§1 Approaching Galatians (session 2, part 2)—Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: A Presbyterian Adult Spiritual Formation Series

[The following resumes, in medias res, the same session as recounted in the most recent post in this series.]


In Luther’s 2nd Galatians commentary—and this is common in Calvin, too—he has a section at the beginning summarizing what he thinks the book is all about. Luther talks about types of righteousness. His interpretation of Galatians is that it is teaching us about different types of righteousness. On the one hand, you have political righteousness and political justice. This is the complicated thing with the word “righteousness,” in German but also in Greek. It’s righteousness in what we would call a religious sense, and it’s also “justice” in what we would call a political sense. Luther also talks about ceremonial righteousness. He’s thinking here about the sacrificial system in the Hebrew Scriptures. There’s also legal righteousness or justice, and he’s thinking here specifically about the 10 Commandments, the “ethical law.” Luther says all these things are gifts of God: “As are all of the things we have” (p. 4).[1] He characterizes these kinds of righteousness as active. They are things you have to do. You have to do political justice. You have to do ceremonial justice. You have to do legal justice.

The other kind of righteousness is passive. It is not something that you do. This is faith—the righteousness of faith, or Christian righteousness. To quote him: “For here we work nothing, we do nothing, we render nothing to God; we only receive” (p. 5). This is our familiar phrase about salvations by grace through faith, which isn’t anything you have to do. Luther will still use language like “grasp” or “take hold of.” You have to grasp, with faith, the righteousness that Christ offers you. You have to take hold of it. But, in his mind, these are fundamentally passive things. This righteousness smashes into you, as it were. You grab onto it like a little kid running and jumping into your arms for a hug. But you’re receiving. You’re not producing something as in the other kinds of righteousness. As Luther puts it, we “do not perform but receive.” We “do not have but accept.”



This gets at the idea that grace or salvation is not something that belongs to us. It’s something that we get from somewhere else. Luther uses language of “free imputation” (p. 6).  This is a finance or accounting term. The early modern period saw important developments in financial instruments and book-keeping, including the development of “double-entry”—which tracks currency coming in and commodity going out—right at the turn of the sixteenth century.[2] The idea that “imputation” trades on is the idea of a divine accountant keeping track of our spiritual liquidity on the one hand and Jesus’s spiritual liquidity on the other. Since none of us can produce more righteousness, or spiritual currency, Luther’s idea is that God—the divine accountant—transfers that currency from Jesus’s ledger to ours. That’s “free imputation.” It all comes from God’s side. There is nothing we can do to earn it. It’s just there because God says it’s there.

It’s important for reformational theology that this righteousness of faith is there just because God says it’s there. It is not become embedded in us or a part of us. In Luther's mind, if it became part of us, it would be something we have. We would no longer need to get it from God. And some significant debates develop on this point. The other side of this argument talks about essential righteousness. This idea is that, through the reception of grace and through the good works Christians do, they develop an essential righteousness—a righteousness attached to or residing in their own essence, nature, or being. The basic idea here is to say: “Once God gives you righteousness, it gets into your soul and you become righteous to some extent.” Andreas Osiander created a debate about this in the 1550’s, to which Calvin provided a thorough reply.[3] Much more recently, way of reading Luther that tends in the same direction as Osiander developed in Finland.[4] In fairness, my read is that there are statements that Luther makes especially early on in his reformational journey that can lend themselves to this kind of interpretation, but I don’t find it at all a convincing reading of his 1535 Galatians commentary. As Calvin succinctly puts it: “our righteousness is not in us but in Christ, that we possess it only because we are partakers in Christ.”[5]


Participant: Again, it’s no essential righteousness?


McMaken: Correct, as opposed to free imputation


Participant: And essential righteousness says you receive righteousness by doing things?


McMaken: It’s the idea that righteousness comes into you and turns you righteous inside. For Luther, we always remain sinners. We always need the gift of righteousness from God. For essential righteousness folks, we might always remain sinners but not as much. It becomes a question of “how much.” Parts of us have stopped being sinful, or at least they become less and less sinful. Righteousness is in our essence and we’re getting better. Calvin—an I think he’s being very faithful to Luther here—argues that if that’s the case, then you need God less. And he says “No!” to that idea.


