Luther’s Two Kinds of Righteousness

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On March 28, 1518, Martin Luther preached a sermon called Two Kinds of Righteousness. In this short sermon, Luther explains to us the distinction between Christ’s righteousness and our actual righteousness. Luther refers to the former as an alien righteousness. This is “the righteousness of another, instilled from without.” The righteousness in view here comes alone from Jesus Christ and is received by us through faith in him. Luther explains that through faith we are joined with Christ, and so receive all that he possesses. Luther puts it this way, “Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours”. Alien righteousness is primary, it is the first righteousness that man can possess. This is because man is dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1) and is entirely unable to producing a righteousness within. For Luther, this alien righteousness is also a justifying righteousness. It comes to us by faith and “swallows up all sins in a moment.” By the alien righteousness received through Christ, man is declared innocent of sins and positively righteous before a holy God.

Yet alien righteousness is not the only kind of righteousness we possess as believers. Christ’s righteousness produces within us what Luther calls actual, or proper, righteousness. Luther makes it clear that our actual righteousness is in every way contingent upon receiving the alien righteousness of Christ. Luther writes, “This righteousness is the product of the righteousness of the first type, actually its fruit and consequence”. Whereas alien righteousness is associated with our justification, proper righteousness is associated with our sanctification. Proper righteousness is seen in our fruitfulness and our good works. Ephesians 2:10 tells us that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Through the alien righteousness of Christ, we are made into new creatures, capable of producing actual righteousness, works pleasing to the Father.

There are two important applications to be taken from this sermon, one more theological and the other practical (not that we can separate these two categories entirely from each other). First, we are reminded that we are saved by Christ’s work, not our own. Yes, the believer is required to be righteous, but this righteousness only comes because of God’s work in us. Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast”. Secondly, we are reminded about the great importance of good works. Each and every day, God has graciously granted to us opportunities to display our righteousness in Christ. These opportunities are not in short supply, though we often miss them or perhaps ignore them. As believers, we must regularly stop to ponder what good work God has prepared for us today. God’s desire is to be glorified through us and our lives every single day. Let us lean on our savior and know that he has granted all that is needed for our obedience and fruitfulness that pleases our heavenly Father.

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