Friday, November 04, 2011

The nature of the “righteousness of God”: Martin Luther was right

This is the “interpretation” of the “verse” on which the Reformation hinges. And Martin Luther got it right. The “infallible” “Church” got it wrong, and the world has never been the same.

I’m continuing to talk about Martin Luther’s “discovery” of “justification” and “the Theology of the Cross,” both of which emerged in his thinking at the same time, and which were inextricably related to each other. As McGrath (“Luther’s Theology of the Cross,” Oxford, UK: and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, ©1985, 1990) pointed out:
There are two aspects to Luther’s discovery of ‘the righteousness of God’. The first relates to the nature of this righteousness: Luther discovered a ‘wonderful new definition of righteousness’ which stood in diametrical opposition to human understandings of iustitia. The second relates to the mode by which this righteousness comes to the individual: man cannot perform good works which are capable of earning justification on a quid pro quo basis, but he can totally abase himself, and cry out to God for grace.
McGrath considered “the second aspect of the matter,” “mode”, first. And at these two links I talked shared that discussion:

The Righteousness of God
God’s wrath is his penultimate and not his final word

Beginning his discussion now of the “nature” of this “righteousness of God”, McGrath says:
It will be clear that Luther’s early insistence upon the necessity of destroying human preconceptions of iustitia through the opus alienum Dei leads us on to consider the nature of the ‘righteousness of God’. In the opening of the scholia [commentary] of his lectures on Romans, Luther states his conviction that the letter represents a programmatic assault upon human preconceptions of wisdom and righteousness.
Remember that it was not so clear-cut at all for young Martin Luther. Consider the world in which he grew up , and what “human preconceptions of wisdom and righteousness” were like:
The Church was still reeling from “the great schism,” when there were two, and even three competing popes were anathematizing each other and their followers, for a period that lasted some 78 years. This council ended the schism and in the year 1417 a single pope was elected, but that doesn't mean, by any stretch, that things had righted themselves.
In 1492, the year that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, Alexander VI, widely regarded as the most wicked pope who ever lived, was elected:
The ensuing conclave saw Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia elected as Alexander VI (1492-1503), although he was the only non-Italian in an electorate of twenty-three cardinals, of whom eight were nephews of former popes. (Roger Collins, Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy, New York, NY: Basic Books 2009, pg 339).
Alexander had bribed his way into the papacy:
Thirty five years as cardinal had provided him with much wealth, numerous offices and several palaces, all of which were offered to fellow members of the college in return for their votes in the conclave (ibid).
And while pope, he maintained the same dissolute lifestyle that he had always exhibited. According to Collins, “he continued to live openly with his mistresses and in producing nine illegitimate children during his years as cardinal and pope.”

This was the “infallible Church”, allowing this man to be first a “prince” then “Vicar of Christ”, for nearly the 50 years that he was cardinal and pope. And note that there were only 23 Cardinals at the time; he would not have been hard to notice. And this “papacy” was one of two “pillars” of the medieval Church”. The other was the system which had evolved of “how people became right with God”. Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his “The Reformation: A History” ©2003 quotes the English bishop Ridley, noting that “Satan’s old world of false religion stood on two ‘most massy posts and mighty pillars … these two, sir, they are in my judgment: the one his false doctrine and idolatrical use of the Lord’s supper; and the other, the wicked and abominable usurpation of the primacy of the see of Rome.’ … the whole system of the medieval western Church was built on the Mass and on the central role of the Pope” (pg 10).

Of “the Mass”, MacCulloch notes, “the particular power of the Mass in the medieval West comes from its association with another idea peculiar to the Western Church: This most powerful form of public liturgical prayer may be concentrated and directed to steer individuals through the perils of death to God’s bliss in the afterlife” (11).Indeed, the Mass was a tool that the clergy used to enable “the faithful” to shape their stay in “Purgatory”, that “middle state, in which those whom God loved would have a chance to perfect the hard slog towards holiness that they had begun so imperfectly in their brief earthly life”. In fact, it wasn’t until the 12th century that the name “Purgatory” was coined.
Further refining of the system added a ‘Limbus infantium’ for infants who had not been baptized but who had no actual sins to send them to hell, and a ‘limbus Patrum” for the Old Testament patriarchs who had the misfortune to die before the coming in flesh of Jesus Christ, but these two states of limbo were subordinate to what had become a threefold scheme of the afterlife. Such theological tidy-mindedness suggests that there is something to be said for the view that when the Latin-speaking Roman Empire collapsed in the West in the fifth century, its civil servants promptly transferred to the payroll of the Western [“Roman Catholic”] Church.(11-12).
This is the world in which Martin Luther grew up. “Masses” being said for deceased loved ones whom “the Church” said were in Purgatory (and for which “the Pope” had special oversight) eventually led to payments for “indulgences” which Luther also found to be so revolting, and paid for the great St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Luther not only found that economy to be distasteful, but he also questioned the received wisdom of how one becomes “right with God”. And as a great teacher of the Scriptures, he wrestled with them:
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.” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV)

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17 NIV)
In his commentary on Romans (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, ©2007), Robert Jewett notes “That this passage contains the theme or thesis of Romans is almost universally accepted among commentators” (155).

Luther wrote, in an autobiographical preface to a 1545 edition of his “Collected Works”, outlined how he wrestled with this central verse, this central theme, “the righteousness of God”:
…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 one phrase in the first chapter: ‘The righteousness of God is revealed in it.’ For I had hated that phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ which, according to the use and custom of all the doctors, 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 his 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 the 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 justifies 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 within us), the ‘power of God’ (by which he 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 for 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 (Cited in McGrath, 95-97).
Douglas Moo, in his NICNT commentary on “The Epistle to the Romans” (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), writes, “For Paul, as in the OT, “righteousness of God” is a relational concept. Bringing together the aspects of activity and status, we can define it as the act by which God brings people into right relationship with himself. With Luther we stress that what is meant is a status before God and not internal moral transformation – God’s activity of “making right” is a purely forensic activity, and acquitting, and not an “infusing” of righteousness or a “making right” in a moral sense. To be sure, the person who experiences God’s righteousness does, necessarily, give evidence of that in the moral realm, as Paul makes clear in Rom. 6. But, while “sanctification” and “justification” are inseparable, they are distinct; and Paul is badly misread if they are confused or combined. To use the imagery of the law court, from which righteousness language is derived, we can picture God’s righteousness as the act or decision by which the judge declares innocent a defendant: an activity of the judge, but an activity that is a declaration of status – an act that results in, and indeed includes within it, a gift. In this sense, the noun “righteousness” in this phrase can be understood to be the substantival equivalent of the verb “justify”.

Next time, Lord willing, I’ll go on and pick up McGrath’s account of the “nature” of “the Righteousness of God” as it appears in his work.


  1. Weird that Luther was right. He did not even dare to translate "God's righteousness" right. His translation has something like: "the righteousness that is in effect before God".

    Reformers generally understood Righteousness as a quantity that can be transferred to someone's account. Probably a vestige of the Roman merit system. None of that in Scripture however.

  2. Hi Holdon - Keep in mind, too, that I am in extreme summary mode here. Luther's works span dozens of full works, and McGrath is trying to compile information that spanned decades -- from say 1515 to 1545. The "autobiographical fragment" here is something that Luther wrote in 1545, reflecting backward to 1515 or 1519 (it seems he got the date wrong). Much of Luther's theological understanding was shaped over time, as he learned, and in the midst of great conflict. And as we know, there have been many controversies over things that Luther said.

    Scott Clark put together an excellent summary of Luther's "development" which I've borrowed here.

    For a more detailed treatment, Bernard Lohse's work "Martin Luther's Theology" (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press 1999) traces what he calls "Luther's Theology in its Historical Development."

    Part of the reason for this series of posts to put them on my personal blog, which goes out to my Facebook and LinkedIn pages. Everyone from old high school friends of mine, to people I work with, to family, to church members, have the opportunity to read this. And many of the folks in my "real life" are Roman Catholic. So I'm trying simultaneously to attract their attention and say the things I want to say and put the Scriptures in front of them too.

  3. Weird that Luther was right. He did not even dare to translate "God's righteousness" right. His translation has something like: "the righteousness that is in effect before God". Reformers generally understood Righteousness as a quantity that can be transferred to someone's account. Probably a vestige of the Roman merit system. None of that in Scripture however.

    The Reformation understanding of the righteousness of God has nothing positively to do with Rome's abominable "merit system." Reformation theology holds to jJustification by faith alone, which is simply another way of saying justification by the righteousness of Christ alone. Certainly there is merit involved, but it is purely and only Christ's merit. It is only Christ's merit that can satisfy God's holy justice. This merit is given to His people by faith alone. His people are clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

    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 Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. (LW 34:337)

    None of that in Scripture? Here's some of the verses Calvin used:

    "He has made him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him," (2 Cor. 5:21)

    He (God) might be just, and the justifier of him who believeth in Jesus," (Rom. 3:26)

    Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he has made us accepted in the Beloved," (Eph. 1:5, 6.)

    "being justified freely by his grace," (Rom. 3:24.)

    "Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven," &c., (Rom. 4:6–8.)

  4. Amen James!


    thanks for keeping on even with your circumstances as they are! Be commended and don't stop until you have exhausted this theme!

    I was wonderfully struck by these Words of Scripture which led me to conclude that this debate has been around a really really long time:

    Joh 5:33 You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth.
    Joh 5:34 Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved.
    Joh 5:35 He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.
    Joh 5:36 But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me.
    Joh 5:37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen,
    Joh 5:38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent.
    Joh 5:39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,
    Joh 5:40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.
    Joh 5:41 I do not receive glory from people.
    Joh 5:42 But I know that you do not have the love of God within you.
    Joh 5:43 I have come in my Father's name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him.
    Joh 5:44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?
    Joh 5:45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope.
    Joh 5:46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.
    Joh 5:47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?"

    Out with the Old, in with the New!

    One does not set aside the Law of Righteousness!

    The Apostle Paul goes so far as to write this, too:

    Rom 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
    Rom 3:29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also,
    Rom 3:30 since God is one--who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.
    Rom 3:31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

    Huh? How is it then that we uphold the practice of the law if the law doesn't save us?

    Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah! I love the Law!

    How else would we know sin but by the activity of the Law of Righteousness at work in us?

    It is the Law that accuses me! Not until I accept that I cannot know the Gospel as Jesus said, repeated,

    Joh 5:47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?"

  5. Hi James, thanks for your comments and clarifications.

    Thanks Natamllc, for your encouragement and your prayers.

    Researching and writing these sorts of things are one of my favorite activities in the world; to be able to continue "keeping on" as you say is a gift to me from the Lord.

    I fully expect there will be a time coming soon when I'll just have to shut down everything else and tend to Beth. But for now, we're just in a kind of holding pattern. We're up to three approved donors now -- we'll choose from one of those three. Then, my understanding is that there are legal things and paperwork and such like that; two of the three donors are outside of the US. Once a donor is selected, it will be 3-6 weeks before the transplant. So things will move ahead, we're just not sure how quickly.