Theological Dictionary: Passive and Active Righteousness
“This is our theology, by which we teach a precise distinction between these two kinds of righteousness, the active and the passive” (Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians 1535). There are “two kinds of righteousness” because human beings live in two kinds of relationships: 1) creature with Creator and 2) creature with creature. Before God (coram Deo), people are passive, receiving righteousness by grace through faith on account of Christ (Rom 3:21-24; 5:17; 10:6; Phil 3:9; cf. Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16). Before the world (coram mundo), people are active, serving their neighbor in love (Rom 13:8-19; Gal 5:13-14). This distinction is essential because, as Luther put it, it ensures that “morality and faith, works and grace … are not confused. Both are necessary, but both must be kept within their limits” (Lectures on Galatians 1535). To be human is to be two-dimensional: passive (i.e. receptive) before God and active (i.e. loving) before the world. These two kinds of righteousness are distinct, but they are inseparable: passive righteousness from God precedes and produces active righteousness for the neighbor. In Paul’s words, what “matters is faith [in God] working through love [for others]” (Gal 5:6). This “double-definition” of righteousness avoids the twin errors of one-dimensional definitions: either supposing that human activity (love) is the basis of the Creator-creature relationship or, conversely, imaging that because justification is by faith works of love are irrelevant. To say there are two kinds of righteousness is to affirm the importance of faith and love while also identifying the proper place for faith and love. As Luther describes the Christian, “he lives not in himself, but in Christ and the neighbor. He lives in Christ through faith and in his neighbor through love” (Freedom of the Christian 1520).