John Brown of Wamphray (c. 1610-1679): Christ’s active obedience was entirely for us

John Brown of Wamphray Life of Justification Opened


In his The Life of Justification Opened, the Scottish Covenanter and exile to the Netherlands, John Brown of Wamphray (c. 1610-1679), argues strongly for the imputation of Christ’s active obedience against the Arminian Neonomian John Goodwin (c. 1594-1665), countering Goodwin’s The Banner of Justification Displayed virtually clause by clause.

According to Brown’s quotations from Goodwin, the latter provided the following eight reasons for why it was necessary for Christ to actively obey the divine law (instead of for the sake of imputing this righteousness to believers):

1. “To procure the greater authority and deeper reverence to the doctrine, which he taught.”

2. “The active obedience of Christ was serviceable to that same great end, whereunto our righteousness and obedience are subservient, viz. the glory of God, and the advancement of his kingdom.”

3. “The exemplariness of it.”

4. “It had an excellent importance to draw to imitation.”

5. “It was a means of continuing his person in the love and complacency of his Father, which was a thing of absolute necessity, for the carrying on of the great work of redemption: for if he had once miscarried, who should have mediated for him?”

6. “It was of absolute necessity to qualify and fit the Sacrifice for the altar, and render him a person meet [i.e. fitting/appropriate] by his death and sacrifice of himself, to make atonement for the world, and to purge and take away the sin of it.”

7. “As Christ was a sacrifice, so was he and yet is, and is to be forever a high priest (Heb. 7:27, etc.), and that righteousness of his we speak of, qualifieth him, that is, contributeth to his qualification for Priesthood, as well as it did for his sacrifice.”

8. “That holy pleasure and contentment, which Christ himself took in these works of righteousness, may be looked upon, as one considerable end [of obeying the law].

These are Goodwin’s reasons for why Christ had to actively obey the divine law, while completely rejecting the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers by faith. For our present purposes, we shall only consider Brown’s responses to Goodwin’s fifth, sixth, and seventh reasons (please note that I have in some places slightly edited Brown’s spelling as well as his punctuation for the sake of fluidity – Brown was one of those, writers, who wrote, like this, using, too many, commas).

Regarding Goodwin’s idea that perfect obedience was necessary for Christ’s Person, Brown answers (p. 103):

“As to His Person, He was God equal with the Father in power and glory: It were therefore blasphemy once to suppose that His person stood in need of this for any such end: or to suppose that He could have failed as to any act of obedience, and thereby have displeased God. Wherefore His obedience being the obedience of one who was and is God over all, blessed for ever, it could not be necessary to Himself unto any such end. Therefore it behoved to be wholly for us, for whom He was made under the law; as He was given to us, and born for us.”

Concerning Goodwin’s view that Christ had to obey the law in order to qualify as an appropriate sacrifice, Brown counters (p. 103-105):

“Shall we think that He, who was God, was not a fit enough sacrifice for the world; but that he must be made fit  and prepared by acts of obedience? And as for his human nature, which was no person, but did subsist in the divine nature, being assumed into the subsistence thereof, was it not sufficiently fitted to be a sacrifice by its personal union with the Godhead? Was it not thereby holy, harmless, and undefiled and separate from sinners, which is all that the Apostle requireth, Heb. 7:26? Was not the human nature personally united unto the Godhead from the very first moment of conception? The holiness then, that consisteth in acts of actual obedience, was not required unto this union: and after this union it was not possible that he could sin: as it is not possible that the glorified now in heaven can break the laws that we break here, while on earth; and yet it will not follow that they are under the same particular obligations to particular acts of commanded duties that we stand under. So nor was Christ, as to himself, under the obligation of the particular duties of the law, to which he willingly submitted himself and gave obedience; but all this was for us. Nor was this necessarily required to make his sacrifice holy; for his human nature, being once united to the divine, could not otherwise be but holy and without sin, and so a sinless and holy sacrifice. And withal we would take notice that the actions of the Mediator were the actions of the person, and not of either of the natures alone; and therefore must not be looked upon as the actions of a mere man. So that his acts of obedience were the acts of obedience of God-man, or of that person that was God.

He [Goodwin] needeth not then tell us that the absolute holiness and righteousness of the humanity itself was of necessary concurrence unto his obedience: for we grant it, and this flowed from the hypostatical union: but that which we deny is that there was an holiness and righteousness in acts of outward obedience to the law requisite thereunto, as if the human nature, by virtue of the hypostatical union, had not been holy and harmless antecedently unto those outward acts of obedience, and so had not been a sinless and holy sacrifice, if he had been offered up in his infancy, or before he was in capacity to do any commanded acts. He [Goodwin] needeth not say (as he doth pag. 204) that we conceive that Christ-man might have been righteous without doing the works of righteousness, which is all one as to say that he might have been righteous, though he had transgressed: for not to keep the law in those to whom the law is given, is nothing else but to transgress. For we neither do, nor need assert any such thing: for by virtue of the hypostatical union, he was righteous and could not transgress, or do anything contrary to what was imposed upon him: but we say that by virtue of this union, as to himself, the human nature was not under the law, as we are; but he was under the law that he might fulfil it for others, and not to fit and qualify him to be a meet sacrifice, as if for this his human nature had not been meet enough before.

