Romans 1:17: The Righteousness of God

“One of the most famous verses in the book of Romans is 1:17. It has been made famous by Martin Luther and the way in which God used it to teach him the Gospel. Luther grew up looking at the frowning face of Jesus in a stain glass window in the parish of Mansfield. He was a sensitive soul, and very troubled over his salvation. The Lord used certain events to draw him closer to Himself. Two events in particular moved Luther to enter the monastic life. Close friends died during his college days while he was studying law; and a thunder storm where he very nearly lost his life to a bolt of lightning. He prayed to St Anne that if he were spared he would enter the monastery. He did this at the age of 21 leaving his studies to be a lawyer behind him. He entered the monastery of Augustinian hermits at Erfurt in order to save his soul, he writes of this time:
“I was indeed a pious monk and followed the rules of my order more strictly than I can express. If ever a monk could obtain heaven by his monkish works, I should certainly have been entitled to it. Of this all the friars who have known me can testify. If it had continued much longer, I should have carried my mortification even to death, my means of my watchings, prayers, reading and other labours.”

Of course none of this gave him any peace. He would spend up to six hours a day confessing his sin wearing out his confessors. Luther was terrified of the judgement of God. John Staupitz, the vicar-general of the monastery gave Luther the job of lecturing the Bible as a way to find peace. However, Luther’s study of the psalms and Romans only made matters worse. He kept coming across this phrase and idea of the righteousness of God. It was his enemy for he was so sinful. Then Luther had his ‘tower’ experience.
“I had greatly longed to understand Paul’s letter to the Romans, and nothing stood in the way but that one expression ‘the righteousness of God’, because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is righteous and acts righteously in punishing the unrighteous…Night and day I pondered until…I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby , through grace and sheer mercy, He justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole Scripture took on a new meaning, whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway into heaven.” “