John Owen: The Imputation of Christ’s Active Obedience

In 1677, when John Owen (1616–1683) published his book, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith through the Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ; Explained, Confirmed, and Vindicated, the Protestant doctrine of justification was still engulfed in controversy. “In my judgment,” said the English Calvinist, “Luther spake the truth when he said, ‘When the article of justification is lost, at the same time the whole Christian doctrine is lost.’ And I wish he had not been a true prophet, when he foretold that in the following ages the doctrine hereof would be again obscured.”1 As a Reformed theologian, Oxford University Vice-Chancellor, and Congregationalist pastor, Owen defended the Protestant and confessional doctrine of justification against Arminianism, Socinianism, and Roman Catholicism. Indeed, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith was primarily a repudiation of these three positions, particularly Socinianism.



While Protestants in the seventeenth-century generally understood the formal cause of a believer’s justification to be the imputed righteousness of Christ, not all agreed on the precise definition of that imputed righteousness. At the Westminster Assembly (1643–1649), for example, the majority believed that the imputed righteousness of Christ included both Christ’s active and passive obedience. A small minority, however, affirmed the latter but denied the former. Among these were the Assembly’s first prolocutor, William Twisse (1578–1646), and the theologian Thomas Gataker (1574–1654).

While Owen was not present at the Westminster Assembly, he was nevertheless fully committed to the majority view of imputed active obedience. So committed was Owen to the imputation ofChrist’s active obedience, that the Savoy Declaration, which he played a major role constructing, modified the Westminster Confession of Faith to include words to that effect. While it essentially adopted the Westminster Confession’s language on justification, the Savoy Declaration replaced the words, “but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them” (WCF XLI) with the words, “but by imputing Christ’s active obedience to the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness.”

For Owen, the imputation of Christ’s active obedience was a necessary component of the doctrine of justification and deserved more specific wording than previously afforded by the Westminster Confession. Aware of the debates within the Reformed churches of his day, he believed that his Puritan contemporaries who had deviated from this doctrine not only departed from Scripture, but from “the ancient doctrine of the church of England.”2

This article shall pursue the question of why Owen believed the imputation of Christ’s active obedience was an essential element of the doctrine of justification, and how Owen linked it to the “covenant of redemption” or pactum salutis. This is a significant question to consider in the present day for, within Reformed and Presbyterian circles, a substantial amount of debate has erupted over the issue of imputed active obedience. On the one hand are those holding to the so-called New Perspectives on Paul and/or Federal Vision, who outright “deny that faithfulness to the gospel message requires any particular doctrinal formulation of the ‘imputation of the active obedience of Christ.’” On the other hand are those who have responded to these movements by affirming the necessity of Christ’s active obedience imputed to the believer in justification.3

In the midst of such a debate, it may be helpful to consider why Owen, one of the preeminent theologians of Reformed Orthodoxy, said what he said about imputation in justification. This essay argues that for Owen, God imputes. Christ’s active obedience to the believer in justification because of the roles of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the pactum salutis.

In order to examine this thesis, a concise observation will be made of Owen’s doctrine of the pactum salutis, Christ’s role as surety and mediator in the covenant of grace, the work of the Holy Spirit coalescing Christ and the church into one mystical person, and faith as the sole instrument in justification.

