Five hundred years ago this week, on October 31, 1517, a little-known German monk and professor named Martin Luther published 95 theses in Latin for academic debate. Someone translated them into German, the language of the people, and a relatively new invention called the printing press made possible their distribution far and wide.
Read Luther’s 95 Theses today, and you’ll be underwhelmed. They are no manifesto for a protest movement but an insider’s attempt to expose and challenge abuses and distortions within the church. The movement today we call “the Reformation” started with a small spark, but the kindling had been laid for centuries, and the wood was very dry, and it didn’t take much to set the whole thing ablaze.
Luther’s modest theses led to one thing and then another, and four years later he found himself standing before the emperor in a city called Worms, asked to recant his stance and writings against the pope. According to legend, Luther responded, “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.” He escaped with his life, went into hiding, and the fires of reform continued to rage.
Luther didn’t stand alone in his day. He soon had a full supporting cast in his own city of Wittenberg, and throughout Germany, and beyond. And we don’t stand alone today as Protestants 500 years later.
Counted Righteousness by Faith
This morning — not only on Reformation Sunday, but here at the great 500th anniversary — we turn to Romans 1, which is where Luther traced his conversion in 1518. And this is not unrelated to the Abraham series we’ve been enjoying this fall in Genesis 12–26.
In Genesis 15:5, you’ll remember, God brings Abram outside and says, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he says to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And then this all-important comment follows in Genesis 15:6: “And [Abraham] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Right standing with God — nothing in the universe is more valuable than that. How did Abraham get it? “He believed the Lord.”
At the heart of the Reformation is God’s counting us righteous by faith. Just a seed is planted in Genesis 15, but this seed grows in the soil of God’s covenant with Abraham’s descendants, and by the time we get to the New Testament, and the new covenant, the apostle Paul explains at length in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians what we call the doctrine of justification by faith. When Paul gets the question “How do I get (and stay) right with God?” he goes back to Father Abraham to answer by faith. Abraham “believed God, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
This doctrine became one of the great flashpoints of the Reformation nearly 1500 years after Paul, and some 3500 years after Abraham: How does a sinner get right with God, and stay right with God? How does God welcome the ungodly into favor? How am I “justified” — declared to be in a right, saving, non-wrath-incurring relationship with God?
Full Acceptance, Full Access
Justification is an image borrowed from the law count. Picture yourself as the defendant, accused of rebelling against the crown. The judge hears the case and renders a verdict: righteous or unrighteous, justified or guilty as charged. For the defendant to be justified means that the judge declares him to be in the right. It’s not a statement necessarily about the moral ability or achievements of the defendant but about his status in relation to the law. He’s not made us righteous, but declared us to be so.
And when what’s at stake is our relationship with the omnipotent creator of the universe, there is nothing more important, and nothing more precious than hearing the judge say, “Not guilty.” And not just, “Not guilty,” but, “Justified.” Not only are your sins forgiven because of Christ’s death, but you are counted to be perfectly righteous, because Jesus is alive, he is perfectly righteous, and you are joined to him by faith.
In Christ, you are fully received by God himself. Fully accepted. Given full access. Fully welcomed into the presence of the one with whom there is fullness of joy and pleasures forever. Marvel at the words of 2 Peter 1:2: you “have obtained a faith of equal standing with [the apostles] by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Romans 1:16–17: Three Questions
So, as we look at Romans 1, and verses 16–17 in particular, let’s ask three questions and, in good Reformation fashion, do our best to let the text answer them. Verses 16–17:
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. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
1. Why would Paul be tempted to be ashamed of the gospel?
First Paul, then we’ll get to Luther in a few minutes. In saying, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” Paul implies there is some reason that he might be ashamed. He’s not ashamed, but there’s some kind of temptation or threat to shame — and he says, despite that, “I am not ashamed.” So what is that temptation?
