Theological Dictionary: Passive and Active Righteousness

by Jono Linebaugh

“This is our theology, by which we teach a precise distinction between these two kinds of righteousness, the active and the passive” (Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians 1535). There are “two kinds of righteousness” because human beings live in two kinds of relationships: 1) creature with Creator and 2) creature with creature. Before God (coram Deo), people are passive, receiving righteousness by grace through faith on account of Christ (Rom 3:21-24; 5:17; 10:6; Phil 3:9; cf. Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16). Before the world (coram mundo), people are active, serving their neighbor in love (Rom 13:8-19; Gal 5:13-14). This distinction is essential because, as Luther put it, it ensures that “morality and faith, works and grace … are not confused. Both are necessary, but both must be kept within their limits” (Lectures on Galatians 1535). To be human is to be two-dimensional: passive (i.e. receptive) before God and active (i.e. loving) before the world. These two kinds of righteousness are distinct, but they are inseparable: passive righteousness from God precedes and produces active righteousness for the neighbor. In Paul’s words, what “matters is faith [in God] working through love [for others]” (Gal 5:6). This “double-definition” of righteousness avoids the twin errors of one-dimensional definitions: either supposing that human activity (love) is the basis of the Creator-creature relationship or, conversely, imaging that because justification is by faith works of love are irrelevant. To say there are two kinds of righteousness is to affirm the importance of faith and love while also identifying the proper place for faith and love. As Luther describes the Christian, “he lives not in himself, but in Christ and the neighbor. He lives in Christ through faith and in his neighbor through love” (Freedom of the Christian 1520).

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6 Responses to “Theological Dictionary: Passive and Active Righteousness”

  1. [...] is to introduce what was, in my opinion, one of Martin Luther’s most helpful contributions: his distinction between passive righteousness and active righteousness. This distinction was Luther’s way to describe the two relationships in which Christians [...]

  2. Liberate says:

    [...] I was especially gripped by these sentences written in the context of discussing Luther’s categories of passive and active righteousness (I’m absolutely convinced that if the church understood these two crucially important categories, most of our confusion with regard to law and gospel, faith and works, would go away. For more on passive and active righteousness read this). [...]

  3. Paul St Jean says:

    Excellent Dr Linebaugh, I have the book “Freedom of the Christian” but haven’t read it yet.

  4. John Thomson says:

    I of course agree with these two categories. However, I notice that sometimes Luther’s definition of active and passive righteousness gets confused with the more reformed division of Christ’s so-called active and passive righteousness. Scott Clark calls upon Luther’s support when in fact Luther was meaning something quite different.

  5. Liberate says:

    […] made a sharp distinction between active and passive righteousness, between our response to God and to our neighbor, between faith and love. We respond to God […]

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