redefinition. Christ did obey the Father as the second Adam, and of course that obedience was “active.” I also raise a question about NTW’s understanding of Christ as the new Israel because NTW doesn’t include Torah-obedience as part of fulfilling that role. I think that both Wright and Gundry would see a difference between my position and those for which they argue.

    Blessings,

    Brian Vickers

  7. Garrett January 24, 2007 at 1:26 pm #

    Brian,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to answer! I would certainly agree with what you said, and I’m reminded of several other writers (Piper, Murray and Hodge immediately come to mind) who are/were also less than ecstatic about the traditional usage of the “active” and “passive” terminology.

    That being said, I was wondering if you could clarify then your understanding of the “imputation of righteousness” in justification. Do you hold to an imputation of “positive righteousness” (for lack of a better term) to the believer, or does the sum-total of the believer’s justification consist just in a perfect forgiveness of sins?

    I hope that is clear enough, and if you want to just answer by telling me to read the book then I will completely understand =)

    Thanks for your time,

    gh

  8. Kris Weinschenker January 24, 2007 at 3:25 pm #

    Robert Gundry responded by saying, “the doctrine that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believing sinners needs to be abandoned”

    Then Robert Gundry is an idiot.

  9. dan January 24, 2007 at 6:18 pm #

    Dr. Vickers,

    Thanks for your responses. I am well aware their are differences between your and Wright’s view of justification, but i personally do not think they are substantial.

    I think both of you agree that it’s because of the work of Christ that ungodly christians are justified.

    I think your book is great because, you articulate an understanding of imputation that does sound like “Jesus’ role was to amassing a treasury of merit through Torah obediences”. I think it’s this idea that Wright rejects and I think he would be happy to say that Christ’s obedience (as the true servant of Israel) achieved our justification. I think you both rightly emphasize that Christ succeed where both Adam and Israel failed.

    Blessings,

    Dan

  10. dan January 24, 2007 at 6:20 pm #

    sorry…i meant to say “does not sound like”

  11. Scot McKnight January 24, 2007 at 7:44 pm #

    Denny,
    I like Vickers’ book. If we are purely exegetical on the word “logizomai” Gundry is right; Carson admits as much.

    Wright doesn’t spell some things out I’d like to see him spell out.

    But this one thing is sure, and I don’t know how it is not at minimum imputational: if 1 Cor 1 tells us that Christ is our “righteousness,” how can we not think that everything we have is in Christ (and due to his merits)?

    Some of the Reformed theology folks have tried to spell this out a little too neatly and clearly; they just might be right. (Mark that down, Denny, cuz I don’t say that very often.) But (and I say this more often) they might be saying more than what the Bible says.

    Having said that, I think Vickers by and large gets it right: our righteousness is Christ’s. Call it what you want; I call it imputation.

  12. dennyrburk January 25, 2007 at 12:43 am #

    Scot,

    “Reformed theology folks . . . just might be right.” Is that really you, Scot? I think Ligon Duncan just hijacked your computer!

    Seriously, I think you are right. You can’t read the full-blown doctrine into the single word LOGIZOMAI, though imputation is an implication of the totality of Pauline teaching on righteousness (especially in Romans 5, as Vickers argues).

    Thanks,
    Denny

  13. Mike Bird January 25, 2007 at 2:40 am #

    Denny,
    At the risk of shameless self-promotion. My book, “The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies in Paul, Justification, and the New Perspective” will be out in the next few weeks. It covers many of these issues in a way similar way to Brian Vickers. The best part about Vickers’ book is that he shows that you can reach a theology of imputation from Paul, but all the various proof texts do not say the same thing.

    Also, Scot is right to side with Gundry on logizomai (and I would add Don Garlington, Leon Morris, and G.E. Ladd), that no single text explicitly spells out justification as Christ’s imputation righteousness. At the exegetical level we are justified by virtue of being united with Christ whereby we participate in the justification of the justified Messiah! I call this “incorporated righteousness”. I think justification is more about participating in Jesus’ vindication than his frequent flyer points being credited to us. Certainly Jesus’ active and passive obedience are involved here as the basis of his vindication which saves us.

