Martin Luther’s Text (Romans 1:17)

Romans 1:17

For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

In the year 1920 an English preacher by the name of Frank W. Boreham published a book of sermons on great Bible texts, in each case linking his text to the spiritual history of a great Christian man or woman. He called his book Texts That Made History. There was David Livingstone’s text: Matthew 28:20 (“Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age”). There was John Wesley’s text: Zechariah 3:2 (“Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”). There were twenty-three sermons in this book, and Boreham published four more similar books in his lifetime.

Of all the texts that are associated with the lives of great Christians, none is so clearly one man’s text or so obviously a driving, molding force in that man’s life as Roman 1:17. And, of course, the man whose text it was is Martin Luther.

I propose that we study Romans 1:17 from the standpoint of Luther’s life. Already we have seen that Romans 1:16–17 are the theme verses of this important Bible book. We have studied them from two perspectives. The first study focused on the chief idea: that there is a righteousness from God, which God freely offers human beings and which alone is the basis of their justification before him. It is received by faith. The second study worked through these verses in detail, showing eight reasons why Paul could say (and all true believers today can continue to say) that they are not ashamed of God’s gospel. In this study we want to see the outworking of that gospel in the life of just one man, Martin Luther.

In the Convent at Erfurt

Martin Luther began his academic life by studying law, which was his father’s desire for him. But although he excelled in his studies and gave every promise of becoming successful in his profession, Luther was troubled in soul and greatly agitated at the thought that one day he would have to meet God and give an account before him. In his boyhood days he had looked at the frowning face of Jesus in the stained-glass window of the parish church at Mansfeld and had trembled. When friends died, as during his college days two of his closest friends did, Luther trembled more. One day he would die—he knew not when—and he knew that Jesus would judge him.

On August 17, 1505, Luther suddenly left the university and entered the monastery of the Augustinian hermits at Erfurt. He was twenty-one years old, and he entered the convent, as he later said, not to study theology but to save his soul.

In those days in the monastic orders there were ways by which the seeking soul was directed to find God, and Luther, with the determination and force that characterized his entire life, gave himself rigorously to the Augustinian plan. He fasted and prayed. He devoted himself to menial tasks. Above all he adhered to the sacrament of penance, confessing even the most trivial sins, for hours on end, until his superiors wearied of his exercise and ordered him to cease confession until he had committed some sin worth confessing. Luther’s piety gained him a reputation of being the most exemplary of monks. Later he wrote to the Duke of Saxony:

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, by means of my watchings, prayers, reading and other labors.

Still, Luther found no peace through these exercises.

The monkish wisdom of the day instructed him to satisfy God’s demand for righteousness by doing good works. “But what works?” thought Luther. “What works can come from a heart like mine? How can I stand before the holiness of my Judge with works polluted in their very source?”

In Luther’s agony of soul, God sent him a wise spiritual father by the name of John Staupitz, the vicar-general of the congregation. Staupitz tried to uncover Luther’s difficulties. “Why are you so sad, brother Martin?” Staupitz asked one day.

“I do not know what will become of me,” replied Luther with a deep sigh.

“More than a thousand times have I sworn to our holy God to live piously, and I have never kept my vows,” said Staupitz. “Now I swear no longer, for I know that I cannot keep my solemn promises. If God will not be merciful towards me for the love of Christ and grant me a happy departure when I must quit this world, I shall never with the aid of all my vows and all my good works stand before him. I must perish.”

The thought of divine justice terrified Luther, and he opened up his fears to the vicar-general.

Staupitz knew where he himself had found peace and pointed it out to the young man: “Why do you torment yourself with all these speculations and these high thoughts? … Look at the wounds of Jesus Christ, to the blood that he has shed for you; it is there that the grace of God will appear to you. Instead of torturing yourself on account of your sins, throw yourself into the Redeemer’s arms. Trust in him—in the righteousness of his life—in the atonement of his death. Do not shrink back. God is not angry with you; it is you who are angry with God. Listen to the Son of God.”

But how could Luther do that? Where could he hear the Son of God speak to him as Staupitz said he would? “In the Bible,” said the vicar-general. It was thus that Luther, who had only first seen a Bible in his college days shortly before entering the cloister, began to study Scripture.

He studied Romans, and as he pondered over the words of our text the truth began to dawn on him. The righteousness we need in order to stand before the holy God is not a righteousness we can attain. In fact, it is not human righteousness at all. It is divine righteousness, and it becomes ours as a result of God’s free giving. Our part is merely to receive it by faith and to live by faith in God’s promise. Guided by this new light, Luther began to compare Scripture with Scripture, and as he did he found that the passages of the Bible that formerly alarmed him now brought comfort.

