Studying the history of the church and of Christian theology can enrich your understanding of Scripture. This has been one of the most exciting aspects, for me, of studying church history and historical theology. Because I am only a finite human, rooted in a particular place and culture and in particular life-circumstances, my perspective on the meaning and implications of God’s word can often be quite limited. But studying historical theology has opened my eyes to various threads and intricacies that are woven into the fabric of Scripture. Take, for example, the lessons that I have learned from Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther on 1 Cor 1:30: “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption.”
The great theologian and churchman, Augustine of Hippo, is known especially for his classic work, The Confessions. However, throughout his life, he wrote more than “one hundred treatises, countless letters and sermons, and more than five million words in all” (Matthew Levering, Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works, xi). Among his greatest works, he wrote a major treatise on the Trinity. In Books V-VII of this work, titled On the Trinity, Augustine frames his discussion by considering the Trinitarian implications of 1 Cor 1:24-30. In 1 Cor 1:24, the apostle Paul calls Christ Jesus the “power of God and the wisdom of God.” Augustine asks a question about Paul’s claim: If Christ, the Son of God, is the wisdom of God, does this mean that God the Father has no wisdom apart from God the Son? In short, Augustine answers, “No.” Wisdom is essential to who God is. So the Father is wise, the Son is wise, and the Holy Spirit is wise; the Son is “wisdom from wisdom,” just as He is “light from light” and “very God from very God” (as the Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 A.D. declared). But, Augustine asks, why does Scripture so often describe Christ, the Son of God, as the “wisdom of God?” He answers that Christ is particularly called the wisdom of God because he took the form of a servant and was made in human likeness (Phil. 2:6-7) so that we might also be conformed to His image and become wise in Him. In this context, he cites 1 Cor 1:30, stating that “the Son was made for us by God wisdom and justice and sanctification” (On the Trinity, VII.2.4).
More than 1,000 years after Augustine lived, German Reformer Martin Luther interpreted 1 Cor 1:30 in a similar manner, although with less explicit concern for the Trinitarian implications of the passage and more concern for the word “righteousness.” Of course, the concept of God’s righteousness, as discussed in Rom 1:17, was central to his so-called “Reformation Discovery.” Arguably around the year 1514, Luther overcame his “hatred” of the phrase, “the righteousness of God,” after long pouring over the words of the apostle Paul in Rom 1:17. He had previously struggled with this phrase because he conceived of it as the righteous standard by which God judges sinful human beings. He wondered how such righteousness, which Paul says is revealed in the gospel, was good news to helpless sinners. If this is what Paul means by “the righteousness of God,” does the gospel not offer fear of judgment rather than hope for mercy? Decades later, Luther recounted how his understanding of God’s righteousness changed:
“At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words [of Rom 1:17], 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 the 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. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God” (Luther’s Works, vol. 34, pp. 336-337).
In 1519, Luther applied this insight explicitly to 1 Cor 1:30 in a sermon, titled “Two Kinds of Righteousness.” In this work, he promotes what he calls “alien righteousness,” defined as “the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith, as it is written in 1 Corinthians 1[:30]: ‘Whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.’” After further explanation, Luther writes, “Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours” (Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 134-40).
For this reason, we should cling to Christ by faith, understanding that it is only in Him that we have wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption. Apart from Him, we have nothing but our own blindness, sin and guilt. For this reason, along with the Psalmist we may say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have nothing good besides You” (Psalm 16:2).