Luther on the Christian Life (7)

In chapter seven, Trueman deals with Luther’s view of righteousness in the Christian life. This question is one of the most important questions for the Christian life. How is a person righteous before God? What is the Christian’s righteousness? Basic to Luther’s understanding of righteousness is the distinction between alien and proper righteousness. Alien righteousness is the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. It is called alien because it is not the believer’s own righteousness; it is Christ’s. God gives this righteousness of Christ to the believer by imputation (reckoning) so that the believer is judged innocent, as it were, it God’s court of law. Proper righteousness is the righteousness that becomes manifest in the believer’s life as a result of the believer’s Spirit empowered efforts to mortify the old man and do good works to the glory of God. In other words, it is the fruit of sanctification. Both kinds of righteousness are necessary for the Christian life.

The significant question for the Christian life is how these two kinds of righteousness are related. Luther’s answer is that Christ’s alien righteousness comes first. If he is to live well, the Christian must know that he is righteous in the sight of God. Recognition of Christ’s alien righteousness reckoned to the sinner is the antidote both for despair and for works righteousness. The believer who knows that he is clothed in Christ’s own perfect righteousness will not fear for his salvation, even when he beholds his own imperfection. Likewise, the believer will not strive to make himself righteous in God’s eyes by performing good works. He already understands that God has declared him righteous, and that nothing can be added to the righteousness of Christ. This understanding allows the Christian to live with assurance and to direct his life good works toward its proper goal: not earning salvation, but showing gratitude for salvation freely given. That is where proper righteousness fits. Living in the assurance of Christ’s righteousness, the Christian labors in love for God to do good works and keep God’s commandments.  The Christian does this to show His gratitude to God. Luther did not think that holiness in the Christian life could be reduced to the Christian’s ever-increasing sense of dependence upon Christ’s imputed righteousness. No, in the Christian life there is a genuine beginning of true holiness. The Christian makes progress in holiness as the Spirit sanctifies him. In this present life the Christian is always at once both righteous and a sinner.

Justin Smidstra

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