Rev. Donavon Riley
For Luther, while he lectured on the books of the Bible at the University of Wittenberg, one question captivated his imagination: “Where can I find a merciful God?” And the one text that drove Martin forward was St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans [1:17] “For therein [in the Gospel] is the righteousness of God revealed.”
In the Late Middle Ages, it was popularly taught that the righteousness of God was the eternal law by which God is holy (and for us, unapproachable) and by which He will judge all people on doomsday. At that time God will hand out His just judgments on all people, and punishments or rewards will be handed out.
But, what about the righteousness of grace that comes through faith in Christ? Didn’t theologians before Martin Luther embrace that part of St. Paul’s teaching? The simple answer is, no, not really. Medieval theologians taught that what St. Paul meant by righteousness was this: The Church hands out righteousness in the place of and by the command of Christ.
At that time, righteousness was understood to be like money that is paid out because someone works hard for it or because someone makes a good investment of his time and talent. Christ’s righteousness doesn’t make someone righteous before God though. It puts one in a position to become righteous through faith and hard work. Then, at the Last Judgment, and only then, will each person learn whether righteous God has decided they are worthy of entering Paradise or whether they will be thrown into hellfire.
What was “new” about Luther’s discovery of the true, biblical meaning righteousness is that God’s righteousness cannot be torn away from Christ’s righteousness by which He makes righteous people for free as underserved gift. And that, Luther said, is “the reason all the faithful will be able to stand the test: ‘That is the long and short of it: He who believes in the man called Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, has eternal life – as He himself says (John 3:16): ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.'”
But why did Luther grasp this when so many other theologians, priests, and religious leaders did not? Because he tested what he read in St. Paul against the rest of the Scriptures. He did not go to church traditions, or theology books, or canon law, or the word of the Pope. The Bible, and nothing else, was his anchor at this time of gospel discovery. Only then, as he later said, were the “Gates of Paradise” opened and a flood of knowledge overwhelmed him now that he had finally broken through and grasped the text (Romans 1:17) in which St. Paul quotes the prophet Habakkuk: “The just will live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Therefore, as Luther said, “I am not good and righteous, but Christ is.”
Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota.