V. The Active Righteousness of Faith
As Kolb and Arand remind us, Luther summed up the Christian life as a life in which “the Old Adam in us is drowned through daily remorse and repentance and dies with all sins and evil lusts, and a new human creature daily arises, who lives eternally in God’s sight in righteousness and purity.”
Cutting to the chase, the question is: “Who does this daily drowning?”, and here 21st century confessional Lutherans – eager to define their views of the Christian life over and against American evangelical conceptions of it – struggle (and I think fall off the other side of the horse). Kolb and Arand might seem to offer one possible way when they say… “the passive righteousness of faith constitutes the nature of our relationship to God, the active righteousness of faith constitutes and sustains our relationships with other members of the human community” and that “active righteousness ultimately depends on passive righteousness” while “active righteousness provides the context for our need of passive righteousness” (K&A, 76).
In the last section, we discussed the fact that Kolb and Arand tend to conflate active righteousness in general with the active righteousness of faith. Also, we discussed the reality that active righteousness not only deals with our relationships with other human beings, but with their relationship with God. Finally, there is the question of just how our “active righteousness provides the context for our need of passive righteousness.” When it comes to God, is everything passive for the believer? In other words, is sanctification, like justification, purely “monergistic”? Does God do everything in this process?*
Kolb and Arand state that “our daily activities… do nothing to…perfect our relationship with God. Christ’s righteousness makes us secure at our core before God” (K&A, 54). Of course Christians are participants in a marriage with Christ, and with him have everything they already need: justification, redemption, wisdom, and sanctification (I Cor. 1:30). That said, when it comes to the things we have in our persons with him – wisdom and sanctification, or our “concreated righteousness” – Lutherans insist we cooperate, as God works to make immature believers into mature believers (see FC, SD III , see this brief discussion for more specifics). We who are children of God may not be able to make ourselves “get closer to him”, but we certainly can realize more what we have with him, and thereby our trust in him – and our righteousness – can grow.
Of course, Kolb and Arand want the reader to know that Luther urged Christians to get active with good works. The “two kinds of righteousness” “clarified the relationship of the human creature to the world in which God had placed him or her…” (K&A, 26). This said, how did Luther urge the Christian to get active? Kolb and Arand say “as faith grows, one could say that the Christian grasps more firmly the righteousness of Christ. As faith grows, just like a tree, it does not become more righteous, but it does produce more fruit… For Luther, one can speak of more works or fruit, but this does not imply growth in sanctification….” (K&A 126). They add that Luther’s statements in the Large Catechism about sanctification not being completed make sense “within the matrix of the two kinds of righteousness”: “Christ’s righteousness is a totality, and the believer participates in it totally. It is partial when viewed from the standpoint of the world’s approval of us and as a new beginning for human beings along with a new obedience” (K&A, 124).
Is the world’s approval – not God’s – part of the reason the Christian “still waits for righteousness” (p. 124), as Kolb and Arand put it?** Or is the active righteousness of faith of even greater consequence, where the believer “walks in danger [of the world, the flesh, and the devil] all the way” – with each moment a battle of faith? Kolb and Arand take the focus off Christians and any personal righteousness we might be tempted to think is “our possession”, focusing on the neighbor God gives us to serve instead (again, see the last post for concerns here). But have they completely removed the Christian from the equation? In Kolb and Arand’s account, the emphasis seems to be all on Christ (yes, this sounds good!), who evidently not only daily drowns us in repentance (preserving us in the faith), but also makes us daily exercise ourselves in the law of the Lord (see FC SD VI), without our cooperation.