We may be prone to read our own situation into the verse, and assume his threat to be ashamed is the same as ours today. We live in an increasingly post-Christian society. Many of our neighbors and friends and family and coworkers have heard some version of what the Christian faith is, distorted as it may be, and they have been, in a sense, inoculated to the real message. Or they’ve heard the real message and flat out rejected it. We’re prone to be ashamed of the gospel because unbelievers may not want to hear our message, and may think we’re backward. And added to that our message begins by reminding sinners who they are really are.
But this is not Paul’s temptation in Romans 1. There’s no mention yet of unbelievers. They weren’t reading his letters. And he didn’t live in an increasingly post-Christian society. He lived in a radically pagan society. Most people he came in contact with as he traveled the empire had never heard of Jesus. There was no stigma. His temptation to shame, at least here in Romans 1, wasn’t about what the unbelieving world thought.
Who is Paul writing to, then? Look at verse 7: “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.” He’s writing to Christians, professing believers — not unbelievers in Rome but to the church. And what does he want to do in this letter? Verse 11 says he wants “to strengthen them.” Not create converts, but strengthen them. And how does he intend to strengthen Christians? Verse 15: “I am eager to preach the gospel to you (believers!) who are in Rome.” Paul means to strengthen Christians by telling them something they already know.
The temptation, then, it seems, is to be ashamed of the gospel not because of unbelief in society but because his audience, the church, already knows and believes the message. He’s not wowing them with new information but telling them, and taking them deep into, the old, old story.
2. Why, then, is Paul not ashamed of the gospel?
Note that important word “for” in the middle of verse 16. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, *for* . . .” Paul is not going to leave us guessing, but tell us why he’s not ashamed to keep preaching the message to people who already know it and embrace it: “. . . for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
By “salvation” here, Paul means not only initial salvation — becoming a Christian, getting tipped into the kingdom — but also final salvation. The whole salvation package of being rescued from our sin and God’s righteous wrath, from beginning to middle to end. And what is the power to get us in, and keep us in, and keep us to the end? “*The gospel* is the power of God for salvation.” There is no other power. God has appointed that his people get right with him, and stay right with him, all the way till the end, by knowing and believing that and how he made a way for them.
And if you fear that it might get old and stale to dwell in the gospel like this, you must not yet have fully tasted the riches and depth and breadth and height and width of God’s work for us in Christ. There is a lifetime’s worth to explore and enjoy. Indeed, an eternity’s worth. Not a yard of gospel to explore but a universe.
3. How does it happen?
See the word “for” again at the beginning of verse 17. Paul is giving us further explanation. Verse 17: “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” How is the gospel the power of God? How is it that God uses the message about his Son and his sacrifice to save us from first till last? Paul says that in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.”
This is where Martin Luther was stumped. In particular, he was stuck on the word “righteousness” or “justice” of God. I’ll let him explain that in just a minute, but one quick note here before I read from Luther: When God’s word stumps you, don’t give up. Don’t go away. It’s a chance for a breakthrough. When our frail, finite, fallen human minds are stumped by the words of the almighty, infinite, holy God, we have an opportunity before us — a chance to grow and change for the better, to have our minds and hearts shaped by the mind and heart of God. It might require the hard work of thinking and the patience of meditating, not just moving on, but oh how sweet it is to have our weak minds and hearts stumped so that we humble ourselves and seek to realign ourselves with what God has to say.
Back to Luther. In 1518, he was lecturing on the Psalms (a year after publishing the 95 theses in 1517). Here’s how he tells the story almost 30 years later, in 1545, the year before he died: (this is a long quote; I’ll summarize it at the end)
I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor [passion] for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then it was . . . a single word in Chapter 1 [verse 17], “In it the righteousness of God is revealed,” that had stood in my way. For I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue [Ten Commandments], without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteous wrath!”
Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately [with annoying persistence] upon Paul at that place, most ardently [passionately] desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it 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 [the] 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. Here a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. . . .
And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.
I know that’s a lot. Let me summarize it. Luther had understood “righteousness of God” in verse 17 to be that “with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.” That is indeed an aspect of God’s righteousness, but it’s not what’s mainly in view in Romans 1:17. That’s why Luther was stumped. But as he meditated on the passage and “gave heed to the context,” he saw that God’s righteousness here points to “that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith.”
