The Art of Making Distinctions – Two Kinds of Righteousness

Lent 3 Midweek
Galatians 3:1-17
March 22, 2017
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO

“Two Kinds of Righteousness”

In the name of + Jesus.

The righteous shall live by faith. This marvelous prophecy of Habakkuk is quoted by Paul both in his epistle to the Romans and to the Galatians. The righteous shall live by faith. But what does it mean to be righteous? Last week we made a distinction between justification and sanctification. Justification is being made right—right with God and right with the world. We distinguished being right from being holy, though holiness follows righteousness.

Tonight we will further distinguish two kinds of righteousness. And to help us in our distinction, it would be helpful to know two Latin phrases: coram deo, or, “before God,” and coram mundo, or, “before the world.” Righteousness before God is entirely different from righteousness before the world.

Before God, We Are Righteous by Faith for the Sake of Christ; Before the World, We Are Righteous by Works of Love


The first kind of righteousness is righteousness before God. Coram deo. It’s a vertical righteousness—the relationship between man and God. This is the righteousness that ensures salvation. Righteousness coram deo is by faith alone, apart from any works, for the sake of Christ.

First, as we discussed last week, this righteousness is not something that is natural to us. We are not born in a right relationship with God. Psalm 143 pleads, Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you (Ps 143:2). St. Paul echoes the Psalmist, None is righteousness, not even one (Rom 3:10). What’s more, not only is this righteousness absent from birth, it is never something we can attain for ourselves; we cannot produce this righteousness by the Law. Again St. Paul writes, It is clear that by the Law no one is declared righteous before God (Gal 3:11).

So this righteousness coram deo is an alien righteousness. That is to say that it comes from outside ourselves. Furthermore, this righteousness is revealed apart from the Law. It is the righteousness revealed in Christ. It is His life lived under the Law, it’s His suffering the curse and the punishment of the Law, it’s His vindication as the Son of God the resurrection. These all happened quite apart from us, considering that all of us here were not even born.

This righteousness is given by faith. Simply trusting in the Lord Jesus is all it takes to gain this righteousness. Not that we produce it with our faith, but that it is imputed, or gifted to faith. God’s counts this faith as righteousness in His sight. This righteousness is entirely passive.

There is an exchange that takes place through faith. My sin, my unrighteousness, my disorderliness, Jesus takes upon and into Himself. He suffers and makes satisfaction for the sins that I could never atone for. In exchange, He covers me with His righteousness. This is the baptismal gift. God looks at me through baptism-tinted glasses. Even though I still sin, those sins are not counted against me and cannot harm me, because before God, my righteousness depends solely on Christ.

Because of this, Luther writes in his introduction to Galatians that a Christian should live before God as if there is no Law. “If you do not ignore the Law and thus direct your thoughts to grace as though there were no Law but as though there were nothing by grace, you cannot be saved. ‘For through the Law comes knowledge of sin’ (Rom. 3:20).” This is a bold and striking statement and entirely true. If you live before God as if the Law has any say, you have rejected grace and salvation is lost. And this is the best possible news. It means even the chief of sinners can be saved. It is all God’s doing, His righteousness alone.


Of course, there is nothing worse than the abuse of freedom. It is an awful confusion to conclude that because my righteousness coram deo is entirely independent of the Law that I am liberated from the Law in all respects. No, there is a second kind of righteousness—righteousness before the world. It’s a horizontal righteousness, the various relationships I have with other people and with the creation in general. Righteousness coram mundo is righteousness by the Law of love.

We become righteous by faith, but as Paul restates, The righteous shall live by faith. Righteousness is also a righteous life. It’s how you conduct yourself in the world. Here, the Law plays primary importance; grace does not apply at all. Luther goes on to say in his Galatians introduction, “On the other hand, works and the performance of the Law must be demanded in the world as though there were no promise or grace. This is because of the stubborn, proud, and hardhearted, before whose eyes nothing must be set except the Law, in order that they may be terrified and humbled. For the Law was given to terrify and kill the stubborn and to exercise the old man. Both words must be correctly divided, according to the apostle.”

This is what James is getting at in his general epistle: What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:14-17). This righteousness is entirely active. In the horizontal relationships coram mundo, you are saved entirely by works, and not by grace.

Now, I meant that to sound entirely provocative, and it should have made your Lutheran ears tingle. However, if we have kept our distinction, James should no longer cause us any concern over against Paul because they’re talking about two different kinds of righteousness. They don’t run parallel to each other, rather they are perpendicular, and one precedes the other. Righteousness before the world is the fruit of the righteousness of faith before God. It’s like a field of crops that do not grow and produce no food unless God first causes the sun and rain to come down from heaven. Likewise, the passive righteousness of faith on account of Christ plants a seed and waters and tends it until it brings forth the fruits of works. This is the righteousness of God now extended horizontally toward the world.

In one sense, you don’t even need to be a Christian to live this kind of righteous life. Even unbelievers and achieve a sort of civic righteousness by simply living as a good citizen. The Law is, after all, written on our hearts. But at best, this can only be an outward righteousness, or as Jesus describes it, the righteousness of scribes and Pharisees. Righteousness in whole, is righteousness of both kinds, properly distinguished, with the righteousness coram deo as the cause of righteousness coram mundo.

“This is our theology, by which we teach a precise distinction between these two kinds of righteousness, the active and the passive, so that morality and faith, works and grace, secular society and religion may not be confused. Both are necessary, but both must be kept within their limits. Christian righteousness applies to the new man, and the righteousness of the Law applies to the old man, who is born of flesh and blood. Upon this latter, as upon an ass, a burden must be put that will oppress him. He must not enjoy the freedom of the spirit or of grace unless he has first put on the new man by faith in Christ, but this does not happen fully in this life. Then he may enjoy the kingdom and the ineffable gift of grace. I am saying this in order that no one may suppose that we reject or prohibit good works” (Luther).

Two kinds of righteousness—coram deo and coram mundo; before God and before the world. Before God we are righteous by faith, apart from works, for the sake of Jesus Christ, the righteousness of God. But before the world, our righteousness is entirely by works, though imperfect in this life on account of sin. For this reason it is necessary that the Law continue to drive us to a life of love to our neighbors.

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard