It was not so much the 95 theses as Luther’s later study of Scripture that fully crystallised his understanding of the gospel of grace. He came to the book of Romans but was stopped in his tracks by the word “righteousness” in chapter one. For Luther this meant God’s justice and judgment. “I meditated night and day on those words” he says, until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context (i.e. verse 17). He seized upon the words: “The just person lives by faith”. I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. As he meditated further, the whole gospel of grace was opened to him and the truth that we are justified by faith alone. Let’s take a closer look at the verse that became Luther’s Gospel Breakthrough.
Luther says. “I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.”
All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light.
“I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g.,the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God”.
I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise.
Luther had long struggled in vain to keep God’s law perfectly in order to be righteous before God. The idea of God’s perfect righteousness as a standard of justice terrified him. He says it “struck my conscience like lightning,” and “was like a thunderbolt in my heart”. But he came to see that the righteousness of God is also spoken of as a gift revealed in the gospel.
This discovery is often called Luther’s “Tower Experience,” because in one of his “table talks” he mentions that he was studying Romans 1:17 in the heated room (his study) of the tower of the Black Cloister in Wittenberg when the light broke upon him. The truth of justification by faith alone was a cornerstone of the Reformation’s recovery of the gospel of grace.
Despite its significance we do not have much that Luther wrote about this verse. This verse is, however, helpfully expounded by John Brown of Wamphray in his comments on the book of Romans. It is not enough that Luther could see the truth of justification by faith alone in this verse, we need to see it for ourselves too. Brown’s comments help to draw out the truth carefully.
The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to all that believe. This is because in that gospel the righteousness by which we must stand before God’s judgment seat is declared and revealed to believers. This is the righteousness that God reveals, no matter whether their faith is strong or weak; it is “from faith to faith”. The righteousness by which we must be justified is applied by sincere faith which is growing from one degree to another.
We are justified (declared righteous before God) by faith and not by works. Scripture affirms that we are just by faith and that we live by faith, therefore we are justified by faith. Paul quotes from Habakuk 2:4 “The just shall live by faith” or “The just by faith shall live” (it can be read both ways).
There is No Salvation Without Righteousness
The Lord has made such a connection between righteousness (as the way) and life salvation (as the end) that no one can expect righteousness without salvation. God is “of purer eyes than to behold evil” (Habakuk 1:13). The “unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Revelation 21:27).
Saving Righteousness is Only Revealed in the Gospel
The only righteousness by which we attain to salvation cannot be learned by natural knowledge. However sharp-sighted in other things men may be by nature they cannot reach this. It is a matter that must be revealed in the gospel. It cannot be known except through the gospel because in it “is the righteousness of God revealed”.
We Cannot Earn this Righteousness
By nature we are inclined to obtain happiness through our own works. But the righteousness by which we must stand before God’s judgment seat (revealed and made known in the gospel) is not a righteousness we can purchase, merit or devise. It is a righteousness provided by the infinitely wise God and a righteousness of one who is God. It is therefore called “the righteousness of God” (Philippians 3:9) and the “righteousness which is of God by faith” (Romans 3:21 and 10:3).
This Righteousness is Received by Faith Alone
This righteousness of God revealed in the gospel is made ours by faith. It is applied by faith laying hold on Jesus and His righteousness. It is revealed “from faith” or by faith.
The Weakest Faith Receives this Righteousness
The least degree of faith (as long as it is true and sincere) receives this righteousness of God revealed to us in the gospel. It is “from faith to faith”; that is from the smallest degree and measure of faith to the greatest.
True Faith Continues to Grow
Although Satan uses many means to make true faith fail and die, it continues to grow from one degree and measure to another.
Justification by Faith is Essential
It is essential that justification by faith is properly understood. This is a truth opposed and obscured by Satan and those whom he uses. We must all understand it clearly and have it confirmed from the Lord’s Word. This is why Paul adds “it is written”.
Truth May be Established Indirectly
The law and the testimony of Scripture is the means to distinguish light from darkness. This is so full that we may confirm a truth from a verse where that truth is not directly addressed and is not necessarily the main purpose of the verse. The apostle makes use of a verse from Habakuk here where the prophet is not primarily speaking about how or in what way people are justified before God. Rather, he is speaking about how the godly are supported and have life from faith even in days of trouble. The inference is justified, however. If the righteous have comfort through waiting on God by faith in a time of trouble it must be by faith that they are brought into life and justified.
If it is read alternatively, “The just by faith shall live”, it shows clearly that it is by faith (i.e. laying hold on Christ’s righteousness and blood) that they are just or justified. Great wrong is done to Scripture if we invalidate such inferences clearly deduced from it.
Justification is an Old Testament Truth
Although justification by faith is not outlined so fully and clearly in the Old as in the New Testament, it is still an Old Testament truth. The apostle confirms this doctrine from a verse in the Old Testament (Habakuk 2:4).
Justification is by Faith Alone
Faith is the only way by which sinners are brought from death to life and justification. Faith heartily embraces Jesus Christ for salvation as He is offered in the gospel. We are just and justified by our leaning on Him; for it is by faith that we are just.
Justification and Eternal Life Cannot be Separated
There is an inseparable connection between justification and eternal life. Thus, all those that are justified by faith in the blood of Christ, have fled to the city of refuge and sheltered themselves under the wings of Christ may be assured. Just as they are now spiritually alive so they will be carried through all difficulties and trials and at last inherit eternal life: for the just by faith shall live.
Justifying Faith is Living
Faith not only lays hold on Christ’s righteousness to be justified, it also draws strength from Christ as a root to live the life of grace and holiness. The same faith views God as reconciled in Christ, faithful in all His promises and mindful of the good of their souls in all sad circumstances. They have a life of comfort under the saddest circumstances that can befall them (Galatians 3:11; 2:20; Hebrews 10:38): the just shall live by faith.
Assurance is by Faith
Faith as God’s appointed means for accepting and embracing Christ and His righteousness justifies. By the same faith (not works), they get new confirmations of pardon; for the just (or he that is already justified) lives (in that justified condition) by faith.