“The Most Difficult Thing of All”: Luther on Justification and Passive Righteousness


Written by E.J. Hutchinson |
Sunday, August 7, 2022

“We always repeat, urge, and stuff people full of this topic about faith or Christian righteousness so that it would be preserved and accurately distinguished from the active righteousness of the law. (For from and in that teaching alone does the church come into and remain in existence.) Otherwise, we will not be able to preserve true theology, but rather we immediately become jurists, ceremonialists, legal eagles, papists; Christ is obscured, and no one in the church can be taught and encouraged rightly. Therefore, if we wish to be preachers and teachers of others, it is right that we take the greatest care over these matters, and skillfully maintain this distinction between the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of Christ.”

One might think that justification by faith alone is the easy way. In fact, just such a thing quite frequently has been thought. “What, you don’t even do anything? You wanna be a libertine or something?”

The objection has some force–but only when considered in general and in the abstract. It only has force, that is, when made a speculative morsel chewed by a mouth with no existential teeth.

“On the ground,” as it were, the situation is quite different. We humans like to be in control. We like to have something left to us to take care of. If there’s just something we can do–something to which we can point and say, “See? I did what I was told! I did good!”–we feel better, more assured. We like gold stars, pats on the back, a sense of achievement, of having done our bit.

For that reason, in particular and in the concrete there is nothing more difficult than believing that we are justified by faith alone. There is nothing more difficult than assenting to passive, rather than active, righteousness (that is, the righteousness of Christ rather than of ourselves) in relating to God.

Luther saw this, and it was one of his most important insights. Some deniers of justification by faith like to think of themselves as the mature ones, the purveyors of virtue, the upholders of Western Civilization, the builders of culture. In comes justification, out goes society, along with literature, the arts, and religion, to be replaced by licentiousness, barbarism, modernity (GASP).

Read More

Scroll to top