Sunday, August 24, 2014

Martin Luther's Discovery of the "Righteousness of God"

My favourite speech (quote) from Martin Luther

In the passage below, originally written in 1545, the year before his death, Luther reflects on his early life, and particularly a major theological difficulty which he experienced as a young man. What was “Good News” about the proclamation of the righteousness of God? For Luther, this could only mean the condemnation of sinners, himself included. Luther here relates how, after wrestling with the meaning of Romans 1:17, he finally came to understand the “righteousness of God (iustitia Dei)” in a different way, thus opening the door of his theological reformation. He writes,

“Meanwhile in that year [1519], I had returned to interpreting the Psalter again, confident that I was better equipped after I had expounded in the schools the letters of St. Paul to the Romans and the Galatians, and the letter to the Hebrews. I had certainly been overcome with a great desire to understand St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, but what had hindered me thus far was not any ‘coldness of the blood’ so much as that on phrase in the first chapter: ‘The righteousness of God is revealed in it.’ For I had hated the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ which, according to the use and custom of all the doctors (I think what he means are the theologians), I had been taught to understand philosophically, in the sense of the formal or active righteousness (as they termed it), by which God is righteous, and punishes unrighteous sinners.

Although I lived an irreproachable life as a monk, I felt that I was a sinner with an uneasy conscience before God; nor was I able to believe that I had pleased him with my satisfaction. I did not love (in fact, I hated) that righteous God who punished sinners, if not with silent blasphemy, then certainly with great murmuring. I was angry with God, saying ‘As if it were not enough that miserable sinners should be eternally damned through original sin, with all kinds of misfortunes laid upon them by the Old Testament law, and yet God adds sorrow upon sorrow through the gospel, and even brings wrath and righteousness to bear through it!Thus I drove myself mad, with a desperate disturbed conscience, persistently pounding upon Paul in this passage, thirsting most ardently to know what he meant.

At last, God being merciful, as I meditated day and night on he connection of the words ‘the righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written: the righteous shall live by faith,’ I began to understand that ‘righteousness of God’ as that by which the righteous lives by the gift of God, namely by faith, and this sentence, ‘the righteousness of God is revealed,’ to refer to a passive righteousness, by which the merciful God justified us by faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous lives by faith.’ This immediately made me feel as though I had been born again, and as though I had entered through open gates into paradise itself. From that moment, the whole face of Scripture appeared to me in a different light. Afterwards, I ran through the Scriptures, as from memory, and found the same analogy in other phrases such as the ‘work of God’ (that which God works with us), the ‘power of God’ (by which makes us strong), the ‘wisdom of God’ (by which he makes us wise), the ‘strength of God’, the ‘salvation of God’ and the ‘glory of God.

And now, where I had once hated the phrase ‘the righteousness of God,’ so much I began to love and extol it as the sweetest of words, so that this passage in Paul became the very gate of paradise to me. Afterwards, I read Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter, where I found that he too, beyond my expectation, interpreted ‘the righteousness of God’ in the same way – as that which God bestows upon us, when he justifies us. And although this is expressed somewhat imperfectly, and he does not explain everything about imputation clearly, it was nevertheless pleasing to find that he taught that the ‘righteousness of God’ is that, by which we are justified.”
[Source: Preface to the Latin Works (1545); D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, vol. 54 (Weimar: Bohlau, 1938), 185.12-186.21]

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