The Power of the Gospel
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” [Romans 1:16-17, NRSV]
Martin Luther and the Augustinian Monastery where he lived, with its tower where he discovered the Gospel truth of righteousness by faith.
In his own words, Luther had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but he was exceedingly perturbed by that one word in chapter one: “The justice (or righteousness) of God” that is revealed in it.
He hated that word, “justice of God,” he said, which from his teachers he had understood as active justice, that is, that justice by which the just God punishes sinners and the unjust.
That understanding had created untold problems for him. As a “blameless monk” that he was, he nevertheless felt that before God he was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. He was desperately unsure that God was appeased by all that he did. In his words,
- I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.
Day and night, Luther meditated on those words until at last, his attention was drawn to their context where he was struck by the words: “The just person lives by faith.” He 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. That was decisive for him.
He began to understand that “the justice of God” is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, that is, that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.”
That did it for Luther:
- “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. Afterward I read Augustine’s “On the Spirit and the Letter,” in which I found what I had not dared hope for. I discovered that he too interpreted “the justice of God” in a similar way, namely, as that with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although Augustine had said it imperfectly and did not explain in detail how God imputes justice to us, still it pleased me that he taught the justice of God by which we are justified.”
Effect on Luther’s theology of grace and sin
Martin Luther adopted Paul’s definition in the Letter to the Romans, where God revealed Himself as the gracious God in Jesus Christ. Romans was for Luther the single most important book in the NT, the pure “Gospel”. By contrast, the Book of James was for him a book of “straw”. This, we must say with conviction, is contrary to the Word of God. The reason we call the Bible “Scripture” is because we, as adherents of the Christian faith, accept the Bible as being the Word of God which is authoritative for the believing community in terms both of faith and of our way of life. Thus we accept without reserve the authority of 2 Corinthians 3:16:
- 16 All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
In roundly dismissing the Book of James for its emphasis on good works, Luther we must say had fallen into the error first of arrogance, and secondly of selective argument. In the latter case, it is shocking to say the least, to see Luther dismissing one book of the New Testament when his whole scholarly argumentation was so heavily grounded in the priority and supremacy of the Word of God above all other considerations.
And all this, we must say, was in function of his doctrine of grace which was heavily critical of “works” and “indulgence”. We are saved by faith, not by our works, he insisted.
- Luther did not entertain any intermediary between God and humans, whether on the part of past popes and councils or sacraments. His whole doctrine of grace can be seen as a criticism of the importance given to “work” in the process of salvation. Thus we see him fighting indulgences so unreservedly. But he never said that works were not important. What he said was that works must be the result and not the cause of God’s grace.
Luther’s distinctive contribution was grace related to the Word of God as he relished in the power of the Gospel.
He stressed the effects of original sin: by sin, Adam’s nature was wounded and human mind and will became enslaved. Sinning became our second nature, so that humans sin in every act, even in good works. Concupiscence (strong desires, especially sexual desire) is invincible. He went so far as to say that nobody is free from concupiscence towards sin, and that included even one-year old infants.
All this is extremely pessimistic and negative anthropology indeed. But that is way too extreme and quite unnecessary. As we wrote in the case of Augustine in an earlier post, most people have grown up in diametrically opposite environments from Luther’s life experience. And so, as a faith-filled Catholic response, we would rather propose, and do so adamantly, from a diametrically different and a great deal more optimistic and positive angle, that is: We are all called to do good works, and in every good work there is the possibility of an encounter with God. Indeed, as Avery Dulles, SJ, comments on Luther in his typically clear insight:
- “Few of our contemporaries are so oppressed by the sense of guilt and depravity that they feel the imminent threat of eternal damnation.”
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, October 2020. All rights reserved.
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