Dr. J. Faber Justified by Faith - Dr. J. Faber

Taken from Clarion Vol. 45, No. 21, Oct. 18, 1996

Dr. Faber has pastored Reformed congregations in Deventer and Schiebroek-Hillegersberg-Centrum, the Netherlands from 1952-1969.
He served as Professor of Dogmatology and Principal at the Hamilton Theological College from 1969-1989.


In September 1992 a remarkable group of tourists arrived in Rome. Fortyfive persons had made the long hike of more than seventeen hundred kilometers from Southern Germany over the Alps to what is called the Eternal City.

They re-enacted the much more difficult journey that two Augustinian monks had undertaken, when they had set out from Nuremberg through the western part of Switzerland in the middle of November of the year 1510.

Martin Luther was one of those two monks who were sent to Rome as advocates for one of the parties in an internal strife between Augustinian monasteries.

The modern pilgrims of 1992 also were advocates. They went to Rome in order to seek rehabilitation for Luther. They wanted to ask Pope John Paul II to revoke Luther's excommunication. It became a disillusion. Cardinal Willebrands made it clear to them that their request met with great difficulties. Their hike over the Alps had been in vain.

The event reminded me of Luther's evaluation of his own journey: "Like a fool, I carried onions to Rome and brought back garlic.[1]

In Rome Luther crawled up the twentyeight steps of the so-called Scala Sancta, kissed each step piously and on all those twenty-eight steps prayed a Pater Noster for his grandfather Heine Luder. For it was said that one could "free a soul from purgatory by going up on one's knees."

But Luther had hardly reached the top when a doubt occurred to him: "Who knows whether it is true?[2]

Rome In Luther's DayIn Luther's development this was a negative experience; there was doubt. Luther struggled with his sins and longed to behold God's friendly countenance. But he could not find rest in the semi-pelagian system of the Middle Ages with its combination of God's grace and human works.

There was also an important positive experience in Luther's life. I think of the time, when he pondered the words of another visitor to Rome, the theme of Paul's letter to the Romans in Chapter 1:16 and 17. Let us for a moment meditate about those words of the apostle who was also eager to visit Rome, then the capital of the world, the powerhouse of the Roman empire.

Even in Rome Paul will not be ashamed of the gospel, the good tiding. It is the gospel of God ( v.l ). It is the gospel of His Son (v.3 and v.9) and you know that in his letter to the Galatians Paul had written: the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20).

This gospel of the Son of God is no dead letter or mere word; the Holy Spirit is Lord and Giver of life; therefore His gospel is dynamite; it is not a theory and it is not a system; it is the power of God for salvation. And in Paul's letters salvation stands over against wrath (1 Thess. 5:9), and over against death (2 Cor. 7:10), and destruction (Phil. 1:28). Salvation means God's grace; it means life, light, and freedom.

And why is the good tiding the power of God for salvation? Well, in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith (v. 17a). There you have the words that played such an important role in Luther's rediscovery of the gospel. For at first Luther did not understand Paul's words at all. Luther had in mind the distinction of God's law and God's gospel. For him this distinction even became a contrast. God's law speaks of God's righteousness and in His righteousness God punishes the sinner and Luther knew himself to be a miserable sinner. How is it possible then that Paul speaks of the righteousness of God as manifest in the gospel?

In 1545, a year before his death, Luther described his experience as follows:

"I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then it was not the cold blood about the heart, but a single word in Chapter 1, "In it the righteousness of God is revealed," that had 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 taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, 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, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, "As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with His righteousness and wrath!" Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.

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."[3]

Later in his Wartbury translation of the New Testament Luther renders the words about the righteousness of God as "the righteousness which avails before God."[4] And we may add: It is the righteousness which comes from God as His gift.

In the same letter to the Romans, Paul places God's righteousness over against man's self-righteousness. For he writes in Ch. 10:3 that the Jews were ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God. Seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. Thus God's righteousness is the righteousness that comes from God and it stands over against our own righteousness.

