Law and Gospel Are Good Enough For Me

Academia is a publish or perish enterprise.  If you don’t manage to publish your doctoral thesis, your chances of finding a tenure track position decrease considerably.  So how does one guarantee that one’s doctoral thesis is published?  One of two ways.  The first is to be so blazingly smart that no one understands what you wrote.  Someone will publish it just so that no one can accuse them of being stupid.  (See “Angelomorphic Christology”  by Dr. Charles Gieschen of the Fort Wayne Seminary.)  The second is to discover something new.  (“How to turn Lead into Gold” would do nicely.)  This works well in the so-called hard sciences.  But what is good, right and salutary in Chemistry, Physics, or Mathematics can be problematic when dealing with Doctrine.  How well I remember a misguided executive once telling my seminary class, “We discovered this whole new theology.”  That’s never a good thing.   (Historical criticism, anyone?)

The latest trend that is sweeping the synod is called “Two Kinds of Righteousness”.  It is supposedly a very important theme throughout Luther, as demonstrated by the two sermons – One of which was written before the 95 theses – and one lecture where it is found. Unfortunately, Luther forgot to include it in his confessional writings.  Melancthon may have hinted at it in the Augustana, but, then again, maybe he didn’t.  By the time the Formula of Concord was written, this ‘very important’ theology of Luther was apparently lost.  Fortunately, a doctoral student about ten years ago picked up on it.  And now, some professors at our seminaries are encouraging their students to use this as a paradigm for understanding scripture, as opposed to say, “Law and Gospel.”  Because apparently, the constant obvious references to Law and Gospel throughout the confessions are really just Luther wishing he wrote more about 2KR (Like all things hip and cool, it has its own acronym.)

What is 2KR?  Let’s let Luther explain it himself:

There are two kinds of Christian righteousness, just as man’s sin is of two kinds.  The first is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without.  This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies though faith…

The second kind of righteousness is our proper righteousness, not because we alone work it, but because we work with that first and alien righteousness.  This is that manner of life spent profitably in good works, in the first place, in slaying the flesh and crucifying the desires with respect to the self…  In the second place, this righteousness consists in love to one’s neighbor, and in the third place, in meekness and fear towards God.

How are the proponents of 2KR using it today?

First, the two kinds of righteousness are indispensable to understanding the nature of Luther’s view of the saving work of Jesus Christ; second the two kinds of righteousness are not separable from (and actually underlie) other distinctions that pervade Luther’s theology, such as Law and Gospel, the two governments, his uses of the Law, and his doctrine of vocation; third the two kinds of righteousness show the futility of using any one motif to capture the breadth of Luther’s soteriology, and fourth, this distinction (in connection with a larger examination of the righteousness of God) is virtually a golden thread that one can use to trace the historical development of Luther’s thought both to and well beyond his “evangelical breakthrough” in 1518-1519.  In short, the two kinds of righteousness work nicely as a heuristic device around which one can outline Luther’s theology in terms of its essential content, its structure and its internal development.  (David A. Lumpp, “Luther’s ‘Two Kind’s of Rightouesness’: A Brief Historical Introduction”. Concordia Journal, Jan 1997)

Despite claiming that no one theme can encapsulate all of Luther’s theological genius, 2KR is the “golden thread” that does just that.  2KR is, according to this paragraph, the thing that is needed for a proper understanding of Luther. Without it, even Law and Gospel are not properly understood.  So, for the five hundred years that the church did not have this teaching highlighted, we have apparently been in the dark about what Luther was really trying to say to the church.

The Concordia Journal devoted a whole issue to the topic in 2007.  Here we see the endgame of 2KR.

“The passive righteousness of faith brings about our salvation by restoring our creaturely relationship with God.  The active righteousness of works serves the well-being of creation by looking after our neighbor and God’s creation.”

The value of 2KR, say its proponents is that it helps people to be more active Christians – that is, they will be more aware of and concerned with the fruits of faith (good works).  This has been a long-term problem in the church.  Once forgiven, people seem to think, “I can go on sinning so that grace may abound.”  Paul already discounted such thoughts in his epistle to the  Romans.  And yet, it crops up repeatedly in the history of the church.  It was a problem in the fourth century, it was a problem in Luther’s day, it was a problem in the eighteenth century, and it is a problem today.  Not content with simply saying, “This is wrong, you are treating the Gospel with contempt”, (which Luther actually does in his Large Catechism) some theologians have attempted to solve this problem systematically.  The results have not been encouraging.  Pelagianism, The Doctrine of Merit (AKA Tetzelism), and Pietism (to name a few) were some attempts at solving this pernicious abuse of the Gospel.

2KR also attempts this.  But the path that all other attempts have taken should warn us away from systematizing good works, beyond what scripture says (and which our confessions nicely summarize).  Why can we not just preach the Law and Gospel (which is a summary of all that God’s Word teaches and needs no other gimmicks to be effective) and be done with it?

