Martin Luther on the Relationship Between Justification and Sanctification


luther2_zoomI recently read an essay written by the Reformer, Martin Luther, entitled, “Two Kinds of Righteousness.” I found it to be very helpful and edifying, as well as carrying (as expected) astute theological significance. There has historically been much confusion over the relationship between justification and sanctification. Such confusion is still awry with the whirlwind surrounding Tullian Tchavidjian and The Gospel Coalition, just to give one example.

The relationship between justification and sanctification isn’t mere theological debate reserved for academics. One’s understanding of this relationship directly effects Christian living. For example, if one mistakenly believes justification to function in such a way that neglects progressive sanctification, there would be no motivation to mortify the flesh and sin. However, sanctification should never be viewed as a legalistic method by which one earns salvation as if justification did not exist. There must be a healthy balance between the two, understanding that justification and sanctification is distinct, but connected.

Luther’s “Two Kinds of Righteousness” as a whole serves the Christian in his or her daily battle with sin. I found sections from propositions two and six particularly helpful in clearly stating the connection and distinction within the relationship between justification and sanctification.

Proposition Two: “Therefore, everything which Christ has is ours, graciously bestowed on us unworthy men out of God’s sheer mercy, although we have rather deserved wrath and condemnation, and hell also.”

In explaining what he calls “alien righteousness,” the imputed righteousness that believers obtain by God’s grace through faith in Christ, Luther makes a theologically loaded statement in this second proposition that hits on a few doctrines. Firstly, he concisely describes the essence of imputed righteousness by writing, “…everything which Christ has is ours.” Luther points out the degree of the blessings poured out on the Christian through the imputed righteousness of Christ. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

Luther sums up in this statement the blessings Christians receive through this glorious transaction. It is through this doctrine that we are justified and it is only by this doctrine that we can stand before God and be counted blameless in his sight. This statement is highly significant because in it we have a description of the direct effects of Christ’s imputed righteousness, which lead us to say with Paul, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3).

But even further, in this short section we see God’s sovereign grace in bestowing this blessing upon us. Our alien righteousness is nothing that we earn. It is a gift. It is a divine gift of sovereign grace, in which God grants saving faith to those whom he wills, though all are deserving of “wrath and condemnation, and hell also.” So, Luther also shows in this statement his affirmation of the depravity of man and the grace of God in salvation. According to Luther, our eternal destiny depends solely on the grace of God. From this we can apply that all praise, glory, and worship are due God alone. There is no room for boasting in salvation on man’s part.

 Proposition Six: “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 slaying he flesh and crucifying the desires with respect to the self…this righteousness consists in love to one’s neighbor…in meekness and fear towards God.”

Luther turns at this point in his essay from an exposition of justification (“alien righteousness”) to discuss the doctrine of sanctification (“proper righteousness”). It is noteworthy that Luther keeps at the forefront the necessity of God’s grace and the total and utter reliance on the work of Christ for salvation. He emphasizes that this “proper” or more active righteousness on our part is not a way by which we merit salvation, but rather a full reliance on the merit of Christ (“…not because we alone work it, but because we work with that first and alien righteousness”). This section is highly significant because it describes sanctification as being motivated by justification.

Though Luther accurately separates the two, he links them by showing the reliance of the one upon the other. To put it practically, Luther shows us that it is by the imputed righteousness of Christ that we do good works, slay the flesh, crucify selfish desires, love our neighbor, and fear God. This gets to the heart of Philippians 2:12-13, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” We are to work out our salvation, yet it is God who works in us for his good pleasure.

According to Luther, our alien righteousness fuels our proper righteousness. God saves us by his grace alone and he works out our sanctification through the means of our obedience.


396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY. with his wife Erica.

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