In his sermon on Luther’s text, Boreham describes a famous painting that represents Luther at this stage of his pilgrimage. The setting is early morning in the convent library at Erfurt, and the artist shows Luther as a young monk in his early twenties, poring over a copy of the Bible from which a bit of broken chain is hanging. The dawn is stealing through the lattice, illuminating both the open Bible and the face of its eager reader. On the page the young monk is so carefully studying are the words: “The just shall live by faith.”

The Road to Rome

In 1510, five years after he had become a monk and two years after he had begun to teach the Bible at the new University of Wittenberg, Luther was sent by his order to Rome.

On the way, while being entertained at the Benedictine monastery at Bologna, Luther fell dangerously ill and relapsed into the gloomy dejection over spiritual matters that was so natural to him. “To die thus, far from Germany, in a foreign land—what a sad fate!” D’Aubigné wrote, “… the distress of mind that he had felt at Erfurt returned with renewed force. The sense of his sinfulness troubled him; the prospect of God’s judgment filled him once more with dread. But at the very moment that these terrors had reached their highest pitch, the words of St. Paul, ‘The just shall live by faith,’ recurred forcibly to his memory and enlightened his soul like a ray from heaven.” Luther was learning to live by faith, which was what the text was teaching. Comforted and eventually restored to health, he resumed his journey across the hot Italian plains to Rome.

“Thou Holy Rome, Thrice Holy”

Luther had been sent to Rome on church business. But, in spite of this, he approached the ancient imperial city as a pilgrim. When he first caught sight of Rome on his way south he raised his hands in ecstasy, exclaiming, “I greet thee, thou holy Rome, thrice holy from the blood of the martyrs.” When he arrived, he began his rounds of the relics, shrines, and churches. He listened to the superstitious tales that were told him. At one chapel, when told of the benefits of saying Mass there, he thought that he could almost wish his parents were dead, because he could then have assured them against purgatory by his actions.

Yet Rome was not the center of light and piety Luther had imagined. At this time, the Mass—at which the body and blood of Jesus were thought to be offered up by the priests as a sacrifice for sins—was the center of Luther’s devotion, and he often said Mass at Rome. Luther performed the ceremony with the solemnity and dignity it seemed to him to require. But not the Roman priests! They laughed at the simplicity of the rustic German monk. Once, while he was repeating one Mass, the priests at an adjoining altar rushed through seven of them, calling out in Latin to Luther, “Quick, quick, send our Lady back her Son.” On another occasion, Luther had only reached the gospel portion of the Mass when the priest administering beside him terminated his. “Passa, passa,” he cried to Luther. “Have done with it at once.”

Luther was invited to meetings of distinguished ecclesiastics. There the priests often ridiculed and mocked Christian rites. Laughing and with apparent pride, they told how, when they were standing at the altar repeating the words that were to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord, they said instead (no doubt with solemn intonation), “Panis es, et panis manebis; vinum es, et vinum manebis” (“Bread you are, and bread you will remain; wine you are, and wine you will remain”). Luther could hardly believe his ears. Later he wrote, “No one can imagine what sins and infamous actions are committed in Rome; they must be seen and heard to be believed. Thus, they are in the habit of saying, ‘If there is a Hell, Rome is built over it; it is an abyss whence issues every kind of sin.’ ” He concluded, “The nearer we approach Rome, the greater number of bad Christians we meet with.”

Then there occurred the famous incident told many years later by Luther’s son, Dr. Paul Luther, and preserved in a manuscript in the library of Rudolfstadt. In the Church of St. John Lateran in Rome there is a set of medieval stone stairs said to have originally been the stairs leading up to Pilate’s house in Jerusalem, once trod upon by the Lord. For this reason they were called the Scala Sancta or “Holy Stairs.” It was the custom for pilgrims, like Luther, to ascend these steps on their knees, praying as they went. At certain intervals there were stains said to have been caused by the bleeding wounds of Christ. The worshiper would bend over and kiss these steps, praying a long time before ascending painfully to the next ones. Remission of years of punishment in purgatory was promised to all who would perform this pious exercise.

Luther began as the others had. But, as he ascended the staircase, the words of our text came forcefully to his mind: “The just shall live by faith.”

They seemed to echo over and over again, growing louder with each repetition: “The just shall live by faith,” “The just shall live by faith.” But Luther was not living by faith. He was living by fear. The old superstitious doctrines and the new biblical theology wrestled within him.

“By fear,” said Luther.

By faith!” said St. Paul.

“By fear,” said the scholastic fathers of medieval Catholicism.

By faith!” said the Scriptures.

“By fear,” said those who agonized beside him on the staircase.

By faith!” said God the Father.

