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Righteousness by Faith (Part 1)

Chapter 1

The Doctrine of Righteousness by Faith in the Reformation

Luther has been described as "the first great, clear preacher of the righteousness of faith sent to the Christian church since the days of the apostle Paul."—Julius Koslin, The Theology of Luther, pp.77-78. Prior to Luther there were many great teachers in the church who advocated that the only way man could attain to righteousness was by the grace of God and through faith in Christ. But the best of them, even Augustine himself, had confounded the article of righteousness by faith with the renewal and life of new obedience which the Holy Spirit accomplishes in the life of the believer. There was no clear distinction between the righteousness which the believer has by faith and his own holiness of life. Justification and sanctification were confounded. Or to put this another way, gospel and law were not clearly distinguished.

True, the better teachers of the church did not slip into the terrible, overt kind of legalism which characterized most of "grass-roots" Catholicism. They even repudiated the more refined kind of legalism known as semi-Pelagianism. But it was their confusing righteousness by faith with the believer's holiness of life which inevitably corrupted the gospel and bore the bitter harvest of darkness, error, superstition and the other evils of the medieval religious system.

We do not say these things for the sake of a mere academic, historical interest. If we fail to learn from the mistakes of the past, we are condemned to repeat them. As Luther so often warned, unless we diligently preserve the purity of the article of righteousness by faith, the darkness of the errors of the past will overtake us.

Foremost among those who would lead us back to the darkness and bondage of pre-Reformation theology are some of the Luther scholars of this century. They tell us that Luther taught that justification means to make (personally) righteous and that justification is identified with the renewal which the Holy Spirit works in believers. Some tell us that it was Melanchthon and Protestant scholasticism, not Luther, which developed the concept of forensic justification.

Much of the debate hangs on the actual date of Luther's so-called "tower experience"—the time when he was given clear insight into the meaning of "the righteousness of God" (Rom. 1:17). Luther himself describes the enlightenment that came to him in the heated tower as he was pondering over the meaning of Romans 1:17. Before this, Luther was not the mature Protestant Reformer but the young evangelical Catholic.

In the preface to the Wittenberg edition of his works, written in 1545, Luther relates the "tower experience" and places it sometime near the end of 1518. That is quite late—a year after he had nailed The Ninety-Five Theses on the church door and only a little more than a year before he went to the Diet of Worms. We should also remember something else: Luther had a very critical opinion of his earlier works and doctrinal formulations. He wished them burned rather than published.

Before this "tower experience" Luther, as we said, was a young Catholic theologian. He had come a long way and had already learned many precious insights into Paul's gospel of Christ's righteousness. He had lashed out against the legalism and semi-Pelagianism of the schoolmen. He knew that no works can avail for salvation, but only Christ's righteousness which is by grace through faith. At this stage of his development Luther went back to Augustine and followed the great Latin Father. The righteousness of faith was understood as that which Christ works in us by His grace, and this was curiously mingled with the concept of imputed righteousness. But Luther's doctrine was sufficiently evangelical to cause him to challenge and stir the great medieval system.

Yet all this—his famous Lectures on Romans as well as The Ninety-Five Theses—was the work of Luther the young Catholic or Luther the Augustinian theologian. It was not yet Luther the Protestant Reformer.

But some of the Luther scholars of this century say that he must have been mistaken in giving such a late date to his "tower experience." They contend that he must have had a lapse of memory or something of that sort. And they insist that the "tower experience" came much earlier, perhaps even as early as 1512 or 1513—at least before he gave those famous lectures on the book of Romans (1515-1516).

What is at stake is this: If the "tower experience" did come earlier, then the real Protestant Luther did indeed teach that justification means being made righteous, and he did confound the righteousness of faith with the renewal and new obedience which the Holy Spirit works in the life of the believer. In other words, Luther was at heart a true Roman Catholic after all—for that is actually the real doctrine of refined Romanism.

