How did Luther understand Romans 1: 16?

I do not wish to argue but learn.

I will not respond but merely read or listen and learn.

How did Martin Luther understand the Gospel is the power of God to save?


Let’s look at the passage in context with Verse 17:

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. **17 **For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Luther didn’t care much for verse 17 because it talks about “the righteous” and, in his theology, being righteous was unimportant (especially anything having to do with following any laws).

He eventually was able to explain away the text to his satisfaction:

For a long time I went astray [in the monastery] and didn’t know what I was about. To be sure, I knew something, but I didn’t know what it was until I came to the text in Romans 1 :17], ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ That text helped me. There I saw what righteousness Paul was talking about. Earlier in the text I read ‘righteousness.’ I related the abstract ‘righteousness’] with the concrete ‘the righteous One’] and became sure of my cause. I learned to distinguish between the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of the gospel. I lacked nothing before this except that I made no distinction between the law and the gospel. I regarded both as the same thing and held that there was no difference between Christ and Moses except the times in which they lived and their degrees of perfection. But when I discovered the proper distinction—namely, that the law is one thing and the gospel is another—I made myself free.” [Luther’s Works, Volume 54, P442].

I have had a hard time trying to decipher Luther’s reasoning. I did read the book “Young Man Luther” by Erik Erikson to try to understand him better. He was obviously a person who didn’t mind challenging and overthrowing tradition. The problem is as always with revolutions, do they actually improve matters? Human institutions are imperfect but that is no reason to dismantle them if something better is not provided in their place.
The worry with downplaying righteousness is that some people will get the notion that they can still be bad and make no effort to improve themselves if they say they accept the Gospel. In other words, the worst Christian can still be better than the worst Moslem, Jew or Buddhist. Sorry, I think this is claptrap but have witnessed it in practice.


I will watch for more ideas.


no kidding.

The worry with downplaying righteousness is that some people will get the notion that they can still be bad and make no effort to improve themselves if they say they accept the Gospel.

It is the natural conclusion of Luther’s theology. As Luther wrote:

God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner. [Martin Luther, Letter to Melanchthon, emphasis mine]

And yet that is not the "natural conclusion that Lutherans drew and draw. Interestingly, it isn’t even the conclusion Luther himself draws.

There is no justification without sanctification, no forgiveness without renewal of life, no real faith from which the fruits of new obedience do not grow. - Luther

And the confessions:

Article VI: Of New Obedience.

1] Also they teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will, but that we should not rely on those works to merit justification 2] before God. For remission of sins and justification is apprehended by faith, as also the voice of Christ attests: When ye shall have done all these things, say: We are unprofitable servants. Luke 17:10. The same is also taught by 3] the Fathers. For Ambrose says: It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving remission of sins, without works, by faith alone.

There is never a doubt that we must grow in grace. It is a misunderstanding to think that Luther for a moment thought that sinning was OK. Quoting a letter to a fellow theologian, where repentance and confession would be understood, assumed, even if not spoken, as if it were a doctrinal statement is a misapplication of the letter.

Again, the Augsburg Confession:

Article XII: Of Repentance.

1] Of Repentance they teach that for those who have fallen after Baptism there is remission of sins whenever they are converted 2] and that the Church ought to impart absolution to those thus returning to repentance. Now, repentance consists properly of these 3] two parts: One is contrition, that is, 4] terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin; the other is faith, which is born of 5] the Gospel, or of absolution, and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven, comforts 6] the conscience, and delivers it from terrors. Then good works are bound to follow, which are the fruits of repentance.

7] **They condemn the Anabaptists, who deny that those once justified can lose the Holy Ghost. **Also those who contend that some may attain to such 8] perfection in this life that they cannot sin.

9] The Novatians also are condemned, who would not absolve such as had fallen after Baptism, though they returned to repentance.

10] **They also are rejected who do not teach that remission of sins comes through faith but command us to merit grace through satisfactions of our own. **

Day and night I tried to meditate on the significance of these words: "the righteousness of God is revealed in it as it is written: The righteous shall live by faith.' Then, finally, God had mercy on me and I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that gift of God by which a righteous man lives, namely faith, and that this sentence is passive, indicating that the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written,The righteous shall live by faith.’ Now I felt as though I had been reborn altogether and had entered Paradise. In the same moment the face of the whole Scripture became apparent to me. My mind ran through the Scriptures, as far as I was able to recollect them, seeking analogies in other phrases, such as the work of God by which He makes us strong, the wisdom of God by which He makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. Just as intensely as I had before hated the expression `the righteousness of God’ I now lovingly praised this most pleasant word. This passage from Paul became for me the very gate to Paradise…Thus my soul was refreshed, for it is the righteousness of God through which we are justified and saved through Christ. These words became more pleasant to me. Through this word, the Holy Spirit enlightened me in the tower. -Luther


He didn’t think it was OK, but he didn’t think it really mattered in the end. To Luther, if you had faith, it really didn’t matter what you did. Of course it is preferable to live a life free of [mortal] sin, but it is in no way necessary or even possible.

