The words “gift of righteousness” will bring about two completely polar opposite feelings:
- One of Dread
- One of Relief
Not that long ago the idea of the “gift of righteousness” was dreadful to me. Being gifted and able to live righteously was a righteous joke. The gospel got me in but I was taught that it’s my job to act like a Christian, grow spiritually, and work on providing evidence that I am saved through my better living and less sinning; resulting in the “victorious Christian life.”
Yet the harder I tried the harder I failed.
I believed that I needed to do more for God so he would be proud of me.
I believed that I needed to do more for God so he wouldn’t be disappointed in me.
I believed that I needed to do more for God so I would be sure that I was saved (because how could I know I was saved if I didn’t “act saved”).
The commands and demands for Christians, by Christians, haunted me.
“You bear the name of Christ! Live like it!” cut me to the core and found me way off the mark.
“Be perfect like your Father in heaven is perfect.” Instant despair, terror, inner turmoil within me courtesy of this demand to do something that I know that I cannot fulfill.
All was riding on me for my spiritual growth with the Holy Spirit only playing a small role as I read my Bible, fasted, prayed, discipled, worshipped, served others, won souls for Christ, etc.
I would deceive myself into thinking I was doing pretty good for a while; and then the Bible reading would stop, prayer would stop, forget about fasting, my Spiritual Growth Chart was in shambles and I felt like I was a disappointing Christian, or worse, that Christ was disappointed in me. Imagine my surprise when I first read that Martin Luther had gone through something similar (what he called “anfechtungen”).
October 31, 2017, marked 500 years since Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenburg. Yet what really was at the heart of the Reformation was not so much the smack down of indulgences but what happened to Luther in what is often referred to as his “Tower Experience”
Luther also felt dread at the mere mention of “righteousness.” So much so that he did many things in order to earn it (like becoming a monk). His conscience was haunted by the idea of never living up to the standard of righteousness from God. Luther was terrorized by the thought that his unrighteous deeds would plunge him into Hell.
He knew that no matter what he did, no matter how hard he tried, he would never be able to satisfy the demands of God’s justice or God’s righteousness in order to make his way to heaven. The ultimate barrier that stood between Luther and God was the righteousness of God. The Church taught Luther and everyone else in his day, that Christ may help you save yourself if you do more and try harder.
Sometime shortly after his 95 Theses were hammered, he came to an ancient understanding. In the monastery castle after obsessively pouring over Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews, Luther had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans.
“For 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. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV)
Luther’s Tower Experience is read best in his own words in their entirety. He describes how the righteousness of God plagued and haunted him and how he wrestled over what Paul meant by “the righteous shall live by faith.” While Luther was fumbling around in the dark for answers; out of the darkness, light!
“I meditated day and night on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: ‘The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: “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. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the gospel, but it is a passive justice, 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: 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’s Tower Experience)
The righteousness that we need, God gives to us as a gift of his grace. Faith in Christ is a gift from God.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10 ESV)
This is good news! This is relief, not burden. This is forgiveness, not guilt. We are counted, credited, and given the righteousness of Christ in exchange for our unrighteousness.
Christ does not help you save yourself. Christ saves you—all by himself.