Trinitarian Salvation: Owen’s Doctrine of the Pactum Salutis

By the mid-seventeenth-century, the doctrine of the pactum salutis had become quite prevalent in Reformed Orthodoxy, both in Britain and on the continent. Owen was no exception to this trend. In his 1655 work against the Socinians, Vindiciae Evangelicae, Owen described the pactum salutis as “that compact, covenant, convention, or agreement, that was between the Father and the Son, for the accomplishment of the work of our redemption by the mediation of Christ, to the praise of the glorious grace of God.”4 He saw five major elements within this covenant: (i) The Father, as “promiser,” and the Son, as “undertaker,” voluntarily agreed together in counsel to achieve a common purpose, namely, “the glory of God and the salvation of the elect.”5 (ii) The Father prescribed conditions for this covenant, which consisted of the Son assuming human nature, fulfilling the demands of the law through his obedience, and suffering the just judgment of God for the elect in order to satisfy God’s justice on their behalf. 6 (iii) The promises of the covenant, which were two: First, the Father assisting the Son in the accomplishment of his redeeming work by continually being present with him as he underwent the afflictions and trials of his earthly life. Secondly, if the Son did what was required of him, the work itself would prosper by bringing about the deliverance and glorification of those for whom he obeyed and suffered. These promises the Father confirmed with an oath.7 (iv) The Son voluntarily accepted the conditions, and assumed the work as surety of the covenant.8 (v) The Father approved and accepted the performance of the Son, who likewise laid claim to the promises made in the covenant. 9

Owen believed the pactum salutis to be the basis and driving purpose of redemptive history. For Owen, it was a doctrine too important to state vaguely in the church’s confession. The confession he helped craft in 1658 for the Congregationalist churches, namely, the Savoy Declaration, a modification of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) to suit Congregationalist polity, included explicit language on the pactum salutis.10 Westminster Confession of Faith: VIII.l reads, “It pleased God, in His eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, His only begotten Son, to be Mediator between God and man.”VIII.1 of the Savoy Declaration, however, reads: “It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose [sic] and ordain the Lord Jesus his only [sic] begotten Son, according to a Covenant made between them both, to be the Mediator between God and Man.”

Carl Trueman points out that Owen made a significant contribution to the seventeenth-century development of this doctrine by considering the Holy Spirit’s function in the pactum salutis. This was, according to Trueman, “a point which represents a distinctly Trinitarian advance on the works of Fisher and Bulkelev who, with their exclusive attention to the Father-Son relationship were arguably vulnerable to the accusation of developing a sub-Trinitarian foundation for the economy of salvation.”11 Owen was careful to describe the distinct roles of each Person in the Godhead, showing the Trinitarian nature of salvation. With regard to the Holy Spirit, it was through him that the Virgin Mary conceived the Incarnate Christ, that the Son offered himself to the Father, and that the Son was raised from the dead. The Spirit also brings the elect into union with Christ their Savior efficaciously and keeps them secure.

Thus, the pactum salutis was for Owen an intra-Trinitarian covenant that made explicit Christ’s role as the second Adam and federal head, who, on behalf of those given to him by the Father, overcame the catastrophic consequences of the first Adam’s breaking of the covenant of works (foedus operum), and merited the benefits of redemption mediated in the covenant of grace (foedus gratiae). As with many federalist theologians of his day, Owen saw a necessary and vital connection between the covenant of redemption and the pre-fall covenant of works and post-fall covenant of grace. His view of the pactum salutis provided the foundation for his understanding of imputed active obedience, for apart from this covenant from eternity past, Christ would not have come as the surety and mediator in the covenant of grace, and the Holy Spirit would not have united the elect to Christ.

Christ’s Role as Surety and Mediator in the Covenant of Grace Owen did not begin his case in The Doctrine of Justification by Faith with an explanation of the pactum salutis. He began, rather, with a lengthy introduction stating his reasons and pastoral concerns for taking up this work, namely, “the glory of God in Christ, with the peace and furtherance of the obedience of believers.” He followed this with a full six chapters on the nature and object of justifying faith, as well as the meaning of justification itself.12

When Owen came to the seventh chapter of his study, however, he began to deal with the nature of imputation more precisely. Responding to what he called “the two grand parties by whom the doctrine of justification by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ is opposed; namely the Papists and the Socinians,” as well as the “many interlopers, who, coming in on their hand, do make bold to borrow from both as they see occasion.”13

Owen argued for an alien righteousness. Righteousness either comes from within us or from outside of us. “In the one way, the foundation of imputation is in ourselves; in the other, it is in another: which are irreconcilable.”14 Not even one’s faith can be this ground, for if God merely regards our faith as righteousness then it is ours by justice and not by grace, a salvation by works and not by faith. Thus, Owen concludes:

This imputation is an act of God ‘ex mera gratia,’—of his mere love and grace; whereby, on the consideration of the mediation of Christ, he makes an effectual grant and donation of a true, real, perfect righteousness, even that of Christ himself, unto all that do believe; and accounting it as theirs, on his own gracious act, both absolves them from sin and granteth them right and title unto eternal life. Hence,—in this imputation, the thing itself is first imputed unto us, and not any of the effects of it; but they are made ours by virtue of that imputation.15

The mediation of Christ, as the surety in the covenant of grace, provides imputed righteousness for the believer.

In chapter eight of The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, Owen explained that a surety is “one that voluntarily takes on himself the cause and condition of another, to answer, or undergo, or pay what he is liable unto, or to see it done; whereon he becomes justly and legally obnoxious [i.e. liable] unto performance.”16 Christ as surety was a necessity for our redemption due to the broken covenant of works, III which there was no surety:

In the first covenant made with Adam there was no surety, but God and men were the immediate covenanters; and although we were then in a state and condition able to perform and answer all the terms of the covenant, yet it was broken and disannulled…It was man alone who failed and broke that covenant: wherefore it was necessary, that upon the making of the new covenant…we should have a surety and undertaker for us.17

Because Adam failed to render perfect, complete, and personal obedience to God in the covenant of works, humankind did not attain the eschatological life and goal for which God created them.18 Thus… God sent Christ as “a surety and undertaker for us.” In using this language, Owen made an argument against the Arminian Grotius (1583–1645), the Socinian Schlichtingius (1592–1661), and the seventeenth-century Anglican theologian, Bishop Hammond (1605–1660), all of whom he explicitly named as asserting just the opposite, viz., that Christ was a sponsor or surety for God, rather than for us. Contrary to these claims, Owen maintained that the sponsorship and surety of Christ, as prescribed in the pactum salutis and applied in the covenant of grace, was directed to God on behalf of sinners, and not to sinners on behalf of God. For Owen, Christ’s role as surety was inseparable from his priesthood: “he is a surety as he is a priest, and in the discharge of that office; and therefore is so with God on our behalf.”18

This was important for Owen’s case against the Socinian claim that the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience in justification was impossible because Christ accomplished his work (including his death on the cross) for himself and on his own behalf. 19 Owen opposed this claim by explaining that the whole point of the Incarnation was to fulfill the conditions of the pactum salutis and obtain salvation on behalf of sinners. The “ineffable union between the human nature with the divine” is what qualified Christ to act as priest and mediator for sinful humans:

Whereas, therefore, he was neither made man nor of the posterity of Abraham for himself, but for the church—namely, to become thereby the surety of the covenant, and representative of the whole his obedience as a man unto the law in general, and as a son of Abraham unto the law of Moses, was for us, and not for himself, so designed, so performed; and, without a respect unto the church, was of no use unto himself. He was born to us, and given to us; lived for us; that “by the obedience of one many might be made righteous.” This was the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ;” and this is the faith of the catholic church. And what he did for us is imputed unto us.20

Sent as a public person on behalf of others, Christ was not actively obedient to the law for his own sake. He was actively obedient to the law ofGod for the sake of others.21

One Mystical Person: The Principal Foundation of Imputation

In chapters eight and nine of his study, Owen identified the principal foundation of imputation as the work of the Holy Spirit: “The principal foundation hereof is, that Christ and the church, in this design, were one mystical person; which state they do actually coalesce into, through the uniting efficacy of the Holy Spirit.”22 This union between Christ and his people, which the Holy Spirit creates, necessarily involves double imputation: “Hence, as what he did is imputed unto them, as if done by them; so what they deserved on the account of sin was charged upon him.”23 Owen quoted several of the early church fathers in support of his claim, including Augustine, Irenaeus, Cyprian, Athanasius, Eusebius, and Chrysostom. He did this in order to show that “such a union between Christ and believers is the faith of the catholic church, and hath been so in all ages.” Owen also referred to several passages in Scripture that he believed taught this mystical union in “divers kinds.”25