How to view the Christian’s sanctification? First, though we are new creatures in Christ – with “new desires, attitudes, and dispositions to align [our lives] with God’s design” (K&A rightly point this out on p. 126), we are not yet completely mature. Second, the believer’s new nature, not Jesus, is the new man who cooperates with God. Therefore, God judges some of us to be more in line with his designs, desires, thoughts, words, and deeds (even as each are conformed in distinctive ways) and rewards these as such. Although this teaching is not popular – evidently with Kolb and Arand either – everyone thinks some people are better than others. For example, when it comes to choosing a roommate – or spouse! – we generally will seek someone who we think is a better person overall, our standards being more or less in accordance with God’s. This is not done according to quantitative criteria, but qualitative criteria – we “measure” the whole person. And there is nothing wrong with this, even as we also assert that everyone, without exception, is loved by God who desires the salvation of all. And, as many a parent of multiple children knows (and hopefully many a child), to say this is not to say that one is loved more than another.
Believers who are more mature in Christ – who have a higher level of sanctification – will be very humble(d) persons who know their sin. They know they grow not because they do not fall, but because Christ gives his hand to pick them up again. Their sin bothers them greatly, and they know they could take a terrible fall, a la Chutes and Ladders, or even lose their faith altogether (i.e. justification) through faith-destroying and doubt-inducing sin (hearing Paul’s “do not be deceived” regarding doing evil deeds). Rest assured, “keeping track” of any good they do is an attitude they flee and repent of, and when Paul encourages believers to take pride in their own deeds in Galatians, he speaks to the simple of course. Finally, they are eager not to point to their own progress (even as Paul urges Timothy to make sure others see his progress), but that of those great saints around them whose lives they are most thankful for.
So, how do we mature? The answer is as simple as it is profound: hearing the Word of God, participating in the sacraments, and exercising ourselves according to the whole counsel of God. This goes hand in hand with the drowning of the old Adam that is daily repentance. Knowing that we live by them, we seek out every word from his mouth, and these comfort and help equip us, so that we leave childhood behind and attain to the “mature manhood” mentioned in Eph 4: 13-15. Since “the word of God…is at work in you believers” (I Thes. 2:13), this is the kind of activity we actively run to, and initiate ourselves as well.
Faith is busy in good works the world does not necessarily see as such – particularly pertaining to the first table of the Decalogue – and while we cannot use them to secure our justification, they often place us exactly where we need to be. Again, these works – which are first and foremost the command to fear, love and trust God and no other ; to pray, praise, proclaim and sing his Name and deeds ; and to gladly hear his word and keep it – are not necessary “for” salvation, but “to” salvation (as Luther noted in the Disputation Concerning Justification). Likewise, they arise from faith in both its passive and active aspects. They help believers, empowered by the knowledge of Christ’s resurrection for our justification, to understand why it is important for the sheep to huddle up close to the shepherd. This shepherd guides us in straight paths – that he may protect his flock from all harm and danger – and we are wise and are eager to participate insofar as we are new men.
No doubt, strong pastors eager to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (II Cor. 10) are needed here, for only then can the most helpful kinds of actions proceed. Kolb and Arand, echoing Forde, state “in the end, if human beings see themselves as makers and doers, they will find themselves having to carry the entire world on their shoulders like the mythical Atlas holding the world on his back” (K&A, 92). On the contrary, the violent take the Kingdom of God by force. Yes, we are not “makers and doers” in our justification, but we certainly are makers and doers who influence and impact both the church and the world – as Luther said repeatedly (he believes the gates of hell won’t prevail because God will always preserve some men vigorous to defend and promulgate the things of God). It is also because of these truths that the comfort and confidence provided by the passive righteousness is continually needed.
*Although there may be nuance in the position which goes beyond their book, it would seem that, because of the way Kolb and Arand have set things up (that is coram deo on the one hand and coram mundo on the other) the only way we can be active is towards our neighbor in love.
**Growth in sanctification, or new obedience, is not something that Luther talked about at all in terms of “before the eyes of the world”.
 “Small Catechism” (Baptism, question 4) in K&A, 13.
 Just as the doctrine of double predestination might cause a baptized person to think that what happens in space and time in their body has no ultimate significance or meaning, the doctrine of the two kinds of righteousness, as it is summarized by Kolb and Arand, may give the same impression.