  14. Brian Vickers January 25, 2007 at 11:38 am #

    All,

    First of all I want to express my thanks to all of you who have taken the time to comment. Let me address Garrett’s question. Yes, I do think, and I argue as much in the book, that imputation is both, “positive” and “negative” i.e., through union with Christ the believer is declared not guilty and is made to hold (not fictionally!) the status “righteous” before God. Ironically, and this is a point I make more than once, critics of imputation make a finer distinction between “active” and “passive” obedience than many, or even most, in the Reformed tradition. The point I make is not new: “active” and “passive” are two parts, or “aspects” as a friend said to me yesterday, of the same obedience. Hodge says,
    “As Christ obeyed in suffering, his sufferings were as much a part of his obedience as his observance of the precepts of the law. The Scriptures do not expressly make this distinction (active and passive), as they include everything that Christ did for our redemption under the term righteousness or obedience. The distinction becomes important only when it is denied that his moral obedience is any part of the righteousness for which the believer is justified, or that his whole work in making satisfaction consisted in expiation or bearing the penalty of the law.”
    My aim in the book is not to defend Hodge, but to show simply that there is no driving a wedge between “active” and “passive” obedience. I think a good example is found in John when Jesus says “I have come down from heaven not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (6:38), and “No one takes it (my life) away from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (10:18). Here Jesus speaks of the cross in terms that we could describe as both “active” and “passive.”
    Finally (sigh of relief), I stress over and over that Christ, as the second, and true, Adam, obeyed the Father-not only to secure our forgiveness but to attain for us a positive (not neutral) status. He did what the true Adam is meant to be doing. This obedience (“I always do what pleases my Father”) is not just rendered at the cross, but of course there is no separating Jesus’ life of obedience with his death on the cross. For us, this is where union with Christ is so vital to the discussion. My quote of Jeremiah (and Luther) at the end of the book sum it up. But you can read all about my view of that in the book.
    I hope all of you will check out Mike’s book. I had the opportunity to meet and get to know Mike last Fall, and I’m really looking forward to reading the book. Thanks for the added comment, Dan. And Scot, I hope we have the chance to meet sometime.
    I would like to add that as those who believe we are saved by faith, by grace, and through Christ alone, let’s continue to carry on the discussion (and all discussions) as those who speak knowing that all we have we have received as a gift. Let’s pursue Christ-likeness in our speech.
    Blessings,
    Brian

  15. rafe January 25, 2007 at 12:12 pm #

    The exaggerated emphasis placed upon imputation by many “reformed” circles is not in line with Scripture. The emphasis, and I believe I can bear this out biblically, should be on union with Christ. Quite frankly, the metaphor has been stretched beyond its place.

  16. Garrett January 25, 2007 at 1:17 pm #

    Brian,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to make such a lengthy response. I look forward to reading your book in the near future. Praise the Lord for raising up men who continue to defend these foundational truths!

    rafe,

    I sympathize with what you are saying, and it is good to be reminded of the integral place that the “in Christ” relationship sustains to the Christian’s salvation (including justification). I was reminded of this quote from Calvin, which was quoted (with approval) by John Piper in his book Counted Righteous in Christ:

    Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our
    heart—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves
    from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on
    Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with
    him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.

    John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles(Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960), 3:11:10.

    gh

  17. rafe January 25, 2007 at 1:33 pm #

    Garrett, I appreciate the quote. I think it needs to be broadcasted among the reformed community.

  18. jeff miller January 25, 2007 at 11:34 pm #

    I have not read Brian Vicker’s book but I do wonder if it could have been titled: “Jesus’ Blood and Legitimateness” and still be fitting to the subject matter.

    translating the single word group “dikaios” with the single word group of “legitimate” may help english readers interpret/grasp what new testament witnesses had in mind with what we have alternately called “righteousness” and “justification.”

    I mention this because in the comments above the concept of “status” seemed to be of some importance and “legitimate” more effectively communicates “status” I think. Consider a representative dictionary entry:

    *le·git·i·mate adj.

    Being in compliance with the law; lawful: a legitimate business.

    Being in accordance with established or accepted patterns and standards: legitimate advertising practices.

    Based on logical reasoning; reasonable: a legitimate solution to the problem.

    Authentic; genuine: a legitimate complaint.

    Born of legally married parents: legitimate issue.

    Of, relating to, or ruling by hereditary right: a legitimate monarch.

    tr.v. le·git·i·mat·ed, le·git·i·mat·ing, le·git·i·mates (-mt)

    To make legitimate, as: a. To give legal force or status to; make lawful. b. To establish (a child born out of wedlock) as legitimate by legal means. c. To sanction formally or officially; authorize. d. To demonstrate or declare to be justified.

    le·giti·mate·ly adv.
    le·giti·mate·ness n.
    le·giti·mation n.
    le·giti·mator [ -mtr ] n. *

    I found this to be helpful as I studied Luke and Acts with some friends and I have presented this suggestion to a handful of scholars, some of whom recieved it warmly.

    To see a full listing of the passages in Luke-Acts with “dikaios” translated as “legitimate,” see the end of my note linked here:
    http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=dcjvgcp2_6dcb9vp

    The legitimacy of God is evident. Jesus is the legitimate One. We are legitimate in Christ.

    But is this a legitimate tranalation of “dikaios?”

    Denny, thanks for the great post.

    Jeff

  19. Mason Beecroft January 26, 2007 at 1:06 am #

    Thank goodness Christ takes on our sin and give us his righteousness! What are these NT people thinking? They need to read some Father Martin! Denny, hope all is well with you- your friendly LCMS DTS connection,
    Mason

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