What do Saul of Tarsus, Martin Luther, and three former Roman Catholic priests all have in common? These devout religious leaders all came to discover God’s righteousness.
There is a huge chasm between God’s righteousness and man’s righteousness. So which of those two things makes a person a child of God and an heir of eternal life in Heaven? (Romans 8:17).
God’s righteousness is always perfect, whereas man’s righteousness is always imperfect. God’s righteousness can cover your sins and make you right with God. Man’s righteousness leaves a person separated from God forever.
Saul of Tarsus “was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of his own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers” (Galatians 1:14). After his conversion, Saul became the Apostle Paul who no longer relied upon his own righteousness to be right with God. Zeal for religious traditions is very different than zeal for the Gospel.
Prior to his conversion, Saul was “a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Philippians 3:5,6). He came to learn the massive difference between legalistic righteousness and God’s righteousness.
Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk who discovered the same thing 500 years ago. Luther was constantly striving to save his soul. He endured many self-inflicted punishments in his efforts to atone for his sins and be accepted by God. Luther felt he had to work his way to Heaven by his own righteousness.
Thankfully, God spoke to Luther through the Gospel, and particularly this passage: “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). In other words, the righteousness of God is applied to your soul when you trust Jesus as your Savior. The Apostle Paul wrote, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:22).
Joseph Tremblay was born in Quebec, Canada, in 1924. He was ordained a priest in Rome, Italy, and was sent to Bolivia, Chile, where he served for 13 years. He said, “My theology has taught me that salvation is by works and sacrifices. My theology gives me no assurance of salvation; the Bible offers me that assurance. I had been trying to save myself on my works. I was pushed to do good works to merit my salvation.”
While serving as a Catholic priest, Tremblay was relying upon human righteousness. But when he placed his faith in the Gospel promises found in Scripture, he discovered God’s righteousness. The righteousness of man cannot save a single soul. Even if you combined the good works of one million religious people, it would not provide enough righteousness to prevent one lost soul from going to Hell.
Bartholomew F. Brewer was ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood in Washington, D.C. He eventually served as a priest in San Diego, California, and entered the Navy as a Roman Catholic chaplain. He left the Catholic Church, got married, and discovered God’s righteousness through conversations with his wife and other Christians.
Brewer said, “I finally understood that I had been relying on my own righteousness and religious efforts and not upon the completed and sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The Roman Catholic religion had never taught me that our own righteousness is fleshly and not acceptable to God, nor that we need to trust in Christ’s righteousness alone … during all those years of monastic life I had relied on the sacraments of Rome to give me grace to save me.”
“The completed and sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ.” What a wonderful historical fact and beautiful spiritual absolute! When you place your faith in what Jesus completed on the cross, you are justified, redeemed, born again, saved and forgiven. When Martin Luther finally placed his faith in Christ alone, he said, “I felt that I had been born again and that the gates of Heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained a new meaning.”
The Gospel is the key that unlocks the Bible and ushers a person into the kingdom of God. The Law tells us what we must do. The Gospel tells us what Christ did on the cross to save us. “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
Alexander Carson was ordained in 1955 and was a priest in Alexandria, Louisiana. Carson said, “… the Holy Spirit led me to judge Roman Catholic theology by the standard of the Bible. Previously, I had always judged the Bible by Roman Catholic doctrine and theology.” In order to learn the truth about God’s righteousness, it was necessary for this priest to rely completely upon Scripture as the basis of true theology.
Do you rely completely upon Scripture, or is your religious organization more important to you than the Gospel? Whether your religious affiliation is Protestant, Catholic, or something else, the Gospel (John 3:16; 1 Cor. 15:1-8) stands head and shoulders above your particular religious organization.
Religious traditions do not cover a sinner with the righteousness of Christ. This covering for sin only takes place when a person places their faith in the sacrifice Christ made on the cross 2,000 years ago. It was a one-time sacrifice. Paul wrote, “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the Law” (Romans 3:28). “All who rely on observing the Law are under a curse” (Galatians 3:10). That is, those who rely upon their own righteousness in order to enter Heaven are under a curse and on the road to Hell.
The “righteousness from God” (Romans 3:21) is the only righteousness that can justify a sinner. Christians are saved on the front end of their relationship with Christ, before they have done even one good work. Christ’s righteousness is what produces good works in the life of a believer. God only accepts the good works of those who are already righteous in His eyes through faith in Jesus Christ.
Am I doing good works in a vain attempt to earn forgiveness and be saved, or am I doing good works because I have already been saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone? I hope you recognize the vast difference between man’s righteousness and God’s righteousness, and why only Christ’s righteousness can save your soul.
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
(Check out my CP op-ed, “A Proposal for Catholics and Protestants.”)
Dan Delzell is the pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Papillion, Nebraska.