To this he saith, pag. 205, Let this supposition be admitted, that Christ had suffered in the womb, and that this suffering of his had been fully satisfactory; yet had he been as perfectly righteous in this case, and consequently had kept the law perfectly, as now he hath done; for the law requireth of infants, during their infancy, nothing but holiness of nature. I answer (1) This is enough to confirm what we say, viz. that all his after actual obedience was not necessary to this end. (2) And beside, though this holiness of nature was conformed to the law upon the matter, yet it was not a formal obedience unto the law, if we speak of him in reference to himself; for the human nature had this holiness by virtue of the hypostatical union: and Christ, when the human nature was first conceived, was God-man, and the person was under no law, and so was not under the obligation of any such law, but was made under the law as Mediator. And so, for us, and not for himself; nor is it any more to advantage to except again and say, that His meaning is not that there was an absolute necessity that he should keep the law upon the same terms in every way, which now he hath done, as that he should perform the same individual acts of obedience, or the same number of acts, in case he had been called to suffer any whit sooner: but that until the very instant in which he should suffer, whether it were sooner or later, he should in all things submit himself unto the good pleasure of God. For it doth hence sufficiently appear that all his after obedience, in all these particular acts, was not necessary to fit him as a sacrifice, and so could not be necessary for himself. And therefore, seeing he had been a sufficiently holy sacrifice had he been offered up before the actual performance of these commanded duties in the law, it is manifest that these duties were not required unto the end alleged: but that, as he was made under the law for us, so all his actual obedience to the law was for us, and not for himself.  The Exceptor [Goodwin], in the end, perceiving the invalidity of all his own discourse here, closeth the matter thus, pag. 206, But however we suppose this necessity or use of the righteousness of Christ could not be sufficiently cleared; yet since there are many others of undeniable evidence, the position so much contended for, to wit, that the Godhead of Christ sufficiently qualified him for such a sacrifice as he was, makes nothing at all for the imputation of his righteousness. Therefore we shall not trouble either ourselves or our reader any further with untying an impertinent knot. What these others of undeniable evidence are, we have not yet seen: and, sure, this one ground is sufficient to demonstrate that his obedience to the law, in all points, was not for himself, nor to qualify him as a sacrifice, but for us: and therefore it must be imputed, and made over to us and become our righteousness, whereby and whereupon, together with his sufferings, made over to us also, we are to be justified and accepted of God as righteous; and not only have pardon of sins, but also a right to the inheritance, and to the reward promised upon obedience.”

Finally, if you have managed to bear with Brown up to here, he refutes Goodwin’s assertion that Christ’s active obedience was necessary to qualify him as our high priest (p. 105):

“Seeing it cannot be proved that his actual obedience to the law (which is the righteousness we are here speaking of) was necessary to qualify him to be a sacrifice here on earth, much less can it be proven that it was necessary to qualify him for his priesthood in heaven. And all these qualifications mentioned, Heb. 7:26, he had before that actual obedience was either performed, or he was in a capacity to perform it: and therefore his actual obedience was not necessary thereunto.”

John Brown of Wamphray (c. 1610-1679) on justifying faith

John Brown of Wamphray Life of Justification Opened

John Brown of Wamphray (c. 1610-1679) was a prominent Scottish Covenanter and minister in the village of Wamphray, Annandale, who, after the Restoration of King Charles II to the throne (1660) and the Act of Uniformity (1662), was forced by the authorities to flee his native Scotland due to his outspoken opposition to prelacy (i.e. Episcopal polity imposed on the Church of Scotland at the time). He went into exile for the rest of his life in the Netherlands (described by one author as “the asylum of the banished” at the time), where he settled in Rotterdam, industriously wrote in favour of the Covenanter cause, and produced a number of noteworthy theological works. One of Brown’s major works is his The Life of Justification Opened, published posthumously in 1695 with a preface written by the Utrecht professor Melchior Leydekker. In the excerpt below, the spelling and punctuation of which I have slightly edited for clarity, Brown discusses justifying faith:

“[F]aith is the man’s looking to Christ, as the stung Israelite in the wilderness did look unto the brazen serpent (Jn. 3:14, 15) and saying, as it is (Is. 45:24), ‘In the Lord have I righteousness’: and it is the believer’s putting-on of the Lord Jesus, that he may be found in Him, and clothed with His righteousness (Phil. 3:9). It is the man’s receiving of Christ (Jn. 1:12) and receiving of the atonement in Him, and through Him (Rom. 5:11) and of abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness (Rom. 5:17). Therefore it is called a ‘believing on His name’ (Jn. 1:12) and ‘on Him, whom the Father hath sent (Jn. 6:29; 7:35; 17:20; Acts 16:31; 19:25). And because faith laid hold on this righteousness of Christ, therefore is this righteousness called the ‘righteousness of faith’ (Rom. 4:11) and the ‘righteousness which is of faith’ (Rom. 9:30), and that, ‘which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith’ (Phil. 3:9) Now if this be the native work of justifying faith […] to receive Christ, and His righteousness, and consequently to carry the man out of himself, that he may find and partake of that all-sufficient righteousness of Christ, to the end he may with confidence stand before God, and expect pardon and acceptance, it cannot be said without destroying the native work of justifying faith, that faith is that Gospel-righteousness unto which they may lean, and upon the account of which they may expect justification.”

What Brown is noting in this last sentence, as he makes clear numerous times elsewhere in this work, is that believers are not justified on account of their faith, as if that constituted their “Gospel-righteousness”, but on account of the righteousness of Christ imputed to them through faith as a mere instrument. He continues:

“Faith, in this matter, is as the eye of the soul, that seeth not itself, but looketh out to another. Beside, this would overturn the whole nature of the covenant of grace, and is irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Apostle Paul about justification […] Therefore, all who would live the life of justification must betake themselves to Jesus Christ, and lean on Him and to His righteousness: for with the robe of His righteousness must they alone be clothed, and in Christ alone must they be found, and they must think of standing before God, having on His righteousness, that God imputeth to believers, and which they receive by faith, in order to their justification.”

– John Brown of Wamphray (c. 1610-1679), The Life of Justification Opened, p. 58

For previous posts on justifying faith, see these by Henricus Siccama, H.C.G. Moule, William Ames, and Thomas Chalmers.