Full Text for Romans- Volume 12 - Rome and Luther on Romans 1:16-17 (Video)

No. 12. >> If I may, I would like to ask an additional question about Romans 1 Verses 16 and 17. I have read several books about the life of Luther, including Heiko Oberman's "Luther: The Man Between God and the Devil." Without exception these books note that Luther's break through came with a new understanding of Romans 1:16 and 17. How were these two verses interpreted prior to Luther? What new insight did Luther discover? Does the Roman Catholic Church still interpret these verses as they did prior to Luther? I hope I'm not taking you off track, but here in New Jersey where my church is located, we deal with a great many Catholics and Lutherans who used to be at least nominally Catholic. >>PROFESSOR DAVID I. M. LEWIS: Thank you for that question, Eric. And no, you're not taking me off track. In fact, I think we should probably talk about those terms, the righteousness of God, in a little fuller way. Again, the three options for interpreting those are No. 1 that righteousness is God is speaking about who God is. That it signifies an attribute or quality that God possesses. Option No. 2 is that righteousness of God is a righteousness that comes from God and is given to someone else. And then Option No. 3 is the option that righteousness of God signifies the act of God declaring righteous or justifying those who believe in Jesus. And so just to make it clear, the Lutheran option would be Option No. 3. This is the understanding that Luther ended up with, that the righteousness of God was God declaring righteous those who believed in Jesus Christ. And so how did Luther understand righteousness of God before he became a Lutheran or in other words, before he understood that it was Option 3, that it's the act of God by which God declares the sinners who believe in Jesus to be right before him? Well, the medieval church would have gone with what amounts to Option 1. That the righteousness of God was first an attribute of God. In other words, God is righteous. And of course, in comparison to God, the human sinner would not be righteous. And of course Luther with this understanding was very much aware of his own sins and his own shortcomings in his relationship to God. And now the whole system of salvation as it was understood at the time of Luther before the Reformation began was sort of an interplay between humanity that was sinful and this righteous God who is holy, right and just in and of himself. Well, the death of Jesus, according to that tradition took away our guilt. Therefore, anybody who was baptized or who believed in Jesus would not go to hell. At the same time it was believed -- and this kind of worked out of the old penitential system of the ancient church. And then as that was justified and explained in the Middle Ages -- it was believed however that people still needed to make satisfaction for their sins. So it may seem like a strange paradox, but the believer in Jesus was no longer guilty, no longer worthy of hell. Nevertheless, he wasn't completely right with God, either. And he needed to make satisfaction for his sins. Now, here is a good question: What should happen if there is a believer in Jesus Christ who because of his faith in Jesus is not guilty and will not be sent to hell who nevertheless dies before he has made full satisfaction? In other words, could that believer go to heaven? Could he attain the righteousness of God? And the answer to that question was no. And here was the justification for the medieval doctrine of purgatory, which Martin Luther once believed. And even after he posted the 95 theses, Luther still believed in purgatory for a while. The place of purgatory was the person who believed in Jesus who had not made complete satisfaction, they would die, go to purgatory and then in purgatory they would continue to make satisfaction until they could attain the righteousness of God. And so purgatory in that word is the word purged. This is where people would be purged and perfected. Only when they were perfected could they attain heaven and be in the presence of God. What then works out on earth? Well, it would basically go like this: The person who is baptized would receive some grace from God. So you might even read Option 2 with the righteousness from God. Righteousness from God, once they are baptized, God would infuse grace into them. And that grace would help them live a good life, do some good works. And then as they advanced in good works, God would infuse more grace to help them move a little further and a little further along. You might think of it as steps from the sinful condition on earth to where God is in heaven, righteous. Basically Jesus has eliminated the threat of hell by dieing for our sins. But now the human has to step by step go up this ladder until they can ascend to the realm where God is. Now, where is God's grace in this? Well, God's grace is very real. What it is is a gift that God infuses into the sinful person to help them perform good works. To help them make satisfaction. To help them purge the sin out of their system so that eventually they can climb up and attain the level of God's righteousness. So notice that this isn't completely salvation by works alone. Rather, it's faith and works in God's infused grace working together until this Christian can actually become a saint. And of course this is how the doctrine of saints then worked into that system. It was believed that there were certain people who had in their earthly life actually attained that state of perfection, that righteousness of God. These are the people who would be called the saints, the truly holy ones. So in the medieval church, they would make a distinction between saint with a small S and saint with a big S. Well, it was believed about these saints that they were so good that they actually had a treasury of merits left over. And now their treasury of merits could actually be assigned to human beings who were still on earth and even human beings who were in purgatory to help them in that process of climbing the ladder, ascending the stage. Now, who could decide when the merits could be assigned to a human? Well, that was the power of the Pope and he would often do this by proclaiming an indulgence. So the indulgence controversy, what was going on, was that Pope Leo X proclaimed an indulgence in Germany. The idea was anybody who bought this indulgence, a treasury of merits of the saints would be assigned to a friend or relative of theirs who was in purgatory to help them in the process of climbing that ladder. Now, this was where Luther was before the Reformation. He had this understanding of the righteousness of God. That it was something that God possessed. And that he had to attain. Now, God may help him in this process of attaining. But Luther's problem was that he very clearly and fully and I would say realistically realize how short he fell of God's righteousness. And so for Luther the righteousness of God was not a good thing for him but something that threatened him