One of the key insights that Luther and others highlighted is this topic. In their study of the Scripture they saw that Scripture talks about righteousness in two different ways: righteousness before God and righteousness before people.
Coram Deo (before God) refers to the righteousness that a person has before God, most commonly called, “passive righteousness.” In other words the person’s works before God do not add one drop of righteousness before God. Our righteousness is entirely Christ’s righteousness, which is received as a gift by faith.
Coram mundo (before humans) refers to the righteousness that a person has before people, most commonly called, “active righteousness.”
Kolb and Arand in their book, The Genius of Luther’s Theology, note:
This view [two kinds of righteousness] provided the theological assumptions for everything they had to say about the relationship between God and the human being. This distinction between the two kinds of righteousness is one of the elements we can describe as the “nervous system” running through the body of Christian teaching as these reformers thought of the public teaching of Scripture. (Kolb/Arand, p. 25)
The implications for such an understanding is fleshed out even more.
The distinction between the two kinds of righteousness allowed the reformers without qualification to extol the gospel by removing human activity as a basis for justification before God. At the same time, it clarified the relationship of the human creature to the world in which God had placed him or her to live a life of “active righteousness” for the well-being of the human community and the preservation of the environment. The two kinds of righteousness, however, are not inseparable from one another. The passive righteousness of faith provides the core identity of a person; the active righteousness of love flows from that core identity out into the world. (Kolb/Arand, p. 26)
Lest we think this is a 21st century reading back into Luther, in our Prolegomena class I assign the students to read Luther’s 1535 Commentary on Galatians. Thus, the student reads the primary source to see that Luther does in fact address the two kinds of righteousness from the beginning of the commentary. And they see how he does that. One example from Luther’s introduction to Galatians:
Therefore I admonish you, especially those of you who are to become instructors of consciences, as well as each of you who individually, that 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. (Luther’s Works, Vol. 26, p. 10)
Kola and Arand present an expansion of what Luther means by the two kinds of righteousness:
Although Luther labeled the way we are to relate to God as passive righteousness, this dimension of our personhood also assumed a variety of other names, such as “Christian righteousness,” “divine righteousness,” or “spiritual righteousness.”
The reformers also used a rich and varied vocabulary to highlight the various activities and aspects of human life that constitute righteousness in the web of mutually constitutive human relationships. These include “human righteousness,” “civil righteousness,” “political righteousness,” “ceremonial righteousness,” “righteousness of the law,” “righteousness of reason,” “carnal righteousness,” and similar expressions. (p. 29)
Passive righteousness in Scripture
As we read the Bible we begin to discover that sometimes the text will emphasize the passive righteous of God. For instance,
More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith… (Philippians 3:8-9 NAS)
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21 NAS)
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; (Romans 3:21-22)
Active righteousness in Scripture
Now in our relationships to others we see that Scripture talks about what we do in those relationships. Paul gives an extended discussion of this in Romans 12-15, as be begins that section with the words: “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God…” (Romans 12:1), where passive righteousness precedes active righteousness. The active righteousness of Christians shines through in their good works.
[Jesus said:] “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16, 20
Negatively regarding the works we do for others and their value before God.
This you know, my loved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20)
Positively the active righteousness benefits others. Note that James is saying that the active righteousness before others is informed and shaped by the passive righteousness of faith from God.
If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit corphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:26-27)
Kolb, Robert and Arand, Charles P. The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.
Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, Vol. 26: Lectures on Galatians Chapters 1-4 (Editor: Pelikan, Jaroslav. Luther’s Works, Concordia). (2007).