In the same vein Paul says also in his letter to the Philippians: I count everything for loss, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (3:8ff). Therefore, it is God's righteousness over against man's righteousness. In order to be saved man needs this righteousness that comes from God.

And to turn back to Luther's beloved letter to the Romans, we heard in 3:21: it is the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ. God put Jesus Christ forward as an expiation by His blood. The gospel is the good tiding concerning the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. For here is a wonderful exchange: Christ who knew no sin was made to be sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). In Christ our sin is exchanged against God's righteousness.

And in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed through faith and for faith. It is through faith, for faith is the only way to receive it. Faith is the instrument by which we embraced Christ and all His benefits. And it is for faith: everyone who believes, shall receive God's righteousness.

It is through faith: You receive it without cost; it is God's gift; also the obedience of faith about which Paul writes in Romans 1:5, is not our achievement but God's free gift. He who boasts, let him boast of the Lord. And is for faith: if you believe, you will surely receive it. He who believes will not be ashamed. And it is for everyone who has faith: no believer is excluded.

It is this catholic gospel, this universal good tiding that we as children of the Reformation may profess. May I simply remind you of our Heidelberg Catechism? What will I quote and where will I begin? Lord's Day 1 ? My faithful Saviour has fully satisfied for all my sins. With His precious blood He bought me, and He delivered me from all the power of the devil. Justified through faith in Jesus Christ.

Or will I quote Lord's Day 7? True faith is also a firm confidence which the Holy Spirit works in my heart, that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ's merits, justified through faith in Jesus Christ.

Or let me, in a direct connection with our topic, remind you of Lord's Day 23. How are you righteous before God? Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ.

You know of that threefold accusation of your conscience - at least I hope that you know of it-with-your heart - I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God and kept none of them, and I am still inclined to all evil.

But if you know this threefold accusation with your heart, you must also know of the threefold promise of the gospel. It speaks of the perfect satisfaction of Christ who cancelled the bond that stood against you. The gospel speaks further of the perfect righteousness of Christ, who kept all God's commandments; it was His food to do the will of His Father. And the gospel proclaims the perfect holiness of Christ. For while you are still inclined to all evil, God of mere grace, grants and imputes to you Christ's perfection also. In Christ you are righteous and holy for 100%; if only you accept such benefit with a believing heart. For you are in the right with God only by faith.

Our Catechism often uses the plural when it speaks about our Lord Jesus Christ and about the benefits He obtained for us. But the answers I quoted from Lord's Day 1, seven and twentythree are in the singular. The catechism teaches us to speak personally. For faith and experience are personal. Faith is first and experience follows. Christian experience is experience of faith.

Faith and experience are never individualistic. We live in a communion of saints. Nevertheless, faith and experience are always personal. God goes His own way with every child of His within the assembly of His people.

Your and my way is different from Luther's or Calvin's for that matter. But a commemoration of the Reformation within the church of God puts this question anew before you and me: What is your only comfort in life and death? How are you righteous before God? And may every one of us in the choir of believers sing along of God's faithfulness and His righteousness, of His free and sovereign grace in Jesus Christ. We are on the way to the really eternal city, the New Jerusalem.

Do not come to rest, brother or sister, before by the grace of God you can say very personally: Not only others but even I. Even I justified by faith in Jesus Christ.

Glory be to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


[1] Heinrich Boehmer, Martin Luther: Road to Reformation, tr. J.W. Doberstein and Th. G. Tappert (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1957), 80.

[2] Boehmer, o.c. 63

[3] John Dillenberger ed., Martin Luther: Selections from his writings (Garden City: Doubleday, 1961) 10 f ., repr. from Luther's Works, vol. 34, tr. L.W. Spitz (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 327-38. See for the original the Weimarer Ausgabe, vol. 54, 179 ff. Some place this "tower experience" early, e.g. in the year 1513 (H. Boehmer, o.c., 109). Others argue for a late dating of Luther's "reformation breakthrough," e.g. 1518. See J. Wicks, Luther's reform: Studies on conversion and the church (Mainz: Verlag Phillip von Zabern, 1992).

[4] F. Lau, Luther, tr. R.H. Fischer (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963) 66.