The Reformers on Works-righteousness

“For if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal 2:21).

John Calvin, from his commentary on Galatians, writes,


Hence it follows, that we are justified by his grace, and, therefore, not by works… If we could produce a righteousness of our own, then Christ has suffered in vain; for the intention of his sufferings was to procure it for us, and what need was there that a work which we could accomplish for ourselves should be obtained from another? If the death of Christ be our redemption, then we were captives; if it be satisfaction, we were debtors; if it be atonement, we were guilty; if it be cleansing, we were unclean. On the contrary, he who ascribes to works his sanctification, pardon, atonement, righteousness, or deliverance, makes void the death of Christ.

Martin Luther, from his commentary, says:

martin luther

Is it true that Christ suffered death or not? Did he suffer in vain or not? Unless we are quite mad, we have to answer that he did indeed suffer, not in vain or for himself, but for us… Take the…law, which contains the most perfect religion and the highest service to God — that is, faith, the fear of God, the love of God, and the love of our neighbor — and show me anyone who has been justified by it. It will then be true that Christ died in vain, for anyone who is justified by the law has power to obtain righteousness by himself… If you grant this, it must follow that Christ died in vain… Are we to allow this horrible blasphemy that the divine Majesty, not sparing his own dear Son, but giving him up to death for us all, should not do all these things seriously but as a sort of joke? I would rather see all the saints and holy angels thrown into hell with the devil. My eyes will see only this inestimable price, my Lord and Savior Christ.


Luther’s Two Kinds of Righteousness


For any who have read my blog, it’s probably apparent that Martin Luther is one of my favorite theologians (along with Horatius Bonar, JC Ryle, and others). His works are utterly freeing, gospel-centered, and very passionate.

This is a refreshing excerpt from one of Luther’s sermons shortly before the beginning of the Reformation in Germany (circa 1519) called Two Kinds of Righteousness:

There are two kinds of Christian righteousness, just as man’s sin is of two kinds [natural and actual sin]. The first is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith, as it is written in 1 Cor 1:30: “Whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption”…Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours. Therefore the Apostle calls it “the righteousness of God” in Rom 1:17…This is an infinite righteousness, and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ. On the contrary, he who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he…This righteousness is primary; it is the basis, the cause, the source of all our own actual righteousness…

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 the life spent profitably in good work, in the first place, in slaying the flesh and crucifying the desires with respect to the self…This [second] righteousness consists in love to one’s neighbor, [and is] the product of the righteousness of the first type, actually its fruit and consequence…This righteousness goes on to complete the first for it ever strives to do away with the old Adam and to destroy the body of sin…

Therefore through the first righteousness arises the voice of the bridegroom who says to the soul, “I am yours,” but through the second comes the voice of the bride who answers, “I am yours.” Then the marriage is consummated; it becomes strong and complete in accordance with the Song of Solomon 2:16: “My beloved is mine and I am his”.


A Different Gospel? How False Teachers Mislead the Church


Is there another gospel besides the gospel of Christ? Of course, the answer to this is a resounding “no”. But it is interesting that in Galatians Paul calls the false message given to the Galatian church “a different gospel”. He exclaims to them, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6).

It should be apparent that Paul is using hyperbole. And he is using this language to highlight the absurdity of the Galatians’ actions in turning to a false message. James Boice comments on Galatians 1:6-7, saying that Paul’s statement in verse 6 “might suggest that there are after all various gospels among which a Christian may choose. This is the opposite of what Paul is saying”. Paul’s statement here was one of sarcasm and hyperbole. And in fact Paul says in verse 7, “not that there is another [gospel], but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of grace”. Boice says that Paul wants to clarify that “there cannot be another gospel as long as the gospel is understood to be God’s way of salvation in Christ”.