We say "refined Romanism" because a number of Roman Catholics now tell us that the church of the sixteenth century had degenerated into semi-Pelagianism and that Luther was justified in rebelling against this decadent Catholicism. However, in order to meet the challenge of the Reformation, the church repudiated semi-Pelagianism as did Luther. And in the Council of Trent she reaffirmed the Augustinian concept of righteousness by faith.

Luther once said that if the Pope would teach the gospel of justification by faith, he would kiss his feet and carry him in his hands.1 There are Catholic scholars who are now saying: "If only Luther had lived to see the church repudiate semi-Pelagianism in the Council of Trent and reaffirm justification by God's grace alone! He would have kissed the Pope's feet and carried him in his hands."2 And there are some Lutheran scholars who practically agree with these sentiments.

The startling point is this: The young Luther has been rediscovered, and most of the interest in modern Luther studies centers in the theology of the young Luther—the theology that Luther pleaded to have burned and buried. Why this great interest in the early Luther? Because it is this Luther which forms the bridge that unites Catholics and Protestants. The ghost of this Luther has now become the chief apostle of healing the wound of the sixteenth century. It is indeed astonishing that the Luther who broke through and out of the Roman system should now be enlisted as the main agent to bridge the gulf between Romanism and Protestantism.

How much, then, might be at stake in whether or not we accept Luther's own dating of his "tower experience"!

How did the mature Reformer, the real Protestant Luther, reflect the Augustinian (Catholic) view of justification by faith? Let us permit Luther to speak for himself on this point:

    At first I devoured, not merely read, Augustine. But when the door was opened for me in Paul, so that I understood what justification by faith is, it was all over with Augustine. —Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), Vol.54, Table Talk.

The crucial point is: When was this door into Paul opened to Luther? Certainly not in 1515-1516 when he delivered his Lectures on Romans. In these we find him calling on "blessed Augustine" repeatedly. His final breakthrough had not yet come.

In 1518, probably near the end of the year (about the time when, according to Luther's own dating, he had the "tower experience"), Luther published his "Sermon on Threefold Righteousness." It is here that we find the first truly clear distinction between the righteousness of faith and the righteousness of life which is worked in the believer by the Holy Spirit. As Finnish scholar Saarnivaara says:

    The conception of justification which Luther sets forth in this sermon is in perfect harmony with his Reformation doctrine. The basic idea of righteousness before God, as expressed in it, is no longer compatible with the Augustinian view. Luther quite definitely teaches that man is justified through the eternal righteousness of Christ and not through a renewal or becoming righteous through the working of grace. The emphasis is laid on the work of Christ for sinners.—Luther Discovers the Gospel (St. Louis: Concord ia, 1951), pp.94-95.

Very soon after, Luther published another sermon in which he further revised and sharpened his thinking. This he entitled "Sermon on the Twofold Righteousness." It was apparently published early in 1519. It is here where we find that the metamorphosis of the Catholic to the Protestant Luther had finally taken place. Out of the old cocoon of Catholicism emerged Luther the full-fledged Protestant. And with him, in this final breakthrough, Protestantism was born.

Since it is in this "Sermon on the Twofold Righteousness" that we first identify the real Protestant doctrine of righteousness by faith, let us spend a little time noting its central thesis and its main thrust.3

The first kind of righteousness Luther calls "alien righteousness"—"Christ's living, doing and speaking, his suffering and dying." He calls it an "infinite righteousness," "primary." It is what men receive "in baptism and whenever they are truly repentant" and is given "without our works by grace alone."

The second kind of righteousness is what Luther calls "good works." " . . . this righteousness consists in love to one's neighbour, . . . in meekness and fear toward God. . . . this righteousness is the product of the righteousness of the first type, actually its fruit and consequence. . . . this righteousness follows the example of Christ."

It is especially to be noted that Luther does not belittle the necessity of the second righteousness. In its proper place he highly extols it. But he ascribes salvation wholly to the first righteousness.

