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Lenten Series: Advancing in the Path of Righteousness

Meditation on Luther’s Heidelberg Thesis 25:
He is not righteous who works much, but he who, without works, believes much in Christ.

Text: Galatians 2:16

Theme: Getting Righteous, Doing Nothing
by Steven Hein

The most confounding term in the Scriptures is the term "righteousness." Righteousness is praised in the Scriptures, and unrighteousness is condemned. You learn what righteous means from the good and holy Law of God, chiefly from the Ten Commandments.

The Law of God declares what righteousness is, and it commands you to be righteous. Satan, knowing your fallen state, also urges righteousness upon you, and encourages you to pursue righteousness in order to please both God and your conscience. Then, when you fail in this pursuit (as the Scriptures testify that you will) Satan scurries to God and tattles on you, and he also stirs up your conscience with guilt. Satan’s goal is to move you to despair, and even some rebellion from being caught in the vice of the Law. Such is the sinner’s experience with righteousness. No wonder righteousness is the most confounding term in the Scriptures!


The Scriptures unwrap this confounding term by yet another in our series of Lenten paradoxes. Luther expresses the paradox this way: "He is not righteous who works much, but he who, without works, believes much in Christ. "St. Paul puts the paradox this way in our text:"... a man is not found righteous by the works of the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be found righteous by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; for by the works of the Law no flesh shall be found righteous"; here, for clarity, the term "justified" was replaced by "found righteous." So, here is the paradox: Everything you know about righteousness comes from the Law, yet by this same Law you will not be found righteous. Instead, by the Law you will be found guilty of unrighteousness.

You see, the Law both describes and commands righteousness, but it cannot produce it. St. Paul writes, "No we know that whatever the Law says, it says to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore, by the deeds of the Law [that is, by deeds aiming at righteousness] no flesh will be justified [that is, found righteous] in His sight, for by the Law is the knowledge of sin." In other words, God gives the Law to describe righteousness, not so that you pursue righteousness, but rather so that you can discover the knowledge of sin within yourself.


When Luther engaged in his Heidelberg debate, he was out to expose and refute a notion that had become quite common in the Medieval church, namely that one must work at righteousness if one wished to be saved. According to the prevailing theology of Luther’s day, God stood by, ready to help one to pursue righteousness, but it had to be at best a cooperative affair, where the sinner pursued righteousness and God helped, through His church, by infusing grace into the sinner to try harder and to accomplish more on the road to righteousness. The key notion in this heresy is that a believer must behave in certain ways in order to pursue and attain righteousness before God. To this Luther said, "NO! He is not righteous who works much, but he who, without works, believes much in Christ."

Now, we know of the many grave and pernicious heresies that had crept into Christ’s church during the Middle Ages, and this certainly was one such heresy. But this heresy is not new. It did not arise with the other corruptions of the Medieval church. In fact, we find it alive and well already in the New Testament church.

In the second reading for tonight, which already has been read to you, St. Paul describes his battle over this heresy with none other than his fellow apostle, St. Peter. There, St. Peter had been eating with Gentiles in Antioch, contrary to Jewish Law. And of course, in the freedom that the Gospel brings, this was acceptable behavior. But, when members of the circumcision party in Jerusalem arrived in Antioch, Peter withdrew from table fellowship with these Gentile Christians.

St. Paul publicly confronted St. Peter about this behavior, not because Peter was being inhospitable or rude to the Gentile Christians. Rather, St. Paul saw that St. Peter’s behavior denied the freedom in the Gospel and instead confirmed the very thing that the circumcision party was pushing, namely this same heresy that a believer must behave in certain ways in order to pursue and attain righteousness before God. St. Paul saw this for what it was: an attack on the truth of the Gospel and a return to pursuing righteousness by the Law.


Of course, that was then, and this is now, right? Wrong! This same trick of the devil that seduced the Western church in the middle ages, and even mislead an apostle of the church, still operates successfully today in the church, even in the Lutheran Church. It’s not a matter of whether one is a liberal or a conservative concerning Scriptural doctrine: Satan can seduce one as easily as the other.

Here is the sign that the heresy that one must behave in certain ways in order to pursue and attain righteousness before God: the Gospel is not allowed to be God’s final word to sinners, but instead the Law is put forth, after the preaching of the Gospel, as a method to pursue and attain righteousness before God. The Gospel is thus perverted by being put into the service of the Law, when according to the Scriptures, it is the Law that is to be in the service of the Gospel. St. Paul issues this warning against perverting the Gospel into serving the greater interests of the Law when he writes later in this same book of Galatians: "For as many as are of the works of the Law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the Law, to do them.’ But that no one is justified [that is, found righteous] by the Law in the sight of God is evident, for "the just [that is, the righteous] shall live by faith." Yet the Law is not of faith, but "the man who does them shall live by them"

Yes, dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is a shame and a grave danger when the Gospel is preached, only to be supplanted by a return to the Law. The old heresy thus raises its ugly head again in the church, and spiritual disaster occurs. Heed St. Paul’s warning: "You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified [that is, found righteous] by Law; you have fallen from grace."

How is it that this happens in Christ’s church, whether in the New Testament church, or in the church of the Middle Ages, or in the church of today? The answer is simple: This heresy first and continually arises in the human heart and mind, in every age, and in every person. Dr. Luther called it the "opinio legis," "the understanding shaped by the Law." The Christian’s heart and mind lose track of the Scriptural paradox that the Law that describes righteousness and commands righteousness is utterly incapable of producing righteousness.

God’s intention in giving His holy Law is not to provide a means to pursue righteousness, but rather to provide a means to expose and condemn unrighteousness, and thus continually to drive the sinner to the holy cross, there to be found righteous by faith in Christ. At the cross you find true righteousness, because there Christ accomplishes the work of providing you with His own righteousness, in exchange for bearing your own unrighteousness. This unrighteousness is not covered by your works in pursuit of righteousness. Rather, your unrighteousness is covered by the blood of Christ, because of which God justifies you [that is, finds you to be righteous] in Christ. The cross, and the entire point of the Gospel, is that you believe what Christ has accomplished for you. Righteousness becomes yours as you believe this great exchange which God has worked between Christ and yourself. The paradox remains intact: The Law describes and commands righteousness, but it does not produce it! Christ produces it, and so Luther rightly calls you tonight not to do much, which produces no righteousness, but to believe much, which
gives it all to you. Amen.

Steven A. Hein is currently Headmaster of Shepherd of the Springs Lutheran High School and the Director of Shepherd of the Springs Christian Institute in Colorado Springs, CO. He was formerly Professor of Theology (24 years) at Concordia University-River Forest, IL.

Bible Reference

Galatians 2: 16
know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.

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