But why does Paul use this hyperbole, calling the false teachers’ message a “different gospel”? Why wouldn’t Paul simply tell us from the outset that their message is dangerous heresy? I think that Paul wants to make a point by calling this false teaching a “gospel”. First off, when you read through the book of Galatians, the false teachers were not opposing the Christian God. In fact, they were claiming to have more apostolic authority than even the apostle Paul! This is why Paul spent the first 2 chapters of Galatians defending his ministry. Second, they weren’t even denying the work of Christ. In fact, they were claiming that their doctrine was in more alignment with Christ than Paul’s! Lastly, they were claiming that their teaching was the teaching of true Christianity.

In this way, these false apostles were truly clothing themselves in a false version of the true gospel. Spurgeon once said that the difference between the true gospel and false teaching is not the difference between black and white. It’s more subtle than that! The difference between true and false teaching is the difference between white and off-white. For this reason, these apostles peddled a gospel so similar to the true gospel, that the Galatians were misled, and had nearly thrown off Christ altogether (Gal 5:2). In fact, these teachers were affirming Christ’s work; but, they were also adding to his work. “Yes Christ, but also Judaism was their gospel. They claimed that if one were to be truly justified before God, they must have Jesus as Messiah and adherence to the Mosaic Law. Interesting that these false teachers never once opposed Jesus (outwardly at least), but slyly added a work on top of it.

For this reason, their message looked so much like another gospel, when if fact it was blatant heresy. But this is how false teachers work — they clothe themselves in just enough truth and mix it with lies.

John Stott wisely says, “the church’s greatest troublemakers (now as then) are not those outside who oppose, ridicule and persecute it, but those inside who try to change the gospel…Conversely, the only way to be a good churchman is to be a good gospel-man”.

Martin Luther, in his great commentary on Galatians adds, “here we see the devil’s tricks. No heretic comes to us claiming errors and the title of the devil; nor does the devil himself come as a devil in his own likeness…In spiritual matters when Satan appears white, like an angel of God himself, he disguises himself in a most deadly way and offers for sale his most deadly poison instead of the doctrine of grace”.

Let us then be good Gospel-men, who can tell even the difference between white and off-white. Because this is the only way we can recognize the true gospel from a false one.

What is the Purpose of the Mosaic Law Today?


There is much debate on this question. Many Reformed thinkers see that the Law has 3 main purposes: to reveal sin, to be a positive guide for the believer, and for civil use. Other theologians, mainly in the Lutheran camp, would see the Law more primarily as a means toward revealing sin and pointing us to Christ. Still others see no real application for the Law. Dispensationalists see that the Law in its fullness has been fulfilled in Christ, and that we are now driven by the Law of Christ (Gal 6:1-6), meaning we are to strive toward being like Jesus. He is the ultimate embodiment of the Law, and so we look to a person rather than a list of rules.

While I can see a lot of truth in the Dispensationalist camp, and really tend to shrink at the Reformed understanding (mainly because Reformed thinkers would generally agree that the Mosaic Law is still in effect in its moral codes today), I still see some truth in the Reformed understanding of the Law as being a positive guide. My reason for this is because there are many moral expectations in the Mosaic Law that were set in place before it was instituted. For instance, “do not murder”; the expectation that man should not take a life of another is explicit in Cain’s guilt (Gen 4), and is specifically prohibited for Noah (Gen 9:6). So, although I would say that the Mosaic Law was fulfilled in Christ, moral expectations still abide.

And besides this, I can also appreciate that God’s moral character is eternal, and he does not change. He is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 13:8). And so we can read the Mosaic Law, for instance in Leviticus, learn about God’s unchanging character, and live that out. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10 that we are to learn from Israel’s example, and not fall into the same sin they did. This implies that we can learn moral lessons in the Old Testament, and (if we are filled with God’s Spirit) live them out. Otherwise, what did God mean when he told Israel that the heart of the New Covenant is divine enablement to live out the Law by his writing “it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33)?

However, I would tend to disagree with the Reformed view that these moral expectations are a continuation of the Mosaic Law. What else can Christ mean in Matthew 5:17 when he says that he came to fulfill the law? Which law? He explicitly says, the “Law [and] the Prophets” (5:17). So when Christ said, it is finished, he was not merely pointing to his final payment for sins, but to his active fulfillment of God’s righteousness. So I would agree with the Dispensationalist by saying that we are not bound (in an official sense) to obey the Mosaic Law.

