In my Romans class today we spent some time looking at Paul’s writing on “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1. My professor read to us some of Martin Luther’s preface to the first volume of his complete works. As Luther came to understand that the righteousness of God was granted to him as a gift he was filled with joy and praise.
I had certainly wanted to understand Paul in his letter to the Romans. But what prevented me from doing so was not so much cold feet as that one phrase in the first chapter: “the righteousness of God is revealed in it.” (Romans 1:17). For I hated that phrase, “the righteousness of God,” which I had been taught to understand as the righteousness by which God is righteous, and punishes unrighteous sinners…
At last, as I meditated day and night on the relation of the words “the righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written, the righteous person shall live by faith,” I began to understand that “righteousness of God” as that by which the righteous person lives by the gift of God (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 person lives by faith.” This immediately made me feel as though I had been born again, as as though I had entered through open gates into paradise itself. From that moment, I saw the whole face of Scripture in a new light…And now, where I had once hated the phrase, “the righteousness of God,” I began to love and extol it as the sweetest of phrases, so that this passage in Paul became the very gate of paradise to me.
McGrath, Alister. Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 120.