September 19, 2020

The Gospel and the God Who Is Righteous

Reading Romans (3)
The Gospel & the God Who Is Righteous

I’m not ashamed of the good news; it’s God’s power, bringing salvation to everyone who believes — to the Jew first, and also, equally, to the Greek. This is because God’s covenant justice is unveiled in it, from faithfulness to faithfulness. As it says in the Bible, “the just shall live by faith.”

– Romans 1:16-17, The Kingdom New Testament

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Though the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is traditionally dated October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses upon the door of Wittenberg University, there is another, even more foundational event. Sometime between 1514-1518, Luther had his famous “tower experience.” The monk was studying Romans and trying to understand the phrase in verse 17, “the righteousness of God,” when he came to an understanding of this text that changed his life and ultimately, the world.

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

It is necessary to understand that Martin Luther, like all of us, was a product of his times. His initial understanding of “the righteousness of God” was based on the interpretations of the scholastic theologians of the high and late Middle Ages (1100-1500 A.D.), who taught that the righteousness of God was God’s active, personal righteousness or justice by which he punishes the unrighteous sinner. This concept was understood in the context of the burning question of the day: By what merit are sinners made righteous before God?

That is why this text offered no comfort to Luther, who was well aware of his own lack of personal righteousness. If the Gospel “reveals the righteousness of God,” then he saw no hope. He knew that he was an unrighteous sinner who fell far short of God’s righteous (perfect) demands, and therefore the thought of God’s righteous judgment terrified him. He knew God’s Law condemned him. If the Gospel was yet another revelation of God’s righteous character and judgment, there was no way of salvation for him.

However, as he continued meditating, he began to link this phrase with the words at the end of the verse — “the just (righteous) shall live by faith.” And then it broke through to him. Luther realized that the verse was not talking about the active righteousness that God demands, but the passive righteousness that He freely gives to those who believe the Gospel. We are saved by an alien righteousness of Christ that comes to us as a gift from God, not by a righteousness of our own doing.

For Luther, then, and for Protestants centuries afterwards, “the righteousness of God” meant the righteousness that God gives sinners when they put their faith in Christ. God justifies sinners (declares them righteous before him), not because they have righteousness to offer God on their behalf, but because of Christ, who died and rose again for them.

The point is that Luther and the other Reformers, in light of their context (Middle Ages Roman Catholic theology) interpreted Romans 1:16-17 solely in terms of personal salvation.

  • The Gospel is good news of salvation for the one who believes.
  • It shows us how a person becomes righteous in God’s sight — by faith.
  • The Gospel, therefore, equals “justification by faith.”

In my view, Luther was both right and also incomplete in his reading of Romans 1:16-17. Here it is again, this time in the 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.”

First of all, Luther was right that the text teaches justification by faith.

  • It is those who “believe” who are “saved.”
  • The way the Gospel comes to the world is “from faith for faith” — I interpret this to mean that God’s word of salvation is sourced in God’s faithfulness and finds its home in those who respond in faith.
  • “The just (those whom God calls ‘righteous’) live by faith.”

In light of the corrupt church practices in his day, this understanding was crucial, and Martin Luther was right to emphasize it. In a day when people were compelled to purchase indulgences in order to accumulate merit before God so that they might gain forgiveness and right standing before God, and when Luther himself found he could not find peace with God through the most rigorous ascetic exercises of the monastery, the call to simple faith in Christ was a refreshing corrective that started a revolution.

But, secondly, I think Luther (and those who followed or built on him) missed some important aspects of this text.

Most fundamentally, Protestants in Luther’s train have neglected the clear historical grounding of this passage (Rom. 1:1-7), which is reflected in the text itself in the words, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

As we saw in our earlier study, Rom. 1:1-7 summarizes the content of the Gospel message Paul preached, and it is not simply a message about personal salvation. Rather, it is an announcement about how God is establishing the Kingdom he promised to Israel through the person and work of his crucified and risen Son, the Messiah-King.

Luther, the Reformers, and Bible interpreters ever since continued and exacerbated the trend of those who went before them in de-historicizing the Gospel. They removed it from its Jewish context, its story of Israel’s God and his chosen people, its promise of a Messianic Kingdom and New Creation that would begin in Jerusalem and reach to the ends of the earth.

Growing out of this, Luther and others have missed the bigger meaning of “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17. The main concern in Romans is “to show [God’s] righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). In other words, God is not merely revealing the way by which people are counted righteous, he is establishing his own righteous character. He is vindicating himself. He is showing the rightness of what he has done in bringing his Kingdom and salvation to the world in the way that he has.

In our last post in this series, we saw that Paul wrote Romans for a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians. Paul himself was a Jew who had received a calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Paul proclaimed that Israel’s God had been faithful to his people and had fulfilled his promises to them in Christ. God was establishing his Messianic Kingdom in the world through Jesus, starting with Israel.

But there was a big problem. The Jews were, by and large, rejecting this message! The congregation of people of God was being populated more and more by Gentiles (this was happening in Rome, as well).

As J. R. Daniel Kirk notes:

If the God of Israel has acted to save his people, but Israel is not participating in that salvation, then in what respect can this God be said to be righteous?

Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God

Paul’s purpose in Romans is not just to speak to individuals about “the way of salvation.”

Paul is looking at a much bigger picture.

Paul is showing how God himself has proven himself “righteous” (faithful, true, a person of integrity) in the way he has acted toward Israel and the world.

Paul is showing how God has been true to his word, how his promises to Israel are now being fulfilled toward them, and how those promises apply to the non-Jewish world beyond Israel.

Romans is Paul’s theodicy — showing how God vindicates himself with regard to the way he is bringing his Kingdom and salvation to the world.

“Justification by faith” will play an important part of the argument — showing that God accepts all people everywhere on the same basis: through faith.

This will also mean that Paul will discuss the Law, the covenant under which Israel was designated “God’s people” under Moses and by which they were separated from the rest of the world, experienced God’s presence, and received his promises. If, in the past, it was the Law that marked out Israel as God’s people, what place does the Law have now that God has acted in Christ? What bearing does it have on the Gentiles who have come to Christ?

N. T. Wright’s translation of Romans 3:25-30 is a good summary of Paul’s purpose in writing Romans (emphases mine):

God put Jesus forth as the place of mercy, through faithfulness, by means of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his covenant justice [righteousness], because of the passing over (in divine forbearance) of sins committed beforehand. This was to demonstrate his covenant justice in the present time: that is, that he himself is in the right, and that he declares to be in the right everyone who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus.

So what happens to boasting? It is ruled out! Through what sort of law? The law of works? No: through the law of faith! We calculate, you see, that a person is declared to be in the right on the basis of faith, apart from the works of the law. Or does God belong only to the Jews? Doesn’t he belong to the nations as well? Yes, of course, to the nations as well, since God is one. He will make the declaration “in the right” over the circumcised on the basis of faith, and over the uncircumcised through faith.

Paul’s teaching about “justification by faith,” you see, serves a bigger purpose: to show that God himself is just, and that his Kingdom is for everyone, from faith for faith.

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Previous Posts in the Series:


  1. I think it is important to realize that God’s Kingdom is for everyone.

    But I think more important is the realization that it is…for you.

    And, in the hearing, faith is given to those who actually hear it.

    I think the pastor in Luther kept him focused on this message for the comfort and assurance of the sinner. There wasn’t much of that going on in those days. To be frank, there’s not a whole lot of it going on these days either.

  2. Thanks for featuring that quote from Luther on how “the gates of Heaven were opened to him”.

    This is a really great class on how Luther got to that point:

    Whether or not you agree with everything in the class is unimportant. But to understand how and why Luther believed benefits both his followers, and his detractors.

  3. I don’t understand the desire to define the Gospel in the narrowest possible terms. When we “define” the Gospel, it needs to be broad enough include all of God’s unconditional promises.

    Lutherans have always taught that the Gospel, distinguished from the Law, is any of God’s unconditional promises of grace to man. Jesus is King is Gospel yes, but the Gospel is broader. Why limit it to one part of the many unconditional promises God has made? He promised to send a savior to Eve in Eden, and repeated those Gospel promises throughout the OT, and in the NT and to us personally. It includes all of the second article. And he conveys his grace through unconditional, passive means, which do not depend on us. The whole third article is Gospel. The work of the Spirit does not depend on our actions. Why would we exclude or de-emphasize that? Luther’s, and Paul’s Gospel teaching was not limited, it was very, very broad.

    In Romans, Paul goes about deconstructing Jewish ceremonial law, showing Jew, and Gentile, are equally sinners and opposed to God, even though God blessed the Jews by coming to them in the Gospel promises in the ceremonial rituals. They saw the ceremonial rituals as outward obedience, not as God coming to them through faith, and their understanding was incorrect—- BECAUSE it rejected passive justification.

