This excerpt was taken from the fourth chapter of Alister E. McGrath’s Luther’s Theology of the Cross.

Meanwhile in that year (1519), I had returned to interpreting the Psalter again, confident that I was better equipped after I had expounded in the schools the letters of Saint Paul to the Romans and to the Galatians, and the letter to the Hebrews. I had certainly been overcome with a great desire to understand Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans, but what had hindered me thus far was not any ‘coldness of blood’ so much as the one phrase in the first chapter: ‘The righteousness of God is revealed in it.’ For I had hated that phrase ‘The righteousness of God’ which according to the use and custom of all the doctors, I had been taught to understand philosophically, in the sense of the formal, or active righteousness (as they termed it), by which God is righteous, and punishes unrighteous sinners. Although I lived an irreproachable life as a monk, I felt that I was a sinner with an uneasy conscience before God; nor was I able to believe that I had pleased him with my satisfaction. I did not love – in fact, I hated – that righteous God who punished sinners, if not with silent blasphemy, then certainly with great murmuring. I was angry with God, saying ‘As if it were not enough that miserable sinners should be eternally damned through original sin, with all kinds of misfortunes laid upon them by the Old Testament law, and yet God adds sorrow upon sorrow through the gospel, and even brings His wrath and righteousness to bear through it!’ Thus I drove myself mad, with a desperate disturbed conscience, persistently pounding upon Paul in this passage, thirsting most ardently to know what he meant. At last, God being merciful, as I meditated day and night on the connection of the words, ‘the righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written: the righteous shall live by faith’, I began to understand that ‘righteousness of God’ as that by which the righteous lives by the gift of God, namely by faith, and this sentence, ‘the righteousness of God is revealed’, to refer to a passive righteousness, by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous lives by faith’. This immediately made me feel as though I had been born again, and as though I had been born again, and as though I had entered through open gates into paradise itself. From that moment, the whole face of scripture appeared to me in a different light. Afterwards, I ran through the scriptures, as from memory, and found the same analogy in other phrases such as ‘the work of God’ (that which God works within us), ‘the power 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’, and the ‘glory of God’.             And now, where I had once hated the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’, so much I began to love and extol it as the sweetest of words, so that this passage in Paul became the very gate of paradise for me. Afterwards, I read Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter, where I found that he too, beyond my expectation, interpreted ‘the righteousness of God’ in the same way – as that which God bestows upon us, when He justifies us. And although this is expressed somewhat imperfectly, and he does not explain everything about imputation clearly, it was nevertheless pleasing to find that he taught that the ‘righteousness of God’ is that, by which we are justified. 

Martin Luther, 1545 AD

A Little Too Honest?

Luther began his personal story of conversion true to form, with a mixture of unyielding honesty, plain speech, and evangelical gratitude that arrested his readers’ attention and endeared them to himself. The shape of his testimony is illustrative of his protestant theology. According to Luther, he began as an outwardly moral and religious blasphemer who silently hated God. His theological view of human depravity maps perfectly onto his own experience. In his state of unbelief, he could not rightly grasp the apostle Paul’s teaching of God’s righteousness. Luther needed spiritual eyes to see and understand the gospel of God correctly, and the Holy Spirit opened his blind eyes, and he immediately felt born again. From that point forward, he understood the meaning of God’s righteousness clearly, and the result was authentic worship. God saved Martin Luther, and the scriptures began to unfold for him because that is the miracle of regeneration and the indwelling Holy Spirit.