Luther on the two kinds of righteousness in Great Galatians

Maybe you’re a Lutheran who doesn’t much like the idea of a “two kinds of righteousness” paradigm. That’s fine— I’m sorta kinda with you, as the only “paradigms” I genuinely like are the kind that help the kiddos learn their Latin verbs. In the context of theology “paradigm” has always struck me as being sort of a wonk-word which, as often as not, gets used to refer to some bed of Procrustes. It also makes me think of Lean Six Sigma and terms like “resource allocation” and “inventory through-put.” If you’re the sort of person who uses the adjective “paradigmatic” more than once a month, then I just don’t think we can be friends. Go read some Yeats.

Be that as it may, it can’t be denied that the phrase “two kinds of righteousness” appears quite frequently in Blessed Martin Luther’s extant writings; some loose derivation of it even appears in our Lutheran Confessions:

It is also correctly said that believers who in Christ through faith have been justified, have in this life first the imputed righteousness of faith, and then also the incipient righteousness of the new obedience or of good works. But these two must not be mingled with one another or be both injected at the same time into the article of justification by faith before God. For since this incipient righteousness or renewal in us is incomplete and impure in this life because of the flesh, the person cannot stand on the ground of this righteousness before God’s tribunal, but before God’s tribunal only the righteousness of the obedience, suffering, and death of Christ, which is imputed to faith, can stand, so that only for the sake of this obedience is the person— even after his renewal, when he has already many good works and lives the best, upright, and blameless life— pleasing and acceptable to God, and is received into adoption and heirship of eternal life. (FC SD III.32)

So it’s in the Confessions. What do we do with that? Hopefully we don’t build a paradigm. Man, I hate paradigms. Have I told you how much I hate paradigms? It sounds like a disease: “The news isn’t good: he’s got paradigms. Stage nine, in all of his glands.”

Moving on…

One of these men is Martin Luther; the other man is Jean-Paul Sartre. It's difficult, but possible, to tell them apart.

One of these men events is Martin Luther; the other is Jean-Paul Sartre. It is difficult, but possible, to tell them apart. That rhymed.

Luther’s 1519 “Sermon on the Two Kinds of Righteousness” is justifiably the most well-known source when it comes to the teaching, and not the paradigm, of the two kinds of righteousness. A year earlier, Luther preached his “Sermon on Threefold Righteousness”, if you can believe that. And let me remind you, folks, that this was 1518, the same year he wrote his really hip and edgy Heidelberg Disputation. All the cool kids were insisting on the precedence of existence over essence, marinating in their angst, and smoking unfiltered cigarettes out on the Wittenberg quad while the realist poseurs were jockeying for social cachet and hitting on cheerleaders. Heady times.

Snarky comments aside— I love the Heidelberg Disputation even more than I love Gerhard Forde’s commentary on it— it is interesting how twentieth-century Lutheranism leans so heavily on the latter while virtually ignoring the former. I’m not saying that there are no grounds for elevating one non-confessional work of Luther’s over another. There certainly are such grounds— for example, the Rev’d Dr. Glenn Zweck, translator of Luther’s “Sermon on Threefold Righteousness”, mentions that “[t]he abrupt way in which this sermon [i.e. “Sermon on the Two Kinds of Righteousness”] states its thesis suggests that it was deliberately intended by Luther to be a correction of, and replacement for, his Sermon on Threefold Righteousness.” I’m just saying that often when the laity read Luther, we/they aren’t necessarily cognizant of what these grounds are. Lacking such cognizance, we may unconsciously end up feasting on a bowl of cherries picked by some zeitgeisty chum who thinks that the authors of the Formula of Concord were guilty of heresy.

Have we been taught to make the distinction among his works ourselves based upon such grounds, or are we just reading popular books? Zweck gives us reason to think that Luther’s “Sermon on Threefold Righteousness” is not the reformer’s clearest work, but do we have any reason to think that it is out of sync with the rest of Evangelical theology, i.e. actually erroneous, or is it just unclear and poorly developed? Furthermore, do we have any basis for being suspicious of his reworking of the concept of manifold righteousness, his 1519 “Sermon on the Two Kinds of Righteousness”? Inquiring minds want to know.

In any event, the foregoing intro is a bit of a digression. I mainly wished to share the following excerpt from Luther’s introduction to his 1535 Lectures on Galatians (“Great Galatians”), an essay entitled “The Argument of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians.” There’s a fair amount of hyperbole in the essay— for example: “It is a marvelous thing and unknown to the world to teach Christians to ignore the Law and to live before God as though there were no Law whatever.” This coming from the guy who wrote the Small and Large Catechisms and the Antinomian Disputations. Context? Justification, obviously. Anyway, there’s also a good explanation of the teaching regarding the two kinds of righteousness which I thought was worth sharing, largely because “Great Galatians” has tacit confessional status; to wit:

Concerning what is needful furthermore for the proper explanation of this profound and chief article of justification before God, upon which depends the salvation of our souls, we direct, and for the sake of brevity herewith refer, every one to Dr. Luther’s beautiful and glorious exposition of the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians. (FC SD III.67)

So, yes, the Lutheran Confessions do not merely cite Great Galatians; they in fact endorse it in toto. Correct me if I’m wrong; more importantly, correct Great Galatians if it’s wrong.

