Two Kinds of Righteousness

Have you ever had the experience of reaching into your coat pocket and discovering a $20 bill in there that you did not know was there?

Just imagine what is was like almost 500 years ago when Martin Luther rediscovered something even better, the good news of the gospel, justification by faith apart from works. This was a radical thought at the time since most people accepted the idea that your acceptance before God was based on your works. To help make his point, Luther talked about two kinds of righteousness, active (based on your works under a law/performance system) and passive (a gift from Jesus on the basis of faith alone).

Below is an excerpt from Luther's commentary on the book of Galatians, written in 1535.

"For if I were to teach men the law in such a way that they suppose themselves to be justified by it before God, I would go beyond the limit of the Law, confusing these two kinds of righteousness, the active and the passive, and would be a bad teacher who does not properly distinguish. But when I go beyond the old man, I also go beyond the Law. For the flesh or the old man, the Law and works, are all joined together. In the same way the spirit or the new man is joined to the promise and to grace. Therefore when I see that a man is sufficiently contrite, oppressed by the Law, terrified by sin, and thirsting for comfort, then it is time for me to take the Law and active righteousness from his sight and to set forth before him, through the Gospel, the passive righteousness which excludes Moses and Law and shows the promise of Christ, who came for the afflicted and for sinners. Here a person is raised up again and gains hope. Nor is such a one any longer under the law, but under grace-as the apostle says (Rom. 6:14): "you are not under law but under grace." How not under law? According to the new person, to whom the law does not apply. For the law had its limits until Christ, as Paul says below (Gal. 3:24): "the law, until Christ." When he came, Moses and the law stopped. So did circumcision, sacrifices, and the Sabbath. So did all the prophets.

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 person, and the righteousness of the law applies to the old person, who is born of flesh and blood. Upon this latter, as upon an ass, a burden must be put that will oppress the old. This person must not enjoy the freedom of the spirit or of grace unless the old has first put on the new by faith in Christ, but this does not happen fully and this life. Then we 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 do not understand what they themselves are saying or what they 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 person if unable to pass judgment. Therefore it is inevitable that they will be offended, for they cannot see any higher than the law. Therefore whatever is above the law is the greatest possible offense to them."

What joy and good news it is to have Jesus as our righteousness and our life, by faith, apart from the Law.

In Christ who is our Life,


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