These concepts may not seem so startling to us who take for granted a clear distinction between justification and sanctification (or to say this another way, between gospel and law). But the right distinction between gospel and law was regarded by Luther as the foundation of the Reformation. Often warning against thinking that this distinction is easy to maintain, he said that much grace and skill are required to make the distinction in practice.

There are a few points in Luther's "Sermon on the Twofold Righteousness" which are still a little fuzzy, but we must remember that the first Protestant had just hatched and started scratching. However, in the following years we find him polishing this concept of two-fold righteousness into a sharp instrument. His Commentary on Galatians, given in 1531, reflects his mature thinking. Dillenberger says, ". . . he considered the lectures of 1531... among the few works of his worth saving." — Dillenberger, Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, p.99.

In his Commentary on Galatians, Luther expands and fills out his concept of twofold righteousness.

Number 1: Passive Righteousness4

This is the righteousness proclaimed and offered to us in the gospel. Luther says that it is

    . . .the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness . . . which God through Christ, without works imputeth unto us . . . a mere passive righteousness . . .Therefore it seemeth good unto me to call this righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness, the passive righteousness [because it is entirely apart from all human efforts and works]. —Ibid., p.101.

    This passive righteousness of faith . . . which is the righteousness of grace, mercy and forgiveness of sin . . . — Ibid.

    . . . by mere imputation. . . —Ibid.

    . . . this righteousness is heavenly and passive: which we have not of ourselves, but receive it from heaven: which we work not, but apprehend it by faith. . . —Ibid., p.105.

    In that righteousness and life [of Christ] I have no sin, no sting of conscience, no care of death . . . I have another righteousness and life above this life, which is Christ the Son of God, Who knoweth no sin nor death, but is righteousness and life eternal.—Ibid., pp.105-106.
Because this righteousness of faith is the righteousness of Christ, Luther in many places declares it to be a whole, eternal and an infinite righteousness which is given to the believer, not piecemeal or gradually, but instantaneously and altogether.

There is one point that needs clarification. At times Luther will talk about this "alien righteousness" being "in us" (ibid., pp. 101,109). When he says this, he is not stepping back into the Augustinian/Roman Catholic formulation which confounds the work of Christ for us with His work in us. When Luther says that this alien righteousness is "in us," he does not mean "in us" as a quality (i.e., imparted or infused righteousness, as it has come to be called) but "in us" by faith. That is to say, it is seen and treasured by the heart. In the same fashion, Paul could tell the Philippian believers. " ". . . I have you in my heart. . . "(Phil. 1:7). To prove beyond all doubt that this is what Luther means, we cite his clarifying comments on Galatians:

Christian righteousness, therefore, as I have said, is the imputation of God for righteousness or unto righteousness, because of our faith in Christ, or for Christ's sake. When the popish schoolmen hear this strange and wonderful definition, which is unknown to reason, they laugh at it. For they imagine that righteousness is a certain quality poured into the soul, and afterwards spread into all the parts of man. They cannot put away the imaginations of reason, which teacheth that a right judgment, and a good will, or a good intent is true righteousness. This unspeakable gift therefore excelleth all reason, that God doth account and acknowledge him for righteous without any works, which embraceth his Son by faith alone, who was sent into the world, was born, suffered, and was crucified &c. for us.

This matter, as touching the words, is easy (to wit, that righteousness is not essentially in us, as the Papists reason out of Aristotle, but without (outside) us in the grace of God only and in his imputation . . .).—Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, tr. Philip S. Watson (Cambridge & London: James Clarke, 1953), p.227.

Number 2: Active Righteousness  

    . . . there is another righteousness called the righteousness of the law, or of the Ten Commandments, which Moses teacheth. This do we also teach after the doctrine of faith.—Quoted in Dillenberger, op. cit., p.100.
Luther says that this righteousness consists in
    . . . our works, and may be wrought of us either by pure natural strength (as the sophisters term it) or else by the gift of God. For these kinds of righteousness are also the gift of God, like as other good things are which we do enjoy.—Ibid., p.101.
It should be carefully noted that Luther acknowledges that this active righteousness in the Christian is a gift of God. That is to say, the Holy Spirit is given to the Christian to work it in him. But Luther does not, because of this, call it "the righteousness of faith." That is absolutely a distinct gift and belongs to Number 1. Only the passive righteousness is called "the righteousness of faith."

