Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Luther's Understanding of the Righteousness of God

Written by Rev. Laurens Roth
Early Life
Although it was on October 31, 1517 that Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of the church of Wittenberg, denouncing the errors of the Roman Catholic Church, his conversion occurred quite a few years earlier. Luther was born in 1483 to a peasant family in Saxony, Germany on November 10 and was named after a saint whose feast was held the following day, called St. MartinÕs Day. Quite amazingly, he was able to receive a university education at Erfurt by which the Lord prepared him for a work that was to astonish all of Europe. As one historian put it, GodÕs chosen vessels are often hidden in obscurity until Òthe time of their showing unto Israel.Ó

At least three things were used by the providential dealings of the Lord that made a deep impression upon Luther. Having just completed four years of university studies, a close friend was killed in a drunken brawl and Luther could not refrain from asking, ÒWhat if I had been killed instead of my friend?Ó On another occasion he severely wounded his leg while travelling with a slender sword on his side. He is said to have called on the Virgin Mary while some friends were able to bind up the wound and save his life. Better known is the occasion when he was caught in a severe thunderstorm and called upon Saint Anne for deliverance, making a vow to become a monk if he was spared. Consequently, he entered an Augustinian monastery and because of his university education was soon promoted to become its head.

LutherÕs Struggle
It was in the cloister that Martin Luther hoped to experience peace with God. He was perhaps the most sincere and conscientious monk who ever tried with genuine earnestness to merit salvation by human effort. He sacrificed everything to gain salvation, observing the minutest detail of discipline prescribed by the monastic order. However, as everyone whom God saves experiences, Luther could not find the peace his heart craved in the performance of activities.

At this time the Lord was pleased to use a man named Johan von Staupitz. Von Staupitz recognized the brilliant intellect of Luther and conferred with him in Wittenberg where young Martin had become a professor of dialectic and philosophy. When Luther spoke to von Staupitcz about the burden of his sins, the elder theologian is said to have replied: ÒRemember that Christ came into the world to pardon our sins.Ó When the thought of ChristÕs perfect holiness and justice terrified Luther, it is reported that von Staupitz told him, ÒYour thoughts are not according to Christ; Christ does not terrify but consoles. Look at the wounds of Christ, and you will clearly see GodÕs purpose towards men. We cannot understand GodÕs purposes outside of Christ.Ó

It was during this time at Wittenberg that Luther turned to the Word of God. He also zealously applied himself to acquiring knowledge of the ancient languages to draw truth from the source of the springs. In 1509 the degree of Bachelor of Divinity was conferred on him and from that time he also lectured daily from the Word of God. He also studied the Psalms with his students. From there he turned to the Book of Romans. It was when he meditated on this portion of GodÕs Word that the truth concerning GodÕs demands and manÕs fulfillment of them began to shine into his heart. Especially Romans 1:17 had troubled the pious monk. He struggled with the phrase that speaks of the righteousness of God. He was convinced that it referred to GodÕs awful holiness and His unchanging hatred of sin and sinners. How could he achieve the holiness by which GodÕs just anger would be turned away? Luther did not understand that the gospel is the saving power of God to everyone who believes in Christ, because this reveals the righteousness of God.

By the grace of God, this truth began to have new meaning for Luther as the Holy Spirit began to enlighten his understanding concerning the meaning of the righteousness of Christ. He began to see that the righteousness of God does not refer to the justice of God whereby He condemns sinners, but that it is the righteousness, which is to be found in Christ whereby the Lord clears the guilty.

LutherÕs Popularity
LutherÕs explanation of the Word of God gained popularity for it was entirely new. Many students and some professors as well, attended his lectures. Dr. Mellerstadt, the universityÕs rector, is supposed to have said, ÒThis monk will put all the doctors to shame; he will bring in a new doctrine and reform the whole church for he builds upon the Word of Christ. And no one can either resist or overthrow that Word.Ó Von Staupitz requested Luther to preach in the church of the Augustinians. Luther refused because he regarded it too great a task to be the mouthpiece of God. After some persuasion he began to preach in a small chapel in Wittenberg. Myconius, a contemporary of Luther, made the following remark concerning the humble beginning of LutherÕs ministry, ÒThis building may well be compared to the stable in which Christ was born. It was in this wretched enclosure that God willed, so to speak, that His well beloved Son should be born a second time. For among all the glorious cathedrals and parishes with which the world was filled there was not one which God chose for the glorious preaching of eternal life.Ó