For Owen, this mystical union, which the Holy Spirit creates, is rooted in the pactum salutis:

The first spring or cause of this union, and of all the other causes of it, lieth in that eternal compact that was between the Father and the Son concerning the recovery and salvation of fallen mankind. Herein, among other things, as the effects thereof, the assumption of our nature (the foundation of this union) was designed. The nature and terms of this compact, counsel, and agreement, I have declared elsewhere; and therefore must not here again insist upon it. But the relation between Christ and the church, proceeding from hence, and so being an effect of infinite wisdom, in the counsel of the Father and Son, to be made effectual by the Holy Spirit, must be distinguished from all other unions or relations whatever.26

The role of the Holy Spirit in the outworking of the pactum salutis was to cause Christ and believers to “coalesce into one mystical person. This is by the Holv Snirit inhabiting in him as the head of the church in all fullness, and in all believers according to their measure, whereby they become members of his mystical body.”27 Because of the Holy Spirit, “Christ and believers are one mystical person, one spiritually-animated body, head and members.”28

Owen believed that this mystical union between Christ and believers resulted in the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience:

God hath appointed that there shall be an immediate foundation of the imputation of the satisfaction and righteousness of Christ unto us; whereon we may be said to have done and suffered in him what he did and suffered in our stead, by that grant, donation, and imputation of it unto us… that it may be made ours: which is all we contend for. And this is our actual coalescency into one mystical person with him by faith. Hereon doth the necessity of faith originally depend.29

Thus, believers are “made righteous by the righteousness of Christ, which is not inherent in us, but only imputed unto US.”30


For Owen, Christ’s passive obedience imputed to the believer was not enough for a right standing before God. He said, “The obedience of Christ unto the law, and the imputation thereof unto us, are no less necessary unto our justification before God, than his suffering of the penalty of the law, and the imputation thereof unto us, unto the same end.”3l Because the law of God commands, “Do this and live.” Owen believed that “we have need of more than the mere sufferings of Christ, whereby we may be justified before God.”31 Mere pardon and acquittal is not enough. Only perfect righteousness merits God’s approval.

Owen believed that, because of the pactum salutis, God imputed this active righteousness of Christ to believers who are coalesced with him into one mystical person. By understanding this mystical union of Christ and his elect as the principal foundation of imputation, Owen in no way conflated the chronological order and distinction of justification and sanctification, nor deviated from a confessional, Reformed formulation of sola fide.32


1. John Owen, Works, V (Reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust. 1998),67. Hereafter, this essay will refer to Owen’s Works simply by volume number.

2. V, 164.

3. See “A Joint Federal Vision Statement,” 2007, signed by John Barach (minister, CREC), Randy Booth (minister, CREC), Tim Gallant(minister, CREC), Mark Home (minister, PCA), Jim Jordan (minister ARC, Director ofBiblical Horizons, member CREC), Peter Leithart (minister, PCA), Rich Lusk (minister, CREC), Jeff Meyers (minister, PCA), Ralph Smith (minister, CREC), Steve Wilkins (minister, PCA), Douglas Wilson (minister, CREC). The full document can be found at For a critique of this position, see R. S. Clark [ed.], Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California (Philipsburg: P & R, 2007); Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007); Guy Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis (Philipsburg: P & R, 2006); Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul: A Review and Response (Philipsburg: P & R, 2004); Comelis Venema, Getting the Gospel Right (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006). Most notable are the recent acts ofReformed synods and Presbyterian general assemblies that have assigned study committees, adopted statements, and/or made recommendations to their churches against the New Perspectives on Paul and Federal Vision. See, for example, the “Report of the Special Committee to Study the New Perspective on Paul: A Report Adopted by the 259th Synod of the Reformed Church of the United States, May 16-19,2005;” “Report on Justification, Presented to the, . Seventy-third General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church,” 2006; “Report of Ad Interim Study Committee on Federal Vision, New Perspective, and Auburn Avenue Theology” presented to the 35th PCA General Assembly, 2007; and the statements approved by Synod Schererville 2007 of the United Reformed Churches in North America.

