Luther on Righteousness
The following is an extract from our seminary-level module ‘Doctrine in Historical Perspective’, which students will cover in the 2019/20 academic year.
Luther begins by saying there are different kinds of righteousness. I can be a righteous citizen (a citizen of good standing) if I keep the laws of the land. Or we give children ‘laws’ like, ‘Don’t talk with your mouth full’ to teach good manners. These laws are a gift from God because they help maintain an ordered society. But there is “another righteousness that is above all these – namely, the righteousness of faith, or Christian righteousness, which we must carefully distinguish from the other sorts mentioned above.” We need to make this distinction because, while civil obedience and good manners are things that we do, righteousness before God is “quite the opposite”. The problem is that, in our pride, we keep slipping back into thinking we contribute to our approval before God. But when we do that, we quickly begin to despair. Our only hope is to go back again and again to the mercy of God and the work of Christ.
As you read this extract and the following, identify the main points of Luther’s doctrine of justification
Martin Luther, Preface to his Commentary on Galatians
This most excellent righteousness – that of faith, I mean – which God imputes to us through Christ, without works … is quite the opposite; that is to say, it is passive whereas the others are active. We do nothing in this matter; we give nothing to God but simply receive and allow someone else to work in us – that is, God. Therefore, it seems to me that this righteousness of faith, or Christian righteousness, can well be called passive righteousness.
This is a righteousness hidden in a mystery that the world does not know. Even Christians themselves do not thoroughly understand it and can hardly grasp it in their temptations. Therefore, it must be diligently taught and continually practiced. And whoever does not understand this righteousness when afflicted and frightened in conscience must be overthrown, for nothing comforts our conscience so firmly and securely as this passive righteousness.
But human weakness and misery is so great that in the terrors of conscience and danger of death, we see nothing but our works, our unworthiness, and the law. And when we are shown our sin, in time we remember the evil of our past life. Then the poor sinner groans with great anguish of spirit and thinks, ‘Alas, what a dreadful life I have lived! Would to God I might live longer; then I would amend my life.’ Thus human reason cannot restrain itself from the sight of this active or working righteousness – that is, our own righteousness; nor can it look up to see the passive or Christian righteousness, but relies altogether on the active righteousness – so deeply is this evil rooted in us …
Therefore, the afflicted and troubled conscience has no remedy against desperation and eternal death unless it takes hold of the forgiveness of sins by grace, freely offered in Christ Jesus – that is to say, this passive faith or Christian righteousness … Just as the earth does not generate rain and cannot of itself work to produce it, but receives it by the mere gift of God from above, so this heavenly righteousness is given us by God without our working for or deserving it …
So then, do we do nothing to obtain this righteousness? No, nothing at all. Perfect righteousness is to do nothing, to hear nothing, to know nothing of the law or of works, but to know and believe only that Christ has gone to the Father and is no longer visible; that he sits in heaven at the right hand of his Father, not as a judge, but is made by God our wisdom, righteousness, holiness, and redemption; in short that he is our high priest, entreating for us and reigning over us and in us by grace …
Where Christ is truly visible, there must be full and perfect joy in the Lord, and the conscience is at peace and thinks, ‘Although I am a sinner by the law and under the condemnation of the law, I still do not despair and do not die, because Christ lives, and he is my righteousness and my everlasting life. In that righteousness and life I have no sin, no fear, no sting of conscience, no worry about death. I am indeed a sinner, as far as this present life and righteousness are concerned, as I am a child of Adam; where the law accuses me, death reigns over me and wants to ultimately devour me. But I have another righteousness and live above this life – Christ the Son of God, who knows no sin or death but is righteousness and eternal life. By him, this body of mine that is dead will be raised up again and delivered from the bondage of the law and sin and will be sanctified together with my spirit.’
