No matter what he tried, he couldn’t do it. Whether it was fasting, praying, confessing, self-flagellating - nothing seemed to help. He just couldn’t attain the righteousness of God on his own. Instead of feeling closer to God, it seemed like he kept getting further away. Even worse, it almost felt like God had become his enemy.
As a monk in the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt, Martin Luther zealously sought the righteousness of God. “If ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I” (Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, 26). He would later realize that the righteousness of God is not something that man must strive to attain, but a gift that is to be received. God had already brought down to him what he was trying so hard to reach up and grasp.
When Luther finally came to the end of himself, he found Christ’s righteousness right there waiting for him. When he turned to his mentor Johann von Staupitz for counsel on the matter, he was told to cling to Christ and recite the verse from Psalm 119, “I am yours Lord, save me.”
When God made a promise to Abraham in Genesis 15 that he would have a son, Moses wrote that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” What did Abraham have? He didn’t seem to have much of anything. He was an old man married to a barren woman. He was a wandering Aramean from the pagan land of Ur. He didn’t have a house, a land, a church, or a Bible. All he had was God’s promise. It doesn’t seem like much, but as it turns out, it was more than enough. In fact, it was more than he would ever need.
Both the Old and New Testaments reveal to us that God saves his people by grace through faith in his promise. The Old Testament saints were saved as they looked forward in faith and believed in the promise of the coming Messiah. New Testament believers are saved by faith as we look back and believe in the Messiah who has come. God declares a person righteous in his sight by faith in his Son, or as Luther put it, a simple “trust of the heart.” (Large Catechism, First Comm.) We receive that faith by the power of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace, the word and the Sacraments (Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper).
The two most important things to God in the Old Testament, justice and righteousness, are fulfilled in the person and work of his son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world. By the passive righteousness of his sacrificial death on the cross for us, we are justified, forgiven, and set free. And by the active righteousness of his holy life in our place, we are given his purity and holiness as a royal robe of righteousness to stand blameless before God the Father in heaven.
Is it any wonder that when Luther discovered this stunning truth as he studied the book of Romans in the cloister tower, that he felt as if the gates of heaven had finally been opened to him?
We now stand holy and blameless before our Heavenly Father as his own dear children, and we are set free to serve our neighbor in love.
I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The righteous person lives by faith.’” I began to understand that in this verse the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the righteousness of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive righteousness, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: ‘The righteous person lives by faith.’ All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into the gates of paradise itself. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had similar meanings; 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, ‘the righteousness 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’s Works Volume 34, 337).
The gates of paradise are opened up to us today as well. By our baptism and belief in Jesus, through his dying on the cross and rising from the grave, we are now offered free forgiveness and full salvation by our gracious God. We not only experience God’s tender mercy by not getting what we truly deserve (death and hell), we are also the recipients of his amazing grace by getting the riches that we don’t deserve (eternal life, heaven).
Our debt of sin and guilt is fully paid for on behalf of Christ, and our account is actually credited with his perfect righteousness. His purity, piety, and perfection become our own. We now stand holy and blameless before our Heavenly Father as his own dear children, and we are set free to serve our neighbor in love. Luther writes in his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed, “that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith” (Rom 1:16-17).
“If the Son set you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).