In honor of Reformation Day, I decided to share some Martin Luther with the youth Sunday School Class. I chose two passages that were instrumental in his thinking: Romans 1:16-17, and Romans 3:21-26. I read some Luther, and we talked about the passages. The following are the Bible texts we discussed and Luther's comments on them. Luther's quotes from Augustine are pure gold.
Martin Luther called Romans "the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel." But he didn't always believe this. He hated the phrase "righteousness of God," because he saw it only in terms of God's justice and judgment on sinners. That was, until he came to understand what this passage meant. Listen to what he says about that time1:
Meanwhile in that same year, 1519, I had begun interpreting the Psalms once again. I felt confident that I was now more experienced, since I had dealt in university courses with St. Paul's Letters to the Romans, to the Galatians, and the Letter to the Hebrews. I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: "The righteousness of God is revealed in it." I hated that word, "righteousness of God," which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active righteousness, as they call it, i.e., that righteousness by which God is righteous and by which he punishes sinners and the unrighteous.
But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn't be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, "Isn't it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?" This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.
I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: "The righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written: 'The righteous person lives by faith.'" I began to understand that in this verse the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the righteousness of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive righteousness, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: "The righteous person lives by faith." All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
I exalted this sweetest word of mine, "the righteousness of God," with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise. Afterward I read Augustine's "On the Spirit and the Letter," in which I found what I had not dared hope for. I discovered that he too interpreted "the righteousness of God" in a similar way, namely, as that with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although Augustine had said it imperfectly and did not explain in detail how God imputes righteousness to us, still it pleased me that he taught the righteousness of God by which we are justified.
Here is how he came to understand the righteousness of God later on.
Romans 1:16-17 (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.”
Comments on 1:162
The Gospel is a power which saves all who believe it or it is the word which is powerful to rescue all who put their trust in it. This indeed is through God and from God! ...
The Gospel is called the power of God in contradistinction to the power of man. The latter is the ability by which he, according to his carnal opinion, obtain salvation by his own strength, and performs the things which are of the flesh.
So, then, the verdict holds: He who believes the Gospel, must become weak and foolish before men, in order that he might be strong and wise in the power and wisdom of God, as it is written in 1 Corinthians 1:25ff:
1 Cor. 1:25-29 (ESV)
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
Comments on 1:17
God's righteousness is that by which we become worthy of His great salvation, or through which alone we are righteous before Him... Only the Gospel reveals the righteousness of God, that is, who is righteous, or how person becomes righteous before God, namely, alone by faith, which trusts the word of God.
Romans 3:21-26 (ESV)
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Comments on 3:21
St. Augustine writes in the ninth chapter of his book Concerning the Spirit and the Letter: "He does not speak of the righteousness of God, by which God is righteous, but of that with which He clothes a person when He justifies the ungodly." Again in the eleventh chapter he comments: "But now the righteousness of God without the Law is manifested: that is, God imparts it to the believer by the Spirit of grace without the work of the Law, or without the help of the Law. Through the Law God opens man's eyes so that he sees his helplessness and by faith takes refuge to His mercy and so is healed." The Apostle therefore does not describe the righteousness of God, by which He is essentially righteous, but the righteousness, which they can obtain only by faith in Christ.
St. Augustine says in the thirteenth chapter of his book Concerning the Spirit and the Letter: "What the Law of works commands with threatening, that the Law of faith accomplishes through faith." In the nineteenth chapter he remarks: "The Law was given, in order that we might seek after grace. Grace was given, in order that we might fulfill the Law. It was not the fault of the Law that it was not fulfilled, but the fault was man's carnal mind. This guilt the Law must make manifest, in order that we may be healed by divine grace."
This lengthy quote is taken from a translation made by Bro. Andrew Thornton, OSB, for the Saint Anselm College Humanities Program, © 1983 by Saint Anselm Abbey. It is used by permission. The words "righteous" and "righteousness" were changed from "just" and "justice" in the translation, in keeping with the translator's statement that they are synonymous.↩
Luther's comments are excerpted from his Commentary on Romans, translated by J. Theodore Mueller, and © 1954 by Zondervan Publishing House. I have omitted the parenthetical comments that were added by the translator, so that the text is only Luther's.↩