A Sermon on the Two Kinds of Righteousness

Our observation of the 500th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther’s publication of the Ninety-Five Theses took place a few months ago.  However, this event only initiated the Lutheran Reformation.  Luther’s rediscovery of the Gospel resulted from his study (and teaching of) the Holy Scriptures from 1515 to 1520.  He developed the theology of justification by faith alone in Christ within the context of the debate over indulgences within the Western Church.

On March 28, 1518 (Palm Sunday) Martin Luther preached a sermon (later published in 1519) called A Sermon on Two Kinds of Righteousness. Originally recorded in Latin, Georg Spalatin also translated it into German.  The traditional Epistle Reading for Palm Sunday provided the text for the sermon: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” (Philippians 2:5-6).

In this sermon, Martin Luther explained his emerging understanding of the relationship between divine and human righteousness.  First, he discussed the alien righteousness that God pours into the sinner from the outside.  This is the righteousness, by which Christ justifies sinners.  He grants this righteousness through baptism or at any time of true repentance.  Christ shares everything with the believer as a bridegroom and bride share all things.  Luther reiterated that Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness; even Christ Himself becomes ours through faith.

Christ’s righteousness, which He instills into believers by faith, is the foundation and source of all actual righteousness.  It replaces and even does more than Adam’s original righteousness.  Luther concluded:

Therefore, this alien righteousness, infused in us without our works by grace alone—while the Father, to be sure, inwardly draws us to Christ—is set opposite original sin, likewise alien, which we acquire without our works by birth alone.  Christ daily drives out the old Adam more and more in accordance with the extent to which faith and knowledge of Christ grow.  For [alien righteousness] is not infused entirely at once, but it begins, makes progress, and is finally perfected at the end through death.[1]

This passage served as a bridge from Luther’s description of alien righteousness to the second kind of righteousness.  Notice also Luther’s use of the medieval theological term: infused (which was translated as ‘instilled’ in Luther’s Works edition.) At this point, Luther did not seem concerned with making the distinction between the infusion of righteousness and the imputation of righteousness.  However, he did emphasize the external (alien) nature of Christ’s righteousness given to the believer.

Now Dr. Luther turned toward an explanation of the second kind of righteousness, which he called one’s proper righteousness.  Believers accomplish this righteousness through working with Christ’s alien righteousness.  This cooperation allows the Christian to accomplish truly good works through the mortification of the flesh and service to one’s neighbor with love.   Luther equates the proper righteousness to the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22).  He explained:

This righteousness goes on to complete the first for it ever strives to do away with the old Adam and to destroy the body of sin.  Therefore it hates itself and loves its neighbor; it does not seek its own good, but that of another, and in this its whole way of living consists.  For in that it hates itself and does not seek its own, it crucifies the flesh.  Because it seeks the good of another, it works love.  Thus in each sphere it does God’s will, lives soberly with self, justly with the neighbor, devoutly toward God.[2]

Once Christ has granted his alien righteousness to the believer, he may imitate Christ with the proper righteousness.  Since the soul does not need to seek its own righteousness, it may now look after the interests of others.

[1] Luther’s Works, vol. 31, pp. 297-99 (quote on p. 299); I have slightly changed the translation based on the Latin text in Weimar Ausgabe, vol. 2, p. 146.

[2] LW 31: 300.

About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.

At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


A Sermon on the Two Kinds of Righteousness — 4 Comments

  1. Dr. Phillips, great article. I especially appreciate the distinction you made in how Luther speaks of “infused” righteousness. It goes to show how we who read Luther with 21st century hindsight need not jupt the gun on the terms Luther uses early on in his theological development but, more importantly, examine the context in which he uses them. cf. His commentary on Romans (LW AE vol. 25) where he discusses righteousness vs. his later treatment of it in his Galatians commentary (1535).
    Of note, thoo, though Law and Gospel are not spoken of per se in specific, Luther does rightly make the distinction without replacing it with a standard of 2KR.

