When Second becomes First

Some years ago the St. Louis seminary began writing articles emphasizing the two kinds of righteousness: one before God and the other before men.  Even then what they didn’t emphasize is that one can be righteous before men without being righteous at all before God.  Their point was that Lutherans need to, should, better, must pay attention to the second kind.  If you ask me the second has become first.

The 23rd annual Theological Symposium at St. Louis this year is titled “Doing Justice: The Church’s Faith in Action.”  Tell me; don’t these sectional titles sound like they came out of a mainline church’s convention? “Freedom of a Christian: Lutheran Contributions to Human Dignity, Human Rights, and Social Justice;”  “Justice as Sustainability” (There is either an error in grammar, logic, or both in this title.); “Justice in Action;”  “Justice as Aid;” “Justice as Proclamation;” “Toward a Theology of Justice.”  The only thing open for debate is how many times Amos 5:24 will be quoted, referred to, appealed to, or inferred.

So what’s the problem?  Go to virtually any corporate website, and you will find a tab for social responsibility, sustainability, or socially just business practices. This is the world’s message and it is the world’s salvation.  Being just, merciful, loving, caring, sharing, or recycling is how the world knows and shows it is not that bad.  These are not the marks of the Church.  The Church is not salt and light because She works for justice but in so far as She preaches the Gospel purely and administers the Sacraments according to Christ’s institution.

But this emphasis on the other second kind of righteousness gets kudos and acceptance from the world.  It’s deeds not creeds.  At long last, we’re not so heavenly minded and so we are some earthly good.  You will be listened to in the world if you tell them how you’re preventing malaria in Africa or working for justice for the oppressed because you are on the same page they are on, but try making the transition from the second kind of righteousness to the first.

Ahh, but doesn’t Scripture refer to this when it says people marveled saying, “See how they love one another.”  I suppose if you think what outsiders saw was they were lovey dovey to each other, but aren’t even biker dudes that with their fellow members?  I think the world marveled because in the name of love the Christians confronted one another with their sins; they wouldn’t let them hide behind the second kind of righteousness.

But don’t we find the prophets and the apostles speaking of the second kind of righteousness? Yes, as a preaching of repentance.  Yes, as what follows the first kind of righteousness. So where are the seminars on the first kind of righteousness? We don’t have them because we assume we all know it, have it, practice it. That’s an error. The first kind of righteousness constantly needs to be preached to fallen humans.  The world is awash in the second kind.  What the world needs to be told is that the second doesn’t mean squat without the first, and that is all but impossible if you have made the second the first.


About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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