So both these continue while we live here. The flesh is accused, tempted, oppressed with heaviness and sorrow, bruised by the active righteousness of the law; but the spirit reigns and is saved by this passive and Christian righteousness, because it knows that it has a Lord in heaven, at the right hand of his Father, who has abolished the law, sin, and death and has trodden underfoot all evils, led them captive, and triumphed over them in himself (Colossians 2:15).
Therefore, St. Paul, in this letter, teaches us in order to comfort us and to confirm us in the perfect knowledge of this most Christian and excellent righteousness, for once we lose our belief in justification, all true Christian doctrine is lost. There is no middle ground between the righteousness of the law and Christian righteousness. Anyone who strays from Christian righteousness must fall into the righteousness of the law; in other words, when people lose Christ, they slip back into reliance on their own works.
That is why we so earnestly repeat this doctrine of faith or Christian righteousness, so that it may be continually exercised and may be plainly distinguished from the active righteousness of the law. Otherwise we should never be able to believe the true theology. The church is founded on, and consists in, this doctrine alone. So if we want to teach and lead other people, we need to pay careful attention to these matters and to note well this distinction between the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of Christ. This is easy to describe in words but hard to put into practice, for when we are near death or in other agonies of conscience these two sorts of righteousness come closer together than we would wish. So I warn you, especially those of you who will become teachers and guides of consciences, to exercise yourselves continually by study, reading, meditation on the Word, and prayer, so that in time of temptation you may be able to instruct and strengthen both your own conscience and that of other people, and to bring them from the law to grace, from active and working righteousness to passive and received righteousness, from Moses to Christ. When we are afflicted, and our conscience suffers conflict, the devil makes us afraid by the law and accuses us with the guilt of sin, our wicked past life, God’s wrath and judgment, hell, and eternal death. Thus he drives us to desperation, makes us bond-slaves to himself, and plucks us from Christ. Furthermore, he brings against us those passages of the Gospel in which Christ himself requires works of us and clearly threatens those who do not perform them with damnation. If we are unable to judge between these two kinds of righteousness – if we do not by faith take hold of Christ as he sits at God’s right hand, interceding with the Father for us wretched sinners, then we are under the law and not under grace, and Christ is no more a Saviour, but a lawgiver. Then there will be no more salvation for us, but a certain desperation and everlasting death, unless repentance follows.
Let us then be careful to learn to discriminate between these two kinds of righteousness, so that we may know how far we should obey the law. We have already seen that for a Christian the law ought to have dominion only over the flesh. When it is so, the law is kept within bounds. But if it presumes to creep into your conscience and tries to reign there, you must make the right distinction. Give no more to the law than is right, but say, ‘You want to climb up into the kingdom of my conscience, do you, Law? You want to reign over it and reprove sin and take away the joy I have by faith in Christ and drive me to desperation? Keep within your bounds, and exercise your power over the flesh, but do not touch my conscience. By the Gospel I am called to share righteousness and everlasting life. I am called to Christ’s kingdom, where my conscience is at rest and there is no law, but rather forgiveness of sins, peace, quietness, joy, health, and everlasting life. Do not trouble me in these matters, for I will not let an intolerable tyrant like you reign in my conscience, which is the temple of Christ, the Son of God. He is the King of righteousness and peace, my sweet Saviour and Mediator; [H]e will keep my conscience joyful and quiet in the sound, pure doctrine of the Gospel and in the knowledge of Christian and heavenly righteousness.’
When I have this righteousness reigning in my heart, I descend from heaven like the rain that makes the earth fertile. That is to say, I come out into another kingdom, and I do good works whenever I have a chance. If I am a minister of the Word, I preach, I comfort the broken-hearted, I administer the sacraments. If I am a householder, I am in charge of my house and my family, and I bring up my children in the knowledge and fear of God. If I am a magistrate, I work hard at the job that heaven has given me. If I am a servant, I do my master’s business faithfully. Whoever is convinced that Christ is his righteousness works cheerfully and well in his vocation …
From Martin Luther, Galatians, eds. Alister McGrath and J. I. Packer, Crossway, 1998, xvii-xxiii.