2KR, because it begins with Christ’s righteousness and ends with our own, will, when taken to it’s logical end, invert law and Gospel, just as Pietism, Pelagianism, and Tetzelism did before it.  And yet, you can hear many pastors defend 2KR by claiming, “It’s useful if you understand it in a limited way.”

Well, that’s true.  Because Luther intended it as a sermon illustration.  And that’s what it is good for.  As a sermon illustration for understanding a particular aspect of our doctrine.  It is not good as a paradigm for understanding all of scripture.  How can this be proven?  Because in his Galatians commentary, Luther speaks of “many kinds of righteousness.”  So while the differing kinds of righteousness may help you understand specific passages and specific themes, they should not be used as the key to unlocking the true meaning of scripture.  To use it in that way is to “Come up with this whole new theology.”

In Luther’s large Catechism, he refers to baptism as “not like putting on a new red coat.”   Imagine if I said that from henceforth, instead of considering Baptism as Water and Word, a better way would be to consider it as “not like putting on a new red coat.” (NNRC)  That is no paradigm for understanding baptism.    Instead it is merely an illustration that Luther uses to help us understand the Divine work in Baptism. And yet, it has more explicit support in our confessions that 2KR does.

Applying this principle to our own situation, 2KR is helpful for understanding that in our vocation we are given tasks to do, and that, thanks to Christ’s righteousness that has made us righteous, we are now given to good works, as St. Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9.  What it is not useful for is attempting to redefine scripture as somehow teaching something different than the Law and the Promises.

Innovation and creativity in explaining (illustrating) scripture is a good thing.  It is one of the great joys of pastoral work.  Innovation in interpreting scripture is not a good thing.  It leads to “whole new theologies” and should be avoided.  Dictum sapienti sat est.

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8 Responses to Law and Gospel Are Good Enough For Me

  1. Thanks for posting this warning Pastor Winter. It’s something that should be discussed more widely and, perhaps, put to rest.

  2. Rev. Gifford A. Grobien says:

    The basic problem in this are is when 2KR is offered as a substitution for or claimed to be superior to Law & Gospel, as you note. Luther never would have seen them in conflict. In fact, in their better moments, those who treat 2KR recognize that 2KR is one articulation of L&G.

    It does appear to me, however, that you’re not characterizing the topic or those who treat it fairly or accurately. The particular phrase “two kinds of righteousness” does not appear very frequently in Luther’s writings, that is true. But the underlying point is that Luther is highly concerned with the concept of righteousness throughout his life, AND that he recognized that righteousness could be understood in different ways. It was vital that the proper understanding of righteousness be articulated in the proper circumstances and pastoral situation. Whenever Luther refers to the righteousness of faith, or justification, or righteousness by works, or works, etc., it is this distinction that is in mind. 2KR is a simple way of getting at the fact that discerning the difference was important to Luther, by using the language of “righteousness” which is so common for Luther. It is in this way that it is in harmony with L&G, not opposed to it.

    There is more literature out there than you appear to be aware of that deals with the question of the kinds of righteousness, both in the contemporary conversation, and in Luther and the Confessions (E.g. AC/Apology XVIII and XX; Luther’s Theses on Justification in LW 34; Luther’s “Rhapsody on Justification” in WA 30/2; “Freedom of a Christian” LW 31.) I encourage you to read it and make sure you understand it before making such summary conclusions.

    • Country Preacher says:

      I agree with what you write regarding the role of righteousness. How though would you respond to those who are claiming such things as, “Two Kinds of Righteousness: Better than Law and Gospel” as a continuing education topic offered by one of our seminaries? Certainly 2KR is “one articulation of L&G” (I said almost as much in my post). The problem is that some are trying to use it supplant L&G, or make it a prerequisite for understanding L&G. (See the Lumpp quote for evidence of this) I have no problem with saying that 2KR flows from L&G, is one articulation of L&G, or even helps us to explain the practical implications of L&G. My objection is with those who are attempting to place 2KR BEFORE L&G, or in place of it. That will ultimately stand our theology on its head.
      Certainly Luther is very concerned with righteousness. It is the result of justification, and so therefore will figure prominently in his theological outlook. But those who are teaching specifically “Two Kinds of Righteousness”, specifically as an alternative to Law and Gospel are going farther than is safe. I stand by that conclusion.
      Hopefully my comments clarify the intent of my article.

      • Rev. Gifford A. Grobien says:

        Yes, I think we agree that if 2KR is considered superior to or a replacement for L&G, then that is an error. Thanks for the further comments.

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  5. Mike says:

    You should probably refrain from maligning a teaching you do not understand as it is being taught. 2KR embraces everything that the L-G stands for and provides. L-G has no room for a Christian ethic. If you can’t embrace 2KR, you have no room for the 3rd Use. You end up doing theology from a Gospel reductionist standpoint. Come to Concordia Seminary and listen to Kolb, Arand, and Biermann lecture on 2KR and you’ll find it isn’t some mysterious teaching or some attack on Law Gospel. It embraces Law and Gospel and expands upon it to ensure we aren’t antinomians. You say we should not seek to be actively righteous – since when is living in God’s will not a good thing?

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