Participant: Where does that come from? Were there ideas or examples in Luther’s time that he was looking at and using to think about these things? Maybe the relationship between lords and vassals in feudalism?


McMaken: I can't think of anywhere I have seen him say: “God freely gives righteousness just like lords freely give to their vassals.” But that doesn’t mean those passages aren’t there. Luther wrote so much.


Participant 1: It would make sense if he did say that. We all use our culture and our moment in time to explain what we think. So, if that’s what you’re experiencing at that time, you would use that to explain what you’re experiencing spiritually. I'm thankful we do that now.


Participant 2: What happened to the Jewish people in Germany and other countries at that time? We talk about Catholics and Protestants, but what about the Jewish people?


McMaken: There weren’t many and the ones that were there were increasingly sequestered in specific districts and “ghettos,” which became far more widespread of a practice in the early modern period. Jewish folks were disproportionately involved in the financial side of trade, which is what generates the antisemitic stereotypes today of Jewish folks being rich and secretly running the world. During the medieval period, Christians had laws about how much and what kind of interest they could charge one another. But those laws didn’t apply to Jews. They could charge steeper interest, which meant that they could take on different kinds of financial risks and potentially reap significant rewards. At the same time, Jewish folks in Christian kingdoms didn’t posses the same legal rights as Christians did. Luther seems to have started out fairly optimistic that Jews would convert to Christianity because he had rediscovered the proper pure preaching of the Gospel. Then that didn’t happen. Later in his life, he says nastier and nastier things about Jews.


Participant: Luther’s not the first person to do this.


McMaken: No, he’s not.


Participant: “Look, Jews! We fixed Christianity for you. You’re saved now, right? You’re not? We’re not friends anymore.”


McMaken: He said super nasty things and they got repeated for centuries around Germany, which undoubtedly contributed to the social situation that produced the Shoah.


Participant: It’s so pertinent because what we think and what we believe is so influenced by other people. We obviously see the ramifications from that looking backwards.


McMaken: That’s very true. Well, in any case, Luther says there are—broadly speaking—two kinds of righteousness. There’s the kind that you do for yourself: political, ceremonial, legal. And there’s the kind God does for you: the righteousness of faith.

Luther also develops two uses of the law. They parallel the two kinds of righteousness. The first use of the law is to constrain the wicked. This is when you use the law to set up rules to make sure people can’t hurt one another. The basic idea is that we’re all wicked and if we were left with our own devices, without being constrained, we would all hurt one other. Some days it feels hard to argue with this point. That’s the first use of the law. The second use of the law is to drive people to the gospel. The basic idea is that the law sets up a standard that nobody can meet so that you go into despair about your relationship with God and how you can never satisfy God. Then God can say: “No worries. Jesus took care of it.” It’s part of what the Lutheran tradition calls the ordo salutis—the order of salvation. This describes the process that one goes through on the way to salvation. The first part of this process is realizing that you can’t do it yourself. The law helps you do that.

However, it’s important to have some perspective here. This is a particular way of understanding the law, especially the Jewish law, that Luther finds in Paul but that doesn’t accurately reflect Paul himself. We know from Philippians, for instance, that Paul doesn’t think that he had any trouble keeping the law as a Pharisee. There’s no good reason to think he ever changes his mind about that. Even though Luther sets it up like this, Luther is giving us a particular interpretation that fits in with how he understands salvation more broadly. He brings this understanding with him to his interpretation of Paul, and that colors his interpretation. When scholars talk about a “Lutheran interpretation of Paul,” they are referring to al this.

Building on the two kinds of righteousness and the two uses of the law, Luther also has two kingdoms. This is the idea that there are Two spheres in which humans live out their lives. The first kingdom is the earthly kingdom, the bodily kingdom, the political kingdom. This is where active righteousness lives. This is our day-to-day, walking around world that we live in. Then there’s also the heavenly, spiritual kingdom, the kingdom of faith, the kingdom of passive righteousness, the Kingdom of the gospel. In keeping with this, there are certain ways that you live just because you’re a human being, and there are other kinds of ways that you live because you’re Christian. Luther thinks these things overlap, but they are also very distinct in his thinking. And that produces some issues. For instance, we have the 10 Commandments telling us not to kill and Jesus said things that seem to suggest violence is something for Christians to avoid. But what if you’re in Christian political community and you need an executioner? How are you going to get an executioner? Luther says: “If you’re a good Christian, you should go ahead and be the executioner. It’s not about you and you wanting to kill somebody. It’s about what’s good for the political community. It’s necessary and you’re serving your neighbors, so go ahead and be an executioner.”


