The Key Verse of the Reformation

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)

The biblical phrase “the just shall live by faith” first occurs in the Old Testament (Habakkuk 2:4), where it describes the marked contrast between those who perpetrate injustice (in this passage the Babylonians) and the righteous who live by their faithfulness. It later becomes a key phrase in the New Testament.

The apostle Paul quoted it twice (Rom. 1:16–17 and Gal. 3:11) in a spiritual sense to show the crucial point of salvation through faith. The author of Hebrews quoted this verse when talking about the perseverance of believers under hardship (10:37–38). Notably, these verses help introduce what has commonly come to be called “the Faith Chapter” (ch. 11).

Fast forward a few hundred years, and one notes the powerful influence of these words during the Reformation.

Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, approached his monastic life with zeal. He practiced extreme forms of asceticism, including: fasting, long confessional prayers, scourging himself, and sleeping without a blanket in frigid conditions.

Yet, despite his actions, he confessed he did not love God, but rather saw Him as an angry tyrant who demanded justice. Luther keenly felt his own sinful shortcomings. After all, who could compete with a perfectly righteous and holy God?

Around 1512, Luther began lecturing at the University of Wittenberg on books of the Bible such as Psalms, Romans, and Galatians. As he studied Scripture, in particular Romans 1:17, Luther made a startling and life changing discovery:

“I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us by faith,” wrote Luther. “Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”

At that time, it was commonly taught in the church that justification meant God “makes” sinful people righteous. However, the New Testament’s use of the word is best defined “to declare as righteous.” This may seem like a subtle difference, but the implications are enormous.

As Luther realized, eternal salvation isn’t about our own righteousness but Christ’s. We do nothing to earn it. No amount of fasting or participating in church sacraments puts us in a better position before God. Our righteousness is solely based on Christ’s performance, not ours. God doesn’t “make” us righteous; He “declares” us righteous on account of Christ’s saving work on our behalf.

Our faulty attempts at keeping the law cannot save us: “A man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Gal. 2:16).

The idea from Romans that “the just shall live by faith” became a guiding principle of the Reformation and provides the framework by which we understand saving faith today: Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

(Note: This article originally appeared in EvanTell’s 2017 Fall issue of Toolbox. View their Toolbox archives!)