For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
– Romans 3:28
In chapter one of Romans the Apostle Paul writes, “For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The just will live by faith’” (vs. 17). Prior to the Reformation while teaching the Bible at the University of Wittenberg, Martin Luther could not understand how the righteousness or justice of God could have anything to do with the gospel. In Luther’s thinking, the righteousness of God could only lead to judgment for sinners, not salvation. For sinners, the righteousness of God could only bring condemnation. So, as far as Luther was concerned, there could be no hope if both the law and the gospel revealed the righteousness of God.
However, Luther came to understand that the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel is not merely the moral quality of God’s justice. The righteousness revealed in the gospel is also a gift from God that sinners receive by faith alone. The Church of Rome taught that God’s righteousness was imparted by God to sinners so that He judged them based upon their acquisition of righteous deeds. But the great gospel discovery of the Reformation was that God imputes (credits) righteousness to sinners thereby declaring them righteous based upon the finished work of Christ. So then the righteousness by which sinners are justified is not a righteousness acquired but a righteousness declared for sinners who can never acquire enough righteous deeds to satisfy a holy God.
After years of unrelenting struggle with a guilty conscience Luther was finally free. He wrote:
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 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. Afterward I read Augustine’s “On the Spirit and the Letter,” in which I found what I had not dared hoped for. I discovered that he too interpreted “the justice of God” in a similar way, namely, as that with which God clothes us when he justifies us.