Note from CM: This coming Sunday our church, along with others around the world, will commemorate Reformation Sunday. I thought it would be fitting to look at some thoughts about this momentous movement in church history for a few days this week in preparation.
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Another Look: God’s Righteousness
I’m not ashamed of the good news; it’s God’s power, bringing salvation to everyone who believes — to the Jew first, and also, equally, to the Greek. This is because God’s covenant justice is unveiled in it, from faithfulness to faithfulness. As it says in the Bible, “the just shall live by faith.”
• Romans 1:16-17, The Kingdom New Testament
Though the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is traditionally dated October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses upon the door of Wittenberg University, there is another, even more foundational event. Sometime between 1514-1518, Luther had his famous “tower experience.” The monk was studying Romans and trying to understand the phrase in verse 17, “the righteousness of God,” when he came to an understanding of this text that changed his life and ultimately, the world.
“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression “the righteousness of God,” because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust.
My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage Him. Therefore I did not love a just angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that “the just shall live by faith.” Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before “the righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…”
It is necessary to understand that Martin Luther, like all of us, was a product of his times. His initial understanding of “the righteousness of God” was based on the interpretations of the scholastic theologians of the high and late Middle Ages (1100-1500 A.D.), who taught that the righteousness of God was God’s active, personal righteousness or justice by which he punishes the unrighteous sinner. This concept was understood in the context of the burning question of the day: By what merit are sinners made righteous before God?
That is why this text offered no comfort to Luther, who was well aware of his own lack of personal righteousness. If the Gospel “reveals the righteousness of God,” then he saw no hope. He knew that he was an unrighteous sinner who fell far short of God’s righteous (perfect) demands, and therefore the thought of God’s righteous judgment terrified him. He knew God’s Law condemned him. If the Gospel was yet another revelation of God’s righteous character and judgment, there was no way of salvation for him.
However, as he continued meditating, he began to link this phrase with the words at the end of the verse — “the just (righteous) shall live by faith.” And then it broke through to him. Luther realized that the verse was not talking about the active righteousness that God demands, but the passive righteousness that He freely gives to those who believe the Gospel. We are saved by an alien righteousness of Christ that comes to us as a gift from God, not by a righteousness of our own doing.
For Luther, then, and for Protestants centuries afterwards, “the righteousness of God” meant the righteousness that God gives sinners when they put their faith in Christ. God justifies sinners (declares them righteous before him), not because they have righteousness to offer God on their behalf, but because of Christ, who died and rose again for them.
The point is that Luther and the other Reformers, in light of their context (Middle Ages Roman Catholic theology) interpreted Romans 1:16-17 solely in terms of personal salvation.
- The Gospel is good news of salvation for the one who believes.
- It shows us how a person becomes righteous in God’s sight — by faith.
- The Gospel, therefore, equals “justification by faith.”
In my view, Luther was both right and also incomplete in his reading of Romans 1:16-17. Here it is again, this time in the ESV:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
First of all, Luther was right that the text teaches justification by faith.
It is those who “believe” who are “saved.”
The way the Gospel comes to the world is “from faith for faith” — I interpret this to mean that God’s word of salvation is sourced in God’s faithfulness and finds its home in those who respond in faith.
“The just (those whom God calls ‘righteous’) live by faith.”
In light of the corrupt church practices in his day, this understanding was crucial, and Martin Luther was right to emphasize it. In a day when people were compelled to purchase indulgences in order to accumulate merit before God so that they might gain forgiveness and right standing before God, and when Luther himself found he could not find peace with God through the most rigorous ascetic exercises of the monastery, the call to simple faith in Christ was a refreshing corrective that started a revolution.
But, secondly, I think Luther (and those who followed or built on him) missed some important aspects of this text.
Most fundamentally, Protestants in Luther’s train have neglected the clear historical grounding of this passage (Rom. 1:1-7), which is reflected in the text itself in the words, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
Rom. 1:1-7 summarizes the content of the Gospel message Paul preached, and it is not simply a message about personal salvation. Rather, it is an announcement about how God is establishing the Kingdom he promised to Israel through the person and work of his crucified and risen Son, the Messiah-King.
Luther, the Reformers, and Bible interpreters ever since continued and exacerbated the trend of those who went before them in de-historicizing the Gospel. They removed it from its Jewish context, its story of Israel’s God and his chosen people, its promise of a Messianic Kingdom and New Creation that would begin in Jerusalem and reach to the ends of the earth.
Growing out of this, Luther and others have missed the bigger meaning of “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17. The main concern in Romans is “to show [God’s] righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). In other words, God is not merely revealing the way by which people are counted righteous, he is establishing his own righteous character. He is vindicating himself. He is showing the rightness of what he has done in bringing his Kingdom and salvation to the world in the way that he has.
Paul wrote Romans for a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians. Paul himself was a Jew who had received a calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Paul proclaimed that Israel’s God had been faithful to his people and had fulfilled his promises to them in Christ. God was establishing his Messianic Kingdom in the world through Jesus, starting with Israel.
But there was a big problem. The Jews were, by and large, rejecting this message! The congregation of people of God was being populated more and more by Gentiles (this was happening in Rome, as well).
As J. R. Daniel Kirk notes:
If the God of Israel has acted to save his people, but Israel is not participating in that salvation, then in what respect can this God be said to be righteous?
• Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God
Paul’s purpose in Romans is not just to speak to individuals about “the way of salvation.”
Paul is looking at a much bigger picture.
Paul is showing how God himself has proven himself “righteous” (faithful, true, a person of integrity) in the way he has acted toward Israel and the world.
Paul is showing how God has been true to his word, how his promises to Israel are now being fulfilled toward them, and how those promises apply to the non-Jewish world beyond Israel.
Romans is Paul’s theodicy — showing how God vindicates himself with regard to the way he is bringing his Kingdom and salvation to the world.
“Justification by faith” will play an important part of the argument — showing that God accepts all people everywhere on the same basis: through faith.
This will also mean that Paul will discuss the Law, the covenant under which Israel was designated “God’s people” under Moses and by which they were separated from the rest of the world, experienced God’s presence, and received his promises. If, in the past, it was the Law that marked out Israel as God’s people, what place does the Law have now that God has acted in Christ? What bearing does it have on the Gentiles who have come to Christ?
N. T. Wright’s translation of Romans 3:25-30 is a good summary of Paul’s purpose in writing Romans (emphases mine):
God put Jesus forth as the place of mercy, through faithfulness, by means of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his covenant justice [righteousness], because of the passing over (in divine forbearance) of sins committed beforehand. This was to demonstrate his covenant justice in the present time: that is, that he himself is in the right, and that he declares to be in the right everyone who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus.
So what happens to boasting? It is ruled out! Through what sort of law? The law of works? No: through the law of faith! We calculate, you see, that a person is declared to be in the right on the basis of faith, apart from the works of the law. Or does God belong only to the Jews? Doesn’t he belong to the nations as well? Yes, of course, to the nations as well, since God is one. He will make the declaration “in the right” over the circumcised on the basis of faith, and over the uncircumcised through faith.
Paul’s teaching about “justification by faith,” you see, serves a bigger purpose: to show that God himself is just, and that his Kingdom is for everyone, from faith for faith.