The Gospel Expressed: Luther’s Teaching on Alien Righteousness as Divine Gift

When exactly the levee is going to break is not easy to know, but when it does we all know. October 31, 1517 is the day the levee broke in the church of the West. It is not likely that Luther was aware he was laying his ax to the root. But that is what he was in fact doing. That “church split” continues, and with it our fascination with the reformer’s understanding of the meaning of the Evangelium.
Five hundred years on, we’re still asking: “What was Luther’s understanding of the gospel?” The answer is simple, but it should not be rendered simplistically. In this short essay we look at a few insights from before and after the time of the writing of the Ninety-five Theses. In a companion essay, ‘The Gospel Embodied,’ to be run in the next issue of this journal, Christopher Dorn examines how Luther applied his gospel understanding in relation to the Eucharist. The core truth of “divine gift” runs through both.

Key Gospel Distinctions Before and After 1517

Luther’s intellectual sparring partners changed over the years, but that same zeal to understand the Evangelium drove him, until, as he said, “I broke through.” Luther’s breakthrough happened gradually, though, and he did not always see Rome as Goliath and himself as its David. In a way it is odd that the Ninety-five Theses is taken  to be the crucial moment. In that document, he says nothing about “justification by faith,” nor does he oppose the Pope’s authority or indulgences per se, addressing instead only how they were administered.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther. 1529

Moreover, the Ninety-five were not the first set of theses he had propounded. About two months before that notable Allerheiligentag[1], Luther had posted ninety-seven  other theses for debate, in a document entitled Disputatio Contra Scholasticam Theologiam.[2] This set of theses is even more confrontational than the ninety-five. In between his acerbic comments against specific persons, we see early rudiments of his anthropology. In thesis 5 he writes, “It is false to state that man’s inclination is free to choose between either of two opposites. Indeed, the inclination is not free, but captive…” and in 17, “Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God…” Then, in 29, “The best and infallible preparation for grace and the sole disposition toward grace is the eternal election and predestination of God.”
As early as 1515 in his Romans Lectures he shows clear thinking about gratia and the donum.[3] For Luther the grace of God is not a substance stored up and dispensed, but the disposition of God’s heart to fallen man. The donum is the gift of righteousness by faith which comes to us by gratia. In making this distinction he essentially distinguished his understanding of grace from the notion of “infused grace” common to Rome then as now.
However, before that he was not so clear. For example in 1509 “…we find Luther facing in two directions in his marginal comments” to Lombard’s Sentences.[4] In that work, and elsewhere around this time, Luther shows an inner battle between his Augustinianism and a semi-pelagian strain common to his Occamist beginnings. We have a few of his sermons from the period of 1510-12. In one of these on John 3:16 Luther said that man’s free will could “ by itself suffice for salvation.”[5] Luther realized later he failed to see a “…difference between Christ and Moses except the times in which they lived and their degrees of perfection.”[6]
In these early days, Luther was still grappling with certain key distinctions which are now common fare in Lutheran theology. A few of these distinctions would sustain his influence into streams of Reformed tradition. The most prominent distinction in Lutheran theology is the “Law and Gospel” distinction. Another key distinction Luther develops is theologia crucis (the Christian’s attitude of humility and willingness to suffer) contrasted with theologia gloriae (the practice of using religion for personal enhancement,) which appears for the first time in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. The simul justus et peccator distinction which only appears once in Luther’s writings has nonetheless remained an important Lutheran concept.[7] In the “just and sinner” distinction Luther confirms that though throughout our lives, we still confront sin (and grow away from it); we are at the same time assured of God’s full justifying grace.

Alien Righteousness in Luther’s Gospel Teaching

What is perhaps the central gospel distinction in Luther’s thought, however, can be seen most clearly in his 1518 sermon “Two Kinds of Righteousness.” Here, he speaks of iustitia aliena, righteousness outside us. This righteousness or judicial standing is that donum mentioned earlier. This he called righteousness coram Deo: in the presence of God. The second kind Luther called  righteousness coram mundo, our good works in the world and for the world, which are not meritorious for saving grace.
The righteousness coram Deo becomes our righteousness by divine gift. It is not infused into us, nor does it inhere within us at some point. Luther says that it is a perfect righteousness acquired entirely from God in Christ, and given to us by the Spirit. It is this alien righteousness, the righteousness of Christ, by which we are made right with God, and it is received by faith.
In his early days Luther struggled to rid himself of his Anfechtugen, roiling angst about his guilt before a holy God. What little John Staupitz was able to do to console Luther’s troubled conscience was enough to turn his sights toward true North. Staupitz, Luther’s confessor, who remained a Benedictine monk to the end of his days, pointed him to a new understanding of Christ and his gifts. This life journey from before Wittenberg to Luther’s final days in Erfurt give rich meaning to his thesis 37: “Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon” – participationem omnium bonorum, shares in all the blessings.
Luther called Christ’s righteous work for us the fröhlicher Wechsel, the “joyous exchange.”[8] In Luther’s Large Catechism we feel his sense of victory: “Before this I had no lord or king but was captive under the power of the devil…Those tyrants and jailers have now been routed and their place has been taken by Jesus Christ.” Erik Herrmann of Concordia Seminary has quipped that at that time Luther’s understanding of the gospel was indeed “a new perspective on Paul.” And so Luther found himself able to say, in the context of a vigorous defense of his view of the Eucharist, “…if Christ remains mine, everything remains mine; of this I am sure.”[9]

Mark Oliviero is an elder at Trinity Bible Church in Greer, South Carolina, where he teaches and leads various Bible study groups. He holds an M.Div. from Bob Jones University. He, his wife Kristina, and their two children live two miles from Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and he frequents their library.


[1] All Hallows’ Eve
[2] Though Luther identified scholasticism as his opposition, he was in reality opposing the Nominalist corruption of scholasticism and his own Occamist beginnings, exemplified in Gabriel Biel. For the value of philosophy in relation to theology see Ad Fontes, ‘Natural Theology and Reformed Orthodoxy’ by David Haines, May 2017 and Ad Fontes, whole issue, September, 2017, 2.1. Also, see Michael Allen, ‘Disputation for Scholastic Theology,’ inaugural lecture, Sept 6, 2017.
[3] Martin Luther. Lectures on Romans (WA 56:318; LW 25:305–306)
[4] Denis R. Janz. Luther and Late Medieval Thomism: A Study in Theological Anthropology. p. 10.
[5] Ibid., 12.
[6] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Volume 54, 442.
[7] Martin Luther, “Lecture on Galatians,” 1535
[8] Robert Kolb, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith, 120.
[9] This affirmation about the centrality of Christ Luther made in the context of a vigorous argument for his view on the meaning of Hoc Est Corpus Meum in the Eucharist. Luther’s Works, volume 37, 103.


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