    There is no reason to limit Paul’s argument to the Jews. What is to be gained by emphasizing the historical nature of the letter? By declaring that all are sinners and dead to God, Paul strips everything particular to the Jews, except those examples of passive faith in response to the Word, like Abraham. Yes, historically, Paul used the argument against the Jews’ reliance on the special gift of the ceremonial law and points them to faith like Abraham’s. But that argument works against any community that believes their acts brings them closer to God. For example, it works for credobaptism (man’s decision justifies the ceremony) and sacrificial mass (man’s act constitutes the sacrifice)). No, wrong. God’s WORD makes baptism and communion effective EXTRA NOS. The Word creates faith, without our participation. It brings about our acceptance of it without our participation. We can only reject it after the fact.

    Now, in our time, as in Romans and in Luther’s time, what is needed in Christianity is emphasis that God’s promises are unconditional and that he conveys his grace through means which do not depend on human works. Instead of trying to narrow the Gospel to be palatable to all the heretical Christians that want to take some credit for their faith or works, we should emphasize the truth of Paul’s teaching that is still heavily rejected, we are justified through means without our participation. Don’t rely on any of your own efforts.

    • Here’s the Lutheran definition of the Gospel:

      For everything that comforts, that offers the favor and grace of God to transgressors of the Law, is, and is properly called, the Gospel, a good and joyful message that God will not punish sins, but forgive them for Christ’s sake.

      Luther, and Lutherans since Luther, have never talked much about God in isolation from Jesus, because Jesus is the revealed nature of God. To go behind Jesus is to inquire into God’s hidden will.

      I do like this statement: “Romans is Paul’s theodicy – showing how God vindicates himself with regard to the way he is bringing his Kingdom and salvation to the world.”

      Why not just say that Jesus is God’s theodicy? Jesus shows how God vindicates himself and reconciles his perfect goodness and perfect love and his perfect justice. It is only in the idea of Christ that religion can avoid the problem of evil.

  4. I wonder if this is not the moment when Luther’s pet ideas began to elbow their way to the center of what we now call Lutheran Protestant identity. I don’t say that this is a wrong interpretation, but surely it is not the only reading, and in Luther’s rhetoric it does come across as something of an idee fixee. I have never found it particularly edifying. It is the Prayer of Jabaz of its day.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      In other words, this was when Luther tunnel-visioned onto Justification by Faith Alone.

    • Like the Prayer of Jabez? Are you serious? One is your best life now, the other is your best life later. They couldn’t be more opposite.

      • I mean, taking some random verse and making it the lynchpin on which one’s entire spirituality rests. (Verses about love, on the other hand, are not random, and in several places are specifically said to be of primary importance.) Luther even wanted to re-edit the Bible around this!

        Think of it this way: Catholics, Orthodox, and Orientals use the creeds as ways to condemn other groups. A lot of Protestants use this “grace” thing–they’ll go around accusing people (often one another) of believing the “wrong” thing about faith vs. works. It’s a bit like what would happen if Luther had settled upon an answer to “Can God make a rock so big…?” and then inspired Protestants to insist on that answer.

        • Catholics, Orthodox and Orientals use the creeds as a way to condemn other groups? I’m sorry, that is a cart of bovine defecation. People are quite capable of doing that without creeds just fine, like you are doing by labeling those groups “condemning.” The creeds were written to give Christianity some sort of definition, not to trample the viewpoint of minority dissenters. Either Jesus is actually God, or he is not. You can’t have it both ways and be one religion.

          The the stupid rock question has a definite answer: No. God cannot make a rock so big he cannot move because what that question actually does is compare two of God’s abilities: His ability to create vs. his ability to modify (move) said creation. Since both attributes are infinite, then no, one infinite cannot be larger than another.

          Neither is Luther’s teaching of Justification taken from a single verse. Read the Augsburg Confession sometime. It’s a consistent doctrine permeating all of scripture, even if you take the Roman Catholic position on it. Luther did not want to re-edit the Bible just because he questioned the canonicity of James: Many people before and since have done this as well. Look up “antilegomena.”

          And if you are going to have a lynchpin around which to rest your spirituality, do you have a better option than the forgiveness of sins? Because if so, I’m wasting my life.

