Summary: We need to revisit the doctrine of Justification bt Faith alone in light of the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation
The Just Shall Live By Faith
Romans 1:17 is arguably the most influential sentence that has ever been written, even more than the beloved John 3:16. This is because of how this verse transformed Martin Luther’s life and became a central theme to the Reformation of which we are on the threshold of its 500th anniversary. Although Dr. Trueman in his lecture to the Master’s Seminary students seems to think that Luther’s tower experience was somewhat imaginary event based upon the fact that Luther wrote about it late in life and had faulty memory, I think there is more to the event than Trueman admits. Even if some of the details are obscured by its being processed with other events in Luther’s life and stands as a summary of what became central to Luther’s life, it is certain that something happened in the tower to serve as a focus to this statement. At any rate, the idea of justification by faith alone became one of the central solas to the Evangelical and Reformed faith.
So in this commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it behooves us to look back and remember, realizing that our thoughts have built on this theme for 500 years. What does the Bible say about justification by faith, and especially, how does Paul understand it.
To do this we need to put this verse in its proper contexts. First of all, Paul is not making an original statement but is quoting Habakkuk 2:4 from the Scripture written hundreds of year before his time. The book of Habakkuk like the other prophets is a call to repentance on the part of Judah. He laments the coming judgment by the Babylonians upon her and calls upon the LORD for deliverance. How could God use such a wicked nation to punish people, even though they had sinned before the LORD who were more righteous. The LORD does not call back his judgment upon Judah but gives Habakkuk a promise. For those who humble themselves before the LORD and be faithful to Him during this time shall live and not die. On the surface this seems to differ somewhat from Paul’s use of the verse. We shall see later that it does not.
Paul is not the only New Testament writer who quotes this verse, nor is Romans the only time that Paul refers to justification by faith. This means that this theme of justification by faith was not a novelty of Paul but was an important theme in the entirety of the New Testament Church. James talks about the doctrine of justification by faith in the 2nd chapter of his epistle. Here he is railing against those that faith is a mere intellectual assent to the gospel. He emphasizes the importance of a living faith that proves itself in works. Abraham was justified because he obeyed the Lord who told him to sacrifice Isaac and would have carried through with it had not the LORD stopped him. This seems to contradict Paul on the surface even more than Habakkuk, and James might be addressing believers who may have claimed to be following Paul here.
Luther himself did not know what to make of James, at one point calling it an “epistle of straw.” He wanted to relegate it to deuterocanonical or a second-place status. To him some Scripture was more inspired than others. James did not measure up to Paul. This is indeed easy to understand of Luther who was fighting the Roman establishment with its emphasis on salvation by works. Faith was understood as being created by acts of charity which was their interpretation of Galatians. Luther was not sticking his neck on the block without being certain of his position. Clarity in the face of persecution was essential. One does not die for possibilities and to entertain dispute and discussion was for more settled times. Melanchthon might be able to discuss this but not Luther. If justification by faith alone is the central theme of the gospel, all else must be subservient to it.
Hebrews quotes the verse in Hebrews 10:38. Whether written by Paul or not, its context is that of believers facing persecution for their faith. Apparently, some of them had already lost their citizenship to the cities they had lived in and had their homes and possessions confiscated and were cast homeless. This is why Hebrews admonishes other Christians to receive these believers in their homes and mentions how Abraham entertained angels unawares. This application seems on the surface closer to Habakkuk. This was not time to lose one’s heart or faith. They would find life in their persistence.
So from this, we see what appears to be considerable diversity of interpretation. But if we affirm that Scripture is the perfect, inspired, and infallible word of God, then we have to struggle with these various interpretations. What we can see here is the importance of faith, works, love, faithful living, and justification. How do all these things relate?