Of this active righteousness Luther says, "I know I ought to have it, and also to fulfill it." His point is that it cannot atone for sin, satisfy justice or appease his own conscience. In this life it is always incomplete and imperfect because the flesh of man remains an imperfect channel of the Spirit. Therefore Luther says, "I cannot trust unto it, neither dare I set it against the judgment of God." In the matter of consolation of a troubled conscience which trembles before God's judgment seat, Luther says that he abandons trust in this active righteousness altogether and rests only in the passive righteousness of mercy, grace, forgiveness of sins and imputation (see ibid., p.102).

Yet active righteousness is "necessary," only it must be kept within "its bounds" (ibid., p.104). As Christians, we must be diligent to do good works, but we must also be diligent not to trust in them. To trust in active righteousness, even though it too is a gift of God (i.e., He gives strength to obey), is to fall from grace (see ibid., p.106).

Active righteousness is the fruit of passive righteousness (i.e., sanctification is the fruit of righteousness by faith). Luther describes how imputed righteousness works active righteousness in the believer. Says he:
    I do good works, how and whensoever occasion is offered. If I be a minister of the Word, I preach, I comfort the broken-hearted, I administer the Sacraments. If I be an householder, I govern my house and my family, I bring up my children in the knowledge and fear of God. If I be a magistrate, the charge that is given me from above I diligently execute. If I be a servant, I do my master's business faithfully. To conclude: whosoever he be that is assuredly persuaded that Christ is his righteousness, doth not only cheerfully and gladly work well in his vocation, but also submitteth himself through love to the magistrates and to their laws, yea though they be severe, sharp and cruel, and (if necessity do so require) to all manner of burdens and dangers of this present life, because he knoweth that this is the will of God, and that this obedience pleaseth him.

    Thus far as concerning the argument of this Epistle, whereof Paul intreateth, taking occasion of false teachers who had darkened this righteousness of faith among the Galatians, against whom he setteth himself in defending and commending his authority and office. —Ibid., p.109.

    When we have thus taught faith in Christ, then do we teach also good works. Because thou hast laid hold of Christ by faith, through Whom thou art made righteous,5 begin now to work well. Love God and thy neighbour, call upon God, give thanks unto Him, praise Him, confess Him. Do good to thy neighbour and serve him: fulfil thine office. These are good works indeed, which flow out of this faith and this cheerfulness conceived in the heart, for that we have remission of sins freely in Christ . . . When sin is pardoned, and the conscience delivered from the burden and sting of sin, them may the Christian bear all things easily.. —Ibid. pp.111-112.
The Proper Distinction in the Twofold Righteousness

This distinction between the righteousness of faith (justification) and the righteousness of the law (sanctification) was the foundation of Luther's doctrine. He insisted on maintaining the distinction for two reasons: for the glory of Christ and for the comfort of troubled consciences.

Salvation is based on the righteousness of faith. If we bring sanctification (active righteousness) into this article of righteousness by faith, we darken the glory of Christ because we fail to ascribe salvation to His doing and dying alone. Nothing pacifies God's wrath and saves us except that Christ "loved me, and gave Himself for Me" (Gal. 2:20). Compared with this inestimable price of His eternal and infinite righteousness, the active righteousness of all men, the sufferings of all the martyrs and the obedience of all the holy angels are nothing. Indeed, it would be better to throw all works—even those done by grace—down to hell rather than to put them in the room of this great righteousness of faith.6

Then Luther looks at the human side of the coin. The proper distinction between the righteousness of faith and the righteousness of holy living (sanctification) is necessary for the comfort of a troubled conscience. Says Luther:
    This is our divinity, whereby we teach how to put a difference between these two kinds of righteousness, active and passive . . . Both are necessary, but both must be kept within their bounds.—Quoted in Dillenberger, op. cit., p.102.

