by: Rick Serina
This is the next in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President commemorating anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relate to the challenges facing us.
If Lutheran pastors had to identify the biblical passages that cause them the most difficulty when preparing a sermon, Sermon on the Mount would probably lead the way. These words of Jesus have left many interpreters scratching their heads, and there may be as many approaches to preaching those chapters of St. Matthew’s Gospel as there are pericopes to preach in them. For Lutheran clergy, what keeps us awake at night is figuring out how to preach the morality of the Sermon on the Mount without detracting from the doctrine justification. Does Jesus just use these moral commands as a way to reveal our sin? Or does he expect us to obey them now? By preaching these imperatives, am I misleading the faithful into works-righteousness, where they believe they can justify themselves? How can I urge the people to lead godly lives without making them placing confidence in their morality rather than Christ? Is the law winning over the gospel? It’s not just the Sermon on the Mount, but nearly all passages of moral exhortation (paraenesis) in the New Testament cause us the same difficulty. Preaching morality is not easy. It has never been easy for Lutherans, who have long had to cautiously distinguish between faith in Christ that justifies and the obedience to God’s Word that should shape our lives, but can never save us. Yet it is as necessary now as ever.
It is precisely this challenge that the distinction between two kinds of righteousness addresses. The distinction, simply put, seeks to preserve the preaching of morality without confusing it with the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. We make a grave mistake, however, if we think of it as a novel idea or a recent discovery. On the contrary, it is simply one way of explaining the doctrine of justification by faith, in particular by applying justification to how we view the Christian life after baptism and viewing sanctification as a consequence of the forgiveness we have in Christ. It is a different way of showing how Christians should pursue a life of virtue in accordance with the paraenesis of the New Testament, only not in such a way that their confidence rests upon their works. Our salvation ultimately depends upon what Christ has done for us, and that means Christ’s righteousness imputed to us and received by faith. At the same time, we are called to lead a life of personal righteousness by obeying God’s Word and living according to it, and that righteousness of ours is a benefit to both us and to our neighbor.
This is what Luther communicates in an undated sermon on the topic, presumably based on Philippians 2:5-6. In the short sermon, Luther makes a distinction between alien righteousness and proper righteousness. Alien righteousness, from the Latin alius (or “other”), belongs to Christ. He confers it upon us and we receive it. It does not belong to us. It comes from outside of us. Alien righteousness is synonymous with justification by faith. Most scholars believe Luther drafts this sermon sometime in 1519, right about the time that his understanding of justification by faith begins to crystallize. In fact, this may be the first explicit definition of justification by faith—far more direct than the 1519 treatises on the sacraments we have already discussed and well earlier than the 1520 Freedom of a Christian.
At this early stage, though, Luther also feels the need to clarify this doctrine of justification by presenting another kind of righteousness different from the alien, external righteousness one we receive through faith: the other is proper righteousness, from the Latin proprium (or “one’s own”). Unlike alien righteousness, proper righteousness belongs to us. It is what we do. It is our obedience to God’s commands. Luther lists three things that proper righteousness entails: good works, love toward our neighbor, and the fear of God. He could have defined this in any number of ways, mind you. He uses this aspect of the distinction to show that all of our works—those which count as our proper righteousness—follow from faith and do not make us acceptable to God apart from faith in Christ. In this sermon and its distinction between alien righteousness and proper righteousness, Luther underscores alien righteousness, which is based upon justification by faith. At the same time, he wants to maintain the necessity of proper righteousness on our part. He does not dismiss that component, whether you describe it as proper righteousness, sanctification, the Christian life, or simply good works.
The distinction Luther makes between the two kinds of righteousness in this early sermon may be different from other ways you have heard them taught. For instance, most have probably learned of the distinction between passive righteousness and active righteousness, which Luther uses to explain the same basic concept in his 1531 lectures on Galatians. Passive righteousness refers to the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received as a gift by faith, while active righteousness has to do with our works in the sight of others. Philipp Melanchthon made a slightly different distinction in the 1530 Augsburg Confession, where he contrasted civil righteousness with spiritual righteousness (AC 18). Civil righteousness refers to those things subject to human reason and arising from our human nature, such as our good works as citizens, spouses, parents, and workers. Spiritual righteousness, on the other hand, is the righteousness of God granted us by the Holy Spirit, chiefly those things which pertain to salvation, such as faith. The Formula of Concord parses this even differently in numerous articles, speaking of the righteousness of faith, which justifies the sinner before God on account of Christ (FC SD III), and external righteousness, or humanity’s outward works (FC SD II). No matter how you define this distinction or slice it up, the purpose is the same: we must not confuse the gift of salvation we have in Christ with the works we do as Christians. In short, we should never obscure the doctrine of justification with sanctification.
For most modern Lutherans, though, the doctrine of justification isn’t a problem. Within our theological circles, we have more than a century worth of using C.F.W. Walther’s The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel to make that point clear. There is little misunderstanding or marginalization of the doctrine of justification by faith among us. The challenge for us is figuring out how to talk rightly about sanctification. How should we urge our people to good works without detracting from Christ’s work? How should we talk about the law without being legalistic? How should we emphasize the Christian life without minimizing the doctrine of justification? This is not a new problem, though; it has been a perennial problem within Lutheranism. There is a reason the Formula of Concord, just a generation removed from Luther, has no fewer than four articles addressing it: “Righteousness of Faith” (FC III), “Good Works” (FC IV), “Law and Gospel” (FC V), and “Third Use of the Law” (FC V). There is a reason Walther had to devote his series of lectures to the topic, and why those lectures have resonated since then. There is a reason two of the three controversial items (gospel reductionism and rejection of the third use of the law) related to the seminary walkout and our denominational fragmentation in the 1970s had to do with it. There is a reason that the topic continues to come up at our seminary symposia, in theological publications, and on social media. We all agree about justification, but we struggle to find an adequate balance between preserving that doctrine of justification and urging people toward obedience to the moral commands of Holy Scripture.
The distinction between the two kinds of righteousness is one way to help us think through it. It preserves the doctrine of justification by insisting that our salvation depends solely upon the work of Christ and its benefits for us, received in Word and sacrament by faith. Yet it also maintains the absolute necessity of living out obedience to God by doing what he commands, with the sole proviso that we do not trust in our works for salvation. Of course, we can talk about it in a host of other ways. There are innumerable biblical metaphors we could use (law-gospel, death-resurrection, baptism-new life, etc.). However we talk about it, though, what matters is that we talk about it. We are in no cultural or denominational position to leave the absolutely imperative commands for the new life in Christ out of our preaching. Scripture teaches them, the confessions affirm them, and our people need them, especially if we are to distinguish ourselves from a culture taking very different moral cues than we do. We have to preach sanctification. We want people to live as Christians. The New Testament repeatedly urges us to obey God and his commands, to live differently than the world around us, to change our lives in accordance with our faith in Christ. This is no time to diminish those exhortations.
The only caveat we must make is that we obey Scripture not in order to be rendered acceptable to God, but because we he has made us acceptable to him on account of Christ. We dare never detract from Christ’s glory and what he has done. But we must teach what Scripture says so that the people may benefit from those imperatives, so that we might live together as Christ’s body in coordination with all of his members moving in the same direction (1 Cor. 12:12-27), so that we can distinguish ourselves from the godless morality increasingly more prevalent around us. Preaching morality is never easy or straightforward; if it were, there would have been no need for the Lutheran Reformation, for those articles in the Formula of Concord, or for Walther’s theses. Faithfulness to God’s Word and our responsibility to his people is worth the effort.
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