J N Darby and William Kelly, those responsible for the Plymouth Brethren movement in the mid to late 1800s, did not accept the concept that, during his earthly life, Jesus Christ kept the law on behalf of believers. Referring to the ‘righteousness of God’ (Note: not that of Jesus Christ) JND states :

It is His own (God’s) righteousness which is upon the believer (1)

I can find, myself, nothing in the early Church Fathers, and nothing in the writings of the Reformers on the subject.

John Calvin in his Institutes (1560) writes :

… since, as God only, he (Christ) could not suffer, and, as man only, could not overcome death, he united the human nature with the divine, that he might subject the weakness of the one to death as an expiation of sin, (2)

The Helvetic Confession (1564) states :

Therefore, because faith receives Christ our righteousness and attributes everything to the grace of God in Christ, on that account justification is attributed to faith, (3)

… but the righteousness of Christ, or rather, he imputes faith in Christ to us for righteousness. (3)

Although the Helvetic Confession refers to ‘the righteousness of Christ’ (a collocation never found in scripture) the phrase is qualified by ‘or rather’ and it is made clear that ‘faith in Christ’ is in view, not the idea that Christ kept the law on behalf of anyone.

In 1647 the Westminster Confession contains the wording :

Those whom God effectually calleth, He also freely justifieth:a not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous, not 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, but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them. (4)

Here the words ‘imputing the obedience … of Christ’ occur but without a definition of what that actually means. In context, one would expect it to mean what Calvin means, that is to say, Christ’s obedience to the Father in offering himself up to sufferings and death.

It is only when we come to the modified form of the Westminster Confession - the Savoy Declaration of 1658 that we have the words :

by imputing Christ's active obedience to the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith (5)

This definitive wording (active and passive obedience) is most probably the influence of John Owen who was involved in the preparation of the Savoy Declaration and who, himself, states :

… 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. (6)

Is it so that, until 1658, the Christian Church did not teach this doctrine in such a stated form ?

Does such a concept appear in any of the writings of the pre-Nicene or post-Nicene fathers ?

Does such a concept appear in the writings of the Reformers ?

Is this, solely, a ‘Puritan’ doctrine ?

(1) J N Darby Outline of the Epistle to the Romans : Chapter (2-4) : Para 40

(2) John Calvin Institutes 2.12.3 1560 (Definitive Latin edition)

(3) Helvetic Confession Chapter 15 on Justification

(4) Westminster Confession Chapter 11 on Justification

(5) Savoy Declaration Chapter 11 on Justification

(6) John Owen (from The Works of John Owen, vol. V.) Quoted from The Doctrine of Justification by Faith though the Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ; Explained, Confirmed, and Vindicated (1677),

  • Excellent question. Romans 8:1-8 is helpful. Walking is required but it does can not precede and must not preclude Christ. Jul 29, 2020 at 23:22
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    I think you are correct - nothing like this idea was present in the early church.
    – Dottard
    Aug 5, 2020 at 21:44

2 Answers 2


This is the earliest extra-biblical clear statement I have found so far.

Christ therefore ransomed from the curse of the law those who being subject to it, had been unable to keep its enactments. And in what way did He ransom them? By fulfilling it. And to put it in another way: in order that He might expiate the guilt of Adam’s transgression, He showed Himself obedient and submissive in every respect to God the Father in our stead… - St. Cyril of Alexandria (378 – 444 AD) – Commentary on Luke

1 Peter 3:18 "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit," is a more indirect declaration wherein one must make the leap that he was righteous by keeping the Law.

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    There are a number of expressions about Christ 'fulfilling the law' and it is clear that it is not well understood (or explained) what that actually means. But there is no claim - in the quotation above - about law-keeping on behalf of and transferable to other persons. Not that I can see. Jesus Christ was certainly obedient to the Father in offering up himself but no Law exists which could demand such a thing. He rendered this filial service to the Father.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 30, 2020 at 13:30
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    @NigelJ But doesn't he say it right there..."in our stead"? And in doing that isn't he the 2nd Adam? The first Adam enslaved us all to the Law through his disobedience and the second Adam sets us free through His obedience. Adam disobeyed in our stead (for that is how it worked out practically) and the second Adam obeyed in our stead by intention and the practicality is accessed through faith. This is separate from the need for Christ to be sinless as the Lamb without Spot. The Law cannot disappear in the smallest degree until all is fulfilled. Who but Christ can do that? Jul 30, 2020 at 22:46
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    He showed Himself obedient and submissive in every respect to God the Father in our stead is an expression of sacrifice and offering. I don't see that wording as conveying the keeping of the law on behalf of others. I am looking for the specific wording used by John Owen and the Savoy Declaration which teaches as an integral part of justification that legal precepts were kept and that legal obedience transferred. I am not discussing the doctrine, here, I am looking for the historical wording used in 1658.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 31, 2020 at 0:22

The idea that Christ fulfilled the Law of Moses and thus so do believers may be found at least as early as Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) in his work Summa Theologica. To be clear, Aquinas quotes scripture, which of course sources some 1200 years earlier.