    I am indeed a sinner as touching this present life and the righteousness thereof . . . But I have another righteousness and life above this life, which is Christ the Son of God, Who knoweth no sin, no death, but is righteousness and life eternal. —Ibid., p.106.

    Therefore do we so earnestly set forth and so often repeat this doctrine of faith or Christian righteousness, that by this means it may be kept in continual exercise, and may be plainly discerned from the active righteousness of the law. (For by this only doctrine the Church is built, and in this it consisteth.) Otherwise we shall never be able to hold the true divinity, but by and by we shall either become canonists, observers of ceremonies, observers of the law, or Papists, and Christ so darkened that none in the Church shall be either rightly taught or comforted. Wherefore, if we will be teachers and leaders of others, it behoveth us to have great care of these matters, and to mark well this distinction between the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of Christ. And this distinction is easy to be uttered in words, but in use and experience it is very hard, although it be never so diligently exercised and practiced; for in the hour of death, or in other agonies of the conscience, these two sorts of righteousness do encounter more near together than thou wouldest wish or desire.

    Wherefore I do admonish you, especially such as shall become instructors and guiders of consciences, and also every one apart, that ye exercise yourselves continually by study, by reading, by meditation of the Word and by prayer, that in the time of temptation ye may be able to instruct and comfort both your own consciences and others, and to bring them from the law to grace, from active and working righteousness to the passive and received righteousness, and, to conclude, from Moses to Christ. For the devil is wont, in affliction and in the conflict of conscience, by the law to make us afraid, and to lay against us the guilt of sin, our wicked life past, the wrath and judgment of God, hell and eternal death, that by this means he may drive us to desperation, make us bond-slaves to himself, and pluck us from Christ. Furthermore, he is wont to set against us those places of the Gospel, wherein Christ himself requireth works of us, and with plain words threateneth damnation to those who do them not. Now, if here we be not able to judge between these two kinds of righteousness, if we take not by faith hold of Christ sitting at the right hand of God, who maketh intercession unto the Father for us wretched sinners [Heb. 7:25], then are we under the law and not under grace, and Christ is no more a saviour, but a lawgiver. Then can there remain no more salvation, but a certain desperation and everlasting death must needs follow.—Ibid., pp.107-108.

The Formula of Concord

A few years after the death of Luther the Formula of Concord (1556) reiterated these basic Luther insights on double righteousness. In the Formula of Concord Luther's doctrine of righteousness by faith suffered no deterioration at the hands of his ardent followers. What the Formula lacked in the thunder and fire of Luther's language, it gained in a statement of greater precision and refinement. This is no surprise when we consider Luther's temperament as well as the lapse of time in which to sharpen the Protestant arguments. It is ridiculous to suggest, as some have done, that the Formula of Concord departed from Luther in its statement on righteousness by faith. Certainly it departed from the early Augustinian Luther, whom Luther himself repudiated. But if these early Lutherans were to be faulted in drawing up their statement, it would be in slavishly following their hero in almost everything.

The two sections of the Formula of Concord which concern us here are its declarations, "The righteousness of Faith Before God," and, "Of the Law and the Gospel." Here Luther's distinction between the two kinds of righteousness, or his distinction between the law and the gospel, is hailed as the brilliant light of the Reformation.

The righteousness of faith is declared to be our only righteousness before God. This righteousness consists in the obedience of the divine-human Christ in both life and death, by which He fulfilled and satisfied the law on behalf of poor, condemned sinners. God imputes this righteousness to all who believe the gospel, and by it they are justified and saved. Justification is a declaration or verdict of God that the sinner is acquitted and counted as righteous for the sake of the obedience and death of Jesus Christ.

