One of my favorite stories about Martin Luther is that of his “Tower Experience”. He studied the Scriptures diligently, seeking to understand them, even as he found he grew to hate the God about whom they testified.
Romans 1:17 was the verse that troubled him so. “For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.”
Luther’s hatred of God
“Previously,” wrote Steven Lawson, “Luther had understood the righteousness of God mentioned in this verse to mean His active, avenging justice that punishes sinners. He admitted that he hated the righteousness of God, according to this understanding.”1 Luther himself wrote that,
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.
Luther’s changed heart
But after much turmoil, of searching the Scriptures and pursuing his salvation through his own means, in an instant, Luther was overcome. He began to see the words of Romans 1:17 clearly for the first time. And the gospel began to burn brightly in his heart:
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words… 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.
What we should expect as we read and study
This is what we should expect to see happen in our own lives as we diligently study the Scriptures. Not that we should always have an ecstatic, born-again experience, of course. But we should always be changed by what we read. “For the word of God is living and effective,” wrote the author of Hebrews, “and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow” (4:12).
If the Word is living and active, it’s going to change us. If it penetrates to the soul, we’re going to be different. That change might take an instant, or it might take decades. But regardless of how long it takes, we will be changed. You can always count on that.