Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology
KNOWING HOW TO READ the epistles is very important. Twenty-one of the 27 books in the New Testament fall into this category, establishing the importance of their application to Christian living. Specifically, I wish to focus on Romans. Paul noted the critical function of God’s righteousness in Romans 1:16-18. Martin Luther struggled personally with this passage while studying at a monastery. Later in life, in 1545, Luther wrote, “I had already for years read and taught the Holy Scriptures both privately and publicly. I knew most of the Scriptures by heart and, furthermore, had eaten the first fruits of knowledge of, and faith in, Christ, namely, that we are justified not by works, but by faith in Christ” (1). Initially, however, Luther struggled immensely with how Christians are to live by the righteousness of God. He knew what the prophet Isaiah wrote on the subject: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isa. 64:6, ESV).
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17).
Luther’s obsession with the issue of righteousness caused him much grief. Nothing mattered to him more than his faith and his obedience to God. Yet, he often felt overwhelmed by the fear of death and hell (2). He joined the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt at twenty-two years of age out of concern for his own salvation. A feeling of terror overwhelmed him during the writing of his first sermon: a sense of being unworthy of God’s love. He was convinced that he was not doing enough to be saved. I believe his concern was directly related to claims of the Roman Catholic Church that faith must be accompanied by works in order to receive salvation. Over-wrought with a sense of his own sinfulness, he supposed he was not a good monk; that his life was licentious and immoral despite his commitment to the gospel. Luther repeatedly punished his body—flagellation, enduring harsh winter conditions without a coat or shoes, denying himself of basic physical needs. He worried that his confessions would not be exhaustive enough to cover all his wrong deeds; that he would die in his sins.
As Luther prepared for a sermon on the epistle of Romans some time in 1515, he had an a-ha moment regarding Romans 1:17—the just shall live by faith. It is through the gospel that the righteousness of God is revealed, not through anything he could do to earn it. As Gonzalez notes, Luther came to understand that the “justice” or “righteousness” of the righteous is not their own, but God’s. He settled on salvation through faith alone, in Christ alone. “Justification by faith” does not mean that we must do that which God demands of us, as if it were something we have to achieve. Rather, it means that both faith and justification are the work of God, free to sinners (3). I believe Luther had to arrive at this understanding before he would be able to see the error in Catholicism relative to sacraments and works governing forgiveness and righteousness. It was shortly after coming to this conclusion that Luther prepared and posted his 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.
Romans 1:17-18 contains three points: (1) revelation of God’s righteousness; (2) revelation of God’s wrath; and (3) revelation of God’s grace. Paul establishes the truth that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ alone. God’s righteousness operates as both a moral standard and as a spiritual standard. As Jesus died on the cross, He uttered the phrase “it is finished” (see John 19:30). According to Dake, sixteen things were finished at the moment of Christ’s death: fulfillment of all Scriptures of the sufferings of Christ; the defeat of Satan; a breakdown of the wall or partition between God and man; establishing personal access to God; cancellation of the reign of death; cancellation of sin’s power; demonstration of abject obedience to the Father; the perfection of Christ; salvation from all sin; establishment of peace between God and man; penalty of death paid for all; cancellation of the “claim” of Satan over man; satisfaction of the full justice of God; bodily healing for all; establishing a way for believers to receive the full power of the Holy Spirit; blotting out or fulfillment of the Old Covenant (4). As we can see, much depends upon believers grasping the full meaning of Romans 1:17.
The Hebrew word typically translated as “righteous” or “just” is sāddîq, which originally meant “straight” or “right.” The corresponding Greek term is dikaiosynē, meaning “to do justice,” “to be just,” “to vindicate” or “justify” in the forensic sense of “declare righteous” or “treat as just.” Diehl writes, “Much of the NT is taken up with showing that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the promised Messiah… God’s purposes of righteousness and salvation are centered in him” (5). It is in the sixteenth and seventeenth verses of Romans 1 that Paul sets forth the design of the entire epistle—a charge of sinfulness against all flesh; a single path to deliverance; and righteousness through Jesus as Messiah.
In Romans 6, Paul addresses the peculiar dilemma of habitual or deliberate sin in the life of the believer. Why does he or she still sin? Is victory possible? In the closing remarks of Romans 5, Paul notes the function of the Law (to identify our trespasses), and he remarks, “…where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (5:20-21). Clearly, we can never out-sin God’s grace. However, it is possible to taste of the freedom we have in Christ and decide to turn back to our old existence. A stubborn and callous spirit risks being unable to repent. Miller writes, “If God forgives me today I might as well do the same thing tomorrow, and have God forgive me tomorrow, and then the third day, and so on throughout my entire life. So Paul faces that question in chapter 6 with the exclamation ‘God forbid!'” (6). If our old man is crucified with Christ, then we have crucified our fleshly affections and lusts. When we accepted Christ as Savior, we chose to identify with Him in the crucifixion; our “sin body” was suddenly and abruptly terminated and made inoperative. In fact, Miller believes if we are born again and yet still practice our old habits and lusts, we “…have never died with Christ, have never made a complete surrender of self and sin to the will of God” (7).
Paul said, “We are crucified with Christ, in order that henceforth we should not do the things we have been doing, and serve the master we have been serving. Our affections and lusts are crucified.”
Paul presents the essence of carnality in Romans 7. The carnal Christian is predominantly self-centered. Moreover, carnality leads to spiritual impotency. He relates being bound to sin and flesh as long as we let the old nature persist. If we died with Christ (as in Paul’s example of a widower no longer married to his wife if she dies), then we are no longer “in relationship” with the old nature. Paul frequently uses the pronoun I in Romans 7, finally coming to the place where he is helpless: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (7:15-18). This recitation describes the carnal Christian.
In verse 21, Paul says “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” The reason for this state of helplessness is the supremacy of sin. Carnality brings us to the point where sin once again becomes our master, dictating its orders to us in the flesh. Clearly, we have no choice in the matter while we walk in the flesh. Paul essentially says, “I find that sin dwelling in me is forcing me to do these things. It is not merely weakness, nor is it because I have no will power. It is because sin has supremacy in my life and has reduced me to slavery.” Our struggle in this matter is the same as Paul’s. We delight in doing what is right (obeying the Law). We know what is right. We love studying Scripture, attending church, and enjoy the fellowship of other believers. But while carnal we find another law warring against the Law within us. There is a solution: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (7:24-25).
Faith, however, is a divine work in us. Luther said in his Commentary on Romans, “It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God; it kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind… and it brings with it the Holy Ghost… faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times” (8). The believer who walks according to the “flesh,” as Luther describes it, is “…a man who lives and works, inwardly and outwardly, in the service of the flesh’s profit and of this temporal life.” In contrast, he says the man who walks in the spirit “…is the man who lives and works, inwardly and outwardly, in the service of the Spirit and the future life” (9). He writes in the general commentary, “The object of this Epistle is to destroy all wisdom and works of the flesh no matter how important these may appear in our eyes or those of others and no matter how sincere and earnest we might be in their use” (10). He concludes that we must dwell in a righteousness which in every way comes from outside of us, and is entirely foreign of us. This is the only means by which our hearts can be free and divested of our own attempts at righteousness. We can reach this level only through remaining humble, as if we are nothing of ourselves.
(1) Martin Luther, Weimar Edition of Martin Luther’s Works (Berlin, Germany: Phon Publishing, 2012), 183.
(2) Justo L Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 22.
(3) Ibid., 25.
(4) Finis Jennings Dake, Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible (Lawrenceville, GA: Dake Publishing Co., 2008), 211-12.
(5) D.W. Diehl, “Righteousness” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd ed., Daniel J. Treier and Walter A. Elwell, editors (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 755.
(6) C. Leslie Miller, Expository Studies on Romans (Cleveland, OH: Union Gospel Press, n.d.), 125.
(7) Ibid., 131.
(8) Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954), xvii.
(9) Ibid., xviii.
(10) Ibid., 28.