          Verses about love are not good news: They are strictly law. Love is the summary of the law (see Jesus, Paul). The command to love is a consistent reminder of how we fail to do it. I’m glad that God’s love is freely given to me despite the fact that I miserably fail to love my neighbor. That is Luther’s point.

          • Not today, when they are no longer such live issues, but the creeds were originally formulated with an eye to condemning various “heretical” formulations. For example, the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox split over the Council of Chalcedon, and are only now recognizing the split to have involved some kind of cross-cultural misunderstanding.The earlier councils were aimed at groups which no longer exist, except (barely) the Nestorians.

          • As for the rock issue, I won’t argue with your solution, but would you be prepared to condemn those who have some other take on it as “rockists” or anti-rockists” or some such? Because that’s essentially what a lot of Protestants do with grace.

            I am baffled by your reduction of love to a variety of law. Surely love is a higher-order consideration, which trumps any lesser legislation…? Anyway, I mention the issue because it occurred to me that I, too, elevate a few selected verses (in this case the greatest commandment / new commandment and Paul’s hymn to love) as the lens through which the whole is interpreted. But I think these are more justifiable.

          • I am not reducing love to a variety of law. Love IS the law. The decalogue has always been traditionally understood as being a summary of what love to God (table 1) and neighbor (table 2) look like with hands and feet. Jesus even says this in Matthew 22:37-40, and also in Luke 10 and Mark 12. Love doesn’t trump “lesser legislation.” Adultery, murder, theft, and slander are not ever, under any circumstances, expressions of love. All right morality is a faithful elaboration on what it means to be loving. Remember, the law is good, which is why love is such a good thing. But it is good advice, not good news.

            As for the “rockists,” I certainly wouldn’t condemn a person for having a wrong position on that, but I would most certainly condemn their wrong ideas. Unless, of course, I’m wrong and they are able to clearly and convincingly show me of this, in which case I am happy to change my opinion. But telling somebody they are wrong about something is not being judgmental. In many ways, it’s actually more loving to save a fool from the err of his ways. Traffic signs are not legalistic, they’re helpful. Our culture says that disagreement is hateful, but I say think for yourself and ask questions. A person who can’t tolerate pushback has something to hide.

            The church councils were never aimed at people, they were aimed at false teaching. Church councils are obviously somewhat less than divinely inspired, but I think they did a remarkable job of codifying the faith in a highly transferable manner. Nestorius was never even excommunicated, but only fired from his position. Any modern corporation would do the same to their mid-level managers if they refused to uphold the mission and strategy of the leadership. Nobody would complain or call that unfair, so why are churches supposed to be so tolerant of every idea or view? Questioners are welcomed, but by the time they become bishops they had better have learned to embrace a little orthodoxy.

  5. In other words, this was when Luther tunnel-visioned onto Justification by Faith Alone.

    IOW, the vision for the season? ;o)


  6. Thanks CM. Very good insights.


  7. I was under the impression that God did not need to send Jesus in order to justify himself, and that he would have been perfectly just if he had left men in their fallen state with its consequence. Imputed righteousness is great, but God is not just on the basis of his giving us what we do not deserve. He is merciful. But God was under no obligation to provide a means of redemption for us, aside from the fact that he had promised to do so from the start.

    I’d agree that the Gospel is more than personal salvation, it is also a proclamation of the Kingdom, but it has to be two sides of the same coin. That there is a Kingdom does me no good whatsoever unless I know that I can be a part of it. Being a part of a Kingdom is no good if the ruler isn’t a righteous God who gives mercy through Jesus. I believe Chandler calls this “the gospel on the ground” vs. “the gospel in the air.”

    I think emphasizing one to the neglect of the other is where troubles arise. Kind of like the Arianism vs. Appollinarism controversies, only within orthodoxy. So I guess I agree with your assertion that Luther was right, but incomplete.

    • Oh, and you forgot the word “alone” is ALWAYS supposed to follow the phrase “Justification by faith…”
      Oh wait, your denomination signed the JDDJ. Luther bobble head does not approve.

    • I think Paul was dealing with God’s righteousness in terms of the Jew/gentile issue more than his right to leave us to our deserved fate. The burning question of the day was how God could be the God of the promises to the patriarchs and the Law and covenant and yet welcome Gentiles in without requiring their participation in the covenantal duties. This was not an issue in Luther’s church nor is it in ours today. But I’m trying help us read better what Paul said to the Romans in his day.

