Two Kinds of Righteousness

Martin Luther taught that there are two kinds of righteousness. He says, “There are two kinds of righteousness, just as man’s sin is of two kinds.”1 The idea is that God works in two dimensions. The vertical dimension is about our relationship with God. It would involve anything from God teaching me His ways, or God convicting me of my sin, to me praying and interceding to God. When most people think of being devout, this is what they think of. The consideration of monks and nuns is often at the forefront of the mind, in both religious and secular society, when talking about someone who has given themselves fully to the purposes of God. Yet, the second dimension, which is equally as important, is the horizontal dimension. This is my relationship with other people.

Luther continues, “The first is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another… This righteousness, then, is given to men in baptism and whenever they are truly repentant.”2 Our vertical relationship unto God is the first kind of righteousness that he speaks of. This is the one of ‘instilled’ righteousness, or imputed righteousness. “This is an infinite righteousness, and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ. On the contrary, he who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he. It is therefore impossible that sin should remain in him. This righteousness is primary; it is the basis, the cause, the source of all our own actual righteousness. For this is the righteousness given in place of the original righteousness lost in Adam. It accomplishes the same as that original righteousness would have accomplished; rather, it accomplishes more.”3

In this, what is expressed is that righteousness is something that God has, and Luther even points out later in this writing that this is what Paul was speaking of when he says the Gospel reveals the righteousness of God. This is not our own righteousness, but rather the righteousness of another – thus “alien righteousness”.

The second kind of righteousness we could call horizontal righteousness. This is how we act, react, and interact with others. Luther expresses, “The second kind of righteousness is our proper righteousness…” He says it is “in the first place, in slaying the flesh and crucifying the desires with respect to the self,” and “in the second place, this righteousness consists in love to one’s neighbor, and in the third place, in meekness and fear toward God.” The two righteousnesses are not something to separate, but the second is “the product of the righteousness of the first type.”4

For many, righteousness is about doing the right thing. It seems like most of us have considered that the word “right” is in the word “righteousness”, and therefore it must have something to do with being “right” before God, and/or doing that which is “right”. Luther had shown that even a passage like Matthew 5:49 needs distinctions. We love our enemies as God loves the wicked, and therefore are perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. We must have intimate relationship with God to know what it means and looks like for God our Father to love His enemies. Then, the second righteousness involves that understanding flowing outward and unto the people all around me.

It seems like what Luther was getting at was the very words of James. Faith and works must go hand-in-hand together. Righteousness apart from righteousness is no longer righteousness. You can’t be “right before God”, and then treat those around you in a manner that God condemns. Likewise, you can’t treat people around you in a manner that pleases God without that first kind of righteousness that is developed when the heart turns to the Lord. The new birth and the heart circumcision are together in the same event. Righteousness that does not first stem from God’s righteousness is a ‘righteousness from man’, to use Reggie Kelly’s favorite phrase.

While I disagree with Luther in many respects regarding his understanding of righteousness, sin, and what personal, or ‘proper’, righteousness looks like, what I do agree with is that there is a distinction between righteousness and righteousness. Righteousness from God demands that we are first and foremost righteous before God, and that our dwelling is with God and in God. It is from that communication and deference unto God that we find the second dimension working out, even when we ourselves have little or no comprehension of that outworking. Our dissecting what exactly it means to “be perfect” or to “love our enemies” does not grant us the ability to be obedient to that command.

Justification is not about God seeing Christ’s righteousness when He looks upon us. It might well be that we’ve been made “right” before Him, but that statement is not a statement of business. It is a personal statement, and one that God has rejoiced in. The justification that Paul speaks of is of an eschatological perception. It is rooted and grounded in the fact that we have been raised with Christ, and therefore the man who was a sinner, and who loved the darkness, and was filled with the deeds of death and darkness has died. He was buried as Christ was physically buried. But now, through God’s mighty power, and through the resurrection of the Son of God, we have been raised also. The reason that the judgment of God does not rest upon us is because the old man who deserved only condemnation has already been judged. Just as Jesus died upon the cross, that old man, and the sinful nature and the power of sin with him, has died and been buried.

What is justification? It is the fact that the old man, the one who was filled with sin and corrupt from birth, has died, and has been judged, and is no longer. You are no longer that sinner, but have been made into a new creation. Therefore, you’re justified, because the old man who was worthy of death has died. At the same time, you’re waiting for the day that you will physically be resurrected, and this body of death, which is filled with weakness and frailty, shall be resurrected and justified yet again.

This is the very Gospel. In what way is the righteousness of God revealed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? It is through the very fact that God goes to those who are unworthy, the sinners, and they who have rejected Him, and He justified them, regenerated them, and has now made you who were ‘not My people’ into His people.5 Because you have been made new, the heart of stone taken out and replaced by the heart of flesh, and the law written upon that heart, and you have been given a new nature, you no longer are to walk according to your old nature. The old nature was contrary to God, and opposed to the things of God. Now your heart has been made tender, and has been made to observe the things of God and walk in the light as God is Light. Because of this, it isn’t about making sure to be devoted to God and attempt to live in accordance with that. Rather, it is to simply be what you have already been remade to be.

When God transforms you through salvation into someone who is righteous, why would you then act unrighteously? Your righteousness before God translates outwardly unto other people. This is the logic of salvation. The righteous are not righteous because of what they do. They are righteous because God has made them righteous. The deeds that the righteous do are righteous, not because they simply obey what God has declared for them to do, but because the righteous cannot do anything other than be righteous. This is where the two dimensions come together. False righteousness attempts to be righteous before God through study, through prayer, through devotion, and through other ‘spiritual’ means. Or, they attempt to be righteous through outward actions that seem good. This is where the Pharisees fall. There was one or the other, but the two were not mingled together. In this, Luther missed the mark in telling us to “slay the flesh and crucify the desires with respect to the self”, because that is no longer alive within they who are regenerate.

Is it by works or by faith? What is one without the other? The faith that brings salvation and repentance is the faith that changes the heart. The heart that is changed is the heart that performs good deeds. What is now our obligation is to learn to live from that new nature, that new heart, and no longer live according to the carnal habits and tendencies that we’ve bound ourselves with. Righteousness is that simple. The man in right relation with God is righteous, and therefore acts righteously. Their heart grieves when they don’t. The two dimensions branch out, but they come together in the individual. Let us not forget that the claim of the Gospel is not simply that Jesus was God in the flesh, but that God shall dwell within your flesh. Can that truly happen without some sort of change in lifestyle, mentality, and emotional response?

1Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works: American Edition. Vol. 31, pg 297-306, Concordia Pub. House




5 Within eschatology, I am not advocating a replacement theology, but rather making the point that we are no longer the thing that was at enmity with God. This is the point of Ephesians 2. Even the Jews in Christ can read this and rejoice, knowing in their own lives that they reflected something less glorious than “Israel”, but have now been grafted in, and have been made one new man together with the Gentiles.


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