Without further ado, here’s Luther writing around 1531 about the two kinds of righteousness:

This is our theology, by which we teach a precise distinction between these two kinds of righteousness, the active and the passive, so that morality and faith, works and grace, secular society and religion may not be confused. Both are necessary, but both must be kept within their limits. Christian righteousness applies to the new man, and the righteousness of the Law applies to the old man, who is born of flesh and blood. Upon this latter, as upon an ass, a burden must be put that will oppress him. He must not enjoy the freedom of the spirit or of grace unless he has first put on the new man by faith in Christ, but this does not happen fully in this life. Then he may enjoy the kingdom and the ineffable gift of grace. I am saying this in order that no one may suppose that we reject or prohibit good works, as the papists falsely accuse us because they understand neither what they themselves are saying nor what we are teaching. They know nothing except the righteousness of the Law; and yet they claim the right to judge a doctrine that is far above and beyond the Law, a doctrine on which the carnal man is unable to pass judgment. Therefore it is inevitable that they be offended, for they cannot see any higher than the Law. Therefore whatever is above the Law is the greatest possible offense to them.
We set forth two worlds, as it were, one of them heavenly and the other earthly. Into these we place these two kinds of righteousness, which are distinct and separated from each other. The righteousness of the Law is earthly and deals with earthly things; by it we perform good works. But as the earth does not bring forth fruit unless it has first been watered and made fruitful from above— for the earth cannot judge, renew, and rule the heavens, but the heavens judge, renew, rule, and fructify the earth, so that it may do what the Lord has commanded— so also by the righteousness of the Law we do nothing even when we do much; we do not fulfill the Law even when we fulfill it. Without any merit or work of our own, we must first be justified by Christian righteousness, which has nothing to do with the righteousness of the Law or with earthly and active righteousness. But this righteousness is heavenly and passive. We do not have it of ourselves; we receive it from heaven. We do not perform it; we accept it by faith, through which we ascend beyond all laws and works. “As, therefore, we have borne the image of the earthly Adam,” as Paul says, “let us bear the image of the heavenly one” (1 Cor. 15:49), who is a new man in a new world, where there is no Law, no sin, no conscience, no death, but perfect joy, righteousness, grace, peace, life, salvation, and glory. […]
[W]e always repeat, urge, and inculcate this doctrine of faith or Christian righteousness, so that it may be observed by continuous use and may be precisely distinguished from the active righteousness of the Law. (For by this doctrine alone and through it alone is the church built, and in this it consists.) Otherwise we shall not be able to observe true theology but shall immediately become lawyers, ceremonialists, legalists, and papists. Christ will be so darkened that no one in the church will be correctly taught or comforted. Thereforef we want to be preachers and teachers of others, we must take great care in these issues and hold to this distinction between the righteousness of the Law and that of Christ. This distinction is easy to speak of; but in experience and practice it is the most difficult of all, even if you exercise and practice it diligently. For in the hour of death or in other conflicts of conscience these two kinds of righteousness come together more closely than you would wish or ask.
Therefore I admonish you, especially those of you who are to become instructors of consciences, as well as each of you individually, that you exercise yourselves by study, by reading, by meditation, and by prayer, so that in temptation you will be able to instruct consciences, both your own and others, console them, and take them from the Law to grace, from active righteousness to passive righteousness, in short, from Moses to Christ. In affliction and in the conflict of conscience it is the devil’s habit to frighten us with the Law and to set against us the consciousness of sin, our wicked past, the wrath and judgment of God, hell and eternal death, so that thus he may drive us into despair, subject us to himself, and pluck us from Christ. It is also his habit to set against us those passages in the Gospel in which Christ Himself requires works from us and with plain words threatens damnation to those who do not perform them. If here we cannot distinguish between these two kinds of righteousness; if here by faith we do not take hold of Christ, who is sitting at the right hand of God, who is our life and our righteousness, and who makes intercession for us miserable sinners before the Father (Heb. 7:25), then we are under the Law and not under grace, and Christ is no longer a Savior. Then He is a lawgiver. Then there can be no salvation left, but sure despair and eternal death will follow.
Therefore let us learn diligently this art of distinguishing between these two kinds of righteousness, in order that we may know how far we should obey the Law. We have said above that in a Christian the Law must not exceed its limits but should have its dominion only over the flesh, which is subjected to it and remains under it. When this is the case, the Law remains within its limits. But if it wants to ascend into the conscience and exert its rule there, see to it that you are a good dialectician and that you make the correct distinction. Give no more to the Law than it has coming, and say to it:

Law, you want to ascend into the realm of conscience and rule there. You want to denounce its sin and take away the joy of my heart, which I have through faith in Christ. You want to plunge me into despair, in order that I may perish. You are exceeding your jurisdiction. Stay within your limits, and exercise your dominion over the flesh. You shall not touch my conscience. For I am baptized; and through the Gospel I have been called to a fellowship of righteousness and eternal life, to the kingdom of Christ, in which my conscience is at peace, where there is no Law but only the forgiveness of sins, peace, quiet, happiness, salvation, and eternal life. Do not disturb me in these matters. In my conscience not the Law will reign, that hard tyrant and cruel disciplinarian, but Christ, the Son of God, the King of peace and righteousness, the sweet Savior and Mediator. He will preserve my conscience happy and peaceful in the sound and pure doctrine of the Gospel and in the knowledge of this passive righteousness.

When I have this righteousness within me, I descend from heaven like the rain that makes the earth fertile. That is, I come forth into another kingdom, and I perform good works whenever the opportunity arises. If I am a minister of the Word, I preach, I comfort the saddened, I administer the sacraments. If I am a father, I rule my household and family, I train my children in piety and honesty. If I am a magistrate, I perform the office which I have received by divine command. If I am a servant, I faithfully tend to my master’s affairs. In short, whoever knows for sure that Christ is his righteousness not only cheerfully and gladly works in his calling but also submits himself for the sake of love to magistrates, also to their wicked laws, and to everything else in this present life— even, if need be, to burden and danger. For he knows that God wants this and that this obedience pleases Him. (LW/AE 26:8-9, 11-13)

Related content: