October 21, 2020

Reformation Week 2015: Another Look — God’s Righteousness

Paradise, Cranach

Paradise, Cranach

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

* * *

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.

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.


  1. Burro [Mule] says

    Since becoming Orthodox nine years ago, I have to admit I have avoided St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans. I always dreaded early summer after Pentecost, when Romans came up in the Orthodox lectionary. Romans is full of so many Reformed and Pentecostal “thought-bomb” land mines that I have had to consciously tell myself “No, Mule, that passage does not mean that. Trust the Church. Don’t fall back into sectarian thinking. Truth comes from prayer and humility, not disputation and arguments about the meaning of words.” Romans is riddled with the Verdun salients of 500 years of Protestant controversy, and I know know where every squib and cracker is buried.

    Add to this the testimony of my first parish priest, who told me that St. Paul was the foremost preacher of theosis among all the apostles, and that his letter to the Romans was his masterpiece. My first parish priest, though, was the son and grandson of parish priests from Greece, and had never had any Protestantism in his genestream. I am the offspring of Scottish Wee-Free Presbys and Dutch overscheiden [schismatic emigrants to the US who separated from the Dutch state church for being apostate].

    This article has been extremely helpful to me. Thank you

    • Mule,

      it was Wright’s way of looking at things – not just this – that was key to me being able to see scripture in such a way as to justify – pun intended – theosis and the interpretations of the Fathers. Wright could not lead me into the Church, but he led me right up to the doorstep.


      • Burro [Mule] says

        Yeah, I thought I detected the aroma of NT Wright in this article. By the time I came into contact with the teachings of Bishop Wright, I was already on the trajectory that led me into Orthodoxy, so to my detriment I’ve yet to read anything by him. My path into the Church was other:

        Mourning the decay of “Jesus Music” into CCM –> Iona [the band] –> “Celtic” Christianity –> John Scotus Erigena –> Ancient British saints –> chrismation

        That seems to have been a fairly well-beaten track back in the 90s and early 00s. It created a lot of Orthodox and not a few Catholics. It’s closed now.

        • Hmm.

          We have some commonalities.

          Questions leading to search for an integrated Christian life and how ancient Christians interpreted scripture -> “Celtic” Christianity -> IONA (the band) -> prayer rule -> ancient British saints -> Wright -> chrismation

          I know several people whose reading Wright’s books and hearing his lectures led them to Orthodoxy. It’s what I needed, I guess – you didn’t, and that’s ok.

          God turns many tracks to himself.


    • I don’t know if you can relate to this, but lately I’ve been trying to read Paul’s epistles as an illumination of Jesus Christ and the Good News of the Gospel instead of how they’re normally used (to form and support THEOLOGIES).

      Reading them this way – focusing on the Good News of salvation rather than in support of theology – has been a revelation!

  2. I would have loved to see St. Paul and St. James discuss the interlocking themes of ‘faith’ and ‘works’

  3. “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.”


    Wright puts it this way in “Suprised by Hope”:

    “…to see evangelism in terms of the announcement of God’s kingdom, of Jesus’s lordship and of the consequent new creation, avoids from the start any suggestion that the main or central thing that has happened is that the new Christian has entered into a private relationship with God or with Jesus and that this relationship is the main or only thing that matters.”

    This “de-historicizing” of the Gospel has led directly to the thinking that our relationship with Jesus is the only thing that matters–the “Jesus is my homie” movement–and so watered down our preception of God’s mission for us in the world that we spend most of our time gazing at ourselves in the mirror wondering “Does He love me? Does He really, really love me? I don’t know–maybe I should wear my hair different or fix Him a nice meal” instead of just getting on with the business of loving our neighbor. We forget that Jesus was incarnated as a carpenter–a builder and a craftsman intent on shaping items to be used to make life better and that is what we are to do: spend our time building things to make life on this earth better and a better reflection of God’s kingdom, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      A Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation (“IF YOU DIED TONIGHT, DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU WOULD SPEND ETERNITY?????”) is the Gospel According to Narcissus.

      Including the Neo-Calvinist Narcissus admiring himself in the mirror for being One Of The Elect, the Wretched Urgency Narcissus driven by Fear of Hell who is never Certain He’s Sure He’s Certain He’s Sure He’s Certain He’s Sure He’s REALLY Saved, and the Morbidly Introspective Narcissus obsessively Sin-Sniffing and Isolating himself to keep his nose squeaky-clean for J-Day.

      • Burro [Mule] says

        AW Pink staring across the kitchen table at his wife, wondering if she’s really regenerate or just has a highly evolved works-righteousness.

        It isn’t just the Calvinists who excel in thissort of behavior.

        You need a healthy immune system. Lupus will kill you just as surely as AIDS.

    • Remember that the Reformers didn’t start the de-historicizing trend, but, as this post notes, continued and exacerbated it; the trend existed long before them. The Church has been de-historicizing the Bible since well before the fourth century. Christian residents of the fourth century, or the third century for that matter, had little reliable historical knowledge of first century Palestine, and less of ancient Israel.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        But if you de-historicize it, how does it differ from any other collection of mythology?

        Or for that matter, a book of folklore or fairy tales?

        “A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far Far Away…”

        “Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria…”

        • I don’t think historical knowledge is an adequate key to understanding the Bible. It may help us to avoid certain errors, and to free ourselves from others, and this may be a good and necessary thing, but not enough. Your own Church, HUG, teaches that the deposit of faith/revelation was given to the Church at the beginning, that the Church interprets and unpacks this deposit across the centuries, that this process results in the development of doctrine and religious practice, and that only in the continuum of this developing body of doctrine and practice is it possible to comprehend the meaning of the text. When the Bible is extracted from this continuum, it is removed from the element in which it formed, and which it in turn has shaped; this is its meaning system, and it’s impossible to start over.

  4. zeke the geek says

    Good thoughts. I enjoyed reading this.

  5. “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.”

    After having read Wright for a number of years, and recently having completed Douglas Campbell’s ‘The Deliverance of God’, I have pretty much come to the conclusion that the Reformation project (and much Protestant theology since) is largely one massive exercise in culturally-influenced eisegesis. It is reader-response hermeneutics at heart. One only has to read a few passages from Luther’s commentary on Galatians to see that he reads Paul as though Paul’s opponents were the very late-Medieval ‘Papists’ that Luther himself is battling (and about exactly the same issues). It is ironic that the course of western Christianity was largely set by the personal struggles of one neurotic German monk (no disrespect to Luther). Fortunately we live in a time when it is possible to see what people (particularly Jews) in the first century actually believed (as far as we can) and thus have some chance of letting Paul himself speak (and perhaps even to hear him).

  6. Jeff Benner says that “A Greek description of God would be ‘God is love’ which describes God in relation to God. A Hebrew description would be ‘God loves me’ describing God in relationship to myself.”

    Take that Greek-vs.-Hebraic thought pattern and apply it to Paul, who was, after, a hebrew of Hebrews, and all of his “righteousness of God” talk starts to have very strong undertones of hope for all. Watch:

    Greek (abstract) Hebraic (relational)
    God is love vs. God loves me(n)
    God is just vs. God justifies me(n)

    • Then there are the great theologians the Beatles with their awesome theology “All You Need Is Love.”

      • And the Hollies. Sometimes i think i can hear Jesus singing:

        The road is long, with many a winding turn
        ?That leads us to who knows where, who knows where?
        But I’m strong, strong enough to carry him ?
        He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother ??
        So on we go, his welfare is my concern?
        No burden is he to bear, we’ll get there?
        For I know he would not encumber me?
        He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother??
        If I’m laden at all, I’m laden with sadness?
        That everyone’s heart isn’t filled ?
        With gladness of love for one another
        ??It’s a long long road from which there is no return ?
        While we’re on our way to there, why not share
        ?And the load, it doesn’t weigh me down at all ?
        He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother ?
        He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother, ?
        He’s my brother, he’s my brother

      • “All You Need Is Love.”

        As a three time loser in the Marriage Game I can attest to the deficiency of this proposition, at least as popularly understood. However as a career observer of the Theology Wars I can attest to its being the last proposition standing when all is said and done, depending on just how you look at it.

        I take it as a given that God is good, and that in essence God is love, that this essence is at the core of all Reality and all Creation, that there is no life without the Love of God because they are synonymous and at bottom identical. The hitch comes in if you follow it out far enough to discover God voluntarily hanging by nails thru his flesh being tortured to death by the world system. Whoa, wait a minute!

        Given that, all of this 500 year old turmoil since Wittenberg strikes me as a lot of blather, not that it wasn’t worse the day before. If you work your way all the way thru this whole mess, I don’t see any other place to end up other than God is love, but by God’s definition as demonstrated for the world, not as the theologians would have it. This isn’t easy.

    • By the way, Peregrin:

      “Greek (abstract) Hebraic (relational)
      God is love vs. God loves me(n)
      God is just vs. God justifies me(n)”

      I like that a lot!!