by Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mumme

Just months before his death, in a 1545 preface to his collected Latin works, an old preacher and professor of Wittenberg, who had unintentionally become the chief reformer of the Western Church, looked back over the course of his life and writings. There he noted for his future readers, in rather dramatic fashion, how the chain of events that had already led to so many changes at the university, in the structures of the church, and in Christendom had begun with a changed understanding of the righteousness of God. Part of Luther’s very personal theological wrestling had been with the book of Romans, on which he lectured in 1515-16. In his 1545 preface Luther noted how he once hated “the righteousness of God,” of which Paul spoke in Romans 1:17,[1] for he understood it as the righteousness according to which God himself is just and “righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.”[2] A transformation in his thinking, which Luther describes as a personal rebirth, transpired when he came to understand this righteousness as a “passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith.”[3]

Whether his dramatic autobiographical description is somewhat stylized or not, the import of this change in understanding the righteousness of God is clear when one notes that “righteousness” is the noun paired with the verb “justify.” The divergent English terms point back to unified Latin (iustificare, iustitia, iustus) and Greek terminology (dikaioō, dikaiosynē, dikaios). So although “the righteousness of God” may look a step removed in English, it has directly to do with that doctrine that Luther would name the chief of all doctrines, by which he would come to say the church stood or fell: justification.[4]

Luther’s insight about the righteousness of God he sought then to share with others, not least through the preface that he wrote to the book of Romans, published with his translation of the New Testament (1522 and after) and later the whole Bible (1534 and after).[5] Here he presents the righteousness of God not simply as a divine standard, to which humans are to measure up or be punished, but as a status of which they could be certain, reckoned to them by God on account of faith. “Righteousness” he exposits along with “law,” “sin,” “grace,” and “faith” for those now reading Paul in German. Whereas the law multiplies sin, according to God’s favor (i.e. grace) toward us in Christ, he counts trust (i.e. faith) in his grace as righteousness, so that believers themselves are accounted righteous before him.

Closely paired in Luther’s mind with Paul’s letter to the Romans was his letter to the Galatians, on which he lectured in both 1516-17 and 1531. The commentary that resulted from the latter lectures contains Luther’s most extensive and rounded treatment on God’s righteousness and justification. Sinners in whom God has created faith are, he says, “pronounced righteous and are saved solely by faith in Christ, and without works.”[6] On account of the very faith in Christ that God creates by his word he imputes an alien righteousness to the person and reputes him righteous.[7] Commenting on Galatians 2:20 shows that “Christian righteousness” is not simply to be understood as a moral quality; that would fall too short. It is, rather, “that righteousness by which Christ lives in us, not the righteous that is in our person.” According to this righteousness, “Christ and my conscience must become one body, so that I am looking at nothing but Christ crucified and resurrected.”[8]

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mumme is assistant professor of theology at Concordia University-Wisconsin.

[1] Cf. Rm 3:5, 21-22, 25; 10:3.

[2] WA 54:185,19-20; LW 34:336.

[3] WA 54:186,7-8; LW 34:337.

[4] See, for example, Psalm 130 (1532–33), WA 40/III:335,21 and 351,33–35.

[5] WA DB 7:2,17–13,26; LW 35:366–72.

[6] WA 40/1:355,25-26; LW 26:223.

[7] WA 40/I:41,15-16; LW 26:4. For the alien-ness of this righteousness see The Disputation Concerning Justification (1536), WA 39/I:83,24-25; LW 34:153.

[8] WA 40/I:282,16–22; cf. LW 26:166.