Yesterday I had the privilege to preach from Romans 1:17 in our study of Romans on Sunday mornings. This single verse is known as the text of the Reformation. While it served as the spark that ignited the Reformation—long before Luther was converted out of the darkness of Roman Catholicism—Paul sent this text to Rome to encourage the church there in order that they would be a faithful people who would not be ashamed of the gospel of Christ. In many ways, Romans 1:17 is the text that rocked Rome twice.
The Necessity of Righteousness
When Paul claims that he is not ashamed of the gospel, he then says, “For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed.” This righteousness is what plagued Martin Luther as he sought to live up to God’s righteousness in the flesh. No matter how hard he tried to perform this type of righteousness—he found himself weak and unable to accomplish this standard in his flesh. The reason that Luther was so troubled is because he had misinterpreted the verse. He could not see that Paul was writing about an alien righteousness—one that is extended to sinners as a gift of God.
The righteousness that Paul describes here is what God grants to sinners, the righteousness that he imputes to the elect and effects in the lives of those who believe. For Luther, this was an impossibility. Once Luther said, “If anyone would make it to heaven by monkery, it was I.” However, in all of his attempts to please God, he found himself unhappy and guilty. While in the monastery, Luther would buffet his body in order to please God. Luther as on a class of his own in self-punishment – religious masochism – in order to please God. In his monastic duties, Luther buffeted his body beyond degree.
- Once Luther nearly froze his body to the point of frost bite from the exposure in his dark and cold cell.
- Luther would go without food well beyond the degree of biblical fasting – to the point that his friends could count his bones.
- He was known to faint out of pure exhaustion – without necessary food intake.
- He often flogged his body in self chastisement.
Luther went on a religious pilgrimage to Rome to visit the relics and worship in order to settle his troubled conscience. Even there—Luther was unfulfilled. After climbing the Scala Sancta — Known as the “Holy Stairs” – or the sacred steps – these steps were supposedly the stairs that descended from Pilate’s judgment hall where Jesus was judged. It’s believed that they were later moved to Rome. Serving as a relic of the Roman Catholic Church—if you crawled up the stairs on your knees while kissing each step—God would forgive the sins of such a person. Luther climbed each step to the very top on his knees praying along the way. When he arrived at the top, he cried out aloud, “Who knows if it is true?”
Later in 1519, Luther was high in the tower of the Castle Church in Wittenberg meditating on Romans 1:17. It was that verse that had so plagued his conscience causing him to hate the righteousness of God. Suddenly, for the very first time in his life, he could see the true meaning of the text. The scales were removed. He could see that this was not some standard that God was holding up before man in order that sinful man would perform this righteousness, but rather this was a reference to the righteousness of God that is imputed by God as a gift which is received by faith. At this very point Martin Luther was born again. Listen to the Reformer explain this in his own words:
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.'” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a 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 merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” 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. Thereupon I ran through the Scripture from memory.
Our own righteousness is as filthy rags before a sovereign and holy God (Is. 64:6). We have nothing that we can offer God that would please him. Therefore, we must receive the righteousness of another—namely his own Son Jesus Christ—by faith. For ages this righteousness had been veiled until the earthly ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Following the resurrection of Christ—Paul writes this letter to Rome in order to encourage them in the faith and to remind them that the once veiled righteousness is no longer veiled. It has been revealed in the gospel and it’s necessary for salvation.
The Necessity of Faith
The drumbeat of the Reformation is “justification by faith alone in Christ alone.” Where did that idea emerge from? It emerged from the teaching of Scripture—namely the teaching of Paul. Paul makes a clear point that it is by faith that we receive such righteousness and it’s by faith that we continue each day as the recipients of the righteousness of God. From faith for faith—we live by the righteousness of God that we receive by faith. Augustus Toplady wrote these familiar words that we sing often:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
When we see the word “believe” or “faith” in the Bible, it’s often the same Greek term either in the verb or noun form. In Romans 1:16, we see it used in the verb form and in Romans 1:17, three times it appears in the form of a noun. By an act of God’s grace—guilty sinners are brought to a place where they see and understand their sin. It’s not faith in faith that saves a sinner—but faith in God through Jesus Christ and his finished work on the cross that brings salvation. This faith itself is a gift of God—not of works so that no person may ever boast before the Lord (Eph. 2:8-9).
Just as the guilty conscience of Martin Luther was settled once and for all by the truth of Romans 1:17, the same thing can happen in your life today. Will you turn to God by faith and receive the righteousness of Jesus? Sin leads down a broken road to destruction and only in Jesus can we receive the righteousness that’s necessary to please God. On your very best day you can’t please God in the effort of your flesh.