“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Romans 1:16-17
How can the Gospel save sinful human beings like you and me?
Luther struggled with this passage of God’s Word and with this question because he viewed the righteousness of God, which the Gospel reveals (v. 17), to be the just anger and punishment of God upon sin! The more Luther read and studied the Scriptures, the more he saw his own sinfulness and inability to live up to the demands of a righteous and holy God.
This is what had before prompted him to enter the monastery and become a monk; he sought to somehow appease the wrath of a righteous and holy God. And now, through his study of the Scriptures, he realized more and more his failings. Before he understood the Gospel, Luther thought the Gospel condemned him and all other sinners to eternal suffering in hell.
Through the study of the Scriptures, the Holy Ghost revealed the true meaning of this passage to Luther; and it gave him great joy, for an unbearable burden was lifted from him. The Gospel was not the revelation of God’s anger and punishment upon sin. Rather, it reveals the righteousness of God which is imputed to sinners who look in faith to Christ Jesus’ holy life in our stead and His innocent sufferings and death on the cross to atone for the sins of the world.
“Therein [in the Gospel] is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith“ (v.17).
The Law reveals our sinfulness and the just wrath of God against our sins; the Gospel reveals Christ’s keeping of the Law in our stead, His innocent sufferings and death on the cross for our sins, and God’s pardon and forgiveness which He offers and gives to believers for Christ’s sake (cf. Rom. 3:19-26).
To Luther was revealed the glorious truth that, though he was a sinner condemned by God’s Law and without any true righteousness acceptable in God’s eyes; yet, through faith in Jesus Christ, God counted him holy, righteous, and acceptable in His sight. God had made him, a sinner, “accepted in the Beloved. In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:6,7).
This is a righteousness that is of faith rather than of works; and it is revealed to faith, which God the Holy Ghost creates in men’s hearts through the Gospel (v. 17). This is verified by the Old Testament Scriptures (Hab. 2:4); for those who are just in God’s eyes and are alive to God live by faith in God’s grace and mercy for Christ’s sake. They trust that God accepts them and forgives their sins for the sake of the Messiah and Savior, and so they are alive to God and live for Him.
It is not the proud and self-reliant one who lives to God; it is the one who humbly acknowledges his sins and trusts in God to forgive him for the sake of Christ’s bitter sufferings and death in his stead. This one lives in faith and receives God’s gracious gift of forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.
Today also, so many view the Gospel of Jesus Christ as another law, telling us how we should live and what will happen to us if we fail. People believe that they must do certain works or live a certain lifestyle in order to please God and receive life eternal in heaven.
We, too, tend to think this way! However, no matter how hard people try, they can never be certain they have done enough or lived well enough. And, if they study the Scriptures, they will see that they come far short and deserve only the righteous wrath and condemnation of God. Even their best works are “as filthy rags” in God’s sight (Isa. 64:6).
But when the Holy Ghost, through the hearing of His Word, reveals to us today the true meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we like Luther will have great joy — a tremendous weight and burden will be lifted from us — for we will then know that salvation is God’s free gift to us in His Son, Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:23). We will come to know that Jesus Christ has fulfilled all the righteous demands of God’s Law for us, and that He has suffered and died for us, bearing the just punishment for our sins, and that He has risen again in victory.
We will come to know and live through faith that, in Christ Jesus, we have forgiveness for all sins and the eternal joys of heaven!
O Holy Spirit, grant that we hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and learn of the righteousness You impute to sinners who repent of their sinful ways and look in faith to Christ Jesus and His cross for pardon, forgiveness, and life everlasting. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
[Scripture is quoted from the King James Version of the Bible.]