and made him terribly afraid because of his own weaknesses and sins. So Eric, you asked the question: What new insight did Luther discover? Well, first I would say Luther discovered that he could not attain God's righteousness on his own. That's a very important truth that Luther became aware of. And then that led him into the second truth -- important truth, which was he found out that the righteousness of God was not speaking about who God is in Romans 1:16 and 17. Instead, the righteousness of God was speaking about what God does. Not who God is. But what God does to those who believe in Jesus. It's an exegetical discovery. Luther discovered Option 3 that underlying the word dikaisoyne is the verb dikaios. In other words, behind righteous is the verb to Claire righteous. And Luther found out that what that means in the book of Romans is not that God is righteous and we need to attain from his righteousness maybe from a little help from him as he infuses grace into us and helps us more and more live a better life. In fact what Luther found what those words mean is that right now while we are here on earth before we have done any Christian good works, God declares righteous those who have faith in Jesus Christ. That was the important exegetical discovery that Luther found out that behind the word righteousness was the act of justification. That on the basis of Jesus, his life, his death and his resurrection, those who believe in Jesus are declared righteous by God. And now this is an act of God. God says it is so and so it is so. Because God says it is so. This is now who God is for Luther. He is the God who calls things that are not as though they were. Now, what does that mean? That means that there are sinners, wretched sinners. Nevertheless, for the sake of what Jesus has done for them, when they believe in Jesus, God declares them righteous. And when God makes that declaration, it is so on the basis of God's spoken word. Nothing else needs to be done on the part of that sinful man. It is done to him by God saying that it is so. And of course this was the discovery that then led Luther to freedom and to joy and to praise where he could now rejoice in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And not fear the righteousness of God. Because he sees in the righteousness of God actually that God was acting for him, Martin Luther, to set Martin Luther free from his fear of condemnation and punishment. Now, Eric, you ask the important question: Does the Roman Catholic Church still interpret it this way? And we've got to be careful. Roman Catholicism has been affected by the Protestant Reformation. And I personally have several Roman Catholic friends who are very evangelical in their understanding of salvation. In other words, if I were to ask these friends: Do you believe that we are saved by faith alone? They would say yes. I even heard good Roman Catholic preaching. When I was a pastor, very often on Sunday afternoon, I used to like to come home, sit in my parsonage, turn on the TV and see what the radio preachers were saying as I was trying to rest my own mind. There was one certain evangelical preacher. I won't mention his name. A very popular man. I would often watch his show because I knew people in my congregation liked him. And although this is a very dynamic man, a very dynamic speaker, I noticed his preaching tended to be law, law, law. Rarely ever did he ever mention the name of Jesus Christ. Until after the show he would always give everybody an opportunity to invite Jesus into their heart and make him Lord of their lives. But never in his preaching did he ever bring up the cross or the resurrection. So that evangelical preacher was actually very unevangelical. And then I would always watch the Roman Catholic station afterwards. And they would always have a mass. And the Catholic priest who preached that mass was very evangelical. Always pointing to Jesus and to the cross and to the resurrection and to what God has done to save sinners. So that in that context this Roman Catholic priest was a lot more evangelical than that evangelical preacher. Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church, even in its new Catechism, still teaches a doctrine similar to what was taught in the days of Luther. So when we do deal with our Roman Catholic neighbors and friends or with those who have joined our church who used to be Roman Catholics, we need to be aware of what is officially taught in that church. Now, it's true a lot of the abuses have been cleaned up. I don't think they are selling indulgences anymore or saying that going on a pilgrimage will merit good works or gets you out of purgatory early. Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church has not denied the doctrine of purgatory. It's still there in their canon. And the main thing, though, is that they still see that justification is not God declares it so and so it's so when God says it. But they still do teach that system by which, you know, you were baptized, God infuses grace. That infused grace helps you lead a better life. And each step along the way God infuses more grace until you attain that righteous state. The Lutheran response would be: No. We attain God's righteousness in this life when we are called to faith. When we are baptized. Because righteousness is an act of God by which he declares us righteous. Eric, my stepmother was raised a Roman Catholic and she converted to Lutheranism when she married my father back in 1971. And her own testimony was that in the Catholic Church, she had no understanding of her status before God. She was aware of her sins. And she was aware that she needed to perform good works to earn God's favor and to attain his righteousness. And she was aware of the fact that this was something she could not do. She was expecting to spend time in purgatory after she died. When she came a Lutheran, she was taught the Gospel. And she had some trouble letting go of her old Roman Catholic leanings and actually believing that justification was something that happens in this life. Well, the turning point for my mom was when she heard a sermon, not on Romans, but on one of the other books that Luther loved. On the Gospel of John. John Chapter 5 Verse 24 where it very clearly says that those who believe in Jesus will not be condemned but they have crossed over from death to life. Have crossed over means that when they believed in Jesus, their salvation was a done deal. Nothing more needed to be done. They believed in Jesus. They were in death. Now they have completely transferred over into life. Well, when John says that, that's another way of saying what Paul says in Romans. The righteousness of God is God declaring righteous on the basis of faith those who believe in Jesus Christ. And when God says it's so it's so. When God says it's so. And that was the great insight that Luther discovered in understanding the righteousness of God. And that is the insight that made the Reformation possible and set Luther's conscience free so he could more happily serve his God.