Now two things of every law is to make men righteous and virtuous, as was stated above (Q[92], A1): and consequently the end of the Old Law was the justification of men. The Law, however, could not accomplish this: but foreshadowed it by certain ceremonial actions, and promised it in words. And in this respect, the New Law fulfils the Old by justifying men through the power of Christ's Passion. This is what the Apostle says (Rom. 8:3,4): "What the Law could not do . . . God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh . . . hath condemned sin in the flesh, that the justification of the Law might be fulfilled in us." And in this respect, the New Law gives what the Old Law promised, according to 2 Cor. 1:20: "Whatever are the promises of God, in Him," i.e. in Christ, "they are 'Yea'." [*The Douay version reads thus: "All the promises of God are in Him, 'It is'."] Again, in this respect, it also fulfils what the Old Law foreshadowed. Hence it is written (Col. 2:17) concerning the ceremonial precepts that they were "a shadow of things to come, but the body is of Christ"; in other words, the reality is found in Christ. Wherefore the New Law is called the law of reality; whereas the Old Law is called the law of shadow or of figure.

Now Christ fulfilled the precepts of the Old Law both in His works and in His doctrine. -source-

In this quote, we find these things.

The end of the Old Law was the justification of men, but this could not be accomplished, except in the New Law of Christ, by which men are justified, in which are found the promises of God, in Him.

For Aquinas, the New Law is called the law of faith, in so far as its pre-eminence is derived from that very grace which is given inwardly to believers, and for this reason is called the grace of faith. -source-

I answer that, "Each thing appears to be that which preponderates in it," as the Philosopher states (Ethic. ix, 8). Now that which is preponderant in the law of the New Testament, and whereon all its efficacy is based, is the grace of the Holy Ghost, which is given through faith in Christ. Consequently the New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Ghost, which is given to those who believe in Christ. This is manifestly stated by the Apostle who says (Romans 3:27): "Where is . . . thy boasting? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith": for he calls the grace itself of faith "a law." And still more clearly it is written (Romans 8:2): "The law of the spirit of life, in Christ Jesus, hath delivered me from the law of sin and of death." Hence Augustine says (De Spir. et Lit. xxiv) that "as the law of deeds was written on tables of stone, so is the law of faith inscribed on the hearts of the faithful": and elsewhere, in the same book (xxi): "What else are the Divine laws written by God Himself on our hearts, but the very presence of His Holy Spirit?" -source-

I suspect there are others who make the same claims (the Old Law is fulfilled in Christ and imputed to man), but time does not permit a more thorough search.

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    Thomas Aquinas appears, to me, to be saying that 'the New Law. (I am not sure what that is) is that which justifies men. He is also saying that Jesus Christ 'fulfils' the Old Law. But neither of those statements is equivalent to what John Owen (and the Savoy Declaration) suggest : the matter of 'imputation' of the supposed legal obedience of Jesus upon earth, during life, that is transferred to the believer. I don't see the equivalence, myself.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 29, 2020 at 21:00
  • Unless he means that the Law makes men righteous and virtuous by driving us to Christ, Aquinas is wrong in saying, "Now two things of every law is to make men righteous and virtuous..." since scripture declares "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. - Romans 3:20". Jul 30, 2020 at 13:03
  • Please read what Aquinas is saying, especially as he quotes scripture. The purpose of the Law was to be their righteousness (Deut. 6:25). But it was a shadow, while the reality is in Christ who fulfilled the Old in His works and doctrine. Christ was sent and fulfilled and thus condemned sin that the "justification of the law might be fulfilled in us". The promises of God are in Him. The New Law is the New Law is called the law of faith, in so far as its pre-eminence is derived from that very grace which is given inwardly to believers, and for this reason is called the grace of faith.
    – SLM
    Jul 30, 2020 at 15:25
  • The Deut. 6:25 statement can be summed up as Tim Kellar said, "The Law is not a check-list that we keep; it’s a benchmark that we fail." This is the whole point of Paul's argument in Galatians, that Christians are set free from trying to keep that law "if by the Spirit ye are led" (5:18) and , "for we by the Spirit, by faith, a hope of righteousness do wait for" (5:5). Note the future tense? Yes, the grace of God gives saving faith and a righteousness to come, but not our righteousness, for we have none (Gal. 3:13-14). I don't know what Aquinas meant, but the NT is clear!
    – Anne
    Jul 30, 2020 at 16:35
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    @Anne I agree, but more to the point, Aquinas, as quoted agrees. I understand some can't possibly believe he would, and maybe there are sections where he doesn't, but the point of the OP that supposedly the idea of imputing Christ's righteousness (gained or retained in part by His observing the Law of Moses) to believers is "new" is shown to be false by none other than Aquinas! And he mentions Augustine who's 1,400 years earlier. And of course, as pointed out, scripture agrees!
    – SLM
    Jul 31, 2020 at 19:01

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