  2. My comments are based on this posting and a review of an English translation of the sermon found on the Internet at: http://www.augsburgfortress.org/media/downloads/9781451462708_sample_chapter.pdf
    The first thing that struck me was the following sentence from Dr. Phillips’ posting: “He grants this righteousness through baptism or at any time of true repentance.” The translation of the sermon I read has “and” in place of “or” before “at any time of true repentance.” I think that theologically, this is a significant difference, and I am curious to know what Luther wrote. I do not own Luther’s complete works, and I was unable to find either the German or Latin versions on the Internet.
    Another thought was that the idea of an “infused righteousness” begs the question whether this righteousness is then a “substance” as in Aristotelian metaphysics. I am not a student of this matter, but I am aware of the fact that Luther, although brought up on them, at some point condemned Aristotelian metaphysics. This idea also reminded me of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Grace of God, although I am not sure if it is officially “infused”, but for practical purposes, it certainly is.
    Of this “infused righteousness”, it is stated “….alien righteousness is not infused all at once, but it begins, makes progress, and is finally perfected at the end through death.” This from the Internet version. It seems to me from this and other places in this sermon that Luther did not differentiate between the perfect righteousness of God and the imperfect one of humankind. In other words, at this early time in his rediscovery of the Gospel, he confused justification and sanctification.
    Finally, it seems to me, that our righteousness is not infused at all. If you assume that “sinlessness” and “righteousness” are one and the same thing, then we are made righteous through the forgiveness of sins. As the earliest clear prophecy of the New Covenant reads, Jeremiah 31:34, “…for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Therefore, we are made righteous because of Him, Who has taken away the sins of the world. I think Occam would agree with me.
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  3. Dear Mr. Marquart:

    First, the text reads in Latin: “Haec ergo iusticia datur hominibus in baptismo et omni tempore verae poenitentiae..” so yes, the original text reads “and” not “or.” I’d note that I was not translating there but paraphrasing. If that changes the theological point, then I am open to discussion on that point.

    Second, I wrote the following: “Notice also Luther’s use of the medieval theological term: infused (which was translated as ‘instilled’ in Luther’s Works edition.) At this point, Luther did not seem concerned with making the distinction between the infusion of righteousness and the imputation of righteousness. However, he did emphasize the external (alien) nature of Christ’s righteousness given to the believer.” Luther did not seem as concerned at this time to make the distinction between infused and imputed righteousness that became an important distinction in theological polemics later. As an historian, I am seeking to understand the development of Luther’s theology of justification.

    Third, in relation to my point just stated, Luther did not make the sharp distinction between justification and sanctification in 1518. However, we can see the origins of that significant distinction in this sermon.

  4. @Dr. Matthew Phillips #3

    Dear Dr. Phillips: Thank you for your most gracious response.
    With regard to the “and”/”or” matter, the way I read the sermon, “or” would refer to someone receiving righteousness either through Baptism, or, as most mainline Christian churches agree, in rare, extraordinary cases, God conveys this righteousness without Baptism. With “and”, it becomes questionable whether one receives righteousness without “true repentance” for one’s sins after Baptism. The “and” reading leads to serious questions about the forgiveness of sins and how one distinguishes between “true” and “fake” (forgive me) repentance.
    I am particularly interested in the changes in his beliefs, and their timing, which Luther underwent as the Gospel he rediscovered, became the “pure” Gospel which our Confessions urge us to proclaim. You see, I lived under both Nazi and Soviet regimes, and I was in the respective countries when both regimes fell. Since then, I have watched how people adjust to the new ideology, which they fought against earlier in their lives. In the same way, I suspect, Luther’s rediscovery of the true Gospel was not perfected during the “Tower Experience”, but evolved over many years thereafter. One of my particular thorns in the flesh is the fact that most Lutheran pastors believe that Luther was correct in the first of the 95 Thesis, when he insisted that the whole life of the believer should be penance. As I wrote this, I realized that the German word “Buße” can be translated as both “penance” and “repentance.”
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

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