MARTIN LUTHER STRUGGLED a great deal with the idea of justification and righteousness. He was so obsessed with sinning and offending God and worried he would die having failed to confess everything. He spent a great deal of time ruminating about his behavior. He unfortunately focused how he could punish himself and assure that he would be redeemed and clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Luther often deprived himself of comforts, including blankets and coats during cold weather, and often flagellated himself as punishment.
Luther became fixated on Paul’s letter to the Romans. He could not grasp the manner by which he could ever hope to become “righteous” in God’s eyes. He was especially concerned about Romans 1:17, which says, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Luther, in his Preface to his Commentary on Romans (1552 A.D.), wrote
This Espistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.
It seems Luther was quite concerned about the orientation of his heart and about how he might earn salvation. He wrote, “How can a man prepare himself for good by means of works, if he does no good works without displeasure and unwillingness of heart? How shall a work please God, if it proceeds from a reluctant and resisting heart?” This was his personal obsession: Is my heart right with God? Can I possibly be worthy of redemption? How can I put on the righteousness of Christ? No doubt he was tormented with the example of Paul regarding the struggle to do good. Paul wrote, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me… For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15-17, 19).
In his commentary, Luther wrote, “So also the Apostle says in in 7:15: ‘That which I do, I allow not” (I do not approve). The Apostle means to say: As a spiritual man I recognize only what is good, and yet I do what I do not desire, namely, that which is evil, not indeed willfully and maliciously. But while I choose the good, I do the opposite. The carnal man, however, knows what is evil, and he does it intentionally, willfully and by choice.” Looking again at Romans 1:17, Luther said,
God certainly desires to save us not through our own righteousness, but through the righteousness and wisdom of someone else or by means of a righteousness which does not originate on earth, but comes down from heaven. So, then, we must teach a righteousness which in every way comes from without and is entirely foreign to us.
God’s righteousness is that by which we become worthy of His great salvation, or through which alone we are accounted righteous before Him. Luther struggled to understand how it is we become righteous. Not surprisingly, Romans 1:17 directly affected the course of the Protestant Reformation more than any other. The moment Luther grasped in his heart the process by which we put on the righteousness of Christ a gate opened to heaven. He was able to grasp that it is only through God’s love and grace and justice that we can become righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ.
Of course, it took Luther asking the right questions: What does this mean, that there’s this righteousness that is by faith, and from faith to faith? What does it mean that the righteous shall live by faith? Again, verse 17 contains the theme for the whole exposition of the Gospel that Paul lays out in Romans. Luther could now understand that what Paul was speaking of here was a righteousness that God in His grace was making available. It is to be received passively, not actively. Rather, it is received by faith
From a linguistics standpoint, the Latin word for justification that was used at this time in church history is justificare from the Roman judicial system. The term is made up of the word justus, which translates “justice or righteousness,” and the infinitive verb facare, which means “to make.” But Luther was looking now at the Greek word used in the New Testament: dikaios, or dikaiosune, which does not mean “to make righteous,” but rather to regard as righteous, to count as righteous, to declare as righteous. This allowed Luther to realize that the doctrine of justification is what happens when God sees us clothed in righteousness through our faith in Jesus Christ. Justification does not come through sacraments or priestly absolution or by an edict handed down from the pope. This position shines through in Luther’s 95 Theses that launched the Reformation.
Consider three theses written by Luther:
When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent,” He called for the entire life of believers to be one of penitence.
The word cannot be properly understood as referring the sacrament of penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
Those who preach indulgences are in error when they say that a man is absolved and saved from every penalty by the pope’s indulgences.
So Luther said, “Whoa, you mean the righteousness by which I will be saved, is not mine?” Nope. It’s what he called a justitia alienum, meaning “alien righteousness.” It’s a righteousness that belongs properly to someone else. A righteousness that is extra nos, outside of us. It is the righteousness of Christ. Luther said, “When I discovered that, I was born again of the Holy Ghost. The doors of paradise swung open, and I walked through.” Luther considered justification to be the article by which the church stands or falls.
WHAT IS JUSTIFICATION?
Justification and righteousness are legal terms. Following a trial, a verdict is declared as to how the individual now stands before the court. In Scripture, to justify does not mean to make righteous in the sense of changing a person’s character. We’re not magically changed into righteousness; instead, we are declared righteous in the eyes of the Lord. When He looks at us, He no longer sees our sins. He has wiped them away and remembers them no more. Rather, when the Father looks at us He sees Jesus.
Here are several key points regarding justification:
- Justification is the opposite of condemnation. In Deuteronmy 25:1 the judges are to acquit (justify) the innocent and condemn the guilty. Clearly, to condemn does not literally mean “to make them guilty,” but rather to “declare them to be guilty,” and so determine them to be “guilty” by the verdict. In other words, if a man or woman stands accused of a crime and wins an acquittal, the verdict does not render an otherwise guilty person innocent. The verdict does not change the facts. After all, guilty people win acquittal in criminal court. It’s a matter of applying the law to the evidence and making a declaration.
- The terms with which righteousness is associated have a judicial character—for example, consider the emphasis in Genesis 18:25 on God as the Judge.
- The expressions used as synonyms or substitutes for justify do not have the sense of “making righteous,” but carry a declarative or constitutive sense.
- The ultimate proof that justification involves a status changed by public declaration lies in the biblical view that through the resurrection Jesus Himself was “justified” (1 Timothy 3:16). The justification of Christ was not an actual alteration in His character. Rather, it refers to His vindication by the Father through the triumph and victory of the resurrection. Romans 1:4 says, “And who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord” (NIV).
THE POWER OF JUSTIFICATION
The practical impact of this doctrine cannot be overstated. The wonder of the Gospel is that God has declared Christians to be rightly related to Him in spite of their sin. Luther struggled with the same thing I have on many occasions. That is, assuming that we remain justified only so long as there are grounds in our character for justification. Paul’s epistle teaches us that nothing we ever do contributes to our justification. Frankly, there is nothing adequate we could do. Ever.
Justification is more than forgiveness; it involves being cleared of all blame, free from every charge of sin lodged against you. In a secular court, a judge cannot both forgive a man and justify him at the same time. If he forgives the defendant, then the man must be guilty and therefore he cannot be justified. If the judge justifies the defendant, the accused does not need forgiveness. God forgives the sin and justifies the sinner. Plugging this analogy into the Gospel, God forgives the guilty and condemned sinner and literally places him in a new position devoid of any charge against him at all (see Romans 8:1).
IT’S A MATTER OF FAITH, NOT A MATTER OF LAW
No one is justified by his or her own actions. Romans 3:20, 22-23 says, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin… this righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (NIV).
God justly justifies sinners through the work of Christ. Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 2:2). When we confess our sins, we discover that God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from our own unrighteousness. Of course, this still begs the question How does Christ’s righteousness become ours? Martin Luther was able to settle on faith in Christ. No works of ours, no good resolutions or reformation, can justify us or contribute one little bit to our justification. Such outwardly good works are really our attempt at self-righteousness. For us to be justified, Jesus must pay the penalty for our sins, and we must receive that payment by faith.
At the center of Paul’s teaching is the cross of Jesus and faith in the sacrifice of the crucified Lord. Paul wrote, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:1, NIV). Certainly, God’s wrath is revealed in His response to sin. Without a valid source of justification, we’d have no choice but to face that wrath. We deserve it. God also demonstrates His righteousness in the salvation of men. His wrath toward the sinner was poured out on Jesus Christ who died an agonizing and horrendous death in our place. God’s anger was appeased in Christ. Accordingly, God is able to save and to bless everyone who believes in Jesus Christ and who receives His salvation by faith.
Justification is of grace, to be received as a gift by faith in order that God may guarantee his promise of salvation. If justification depended on works, it would be unattainable. Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that justification were attainable. It would be subject to decay unless we were able continue justifying ourselves by works. Thankfully, justification is all about grace. It is based on the work of Christ, not on our works. Accordingly, God is able to guarantee our justification. We have assurance of our salvation and the hope of heaven. Once forgiven, our standing in God’s eyes is that of a “just” or “righteous” person. The empowerment of God’s Spirit enables one to continue in righteousness.
Being justified by God means that once redeemed we can become partakers of His divine nature, and we can aim for perfection. The divine image, with moral and spiritual perfection, which was imparted to us in the Garden of Eden and subsequently marred and distorted by sin, is now our goal. We must not let God’s gift of justification by faith lead to becoming complacent. Like Paul, we should be diligent in our efforts towards spiritual perfection and sensitive to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.