    • I was under the impression that God did not need to send Jesus in order to justify himself, and that he would have been perfectly just if he had left men in their fallen state with its consequence.

      It goes back to God’s covenant with Abraham, though. By walking through the carcasses of the animals killed for the initiation of the covenant, God took it upon Himself to essentially uphold both ends of the covenant. Sending Jesus was God’s way of justifying both Himself and humanity. By proving Himself faithful to His word, he shows His character, and He also swings the doors wide open for all people to become part of His family.

      You’re right, though, the two sides can’t really be separated. You can’t have one without the other.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    The point is that Luther and the other Reformers, in light of their context (Middle Ages Roman Catholic theology) interpreted Romans 1:16-17 solely in terms of personal salvation.

    Could this be the genesis of the “Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation” that plagues the Evangelical Circus?

  9. How might this change what we preach? In Luther’s day how to be right before God was a question deeply embedded in the culture. In our day, it’s not. Our response seems to be to try to create the question for people by showing them that they fall short of God’s standards which require perfect obedience. If Luther appropriated Romans 1:17 to answer a burning question in his day, what might it look like if we appropriated it to answer burning questions in our day rather than trying to find ways to get people to ask the questions of Luther’s time?

    • Craig, I think that question goes beyond the intent of my post, though it’s an excellent question I will think about. Right now, I’m just trying to understand what Paul was saying in his own context.

  10. You know…I had an interesting experience due to my illness. I spent nearly a week on the oncology floor of the hospital, observing and hearing people suffering with cancer. Kidney, pancreatic, colon, lung, they had it all there. As I lay in my hospital bed at night I could hear some of the cancer patients wheeze and struggle for breath in the next room over.

    Then right before that I was in a “rehab center” which turned out to be a nursing home. First evening there I had a women with dementia come into my room asking where her kids were. You could not reason with her. Then on the day I was discharged I was reading a book and heard a 60+ year old guy in a wheel chair. He was crying about being alone. He was crying that no one visited. He cried that he had no friends. He was also crying because his funds were running out, and he cried because he was disabled. I put down my Vince Flynn book and just listened. It was one of the most depressing and hardest things I ever listened to.

    So maybe…rightousness is for all. That includes the man crying in the nursing home, to the women dealing with dementia; to the Colon Cancer patient who was discharged from the hospital with stage 4 cancer with a life expectancy of 5 to 6 months. The nurse changing my IV told me about this. And it really got me thinking. I would suggest that all of the above are righteous and are closer to the kingdom than many fundagelcials….

  11. YES! YES! YES! I have been teaching this for a number of years. I’m convinced that one of Paul’s main purposes in writing Romans was to ‘demonstrate’ (one of his key terms) that God has in fact been faithful to his covenant with Israel, despite appearances (and apparently accusations that Paul’s gospel meant just that). One key to understanding Paul’s argument is Rom 3:2-3 – when properly translated: ‘Great in every respect. First of all they [Israel] were entrusted (‘enfaithed’) with the oracles (revelation) of God. What then? If some were not faithful (with that revelation), their unfaithfulness will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it?’ Most translations (influenced by Luther and Protestant theology) fail to pick up the pun between episteuthesen in v. 2 (entrust – root pisteuo – believe, have faith, be faithful) and apistia (‘unbelief, unfaithful’) in v. 3. Paul is not making a point about Israel’s unbelief (in Jesus); Paul’s point in response to the charge that the gospel of Christ calls into question God’s faithfulness to Israel is that it is Israel that has proven herself unfaithful (and unrighteous – v 5, his argument in ch. 2 and summarized in 3:9-20, in which he quotes passages originally directed toward Israel). God has acted righteously and justly toward his covenant people (and the world), completely in accordance with his promises to Abraham (and Israel) in bringing about salvation through Jesus to all who believe (3:21-26), whether ‘pre-Jesus’ or ‘post-Jesus’. Thus Israel has no beef againt God (or Paul’s gospel) – the failure lies with Israel (and the solution is the same for everyone – faith in Jesus). When this is understood, what Paul says in Rom 9-11 makes perfect sense (instead of being seen as something just thrown in for good measure).

    ‘Romans is Paul’s theodicy – showing how God vindicates himself with regard to the way he is bringing his Kingdom and salvation to the world.’ – That says it all!

    • despite appearances (and apparently accusations that Paul’s gospel meant just that)

      Correction: despite appearances (and apparently accusations that Paul’s gospel meant that God had unjustly abandoned his covenant people)