The Westminster Standards are where Reformed Theology finally resolves into a clearer understanding of Covenant Theology. That the Scriptures actually contain a bi-covenantal structure or division, with a distinction being made between law and gospel. The Westminster Standards do more than that however. They ground us in Christ’s work appealing to both His obedience and satisfaction. This doctrine is defined as Christ’s Active and Passive obedience. Some more recent theologians have erroneously diminished Christ’s Active Obedience down to it simply qualifying Him as the “spotless lamb”. This leads to a view where Christ’s cross was about penalty paying. A turning away of God’s wrath from our sin. They sometimes speak of being reconciled to God by this, or being “fully forgiven” because of this, but they still remain in error, and are proclaiming a truncated gospel.
We need to recapture the understanding that soteriology is eschatological. That our salvation is part of God’s eternal plan which is moving towards the consummation of this present evil age, and resolving all things in the age to come. Therefore, we need to understand Christ’s work on earth associated with the theology of last things. That Christ is saving His people to bring them into the household of God to dwell with God for eternity.
So, we need to understand the covenant God made with Adam was a requirement, not only that he not transgress, but that He also work and fulfill a positive aspect to the covenant. The Westminster Standards also show us that that there is a negative and positive side to the law. For example, we can transgress the law and do wrong to our neighbor, but the standards also point us in the scriptures the flip side where we are required to promote the good of our neighbor. So, it is with what Christ came to accomplish. He came to die on the cross for our sins, but also to perfectly love God and neighbor as our representative substitute, or stand-in.
We see this in verses like John 8:29 where Christ says “I always do what pleases the Father”. This doing what is pleasing to the Father is a fulfillment of what Adam should have done in the Covenant of Works he was under.
The law given to Israel is a codification of what it takes to live a life pleasing to God the Father. It is summarized in saying that we must perfectly love God with all our heart and mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus living out the positive aspect of the law perfectly is what is called His Active Obedience. Jesus fulfilled a positive righteousness, and it was this aspect of His saving work (in addition to his penalty paying) that brings us into a state of Justification before God. This is the basis of our adoption into the household of God, eternal life, an eternal inheritance, and the everlasting blessings of God. Christ’s paying for our sin makes us innocent but not righteous, but his positive fulfillment of all righteousness under the law makes us righteous. Both His passive and active obedience are required to justify us. When it is said that we are justified by faith alone (faith as the alone instrument) , this is what is meant: That Christ paid the penalty, and Christ fulfilled the probation. That is the good news that a right understanding of our confession will bring us to embrace and proclaim.
Yet, where is any explanation of anything like this in the churches in America? Listen to them, sermon after sermon, far too many churches (even Reformed ones) are apparently busy exegeting random biblical texts, and focused on other biblical doctrines, or perhaps either being all woke, or being all conservative to make sure and keep the wokeness at bay that there is no room to ground the body in a gospel that includes any kind of understanding of what Christ’s Active Obedience accomplished.
Historically this good news has been proclaimed as Imputed Righteousness, but a good amount of those proclamations today are from people like John Piper, or Doug Wilson, or others who have abstracted and divorced the imputation of Christ’s righteousness from the idea that His work had fulfilled and completed the probationary requirements that merit and secured title to heaven and eternal life for all those united to Him. In more strict Reformed confessional circles there has been confusion about and a denial of a works principle fulfilled in the Mosaic covenant has contributed to that. For some reason in answer to Dispensationalism the Mosaic covenant became know as strictly gracious, and any works principle in it that could merit anything, even by a perfectly righteous man was denied.
The end result is that they slip this works principle back into the Christians life, either doctrinally or functionally. To create a sort of climb the ladder up to God mentality in a Christian, you don’t have to actively teach that a Christian is to do that. You just have to not teach truth. You just have not teach and proclaim Christ’s work as completing that works-based-righteousness requirement, and the Christian’s life lived as strictly a consequence of our being a new creation in Christ, and is in no way a ladder climbing up to God. When Reformed pastors and theologians fail to teach the complete good news that the confession points us to, then they lead us to a very natural theology where approval is assumed to be based on what we do and don’t do.
We need a modern Reformation, and it needs to start by a proper understanding of the covenant theology found in the Westminster Standards. One that includes a Covenant of Works fulfilled by Christ in the Law codified in the Mosaic Covenant. We need to focus back on what Christ’s accomplished for us, because in the end that is our only hope. That is the hope that is at the center of the Christian life. J. Gresham Machen pointed us in the right direction when he proclaimed at the end of his life “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”