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Martin Luther’s “Life” Verse

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Romans 1:17

The one thing we all need is something we cannot earn or buy. We all stand condemned before God apart from the righteousness that He alone gives only through faith in Christ. Thank God for the wonderful, free gift of His righteousness.


It was famously stated by one of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s characters, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Dostoevsky was a Russian author forbidden to be read by the citizens of that country when Joseph Stalin came into power. Of course, Joseph Stalin wanted nothing to do with God, and he effectively lived out the truth that without God, anything is permissible. Under the leadership of Stalin, millions of people died of starvation, as he imposed his communistic ideology.

I found it interesting that Stalin’s own daughter, Svetlana, whose biography I have read, talks about how she would sneak into her room books written by Dostoevsky. Even though his writings were forbidden, she found hope in reading his works. Some time after her father died, Svetlana defected to the United States, leaving behind her home country, which had been devastated by a man who had tried to wipe out any remembrance of God.

This is the strategy Satan employs today. He attempts to eliminate an awareness of God; he tries to erase belief in the credibility of the Word of God. He wants to hide from view any revelation of the reality of God.

Well, here in Romans chapter 1, Paul is describing the good news for mankind. And it is not to be hidden away; in fact, Paul says in verse 17 that in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed.” That Greek word translated “revealed” can also be translated, “to take off” or “to lift up.” 

The righteousness of God was once veiled as a mystery of His sovereign character. No one came into His presence without fear of death. When the tabernacle and, later, the temple were constructed according to God’s own design, a thick curtain separated everyone but the high priest from the Holy of Holies. No one else dared go behind the temple curtain and face, as it were, the glory of God’s presence.

But the ministry of Jesus Christ changed all of that. In a very real way, the death of Christ took away that veil.

In fact, as Jesus hung on the cross and said, “It is finished” (John 19:30) and then bowed His head and died, that thick veil, hanging some thirty feet high ripped apart from the top down to the bottom (Matthew 27:51). It was as if the invisible hand of God reached down and literally removed the veil from before His presence. Through Christ we now have access to the very presence of God.

As a pastor I have never ceased to be awed by the formal weddings I have officiated. The bridal march begins, and the bride walks down the aisle, her face partially hidden behind a veil. She has been dreaming of this moment for years. I remember when my oldest daughter was seven years old, and we were walking through the new church building one evening, looking at what the carpenters had completed that day. She just sort of sighed and then said, “Yep, Daddy, this is where I am going to get married.” She was only seven years old!

Well, on those occasions when I preside at weddings, I watch the bride walk down the aisle to where her future husband is standing. Then I direct that one familiar question to the father of the bride, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” I remember one father smiling and saying, “My credit card and I”—we all laughed. Then he said, “Her mother and I.”

That is the moment the father turns to his daughter, lifts the veil, and then gives her a kiss on the cheek before handing her off to the groom.

It is as if, at this moment, she already belongs to someone else. With that she turns, with an open face toward her beloved. She is now revealed to him—the veil has been lifted away.

Well, let me tell you, that is what Jesus Christ has done for us. He has lifted the veil, revealing to us the righteous character of our great and loving God.

God’s righteousness is very different from human righteousness. The righteousness of saved people is given to us; but God has never received righteousness. He has always been perfectly and entirely righteous.

Salvation is sort of like divine mathematics. When you place your faith in Christ, God subtracts all the sin from your account and adds His righteousness to your account.

Paul goes on to say in verse 17 that God’s righteousness is revealed “from faith for faith.” This is another way of saying, “The righteousness of God is revealed by faith and received through faith alone.” Then Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4: “The righteous shall live by faith.”

The apostle Paul once thought he did not need faith. He thought he had enough good works to be able to stand before God. He had his Jewish heritage, his pedigree, his stellar education, his respected position among the Pharisees, and his zeal for the honor of God; but when he encountered the gospel of Christ, he realized that all the accolades and accomplishments were worthless in gaining him a righteous standing—a right standing—before God.

This was the personal agony of Martin Luther, who would later launch what we now call the Protestant Reformation. As a young Augustinian monk in the early 1500s, he struggled to keep the ceremony and the traditions of the church and somehow earn the mercy of God. His fear of standing before God was so deep, he would spend hours confessing his sins to the priests. But it gave him absolutely no peace of heart or mind. He spent hours praying, going through all the Roman Catholic rituals—he would say the full mass several times a day. But still, he knew he was lost as a sinner before God.

Later, at the University of Wittenberg, Luther began teaching through the book of Romans. It was this verse, Romans 1:17, that caused in him great frustration and even anger toward God.

Let me read you what Martin Luther wrote more than 500 years ago about his despair:

Although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would [satisfy God]. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him. Yet I . . . had a great yearning to know what [Paul] meant [in Romans 1:17].

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 . . . God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning . . . This passage of Paul became to me the gate to heaven.[1]

We are saved, not by works of righteousness, but by faith alone.

Martin Luther learned that God must give us something we do not possess and can never create or generate by ourselves. Righteousness—a right standing with God—is God’s gift to us through Christ, who took away the veil and gave us access to God and a place in the family of God.

Can you say today these words the apostle Paul wrote nearly 2000 years ago?

I am not ashamed of the gospel … for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

[1] Quoted in R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Baker Books, 1995), 70.

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