The Gospel Expressed: Luther’s Teaching on Alien Righteousness as Divine Gift

When exactly the levee is going to break is not easy to know, but when it does we all know. October 31, 1517 is the day the levee broke in the church of the West. It is not likely that Luther was aware he was laying his ax to the root. But that is what he was in fact doing. That “church split” continues, and with it our fascination with the reformer’s understanding of the meaning of the Evangelium.

Five hundred years on, we’re still asking: “What was Luther’s understanding of the gospel?” The answer is simple, but it should not be rendered simplistically. In this short essay we look at a few insights from before and after the time of the writing of the Ninety-five Theses. In a companion essay, ‘The Gospel Embodied,’ to be run in the next issue of this journal, Christopher Dorn examines how Luther applied his gospel understanding in relation to the Eucharist. The core truth of “divine gift” runs through both.


Key Gospel Distinctions Before and After 1517

Luther’s intellectual sparring partners changed over the years, but that same zeal to understand the Evangelium drove him, until, as he said, “I broke through.” Luther’s breakthrough happened gradually, though, and he did not always see Rome as Goliath and himself as its David. In a way it is odd that the Ninety-five Theses is taken  to be the crucial moment. In that document, he says nothing about “justification by faith,” nor does he oppose the Pope’s authority or indulgences per se, addressing instead only how they were administered.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther. 1529

Moreover, the Ninety-five were not the first set of theses he had propounded. About two months before that notable Allerheiligentag[1], Luther had posted ninety-seven  other theses for debate, in a document entitled Disputatio Contra Scholasticam Theologiam.[2] This set of theses is even more confrontational than the ninety-five. In between his acerbic comments against specific persons, we see early rudiments of his anthropology. In thesis 5 he writes, “It is false to state that man’s inclination is free to choose between either of two opposites. Indeed, the inclination is not free, but captive…” and in 17, “Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God…” Then, in 29, “The best and infallible preparation for grace and the sole disposition toward grace is the eternal election and predestination of God.”

As early as 1515 in his Romans Lectures he shows clear thinking about gratia and the donum.[3] For Luther the grace of God is not a substance stored up and dispensed, but the disposition of God’s heart to fallen man. The donum is the gift of righteousness by faith which comes to us by gratia. In making this distinction he essentially distinguished his understanding of grace from the notion of “infused grace” common to Rome then as now.

However, before that he was not so clear. For example in 1509 “…we find Luther facing in two directions in his marginal comments” to Lombard’s Sentences.[4] In that work, and elsewhere around this time, Luther shows an inner battle between his Augustinianism and a semi-pelagian strain common to his Occamist beginnings. We have a few of his sermons from the period of 1510-12. In one of these on John 3:16 Luther said that man’s free will could “ by itself suffice for salvation.”[5] Luther realized later he failed to see a “…difference between Christ and Moses except the times in which they lived and their degrees of perfection.”[6]

In these early days, Luther was still grappling with certain key distinctions which are now common fare in Lutheran theology. A few of these distinctions would sustain his influence into streams of Reformed tradition. The most prominent distinction in Lutheran theology is the “Law and Gospel” distinction. Another key distinction Luther develops is theologia crucis (the Christian’s attitude of humility and willingness to suffer) contrasted with theologia gloriae (the practice of using religion for personal enhancement,) which appears for the first time in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. The simul justus et peccator distinction which only appears once in Luther’s writings has nonetheless remained an important Lutheran concept.[7] In the “just and sinner” distinction Luther confirms that though throughout our lives, we still confront sin (and grow away from it); we are at the same time assured of God’s full justifying grace.


Alien Righteousness in Luther’s Gospel Teaching

What is perhaps the central gospel distinction in Luther’s thought, however, can be seen most clearly in his 1518 sermon “Two Kinds of Righteousness.” Here, he speaks of iustitia aliena, righteousness outside us. This righteousness or judicial standing is that donum mentioned earlier. This he called righteousness coram Deo: in the presence of God. The second kind Luther called  righteousness coram mundo, our good works in the world and for the world, which are not meritorious for saving grace.

The righteousness coram Deo becomes our righteousness by divine gift. It is not infused into us, nor does it inhere within us at some point. Luther says that it is a perfect righteousness acquired entirely from God in Christ, and given to us by the Spirit. It is this alien righteousness, the righteousness of Christ, by which we are made right with God, and it is received by faith.

In his early days Luther struggled to rid himself of his Anfechtugen, roiling angst about his guilt before a holy God. What little John Staupitz was able to do to console Luther’s troubled conscience was enough to turn his sights toward true North. Staupitz, Luther’s confessor, who remained a Benedictine monk to the end of his days, pointed him to a new understanding of Christ and his gifts. This life journey from before Wittenberg to Luther’s final days in Erfurt give rich meaning to his thesis 37: “Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon” – participationem omnium bonorum, shares in all the blessings.

Luther called Christ’s righteous work for us the fröhlicher Wechsel, the “joyous exchange.”[8] In Luther’s Large Catechism we feel his sense of victory: “Before this I had no lord or king but was captive under the power of the devil…Those tyrants and jailers have now been routed and their place has been taken by Jesus Christ.” Erik Herrmann of Concordia Seminary has quipped that at that time Luther’s understanding of the gospel was indeed “a new perspective on Paul.” And so Luther found himself able to say, in the context of a vigorous defense of his view of the Eucharist, “…if Christ remains mine, everything remains mine; of this I am sure.”[9]


Mark Oliviero is an elder at Trinity Bible Church in Greer, South Carolina, where he teaches and leads various Bible study groups. He holds an M.Div. from Bob Jones University. He, his wife Kristina, and their two children live two miles from Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and he frequents their library.