Renewal, sanctification and the life of new obedience "succeeds the righteousness of faith." This is called "incipient righteousness" because it is never complete in this life due to the corruption of original sin, which inheres in the flesh of all saints. This righteousness consists in a life of active obedience to the law of God, which becomes the rule of life for the justified believer (see "Of the Third Use of the Law," Book of Concord, pp. 261-264). No one can "retain" justification if he despises God's law and the necessity of good works. The Holy Ghost indwells believers and enables them to live this life of new obedience. Nevertheless (and here is the vital point):

    . . . this indwelling of God is not the righteousness of faith which St. Paul calls the iustitiam Dei, that is, the righteousness of God, for the sake of which we are declared righteous before God; but it follows the preceding righteousness of faith, which is nothing else than the forgiveness of sins and the gracious adoption of the poor sinner, for the sake of Christ's obedience and merit alone. Ibid., pp.254-255
The Formula of Concord declares that the two kinds of righteousness must not be mingled together so that they are both called "the righteousness of faith before God" (ibid., p.254).
    . . . neither renewal, sanctification, virtues nor good works are . . . our righteousness before God, nor are they to be constituted or set up as a part or cause of our righteousness, or otherwise under any pretext, title, or name whatever in the article of justification as necessary and belonging thereto; but the righteousness of faith consists alone in the forgiveness of sins out of pure grace, for the sake of Christ's merit alone; which blessings are offered us in the promise of the Gospel, and are received, accepted, applied, and appropriated by faith alone.—Ibid., p.253.

Martin Chemnitz Answers the Council of Trent

Martin Chemnitz (sometimes called the second Martin of the Reformation) was one of the main spirits in drawing up the Formula of Concord. He lacked Luther's volcanic and dynamic power of speech, but he was a careful, precise and thorough scholar. He had sat at the feet of Philipp Melanchthon. A few years after the Formula, he produced his very thorough Examination of the Council of Trent.

One of the main arguments between Rome and the Reformers was over the meaning of "the righteousness of faith" in Paul. According to the Papists:

    . . . the righteousness of faith is said to consist in this, that it leads the regenerate to obedience and observance of those things which are written in the Law, so that the righteousness of faith is the obedience of the regenerate to the Law, when love, which embraces the whole Law, is infused into believers through the Holy Spirit.—Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent (Concordia), p.528.

In reply to this Papal proposition, Chemnitz agrees "that the Holy Spirit writes the Law into the hearts of the regenerate, so that by faith, through the Holy Spirit, they begin to keep the Law." —Ibid., p.529. But following Luther, Chemnitz proves from Paul that this kind of righteousness is properly called "the righteousness of the law" (Rom. 8:4). It must not be confused with what Paul calls "the righteousness of faith." Says Chemnitz:

For the righteousness of the Law is that a man does the things that are written in the Law; but the righteousness of faith is by believing to appropriate to oneself what Christ has done for us. Therefore the works by which the regenerate do those things which are written in the Law, either before or after their renewal, belong to the righteousness of the Law, though some in one way, others in another. —Ibid., p.490.

Chemnitz therefore affirms, "The righteousness of the Law [sanctification] and the righteousness of faith are distinguished."—Ibid.

Calvin matches Chemnitz in definitiveness and maintains the same distinction between righteousness by faith and sanctification. As in a sound Christology (union but no fusion in Christ's two natures), Calvin beautifully argues for union without fusion, distinction without separation in the two kinds of righteousness.7 In this central issue all branches of the Reformation were thoroughly united. They were implacably opposed to confusing "the righteousness of faith" with sanctification.



1 See H. J. McSorIey, 'Luther, Trent, Vatican I & II," McCormick Quarterly2 1, Nov., 1967, pp.95-104.
2 See ibid.
3 See Luther's Works, vol.31, pp.297-306.

4 This term "passive righteousness" must not became confused with what later Protestant scholars came to call "passive obedience" when they referred to the two phases of christ's work as "passive obedience" (death) and "active obedience" (life).
5 In context Luther obviously means being made righteous imputatively, not subjectively as Rome teaches.
6 See Luther, op. cit., pp. 176-i 77.
7 See John Calvin, Institutes, Bk. 3, chap. 11.

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