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Luther and the Righteousness of God

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, just as it is written ‘the one who is righteous from faith will live.’

Romans 1:16-17

Dear People of God,

Nearly 30 years after the events which made him famous throughout Europe, in the final year of his life, the first volumes of Martin Luther’s collected works were published. For years Luther had opposed this development, not wanting his disorganized writings to distract readers from other and better books, but when it became clear a collection would be published with or without him, he relented and even wrote a preface to the first volume.*

In the preface, after asking his readers to take his early writings with a grain of salt, Luther recounts some of the major events that led to his excommunication from the Roman Catholic church. He insists that he was not interested in schism, but only wished to exercise his authority as a priest and teacher within the church to correct some of the abuses he saw afflicting his parishioners, specifically the false promises made by the sellers of indulgences: “when the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!” Unaware that these abuses were being used to fund the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica, Luther had publicly appealed to his superiors to bring this practice to an end. This led initially to his chastisement and finally to his excommunication when he refused to yield to the Pope’s authority over the interpretation of Scripture.

Near the end of the preface, Luther movingly describes the moment he finally heard “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17 as a word of Gospel for him. He describes how he had been terrorized by his conscience during his years as a monk, always aware of his sin and never convinced of God’s forgiveness. During those years, “the righteousness of God” was loathsome to him because he understood it only as the standard by which God judged. God’s perfect righteousness, by that reading, meant condemnation for all, including Luther.

It was only when Luther began to pay attention to the rest of the verse that something changed for him. He began to see how Paul connects God’s righteousness with faith: “the one who is righteous from faith will live.” Rather than being the standard which we must meet to attain God’s approval, Luther realized that “the righteousness of God” is instead a gift which God bestows on the sinner through faith. It is “the power of God” by which we undeserving sinners are saved. It is not an object of terror but a source of great joy.

Luther describes his discovery thus: “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.” Luther had suddenly learned that God speaks not one word, but two: the Law and the Gospel. Rather than reading all of scripture according to the Law alone, Luther began to recognize God’s truly free promise of grace by which we are saved. Luther discovered how the very attributes of God are given to us in Christ: “the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.”

Five hundred years later, the Christian movement which bears his name continues to celebrate Martin Luther and his legacy, a fact which would undoubtedly annoy him were he here to see it. However, if we are true to our tradition, it is not Luther we are celebrating but God. For it is God who came among us in Jesus Christ, who gives us righteousness as a gift, and whose Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth,” to quote Luther’s Small Catechism. That very same Spirit at work in Martin Luther is today at work in us who trust in the righteousness Christ brings us. And just as God made him strong in the face of immense opposition, so God now holds us fast by the word of forgiveness, making us righteous freely as a gift, delivering us from fear to glorious freedom in Jesus.

Your Brother in Christ,

-Pastor John

* Aside from the final paragraph, the ideas and quotes of this article come from that preface, which can be found in: Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, Vol. 34: Career of the Reformer IV. Edited by Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, 325-339.

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