It’s been 501 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg Germany on 31 October, 1517, instigating the Protestant Reformation. He never intended to start a new church, but he wanted to reform it. He had an acute sense of his sin and doubted that doing penance and a monk’s work could make him right before God.
He pondered Romans 1:17, which linked the justice (or righteousness) of God to the gospel.
Luther described his agony and his discovery this way: “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 righteousness of God who punishes sinner… Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which, through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith. Then I felt myself reborn… This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.”
Luther asked, “What does this mean, that there’s this righteousness by faith, and from faith to faith? What does it mean that the righteous shall live by faith?” And he began to understand that what Paul was speaking of was a righteousness that God in his grace was making available to those who would receive it passively, not those who would achieve it actively. It was received by faith.
Up until this time, Luther was reading the Latin translation of Romans 1:17. The Latin word for “justification” used at that time in church history was the term justificare, which means “to make righteous.” For Luther, the Augustinian monk, and the Latin Church Fathers, that means justification is what happens when God, through the sacraments of the church, make unrighteous people righteous.
But Luther was now reading the Greek text, where the term dikaiosune means “to declare” as righteous for those who believe in the gospel. That means one is not saved by his or her own righteousness but the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Luther exclaimed, “When I discovered that, I was born again of the Holy Ghost. And the doors of paradise swung open, and I walked through.” Praise be to God!