How the Doctrine of Imputed Righteousness Birthed the Reformation

ESV Romans 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”


In the gospel there is found a God-righteousness which is by faith from first to last. This is a righteousness that God gives as a result of His act of justifying. It is the doctrine of justification by faith.


This doctrine birthed the Protestant Reformation. Consider the words of Anthony Hoekema (Saved By Grace, p. 152) as he describes how Martin Luther came to grasp the righteousness of God in the gospel:


“Martin Luther had tried everything: sleeping on hard floors, going without food, even climbing a staircase in Rome on his hands and knees – but to no avail. His teachers at the monastery told him that he was doing enough to have peace of soul. But he had no peace. His sense of sin was too deep.

He had been studying the Psalms. They often mentioned “the righteousness of God.” But this term bothered him. He thought it meant God’s punitive righteousness, whereby he punishes sinners. And Luther knew he was a sinner. So when he saw the word righteousness in the Bible, he saw red.

One day he opened his Bible to the Book of Romans. There he read about the gospel of Christ which is the power of God for salvation (1:16). This was good news! But the next verse said, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed” – there was the bad word righteousness again! And Luther’s depression returned. It got worse when he went on to read about the wrath of God revealed from heaven against all the unrighteousness of men (v. 18).

So Luther turned again to verse 17. How could Paul have written such terrible words? Had he, Luther, perhaps misunderstood them? “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith” (KJV).

Suddenly the light dawned on him. The “righteousness of God” Paul here had in mind was not God’s punitive justice which leads him to punish sinners, but rather a righteousness which God gives to the needy sinner, and which that sinners accepts by faith. This was a spotless, perfect righteousness, earned by Christ, which God graciously bestows on all who believe. No longer did Luther need to seek the basis for peace of soul in himself, in his own good works. Now he could look away from himself to Christ, and live by faith instead of groveling in fear.

At that moment the Protestant Reformation was born. Bells began to ring in Luther’s soul. Peace and joy now flooded his being. Romans 1:17 now became for him the very “gate of Paradise” – the key which unlocked the Bible.”

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