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Luther's Tower Experience:

Martin Luther Discovers the True Meaning of Righteousness

An Excerpt From:

Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther's Latin Works (1545)

by Dr. Martin Luther, 1483-1546

Translated by Bro. Andrew Thornton, OSB

from the

"Vorrede zu Band I der Opera Latina der Wittenberger Ausgabe. 1545"

in vol. 4 of _Luthers Werke in Auswahl_, ed. Otto Clemen, 6th ed.,

(Berlin: de Gruyter. 1967). pp. 421-428.

Translator's Note: The material between square brackets is

explanatory in nature and is not part of Luther's preface. The

terms "just, justice, justify" in the following reading are

synonymous with the terms "righteous, righteousness, make

righteous." Both sets of English words are common translations of

the Latin "justus" and related words. A similar situation exists

with the word "faith"; it is synonymous with "belief." Both words

can be used to translate Latin "fides." Thus, "We are justified by

faith" translates the same original Latin sentence as does "We are

made righteous by belief."

 

Meanwhile in that same year, 1519, I had begun interpreting the

Psalms once again. I felt confident that I was now more

experienced, since I had dealt in university courses with St.

Paul's Letters to the Romans, to the Galatians, and the Letter to

the Hebrews. I had conceived a burning desire to understand what

Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had

stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one

word which is in chapter one: "The justice of God is revealed in

it." I hated that word, "justice of God," which, by the use and

custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand

philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they

call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he

punishes sinners and the unjust.

But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a

sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn't be sure

that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no,

rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I

did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got

angry at God. I said, "Isn't it enough that we miserable sinners,

lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by

every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God

heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel

threaten us with his justice and his wrath?" This was how I was

raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered

St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know

what he meant.

I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the

mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: "The justice of

God is revealed in it, as it is written: 'The just person lives by

faith.'" I began to understand that in this verse the justice of

God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that

is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the

justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive

justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by

faith, as it is written: "The just person lives by faith." All at

once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise

itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of

Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from

memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g.,

the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God,

by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he

makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the

glory of God.

I exalted this sweetest word of mine, "the justice of God," with

as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of

Paul was for me the very gate of paradise. Afterward I read

Augustine's "On the Spirit and the Letter," in which I found what

I had not dared hope for. I discovered that he too interpreted

"the justice of God" in a similar way, namely, as that with which

God clothes us when he justifies us. Although Augustine had said

it imperfectly and did not explain in detail how God imputes

justice to us, still it pleased me that he taught the justice of

God by which we are justified.