[1] All Hallows’ Eve

[2] Though Luther identified scholasticism as his opposition, he was in reality opposing the Nominalist corruption of scholasticism and his own Occamist beginnings, exemplified in Gabriel Biel. For the value of philosophy in relation to theology see Ad Fontes, ‘Natural Theology and Reformed Orthodoxy’ by David Haines, May 2017 and Ad Fontes, whole issue, September, 2017, 2.1. Also, see Michael Allen, ‘Disputation for Scholastic Theology,’ inaugural lecture, Sept 6, 2017.

[3] Martin Luther. Lectures on Romans (WA 56:318; LW 25:305–306)

[4] Denis R. Janz. Luther and Late Medieval Thomism: A Study in Theological Anthropology. p. 10.

[5] Ibid., 12.

[6] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Volume 54, 442.

[7] Martin Luther, “Lecture on Galatians,” 1535

[8] Robert Kolb, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith, 120.

[9] This affirmation about the centrality of Christ Luther made in the context of a vigorous argument for his view on the meaning of Hoc Est Corpus Meum in the Eucharist. Luther’s Works, volume 37, 103.

People of the Promise – Buy Your Copy Today!

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, many Protestants, whether in the pews, the pulpit, or the academy, are apt to feel a bit uncertain about just how enthusiastically they can celebrate the Protestant doctrine of the church. After all, isn’t this doctrine the weakest link in Protestant theology, as modern-day Catholic apologists charge, and insecure Protestant theologians self-flagellatingly repeat? In The Davenant Institute’s newest publication, People of the Promise: A Mere Protestant Ecclesiology, our contributors argue, on the contrary, that the Reformers’ radical re-thinking of the definition of the church is one of the Reformation’s greatest treasures. Not only is “mere Protestant” ecclesiology firmly in concert with the multifaceted biblical witness, but it is also manifestly in accord with natural reason and the lived experience of Christians throughout the ages. This volume seeks to honor the Protestant heritage and encourage Protestant Christians today by remembering, reclaiming, and critically reflecting upon the relationship between the gospel promise and the community which it calls into being. Read more…

“Male and Female He Created Them: Genesis 1-3 and the Meaning of the Sexes” Lecture by Dr. Alastair Roberts

About the Lecture

Dr. Alastair Roberts argues for an understanding of male and female vocation within creation that mirrored the structure of God’s own creative work of first “forming” and then “filling” his world. In the Q&A, he particularly draws attention to the changed social and economic conditions of modernity which have rendered formerly intelligible distinctions of gender roles increasingly difficult to understand and apply.

Common Places: Aaron Denlinger on Being a Christian Historian

Dr. Aaron Denlinger joins the podcast and discusses some of the dangers surrounding a simplistic understanding of history and how his calling as a Christian historian compels him to be honest about heroes of history and the context of their lives.




3:00-5:00 The dangers of a simplistic understanding of the Reformation.
5:00-10:00 Ways to grow in our understanding of our Protestant roots.
10:00-16:00 What is meant by “Reformed Orthodoxy” and what are some of its major characteristics?
16:00-19:00 How did the Westminster Standards become so influential in Scotland?
19:00-20:00 How do confessions help the Church?
20:00-21:00 The strength of the Scots Confession
21:30-26:00 How does a Christian historian make charitable judgments about the past?
26:00-30:00 How can a Christian historian serve the church?
30:30-33:00 Advice from a Latin teacher about teaching Latin.
33:15-35:00 The need for additional reading and translation of Early Modern theology that is still only accessible in Latin


Common Places: Fred Sanders on the Triune God

Systematic theologian Dr. Fred Sanders speaks of his discovery of theology, then discusses the Trinity. How is Trinitarian theology an act of praise? What do the missions of the Son and Spirit reveal about God? In classical Trinitarianism, what is a “person”? This and more!




2:10 Fred Sanders’ advice to prospective graduate students
4:40 Sanders’ journey to the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA
6:20-7:40 His discovery of the Trinity through reading Ephesians 1
8:45-The importance of church membership for graduate students
12:30-16:30 How Trinitarian theology is an act of praise
18:15– The importance of Chalcedonian Christology
20:00– Fred’s program for fixing underdeveloped understandings of the Trinity by grounding confessionalism in Scripture
21:30-24:00 What do the missions of the Son and Spirit reveal about God?
24:00-26:00 In classical Trinitarianism, what is a “person”?
28:00-30:30 Discussion of the Spirit’s procession
31:00-33:00 Fred’s reflections on last summer’s online Trinity debates
33:25-35:45 The distorting influence of the gender debate on Trinitarian theology
36:00-39:45 His view of Eternal Functional Subordination and Eternal Generation
40:00-Jesus’ baptism and its relationship to Trinitarian theology



VIDEO: The Forgotten Reformation

In this video, Brad Littlejohn introduces the too often forgotten story of the English Reformation, and corrects common misunderstandings of Henry VIII and his wives, Queen Elizabeth, and the rise of Puritanism. He also suggests lessons that this most tumultuous of Protestant Reformations might hold for the church in our own time.

Follow us on YouTube and see other Davenant Discussions!

 Video Questions

0:30: Importance of remembering the English Reformation.

1:00: Why popular narratives of the English Reformation as merely a political event for the first few decades are misleading.

2:00: Why Henry VIII is a more complicated (and more sympathetic) character than usually recognized.

4:10: How the English Reformation shifts in a more authentically Protestant direction after Henry’s death.

5:50: Does the English Reformation fail to become fully reformed? What goes wrong?

6:50: Elizabeth’s church as doctrinally Protestant but outwardly maintaining a lot of continuity with the medieval church.

7:30: The Puritan demand for visible reformation—understanding what it was and what it wasn’t.

8:10: What is the contemporary relevance of this era of Reformation history?