4. XII, 497.

5. XII, 498–500. Owen cited Prov 8.22–31; Ps 60.14; Isaiah 9.6; Zech 4.12–13; 13.7; Heb 2.9–10; 12.2.

6. XII, 499,501-2. Owen cited Job 33.23, 24; Isa 42.1; 49.5; 53.10; John 14.28; Rom 8.3; Gal 4.4; Phil 2.6–7; Heb 10.5–9. See also X, 168174; XXII, 446–481.

7. XII, 499, 503-5.

8. XII, 499, 505. Owen cited Ps 16.2; 40.7–8; Isa 50.5; Phil 2.6–8. See also X, 174.

9. XII, 499,505–507. Owen cited Job 33:24; Ps 2.7–8; Isa 49.5-9; Dan 9.24; Acts 13.33; Rom 1.4; Jn 17 Heb 7.25; 9.24.

10. Peter Toon points out that “a committee of six—Thomas Goodwin, Philip Nye, William Bridge, William Greenhill, Joseph Caryl (all of whom had been members of the Westminster Assembly) and John Owen—was appointed to prepare a the draft of a declaration of faith and church order.” God’s Statesman, 103-07. Likewise, Carl Trueman says that because Owen “was one of the principal architects of the [Savoy] … the document can be assumed to reflect his theology and his view of the inadequacy or ambiguity of the original Westminster Confession of Faith formulation.” John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2007), 108.

11. Trueman, John Owen, p.86

12. V, 7.

13. V, 165. While Owen refrains from naming llames, he more than likely is making a reference to theologians such as Johannes Piscator (1546-1625) and Thomas Gataker, who, according to Trueman, “regarded Christ’s positive odedience to the law as being part of his obligation as rational creature,” a position akin to the Socinians whom Owen named outright. See Trueman, Owen, 108–109. Richard Baxter (1615–1691) was also undoubtedly included in Owen’s indictment, as he (Baxter) essentially assumed Socinian arguments against the Reformed doctrines of atonement and justification in his Aphorismes of Justification (London, 1649), and engaged in lively exchange with Owen over the matter for a number of years. Denying imputed active obedience, Baxter charged Owen’s position of imputed active obedience as leading to antinomianism.

14. V, 172.

I5. V, 173–74.

16. V, 182.

17. V, 186. See also his comments on 275–77, as well as X, 82–84; XIX, 337,388; XXIII, 60–62.

18. V, 183–186.

19. V, 252–62. Owen divides those who oppose the imputed active and passive obedience into three groups: those who saw it is impossible; those who saw it as useless; and those who saw believing it as pernicious.

20. V, 258.

21. For Owen, all of Christ’s obedience was, ultimately, active obedience, even his suffering and death. In some regards, Owen found the debates in his day over the distinction between the active and passive obedience of Christ to be, in a certain respect, foolhardy, “for [Christ] exercised the highest active obedience in his suffering, when he offered himself to God through the eternal Spirit.” V, 253.

22. V, 176. See also his comments on pages 196, 209, 214, 217–218, and 222.

23. V, 176.

24. V, 209.

25. V, 178.

26. V, 179.

27. V, 209.

28. V, 214.

29. V, 217–18.

30. V, 219.

31. V, 252.

32. V, 254. Owen continued, “but the whole law of what I intend it, that Christ’s fulfilling of the law, in obedience unto its commands, is no less imputed unto us for our justification than his undergoing the penalty of it is.”

33. V, 290–94. Owen explained his understanding of sola fide explicitly in chapter 15 (290–94), and sought to reconcile justification in Paul and James in chapter 20 (384–400). In making these closing arguments in his study, Owen appears to have sought to vindicate himself from the charges of antinomianism by Baxter.

Rev. Michael Brown is the pastor of the Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, California.