Yeah, but I want to meet the guy that could commit adultery thousands of time each day. I want to know his secret :wink:

To Luther, if you had faith, it absolutely mattered.

His commentary on Galatians

Verse 6
For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by love.

Faith must of course be sincere. It must be a faith that performs good works through love. If faith lacks love it is not true faith. Thus the Apostle bars the way of hypocrites to the kingdom of Christ on all sides. He declares on the one hand, “In Christ Jesus circumcision availeth nothing,” i.e., works avail nothing, but faith alone, and that without any merit whatever, avails before God. On the other hand, the Apostle declares that without fruits faith serves no purpose. To think, “If faith justifies without works, let us work nothing,” is to despise the grace of God. Idle faith is not justifying faith. In this terse manner Paul presents the whole life of a Christian. Inwardly it consists in faith towards God, outwardly in love towards our fellow-men.


Are you now determining who is and isn’t saved?


Exactly. Its hyperbole, used to prove his point. That God’s love, mercy, and grace is far greater than the sins we commit. One who has faith, and like the servant with the talent, is afraid to act for fear of sinning, isn’t living his faith. That was the message of Luther to Melanchthon, who was far more reserved than Luther.
Luther knows that Melanchthon would not even consider such things, but by exaggerating the sins to inconceivable levels, Luther makes the point about how great God’s love, grace and mercy are.


First of all I want to correct a typo in my post that I noticed too late. It should have read, *“the worst Christians think themselves better than the best Moslems, Jews and Buddhists” * the result of a gross misconception that Christians have an insurance policy to get to heaven no matter what they do. Educated people might make excuses for Luther and try to do damage control, but sinning is NOT what Jesus preached and we are supposed to be like Him. We are supposed to struggle against sin, not give in to it. Others who don’t have a global understanding of the Bible would take the SOLUS literally. I have seen that over and over again with Christians who really do believe by virtue of their faith they are better than everyone else. That is already the sin of pride.

Luther added the word “alone” (allein) to Romans 3:28 controversially so that it read: “So now we hold, that man is justified without the help of the works of the law, alone through faith”. He had some colossal nerve to do that, one word like “not” or “alone” can change the entire meaning of a phrase. Even worse. it steers masses of people in the wrong direction, having already caused much havoc and bloodshed.

Jesus Himself preached about being caught unawares by death, the thief in the night that can snatch us in an instant. So this is not a game of carouse and sin but at the finish line we can say, Save me Lord and it will happen. So much of Luther’s theology has the ring of subjectivity to justify himself and his life on a personal level.

Yes, thank you, I know a reductio ad absurdum argument when I see one.

But, sometimes, it backfires. Such as when your basis is ACTUALLY absurd. This hyperbole is meant to distract from the fact that a Baptized Christian could compromise his salvation by just ONE act that Luther mentioned.

I was thinking after I wrote my post about how Jesus taught us to confront temptation. Not to jump from the mountain expecting that angels would protect him.
More and more, I believe this* solus* business put a monkey wrench into the understanding of Christianity. I know several, if not more, who have been permanently damaged by it.

Of course it could. He isn’t speaking of perseverance of saints nonsense here. It’s a letter, not a doctrinal statement. Lutherans use the Sacrament of holy Absolution all the time. Growth in grace, sanctification. These are part of Lutheran teaching.


What’s “perseverance of saints” nonsense?

OSAS essentially
See Calvin’s TULIP

I understood ‘perseverance of saints’ as something else, not “once saved, always saved”. The latter got me into a dispute with those insisting there is nothing you can do that will compromise that. Well, what about mortal sin? What about rejecting salvation? This is exactly what I told the guy insisting upon it.
It could be that those already baptized will be pursued to recant and come back. Didn’t Stalin study for the priesthood? But some don’t and become worse, fallen angels as it were. As for the TULIP, this is really out of my league and I don’t care to dispute it. Suffice to say that I accept Catholic teaching on salvation and that’s it.

Fair enough.

Lutherans use the Sacrament of holy Absolution all the time.

Unfortunately, Catholics don’t seem to use it enough. But the Church encourages frequent Confession, not because She thinks Catholics are generally in a state of mortal sin, but for the same reasons you cite - spiritual growth and awareness.

But the Church DOES teach that anyone who has forfeited his salvation through a single mortally-sinful act can ALSO restore it in Confession. If I understand Luther’s theology correctly, he doesn’t believe that a person who has faith can forfeit his salvation, no matter what he does. It’s not quite OSAS (because, strictly speaking, OSAS means you are saved even if you loose your faith), but it’s pretty close. And, if they thought about it, I think many OSAS proponents would be fine with Luther’s ideas.

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