Participant: That’s scary.


McMaken: What happens is you end up with your private Christian morality on the one hand, and then your public political “morality” on the other. And they don’t always align. Why? Luther says it’s because, in the public sphere, you’ve got a mixed group. It would be great if everybody were Christians and living according to the Christian morality, but not everybody is a Christian. Not everybody is living a good Christian life. So you need to take certain precautions. Luther theorizes all this in terms of the two kingdoms. You’ve got active righteousness and the use of the law as a constraint for the wicked in the political kingdom. Then you also have the kingdom of faith, where passive righteousness lives and where the law drives you to despair so stop thinking that you can do it all yourself and are prepared to receive God’s gift of saving grace.

There’s a quote from Luther that I want to spend a little bit of time taking apart. He writes:


This distinction is easy to speak of; but in experience and practice it is the most difficult of all, even if you exercise and practice it diligently. … Therefore I admonish you, …exercise yourselves by study, by reading, by meditation, and by prayer, so that in temptation you will be able to instruct consciences, both your own and others, console them, and take them from Law to grace, from active righteousness to passive righteousness, in short, from Moses to Christ.” (p. 10)


Notice how Luther says “exercise.” He’s talking, primarily, about the distinction between the two kinds of righteousness and the two uses of the law. Luther’s point is that it’s hard to grasp this distinction existentially. We can wrap our minds around it but, when the chips are down and you have that gut-level reflex with respect to your relationship with God, it’s hard to internalize the idea that your salvation doesn’t depend on anything that you do. We keep reverting back to the idea, in Luther's mind, that we have to do something, and that there is something we can do. In order to overcome that, Luther says that we have to exercise. I love this metaphor, and Luther isn’t the only one who uses it. It comes out of the monastic tradition. Just like we exercise our bodies and our minds, we need to exercise spiritually. We have to pump up our spiritual muscles to become spiritual Arnold Schwarzeneggers.

How do we do that? Luther tells us: by study, by reading, by meditation, and by prayer. Scripture is front and center here. We need to study, read, meditate, and pray scripture. That’s how we internalize these things and shape our imaginations in new ways.

Why must we do that? “So that in temptation you will be able to instruct consciences.” This is that guilty conscience, that troubled conscience, that conscience convinced it has to do something. For Luther, this troubled conscience is at the root of all of this existential dread that people experience. By exercising yourself spiritually, you get yourself in a position where you can instruct that conscience. Then he says: “both your own and others.” You have to be able to instruct your own conscience when these thoughts come up. You can say: “No. That's not it. Let’s go back, remember, and put that to the side.” But when other people come to you with these troubles, you have to be able to help them work through it. He wants us to be able to “console them.”

Now we will see how his thinking comes together but in a more problematic way. He says we must “take them from Law to grace, from active righteousness to passive righteousness, in short, from Moses to Christ.” This is the anti-Judaism, supersessionism thing that we’ve been talking about long the way. Why? Because Luther is talking to a bunch of Germans. They’re all Gentiles. What did they ever have to do with Moses? In Luther’s mind, the law and Moses get associated with the Pope. When he looks around and tries to find folks that he thinks are acting in his own time like Paul’s opponents were acting in Paul’s time, he thinks it’s the Pope. He wants folks to move from siding with the Pope to siding with him, but he describes this in terms of moving from Judaism to Christianity, which is just ridiculously over simplistic and misleading. And what’s worse, this pattern of thought becomes deeply ingrained in Protestant theology—most especially in in Lutheranism, for obvious reasons, but also in our own Reformed tradition.

This is why you have to stay alert when reading Luther. You can be going along, hearing nice things about exercising your spiritual muscles and helping folks with their troubled consciences, hearing about how our relationship with God depends on God’s free grace. Then—bam! You get hit with some anti-Judaism and supersessionism. We need to call this out when we see it.

