Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Two Kinds of Righteousness.

I made something of an off hand remark about "two kinds of righteousness" in the last post and a number of people e-mailed me about it. I must have been out of it, but I had no idea that this was controversial in the Lutheran blogsphere. In fact, I think (as we shall see below) that it doesn't really contradict the law-gospel approach (as some have charged), but clarify some of the misleading rhetoric connected with it.

First, what am I referring to when I talk about "two kinds of righteousness?" Luther used to the phrase to entitle a sermon he wrote in 1518 (possibly reformatioal, or close to being as such). He also mentions this in the preface of the Galatians commentary of 1531-35.

"Two kinds of righteousness" describes the two sorts of righteousness the human subject is capable of having. This goes hand-in-hand with the dialectical anthropology that Luther operates within. The first sort of righteousness is active righteousness and it is the sort of righteousness that the external person has. In other words, since the external person is ruled by reason and can weigh external goods, one against another- they are capable of actualizing a external, activity based, righteousness in the kingdom of the world.

This means that we do good things using our freedom and reason, and therefore people "see" us doing good things. In this realm therefore, the human person can be instructed by the law and when asked to do good things external by the law, most certain can do so.

There is a second sort of righteousness, the righteousness of faith which is passive before God. Again, as we saw, for Luther the will is primary in our relationship to God. It also rules the human person. The will is ruled by affections that are inculcated in us relationally. We either love and believe in the Word of the Devil or in God. As he say in Bondage of the Will, the two master take turns riding us and we can do nothing to resist them.

Luther says that the righteousness we have in this realm is from faith and not activity. God gives us Jesus Christ, whom we passively receive in faith and therefore become righteous through him. Our activity cannot affect this realm, because our actions do not change our unfree will to be different than it is. God must act on us. We are always passive in this relationship to him.

Now, I think that this is helpful for understanding law/gospel because it clears up a lot of confusion.

When, for example, certain 20th century Lutheran thinkers complain about a "third use" intervening after the gospel, they are effectively making a mistake of realms that could be cleared up by this distinction. In other words, when we are dealing with our righteousness in the direction of God via our bound wills- yes, that's absolutely right. The gospel is the last Word. There is no law intervening in our relationship to God after the gospel comes. The gospel is the last word.

But, when we are talking about the kingdom of the world, things are different. In the kingdom of the world, we are free and we are capable of "using" the law as a guide to actualize a right relationship with creation. Hence, although as passive righteousness (things that are above us, in the terms of the Bondage of the Will) the law is worthless, it is good and necessary in the instruction of the external person in the kingdom of the world.

In that sense, gospel could be said to come before law- just as the promise of the first commandment comes at the beginning of the Decalogue and then frees one to obey the rest of the commandments. Nevertheless, if we are looking from the perspective of the passive righteousness, then law precedes gospel and ends with the pronouncement of justification.

For this reason, the distinction does not destroy law/gospel, but clarifies how we are talking about law/gospel- that is, as it relates to "passive" righteousness or "active" righteousness.


  1. In the scheme of two kinds of rigtheousness, isn't the third use of the law reduced to the first use (curbing use) applied to Christians?

  2. I guess I don't see how that follows. The external person who the law instructs under the third use is perfectly free and therefore can be instructed in the law according the third use. Hence through sanctification we can achieve active righteousness relatively well in this life. The distinction of two kinds of righteousness is merely a description of our realm of freedom/bondage,- our realm of activity/passivity,- realm of righteousness before God/humanity.

  3. I mean, the real issue with the third use of the law is "does the law have any role instructing the Christian?" If the Christian still lives in the flesh, then obviously yes! Furthermore, this doesn't mean that the law doesn't also serve them as a curb. The distinction that the FC makes is the application to believers vs. unbelievers. It is quite clear that the third use functions to threaten and curb the evil inclinations of Christians as well. This is unavoidable this side of eternity.

  4. "Hence through sanctification we can achieve active righteousness relatively well in this life."

    Isn't santification orthogonal in some ways to 'active righteousness' - after all we can observe the latter, but the former is somewhat more mysterious - and isn't particularly easily to correlate with external actions.

  5. This is one of the best summaries of the two kinds of righteousness that I have ever read. One thing I have never understood though, and still don't, is how the two kinds of righteousness fit with the two kingdoms, if they in fact are supposed to. For example, if the active or civil righteousness is defined by the law and the passive righteousness is defined by the gospel AND the law applies only to the kingodm of the world and the gospel only to the kingom of heaven, then where does the 1st table of the 10 commandments belong? In other words, it seems that the only active righteousness that applies in the kingdom of the world is civil righteousness and that would seem to be determined by the 2nd table alone, it appears to me that the only place left for the active righteousness defined by the 1st table is in the kingdom of God, but we know that only the gospel reigns there? What am I missing?

  6. Chris- I would agree that sanctification cannot be identified with a series of external acts. Nevertheless, my point and Luther's point would be that that the inner-person is not some how hermetically sealed. The sanctification of the inner-person has concrete effects on behavior. Now, either a non-regenerate person or regenerate person can have civil righteousness. The question is the motivating factor. The sanctified person's motivating factor is the work of the Holy Spirit within them through faith, whereas the non-sanctified person's goal is self-justificaiton.

    Mike-The kingdom of the right (the Church) does deal with both law and gospel as it is proclaimed to the inner-person and their conscience before God. This involves the whole Decalogue. The inner person fulfills the first commandment by having faith. Faith sanctifies as it justifies. The act of being made passive and receptive to the Word of God is simultaneously the fulfillment of the first commandment. As Luther interprets them, the honoring the the divine name and the keeping of the Sabbath day have to do with listen to God's Word and believing it- so they would be included in this.

    I think you are correct to say that the kingdom of the world deals mainly with the second table. Nevertheless, in Luther's day, it would also involve the first table since the state supported the Church and blasphemy was punished. For modern American and Europeans this would be different though- so it would therefore mainly involve the second table.

  7. Thanks for the clarifications Dr Kilcrease - is there anything else you could recommend reading on the topic of how law and gospel and the two kinds of rigtheousness relate to one another?

  8. The best is "The Genius of Luther's Theology" by Charles Arand and Robert Kolb. Robert Kolb's "Luther: Confessor of the Faith" from Oxford University Press is also quite good. The two have written a series of articles on the topic (mostly to be found in LQ, I believe on is on the website for free as a featured article) and are the major proponents of this way of understanding law/gospel.

  9. I also wish to thank you for your clarification to my question Dr Kilcrease. I tried reading the Kolb and Arand book you mentioned more than once but kept getting bogged down in the style of writing that seemed to me to be mostly theologians writing to other theologians and not to laymen like me. I will give it another try but I received more clarification on how the Decalogue fits with the two kinds of righteousness and the two kingdoms than I found in Kolb and Arand (both great theologians, I'm sure). I think though that I will read the other sources you mentioned first before I go back to the Kolb and Arand book. Maybe the other sources boil it down to the bare essentials better like you do above.

    By the way, this was my first visit to this website. I like it and have bookmarked it for daily use. The topics discussed here seem to be the essentials that I am interested in. I can learn how the politicians and my favorite sports team are doing and how to make beer on some of the other websites out there.