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Ruminations on the "Righteousness of God"


On Sunday night, I began a series on Reformation History, and we began by looking at Martin Luther’s journey toward understanding the gospel. The crux of Luther’s struggle was the phrase “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17. Luther had always assumed that this righteousness was something he was responsible to achieve in order to earn salvation. But the more he gave himself to achieving God’s righteousness, the more he realized how far he fell short and the more he grew to hate the God who would demand such an impossible standard. He believed that he must be missing something, but for years, he couldn’t find a solution. Finally, he had a breakthrough, which he described after the fact in the following words:

“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the justice of God,’ (‘the righteousness of God’ in most of our translations) because I took it to mean that justice 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 and 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 justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice 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 Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘justice 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…

If you have a true faith that Christ is your Saviour, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This it is to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger or ungraciousness. He who sees God as angry does not see him rightly but looks only on a curtain, as if a dark cloud has been drawn across his face.”

In other words, Luther came to understand that the good news of the gospel is that “the righteousness of God” is not something I am responsible to achieve; rather, God credits his righteousness to the sinner as a gift when he comes to him in faith. God is able to do so while remaining just because Christ took the punishment for sin on the cross and offers the sinner his own perfect righteousness (2 Cor 5:21).

I love reading about Luther’s journey because it is so different from mine. I’ve lived most of my life understanding that salvation is a gift to be received by faith, but Luther grew up in a world where everyone assumed man is responsible to earn God’s favor.  Therefore, his perspective shines a light on God’s grace where I can sometimes take it for granted. I desperately need that light because it is a terrible travesty when a sinner loses appreciation for the grace of God. Therefore, if you believe the gospel, you should rejoice that God doesn’t require you to achieve his righteousness; instead, he imputed it to your account when you received him by faith. Praise the Lord!

But I also love reading Luther’s testimony because it shines a light on the divide between genuine saving faith and every other form of faith. This can be frightening considering how many people in our culture have grown up in church and have even received “believer’s baptism” but have never really come to understand what Luther discovered. They believe in God, they believe Jesus died for sin, and they even believe that salvation requires grace. But they do not understand the significance of their own sin and the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death and resurrection. They believe that salvation is a product of both grace and works, and thereby they “nullify the grace of God” (Gal 2:21).

We need to make sure we really grasp what Luther saw. If you aren’t sure that you do, please let me know because I want to talk with you. Then, we need to make sure we articulate the gospel well to others. Parents, be very careful that you not grow sloppy in how you talk about the gospel with your children. Teachers, use gospel language with intentionality. Don’t just tell children to believe in Jesus; tell them what they need to believe about Jesus. And don’t just urge them to get saved; tell them what they need to be saved from and how Christ made that possible. It’s true that we shouldn’t make the gospel too complex for a child to understand it, but it is better to speak over their heads than to mislead them through a dumbed down version of the gospel that isn’t really the gospel. It is better still to think hard about how to explain weighty theological truths in terms that children can grasp. And Christian, when you witness to others, don’t assume that someone is saved just because he says he is a Christian, and he agrees with you that salvation is by grace. He may not understand that it is grace alone, or he may believe that God gives grace to earn salvation.

The gospel really is the best news the world has ever known. Let’s rejoice in its gracious truth, and let’s be motivated to articulate this great truth well to those around us.