Luther’s Two Kinds of Righteousness Part A


In honour of the 500 year anniversary year of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, I thought I would end my long posting sabbatical with a series of blogs summarizing some of his profound theology.

While Luther remains a controversial figure in church circles, largely due to his late-in-life writings against the Jews of his day, there can be no doubt of his amazing insights into the depths of Christian theology, an insight which, magnified by the printing press and his tracts, set a fire through the church in Germany that sparked the Protestant Reformation five hundred years ago.

A highlight of our trip to Wittenberg last April was being able to walk the streets that he walked, worship in the church that he preached in and stroll through the grounds of the university where his theology was debated and solidified.

In Luther’s Sermon and Tract, Two Kinds of Righteousness, he identifies two kinds of Christian righteousness, which correspond to the two kinds of sin. The first is what he calls alien rightesouness, alien because it comes from outside the believer and is imputed to the believer through faith in Christ. It is Christ’s righteousness, which becomes ours upon our repentance and exercise the gift of faith and baptism.   We would relate this to justification, that is, our righted relationship with God through faith in Christ. In this great exchange, our sin and the wrath we deserve because of it is placed on Christ, at the cross and his righteousness is imputed to us, so it is as if we had never sinned. When the Father looks at us, he sees us just as righteous as his Son. Thus we can say with Luther “Mine are Christ’s living, doing and speaking, his suffering and dying, mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, suffered, and died as He did.”   This alien righteousness is placed opposite original sin, that sin that we have had imputed to us through Adam. Just as Adam’s sin has become ours by virtue of the human race, apart from what we have done, so Christ’s righteousness becomes ours apart from any work. Thus we can say with the Apostle Paul of Christ in 1 Cor. 30, “whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness, and sanctification and redemption.”

It is interesting that Luther states that this righteousness is not instilled all at once, but that it begins, makes progress and is finally perfected at death. This is where conservative theologians would likely take exception. They would say, either we have Christ’s righteousness fully or we have it not. A woman cannot be partly pregnant. Yet for all practical purposes the result is the same for Luther would say that it is fully instilled upon death.   Hence Luther sees an element of continual sanctification in the application of this alien righteousness. Certainly as the believer progresses he or she become more aware of this imputed righteousness, having full confidence at death.

It is because of this alien righteousness, alien because it is not our own that, we bow in worship before the Father, cherishing the Son in the power of the Spirit. And we can say with Paul that “it is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

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