It did not take long for the run-down little chapel to become inadequate to hold the hearers who crowded into it. The Town Council of Wittenberg nominated Luther as their chaplain and invited him to preach in the city church. His reputation became so great that Frederick the Wise, King of Saxony, went to Wittenberg to hear Luther. When a number of convents of the Augustinian order were at variance on certain points with the vicar general, Luther was chosen to go to Rome to present their case because of his powers of speech and argumentation.

Luther Goes to Rome
The journey to Rome had a profound effect upon Luther. When he crossed the Alps and came to Italy he found many things that astonished him and he found scandalous. He saw that the wealthy Benedictine monks lived in luxury, as well as the dignitaries of the papacy at Rome. Not only did they live lavishly, but they also made a mockery of the truths that they were supposed to represent. Luther found this most reprehensible. Many years later, Luther related his impressions: ÒThe nearer we approached Rome, the greater number of bad Christians we met with.Ó Around 1512, when Luther came to Rome, he is reported to have said, ÒHail, holy Rome, thrice holy for the blood of the martyrs shed there.Ó But at the end of his stay he was prepared to say, ÒIf there is a hell, Rome is built over it.Ó Later he said, ÒI would not have missed seeing Rome for 100,000 florins for otherwise I would always have felt an uneasy sense of doubt whether I was not after all doing injustice to the pope.Ó

The journey to Rome was most important for Luther because he wished to obtain the papal indulgence given to all who ascended ÒPilateÕs staircaseÓ on their knees. Luther was still tainted with the errors of Òmother churchÓ and so we see Luther humbly creeping up this staircase, which was purported to have miraculously been transported there from Jerusalem by angels. He recited a pater noster (Our Father) on each step, convinced that he would thereby redeem the soul of his grandfather from purgatory. As he was doing so, the thought came to him, ÒWho knows whether this is true?Ó As another report states, when he got to the top of the stairs he thought he heard a voice of thunder crying out from the bottom of his heart, ÒThe just shall live by faith.Ó These words had struck him twice before and again they powerfully resounded within him. He is said to have arisen from his crouching posture in amazement from the steps upon which he had been dragging his body and shuddered. He was so ashamed of the depths of superstition into which he had plunged himself that he hurried away from this scene of folly. Luther had to learn what Paul states in Philippians 3:7: ÒBut what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.Ó Luther learned in Rome with greater conviction than ever before that justification is by faith alone.

The Righteousness of God
Before Luther understood the righteousness of God, he wrote, ÒAlthough I was a holy and blameless monk, my conscience was nevertheless full of trouble and anguish. I could not endure those words, Ôthe righteousness of God.Õ I had no love for that holy and just God Who punishes sinners. I was filled with secret anger against Him; I hated Him because, not content with frightening us by the law and the miseries of life which we wretched sinners have to endure due to original sin, He still further increases our tortures by the Gospel. Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul was saying.Ó

Again, he writes, ÒAt last, by the mercy of God, meditating both day and night, I gave heed to the context of these words, namely, ÒIn it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ÔHe who through faith is righteous shall live.Õ Then I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by the gift of God, namely, by faith. And this is the meaning--the righteousness of God is revealed by the Gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which a merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ÒHe who through faith is righteous shall live.Ó

ÒWhen, by the Spirit of God I understood these words, when I learned how the justification of the sinner proceeds from the free mercy of our Lord through faith, then I felt born again like a new man; I entered through open doors into the very paradise of God. Henceforward, I also saw the beloved and Holy Scriptures with other eyes. I perused the Bible; I brought together a great number of passages that taught me the nature of GodÕs work. And as previously I had detested with all my heart these words, Ôthe righteousness of God,Õ I began from that hour to value them and to love them as the sweetest and most consoling words in the Bible. In very truth, this language of the Apostle Paul was to me the gate of Paradise.Ó

May this blessed teaching, which Luther learned by the SpiritÕs grace, be our only hope and refuge in life. ÒFor, the just shall live by faith,Ó through grace, not of themselves, but as the gift of God.

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