Let’s look now at another quote:


In short, whoever knows for sure that Christ is his righteousness not only cheerfully and gladly works in his calling but also submits himself for the sake of love to magistrates, also to their wicked laws, and to everything else in this present life – even, if need be, to burden and danger. For he knows that God wants this and that this obedience pleases Him.” (p. 12)


For Luther, the idea of “calling” is tied up with medieval culture. Much more than today, people followed in the professions of their parents—well, your father, really. If your dad was a brewer, the you were a brewer. If your dad was a serf woodcutter, you were a serf woodcutter. That’s your calling. Luther said everybody’s calling is equal. People who are clergy aren’t necessarily better. People who are nobles aren’t necessarily better. As far as God’s concerned, everybody's equal even though everybody has different social roles or callings. And Luther has a conservative streak in that he thinks everyone should stay in their calling. He also thinks that having the proper understanding of Christ being your righteousness makes it better for you in your calling because now you can live out whatever calling you have as part of your obedience to God and Christ. If your job is to muck out all the sewage, you can do that to the glory of God. You don't have to feel any less “called”  or “holy” than Martin Luther, sitting away in his study reading Greek. So, one “gladly works in his calling.”

Then it gets interesting, and we have to look back to what we said about Luther’s two kingdoms idea: “but also submits himself for the sake of love to magistrates.” This refers to following the law and dictates of your political authorities. We all generally agree that it's a good thing for Christians to do, yes?


Participants: Yes.


McMaken: Right, that’s our general outlook. But he keeps going: “but also submits himself for the sake of love to magistrates, also to their wicked laws, and to everything else in this present life – even, if need be, to burden and danger. For he knows that God wants this and that this obedience pleases Him.” So we’re to submit even to wicked laws, as a form of obedience to God.


Participant: Who’s saying this?


McMaken: Luther is saying this. I think it’s problematic too! This is a strand you find in Luther and the Reformation more broadly. Calvin is not immune to saying things like this, either. They’re terrified of being labeled as subversive to the political order because then everybody will be after them. Luther has an elector, a high-level prince in Germany, who is his benefactor—John Frederick the Magnanimous. So Luther isn’t interested in destructing or disrupting the political order. So even if there are wicked laws, it’s better to follow those than to assume authority that God hasn’t given you and that is not part of your calling. You do your thing, your calling, your duty, no matter how much it hurts, as a form of obedience to God.


Participant: Do you recall that, at some point, there were peasant uprisings that Luther spoke out very strongly against? Is that a context for this?


McMaken: That was the German Peasants’ War back in the mid-1520s. The result was that the nobles—including bishops who had political jurisdiction in different parts of Germany—sent in their soldiers and killed hundreds of thousands of people. Luther called for the authorities to restore order by means of violence if necessary. He was shocked that people could take the idea of freedom of conscience in religion as a foundation for wanting more political freedom, more political stake, more political involvement and political fairness. But with Luther’s two kingdoms idea, Christians are supposed to obey political authorities—even the wicked stuff. On top of this, Luther, Calvin, and others would add that when you find yourself under the authority of a wicked ruler or government, that’s because God is either punishing you or testing you by making you go through these things. Today, we call this “victim blaming,” perhaps with a side of gaslighting thrown in, too.


Participant: Can you define gaslighting?


McMaken: Gaslighting is making somebody doubt themselves and their sanity. It would be like if somebody came and said, “The sky is blue,” but I said, “No, it’s not. It’s green. Why on earth would you think it’s blue?”


Participant: It’s somebody making you feel like you’re crazy.


McMaken: Right. For Luther, all of this is part of how the two kingdoms idea plays out. And he builds his two kingdoms idea on his ideas about two different kinds of righteousness. This is one of those places where we can connect the theological dots and see real life consequences. We start out with an idea about how salvation works and how to take care of our conscience as we struggle with our relationship with God. But, before taking all that many steps down the logical road, we end up hearing that we need to submit to wicked laws. Theological ideas always have practical, political consequences.


[This is an edited transcript from an adult spiritual formation group that met at St. Charles Presbyterian Church in St. Charles, Missouri. It was transcribed and edited with the help of a student worker at Lindenwood University who wishes to remain anonymous, but who was also a big help. Click here to find an index of the full series.]



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