The Cause of Salvation

“In human teachings the righteousness of man is revealed and taught, that is, who is and becomes righteous before himself and before other people and how this takes place. Only in the Gospel is the righteousness of God revealed (that is, who is and becomes righteous before God and how this takes place) by faith alone, by which the Word of God is believed, as it is written in the last chapter of Mark (16:16): ‘He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.’

For the righteousness of God is the cause of salvation.  And here again, by the righteousness of God we must not understand the righteousness by which He is righteous in Himself but the righteousness by which we are made righteousness by God.  This happens through faith in the Gospel.” Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, in Luther’s Works, vol. 25, p. 151. [Emphasis added]

The 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation allows us to focus intently on Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the Gospel.  This event originated with Dr. Luther’s intense study of the righteousness of God (iustitia Dei) in relation to the salvation of sinners.  While lecturing on Romans in 1515/16, Luther began to understand the righteousness of God as the gift of God received by faith in Christ.

He contrasted this divine gift with righteousness achieved by human effort. Augustine of Hippo (d.430) provided Luther with this understanding in On the Spirit and the Letter.  Luther contrasted the divine gift received by faith with the late medieval theologians’ adoption of Aristotle’s emphasis on human achievement as the basis for forming a habit of righteousness:

“According to him [Aristotle], righteousness follows upon actions and originates in them.  But according to God, righteousness precedes works, and thus works are the result of righteousness.” Ibid., p. 152.

While the publication of the Ninety-Five Theses and the subsequent controversy made Luther famous, the debate over how God grants salvation shaped the theological developments in early sixteenth century.  In following posts I will examine how this took place 500 years ago.


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