Finally though, I heartily agree with Lutherans (and all theologians who affirm human depravity) that, without regeneration and divine enablement, the effort to live out God’s moral character by one’s own power will only fail. In fact, as Paul says in Galatians 3:10, that all who “rely (as a means toward righteousness) on the works of the law are under a curse”. Meaning, if you think that apart from justification and the regenerating work of the Spirit, that you can work yourself into the kingdom of God, you will find yourself even more condemned (Mark 10:17-21). In fact, Paul says that the Law is a prison to those who would try to be saved by it (Gal 3:22). And in this way, the Law reveals the wickedness of those who think they can abide by it, and who believe they don’t need Christ. And so, even Gentiles, who would desire to be a good and moral person (see Rom 2:15), will find that they can’t abide by their moral principles forever, and will find themselves in need of saving.

I love Luther’s remarks about this purpose of the Law from his Commentary on Galatians. He says, “Now, when a man is humbled by the law, and brought to the knowledge of himself, then followeth true repentance…and he seeth himself to be so great a sinner that he can find no means how he may be delivered from his sin by his own strength, endeavor and works…Here then cometh in good time the healthful word of the Gospel, and saith: ‘Son, thy sins are forgiven thee’ (Matt 9:2). Believe in Christ Jesus crucified for thy sins, [and] if thou feel thy sins and the burden thereof, look not upon them in thyself, but remember that they are translated and laid upon christ, whose stripes have made thee whole (Isa 53:5)”.

And I think that by looking to Christ, and finding this wholeness in him, only then can the law be used positively by the work of the Spirit in us.



What Believers Gain by Union with Christ

If I could think of any doctrine that would sum up the Christian experience, for me, at least, it is union with Christ. As I look at the key texts on justification, regeneration, sanctification, glorification, it seems to me that every one of these benefits stems from union with Christ.

Paul says that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in him” (Col 2:3), and that God has blessed believers “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3). Paul then goes on for the rest of his eloquent run-on sentence in Ephesians 1 by saying that in Christ, God has given us holiness (v. 4), blamelessness (v. 4), adoption (5), redemption and forgiveness of our trespasses (v. 7), and the inheritance of the Spirit (v. 13-14). All of these are ours by virtue of being in Christ. As Martin Luther says, “all his is mine and all mine is his” (you can fine the full quote in my previous post here).

More than this though, Paul says that not only is Christ’s righteousness mine, and my sin his, but by virtue of being in him, even his present reign at the right hand of the Father is mine. He says, “so if you have been raised with the Messiah, seek what is above, where the Messiah is, seated at the right hand of God…For you have died (your old self), and your life is hidden with the Messiah in God” (Col 3:1-2). So because I am in Christ, I am seated in him at the right hand of the Father. Paul becomes even more ecstatic in describing the union we have in Christ by saying that “everything is yours, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor 3:22-23). In other words, not only do we reign in Christ, but the entire universe belongs to us be virtue of our union with him.

For Paul, the doctrine of being in Christ is central to the Christian experience. It is so central that all things are found in him, and nothing of value can be found outside of him. Perhaps Paul’s most encompassing statement is found in 1 Corinthians 1:30, where he says that Christ “became God-given wisdom for us — our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, in order that, as it is written: The one who boasts must boast in the Lord”. It’s all there. The entire Christian life is in Jesus!

As Luther once said, that by union with Christ, every Christian is “so exalted above all things that…he is lord of all things without exception, so that nothing can do him any harm”.


Martin Luther on Union with Christ


How does Martin Luther think of a believer’s union with Christ? He compares it to a divine marriage, saying:

“Who then can fully appreciate what this royal marriage means? Who can understand the riches of the glory of this grace? Here this rich and divine bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And she has that righteousness in Christ, her husband, of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins in the face of death and hell and say, ‘If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his,’ as the bride in the Song of Solomon says, ‘My beloved is mine and I am his,'” (from The Freedom of the Christian)