At last Luther rose in amazement from the steps up which he had been dragging himself and shuddered at his superstition and folly. Now he realized that God had saved him by the righteousness of Christ, received by faith; he was to exercise that faith, receive that righteousness, and live by trusting God. He had not been doing it. Slowly he turned on Pilate’s staircase and returned to the bottom. He went back to Wittenberg, and in time, as Paul Luther said, “He took ‘The just shall live by faith’ as the foundation of all his doctrine.”

This was the real beginning of the Reformation, for the reformation of Luther necessarily preceded the reformation of Christendom. The later began on October 31, 1517, with the posting of his “Ninety-Five Theses” on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg.

J. H. Merle D’Aubigné, the great nineteenth-century historian of the Reformation, wrote:

This powerful text had a mysterious influence on the life of Luther. It was a creative sentence both for the reformer and for the Reformation. It was in these words God then said, “Let there be light! and there was light.” … When Luther rose from his knees on Pilate’s Staircase, in agitation and amazement at those words which Paul had addressed fifteen centuries before to the inhabitants of that same metropolis—Truth, till then a melancholy captive, fettered in the church, rose also to fall no more.

“Here I Stand”

When Luther rose from his knees on the steps of the Scala Sancta, the high point of his long career—his refusal to recant his faith before the imperial diet at Worms—was still eleven years away. But Luther was already prepared for this challenge. He would be ready to defend his position, because he now saw that a man or woman is not enabled to stand before God by his or her own accomplishments, however devout, still less by the pronouncements of ecclesiastical councils or popes, however vigorously enforced, but by the grace and power of Almighty God alone. And if a person can stand before God by grace, he can certainly stand before men.

Luther was summoned before the diet by the newly elected emperor, Charles V. But it was really the Roman See that had summoned him, and the champions of Rome were present to secure his condemnation. Upon his arrival at the town hall assembly room at four o’clock on the afternoon of April 17, Luther was asked to acknowledge as his writings a large stack of books that had been gathered and placed in the room. He was also asked whether he would retract their contents, which called for reform of abuses rampant in the church, asserted the right of the individual Christian to be emancipated from priestly bondage, and reaffirmed the fundamental doctrine of justification by faith.

Luther asked that the titles might be read out. Then he responded, “Most gracious emperor! Gracious princes and lords! His imperial majesty has asked me two questions. As to the first, I acknowledge as mine the books that have just been named. I cannot deny them. As to the second, seeing that it is a question which concerns faith and the salvation of souls, and in which the Word of God, the greatest and most precious treasure either in heaven or earth, is interested, I should act imprudently were I to reply without reflection.… For this reason I entreat your imperial majesty, with all humility, to allow me time, that I may answer without offending against the Word of God.”

It was a proper request in so grave a matter. Besides, by taking reasonable time to reflect on his answer, Luther would give stronger proof of the firmness of his stand when he made it. There was debate concerning this request, but at last Luther was given twenty-four hours to consider his response.

When he appeared the next day, the demand was the same: “Will you defend your books as a whole, or are you ready to disavow some of them?”

Luther replied by making distinctions between his writings, trying to draw the council into debate and thus have an opportunity to present the true gospel. Some of his books treated the Christian faith in language acceptable to all men. To repudiate these would be a denial of Jesus Christ. A second category attacked the errors and tyranny of the papacy. To deny these would lend additional strength to this tyranny, and thus be a sin against the German people. A third class of books concerned individuals and their teachings. Here Luther confessed that he may have spoken harshly or unwisely. But if so, it was necessary for his adversaries to bear witness of the evil done. Luther said he would be the first to throw his books into the fire if it could be proved that he had erred in these or any others of his writings.

“But you have not answered the question put to you,” said the moderator. “Will you, or will you not, retract?”

Upon this, Luther replied without hesitation: “Since your most serene majesty and your high mightiness require from me a clear, simple, and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear to me as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning— unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted—and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience.”

Then looking around at those who held his life in their hands, Luther said: “Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.” Thus did the German monk utter the words that still thrill our hearts after four and a half centuries.

The Master of All Doctrines

Later in life Luther was to write many things about the doctrine of justification by faith, which he had learned from Romans 1:17. He would call it “the chief article from which all our other doctrines have flowed.” He called it “the master and prince, the lord, the ruler and the judge over all kinds of doctrines.” He said, “If the article of justification is lost, all Christian doctrine is lost at the same time.” He argued, “It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God, and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour.”

What a heritage! What a rebuke against the weak state of present-day Christianity!

If justification by faith is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, our contemporary declines are no doubt due to our failure to understand, appreciate, and live by this doctrine. The church of our day does not stand tall before the world. It bows to it. Christians are not fearless before ridicule. We flee from it. Is the reason not that we have never truly learned to stand before God in his righteousness? Is it not because we have never learned the truth: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31b)? The church will never be strong unless it is united around faithful men and women who firmly hold this conviction.[1]


[1] Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 119–126). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

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