Passive Righteousness Part 1

“Passive Righteousness” part 1 by Martin Luther

[“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” Galatians 2:16, NKJV.] [1]

The most excellent righteousness of faith, which God through Christ, without any works, imputes to us, is neither political, nor ceremonial, nor the righteousness of God’s law, nor consists of works, but is absolutely contrary to these; that is to say, it is a mere passive righteousness, as the others are active. For in the righteousness of faith, we work nothing, we render nothing unto God, but we only receive, and allow another to work in us–namely, God. Therefore it seems good unto us to call this righteousness of faith, the “passive righteousness.”[2] This is a righteousness hidden in a mystery, which the world does not know, even Christians themselves do not thoroughly understand it, and can hardly take hold of it in their temptations. Therefore it must be diligently taught, and continually practiced. And whoever does not understand or apprehend this righteousness, in afflictions and terrors of conscience, will eventually be defeated. For, there is no comfort of conscience so firm and sure, as is this passive righteousness [Rom. 4:5; 5:1; Eph. 2:8,9].

For the troubled conscience, in view of God’s judgment, has no remedy against desperation and eternal death, unless it takes hold of the forgiveness of sins by grace, freely offered in Christ Jesus, which is this passive faith, or Christian righteousness; which if it can apprehend, then it may be at rest, and can boldly say: “I seek not active or working righteousness, for if I had it, I could not trust in it, neither dare I set it against the judgment of God. Then I abandon myself from all active righteousness, both of my own and of God’s law, and embrace only that passive righteousness, which is the righteousness of grace, mercy, and forgiveness of sins.”[3] [Phil. 3:8,9]

Briefly, I rest only upon that righteousness, which is the righteousness of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. The greatest knowledge, and the highest wisdom of Christians is, to not know the law, to be ignorant of works, and of the whole active righteousness, especially when the conscience wrestles with God. The opposite is the case with those who are not of God’s people; the greatest wisdom in their case is to know and to urge the law and the active righteousness …[Gal. 3:24; Rom. 3:19,20]

This is our divine ministry, whereby we teach how to distinguish between these two kinds of righteousness, active and passive, with the goal that manners and faith, works and grace, policy and religion, should not be confused, or taken the one for the other. Both are necessary; but must be kept within their limits; Christian righteousness pertains to the new man, and the righteousness of the law pertains to the old man, which is born of flesh and blood. Upon this old man, as upon a donkey, there must be laid a burden that may press him down, and he must not enjoy the freedom of the spirit of grace, except he first put upon him the new man, by faith in Christ …, then may he enjoy the kingdom and inestimable gift of grace. [Titus 1; 3:5] ~~~~ Grace Notes Oct. 24, 03

[1] This excerpt is from the introduction in the Commentary on Galatians by Martin Luther (1483-1546), published in 1979 by Kregel Publications. Translation by Erasmus Middleton, edited by John Prince Fallowes. A reprint of the 1850 edition published by the Harrison Trust, London. Reprinted in the appendix of From Fear to Freedom: Living as Sons and Daughters of God, by Rose Marie Miller (Shaw: 1994). Updated English with additional editing by John Woodward. The title, “Passive Righteousness” was added by the editor.

[2] “Passive righteousness” refers to justification by faith–one of the central truths of the Protestant Reformation. It required the active obedience of Christ, His sacrificial death and resurrection. This right standing with God is received by grace through faith (“passive” in the sense of not being earned by man’s works) and secures a spiritual rebirth (regeneration).

[3] “Active righteousness” is used in the sense of self- righteousness (the vain attempt to gain acceptance with God by personal effort). See the parable of The Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14.

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