Episcopal Diocese of Albany, NY
Business Office: 68 South Swan Street - Albany, NY 12210 - (518) 465-4737
Christ the King Spiritual Life Center: 575 Burton Road - Greenwich, NY 12834 - (518) 692-9550

Justified! Reading Romans with Wesley and Luther

By The Rev. Canon Dr. Christopher Brown

"Justification" may not be a commonly used term among most ordinary Christians. It sounds vaguely familiar - it has a Biblical ring. Yet I suspect that most Christians are uncertain about what it means, or why it matters. It is worth taking time to acquaint oneself with the Biblical notion of Justification, since no other term deals more directly with what Christ has done for us.

John Wesley: A Heart Strangely Warmed

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was a priest in the Church of England. Born in 1703, he attended Oxford University where he organized a "Holy Club" in which he and his companions observed a disciplined life of prayer and good works. He was ordained to the priesthood and sailed to America to serve as a missionary among Native Americans in Georgia. For all his dedication, John Wesley's religiosity was not fruitful. His mission in America was a failure and he returned to England in 1737 with indictments pending against him for alleged violation of church law. His rigorous discipline had failed to win the hearts of those to whom he ministered.

A year later, in 1738, everything changed. He came to know the grace of God in a way that had eluded him in the past, and his preaching became powerfully persuasive. He described what happened in this way:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken my sins away, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Much is made of Wesley's evocative description of his heart as "strangely warmed," since it set the tone for the warm-hearted devotion typical of the Methodist revival. But what was it that provoked this warming of the heart? In a word, it was Grace.

Grace is the free and unearned favor of God. But grace is not simply an abstract and general principle regarding the well-meaning purposes of a kindly deity. In the New Testament "grace" refers to the very specific work of Christ for our salvation.

Grace in Romans

Wesley felt his heart "strangely warmed" while listening to Martin Luther's exposition of the Epistle to the Romans. More than any other Biblical text, Romans is the definitive statement of the saving work of Christ. In Romans, Paul provides a step by step outline of the pattern of salvation.

In 1:16-17, Paul states his thesis in a nutshell: "the gospel...is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes...For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith." Paul then takes the next eight chapters to elaborate on what it means that "the righteousness of God is revealed."

He begins with an indictment: "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth" (1.18). Paul predictably directs this indictment against pagans and unbelievers. But then - surprising - he indicts religious people as well, those who know God's law but whose lives fall short. Paul concludes, "all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: 'None is righteous, no, not one'" (3:9-10).

There is a remarkable leveling here; in the society of men and women, some are clearly better, others are worse. But before the perfect standard of God's righteousness, all fall short. The thing they lack is "righteousness." (Remember, Paul has already said in chapter 1 that "the righteousness of God is revealed" in the Gospel.) What is this "righteousness of God?"

The Righteousness of God

The case of Martin Luther is helpful. For Luther, the "righteousness of God" presented a searing and painful problem. He said,

I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then it was...a single word in Chapter 1, "In it the righteousness of God is revealed," that stood in my way. For I hated that word "righteousness of God," which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand... [as that] with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner. Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners...

Luther thought that the "righteousness of God" was the standard of the Law by which we are judged and found unworthy. His response was understandable; he asked, "Why is this Good News?" Such a God, he admitted with remarkable candor, is hard to love.

Luther thought this because he had been taught it. But then he looked at the inspired text more closely. He noted the "context of the words," and in particular, Paul's reference to "faith." Luther had believed that a person could only become righteous by doing righteous deeds. But now he realized that Paul is saying that we become righteous by faith.

"How could faith make a person righteous?" Luther wondered. After all, faith is not something we do. It is something passive, a quality of receptiveness by which we trust in something outside of ourselves. Suddenly he knew that this was precisely the point!

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, "In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live.'" There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, "He who through faith is righteous shall live." Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.

The Righteousness of God is not the standard by which we are judged; it is a gift that renders us acceptable to God, despite of all evidence to the contrary. It is grace, unearned and freely given.

From the Problem to the Solution: the Cross

In Romans, chapter 3, Paul moves from the problem to the solution in a passage which Luther called "the very center and kernel of the Epistle and of all Scripture."

...now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it - the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of Atonement by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:21-24)

The English language obscures what is going on here. In Greek, the English terms "justice" or "righteousness"are same word. Hence, "justify" means both to "make just" and to "make righteous." In Romans, the "revealing" (1:17) or "manifestation" (3:21) of the Righteousness of God, both point directly to God's saving act of justification.

Justification is the language of the law court; it is the verdict of the divine Judge, who justifies by declaring a person to be just or innocent. What is extraordinary is that it is those who have "sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God" whom God has declared to be just! The verdict of the divine judge is clearly not something that is earned; it is a gift - it is grace.

But God's choice to justify the guilty and accept the unacceptable is costly. For a just God, sin is a problem. God addressed that problem by taking it upon himself. Our justification has an objective basis in what took place on the cross. The gift of grace flows directly from "the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood." (Romans 3:24-5)

The basis of our justification is what the Early Church Fathers and the Reformers called "the Wonderful Exchange," expressed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:19, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Christ takes on our sinfulness; we receive his righteousness. We "trade places" with Jesus and become Children of God.

All this, says Paul, is "received by faith" (Romans 3:25). Faith, according to Luther, is the "open hand" by which we receive the gift of grace. Strictly speaking, we are not really "justified by faith," we are justified by the death and resurrection of Christ; but faith is how we receive the benefits of this saving act.

Such a saving faith became real for John Wesley that evening at Aldersgate when his heart was "strangely warmed" and he "did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for [his] salvation." Up to that point, Wesley relied on something else - his religiosity, his self-discipline, the forms and rituals of 18th century high church Anglicanism. After this experience, he did not abandon these things; the difference was that this life-long pattern of self-discipline had become fruitful now that he had embraced his justification by faith.

Is it Anglican? (Of course)

Finally, Wesley's deepened conversion was not the insertion of a foreign pietism into the "decency and order" of classic Anglicanism. His story, like that of Luther before him, puts flesh and bones on the foundational Anglican conviction found in Article XI of The 39 Articles of Religion, entitled "Of the Justification of Man."

We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort.

Rev. Dr. Brown is rector of Trinity, Potsdam, and a regular contributor to The Albany Episcopalian

Back to Index

Disciples Making Disciples

Beaver Cross | Christ the King Spiritual Life Center | Donate to the SLC
News | Find A Church | About The Church | Directories | Event Calendar
Find A Cleric | Documents | Our Ministries | Site Map

© 2000 - 2009 Episcopal Diocese of Albany New York, All Rights Reserved
Optimized for Mozilla Firefox 3