The righteousness of God is not only that by which God punishes the guilty, but it is also offered to us, in the God-man, Jesus Christ, to receive as a gift, in place of our unrighteousness, so that we are not punished as guilty (as we deserve) but counted as righteous by grace. Because of Jesus, God’s own righteousness is made available to us, to be received as a gift, by faith. In Jesus, we now share in the favor and acceptance of God’s own Son. And when Satan tries try to discourage you that you’re not worthy of God’s favor, say, “You’re right that I’m not worthy on my own. But I’m in Christ by faith, and Christ is worthy.”
And if you want confirmation that this is what Paul means here, we flip over to Romans 3:21–26 where he explains this “righteousness of God revealed” (“the righteousness of God manifested”) in God’s being both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).
Let’s close with two takeaways from Luther’s story for us today, 500 years later. Both have to do with our access to God. The labels are imprecise, but we might call them life access and daily access.
1. Life Access: God receives us into relationship with himself by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone. (Justification by Faith Alone)
We get right with him, not by working, but by believing. Not by earning, but by receiving. The good news about Jesus, not our good works, is the power of God for salvation. Based on who Jesus is and what he has done for us, as a gift of grace, by faith alone, we receive God’s full favor, and have access to him. Romans 5:1–2:
Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
What, then, becomes of the good that we do, our good works? We do not gain God’s acceptance by our works, but when he does fully accept us, he makes us new creatures who will do good works (Ephesians 2:8–10). So, good works do matter — not as the grounds or means of our justification but as evidence and confirmation to the world that we were justified by faith alone. Good works matter because other people matter — they benefit from our good works and they are shown that God is for us. As Luther said, God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.
2. Daily Access: God speaks to us decisively in his word. (Sola Scriptura)
In terms of authority, God has the final say. Not the pope. Not the church and its tradition. Scripture alone has the final say, because God himself is God and has the final say, and Scripture is what he says.
What about other authorities? This is a common misconception of Sola Scriptura. We are not claiming that there are no other authorities in the Christian life. By no means! We have God’s revelation of himself in nature, we have church history, we have our present community, our own personal experience, our common sense and logic, and on and on. Scripture is not our only authority, but our *only decisive authority*. The others have their place, but it is not the final and decisive place.
However, Sola Scriptura is not just about authority but access. This is what we see in Luther. His breakthrough came when he gained access to God’s word and lingered in God’s word; and he wasn’t alone. Reformation hero after hero gained access to God’s word, read it for himself, and everything changed with a personal encounter with God in his word.
The real essence of the Reformation wasn’t the doctrine of justification — vital as it was, and is. The real essence of the Reformation was access to, and personal encounter with, God himself through his word. The Reformers took the Catholic Church’s closed book and opened it first for themselves — to read and preach and write and sing — and then for all to hear.
If there is one thing that this great 500th anniversary of the Reformation might leave us with, let it be this: that we marvel and enjoy that the God of the universe has spoken into our world, and revealed himself to us in words, and captured them in this Book, and continues to speak to us through these words, illumined and empowered by his own Spirit. God’s word is not something separate from himself. His words are an extension of who he is. How you treat his words is how you treat him. He breathes out his word; they are an expression of him. And we know him today, through his Son, by his Spirit and *in his word*.
Which means our ongoing daily relationship with God comes by his word and his initiative, not our imagination and our creativity. And when we avail ourselves of this amazing opportunity, to hear the very voice of God to us, by his Spirit, in his word, we experience what the Bible became for Luther. He said, “The Bible is a remarkable fountain: the more one draws and drinks of it, the more it stimulates thirst.” This is the legacy of the Reformation: soul-thirst satisfied in God, ready to drink more.
The Table: Weekly Access
In keeping with justification by faith as by faith alone, not works; and Scripture as God’s word and initiative, not our imagination or creativity; this is the Lord’s Table, not ours. Do you get theme here? The Reformation exalts God. We are not equals with God. He is creator; we are creatures. He initiates; we follow. He gives; we receive. And the Table is about our work for Jesus, but his work for us.