Great Stuff — Martin Luther and the Continual Teaching of Righteousness

HT to Pastor Clint Poppe for suggesting this post; his words:

Dr. C. Matthew Phillips is a member here at Good Shepherd, history prof at CU in Seward, brilliant Lutheran layman, and frequent guest on Issues Etc (or here).


“But this most excellent righteousness, the righteousness of faith, which God imputes to us through Christ without works, is neither political nor ceremonial nor legal nor work-righteousness but is quite the opposite; it is a merely passive righteousness, while all the others, listed above, are active. For here we work nothing, render nothing to God; we only receive and permit someone else to work in us, namely, God. Therefore it is appropriate to call this righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness ‘passive.’ This is a righteousness hidden in a mystery, which the world does not understand. In fact, Christians themselves do not adequately understand it or grasp it in the midst of their temptations. Therefore it must always be taught and continually exercised.” Martin Luther, “Lectures on Galatians (1535), Luther’s Works vol. 26, pp. 4-5. [Emphasis added]

*Disclaimer: this post is more theological than usual, but I am a Lutheran historian at a Lutheran university.*

Some pastors today want to focus their preaching less on salvation, or justification of the sinner (what Luther calls passive righteousness here.) These pastors say things like, “we’ve heard all about justification and Christ’s love for us, now let’s move on to sanctification and doing good works.” I’m paraphrasing a Lutheran pastor (fairly recent graduate from an LCMS seminary) here. This pastor meant well and he clearly confessed the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ. However, this particular presentation revealed a fatal error. Sinners, who are also saints by faith and baptism, don’t ever move on. They must contiuously and constantly hear the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ. Dr. Luther understood this very well from his study of the Bible and his own experience. He expressed similary sentiments as those above in a sermon for Ascension Day preached in the early 1530s.

“This doctrine of faith and salvation is the crucial one, and it cannot be mastered in a moment, but must rather be continuously taught and nurtured. For grace and its blessings are so great that the human heart is terrified when it hears God wants to open the gates of heaven so wide, and that when you believe in Christ there no longer is any sin or wrath of God, nothing but pure righteouness. That is why the doctrine of faith must be constantly reveiwed, constantly emphasized, so that, as St. Paul says in Ephesians 4:15, ’[we] may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.” Martin Luther, “Second Sermon for Ascension,” ed. and trans. Eugene Klug, Luther’s House Postils vol. 2, p. 134. [Emphasis added]

Christians (saints/sinners) don’t graduate to learning active righteousness as a new level of their spiritual life. First and foremost, they need to hear about God’s act of justification and passive righteousness. Notice, Dr. Luther points out that Christians mature by hearing about justification by faith in Christ. That’s right, Christians become more mature through passive righteousness. More preaching of the Law or exhorting Christians to active righteousness will accomplish nothing if we ”move on” from the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ. It is the Gospel, not just the first step toward some active life of discipleship.

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