A second passage in Romans that uses the expression, “the righteousness of God,” is Romans 3:21–26. Like Romans 1:17, this passage plays a pivotal role in outlining the major theme of the epistle, and summarizes the argument of the apostle up to this point. In this passage, Paul returns to the theme of the “righteousness of God” and directly affirms that it is received “through faith in Jesus Christ” (v. 22).
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
In order to interpret what the apostle Paul means by the “righteousness of God” in this passage, it is critical to understand this language within the preceding context of the argument in Romans 1:183:20. The context is one of a sustained and withering indictment of all human beings, Jews and Gentiles alike, as sinners who lie under the wrath and judgment of God. Beginning with the well-known words of Romans 1:18 (“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteous of men”), the apostle careful adduces the grounds for this indictment and his conclusion in Romans 3:10 that “none is righteous; no, not one.”
In the case both of Gentiles who sinned “without the law” and of Jews who sinned “under the law” (2:12) there is no escape from the just judgment of God, before whom every mouth is stopped and the whole world is accountable (3:19). Whatever advantages the Jews may have enjoyed, including the privilege of receiving the law and the oracles of God (3:2), the conclusion of Paul’s argument is captured in the words, “there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:22–23).
The background, then, for Paul’s return to the revelation of the “righteousness of God” at this juncture in the book of Romans is thoroughly judicial: the whole human race, when presented before the One who will judge the world (cf. 3:6), stands condemned before God. The possibility of being justified before God on the basis of “works of the law” is utterly excluded.
When interpreted within this context, the language of the “righteousness of God” in this passage clearly refers to something more than God’s faithfulness to His covenant promise or His saving acts on behalf of His people. No doubt the themes of God’s faithfulness and saving action are included. But what especially characterizes the “righteousness of God” is His justifying action, that is, His restoration of believers to the status of acquitted and forgiven sinners.
This explains why the apostle, after having spoken of the revelation of the “righteousness of God,” goes on to speak of how sinners “are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness …” (3:24-25). The gospel reveals God’s saving power in the work of Christ through whom believers are justified or receive a right standing with God.
What is remarkable about this passage is the way the apostle describes the work of Christ, which reveals God’s righteousness. When God graciously justifies guilty sinners, He does so because of Christ’s work for them. Paul describes this work by using two rich biblical terms, “redemption” and “propitiation.” Though these terms can hardly be explained briefly, they certainly unpack something of the nature of God’s righteousness that is revealed in the gospel.
“Redemption” refers to Christ’s work in payment for sin, which purchases release from the bondage of sin for His people. Typically, redemption in the Scriptures emphasizes the related ideas of the “payment of a price” and the “securing of release” from captivity. In the context of Paul’s argument in Romans 1–3, it is not difficult to see that the redemption Christ effected includes a payment for the wages of sin and the obtaining of freedom from its consequence (cf. Romans 6:13).
Though there is a great deal of dispute regarding the meaning of the language of “propitiation,” the context again is decisive. In the context, the apostle has been describing at length the reality of the revelation of God’s wrath against guilty sinners. He also speaks in this passage of the way God in His patience formerly (under the circumstances that obtained prior to Christ’s coming) had “passed over” sins (3:25). This contextual evidence confirms that the work of Christ in “propitiation by His blood,” was nothing other than His endurance, as a substitute for His people, of the wrath of God against them on account of their sin.1 In this way, that is, in the way of Christ’s redemptive and propitiatory work, the gospel is a revelation of God’s righteousness in justifying His people.
A further feature of this passage is the clear way it speaks of the bestowal of the gift of justification to believers. God’s righteousness is not simply revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The righteousness of God is not exclusively the objective work of Christ for believers. God’s righteousness, according to the language of this passage, is also a gift that is subjectively received through faith.
It is not enough, when speaking of God’s righteousness, to speak of the work of Christ in redemption and propitiation. We must also speak of the way the benefit of this work, namely, a new status of righteousness before God, becomes the possession of believers.
More clearly than in Romans 1:17, this passage speaks of a righteousness that justifies because it is granted to believers by God’s grace as a gift. The somewhat redundant expression, “by His grace as a gift,” underscores two features of God’s work of justification: one, it is an act of sheer grace and, therefore, antithetical to works of any kind whatever; and two, it involves a transaction whereby God gives a righteous status to believers who are through faith partakers of Christ.
Paul’s insistence in this passage that justification is received by faith clearly demonstrates that the righteousness of God is something that is imparted or granted to believers. Though this was already evident in Romans 1:17 in the language “from faith to faith,” it becomes particularly clear in this passage.
The final passage in Romans that uses the expression, “the righteousness of God,” is Romans 10:3, “For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God [lit. of God], and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”
This text, though it does not elaborate upon the way the righteousness of God is exhibited in the gospel, is quite similar in emphasis to Romans 3:21–26. The “righteousness of God” is not only His saving activity in justifying His people, but also His granting of the benefit (“being justified”) of that activity to those who believe. A sharp contrast or antithesis governs this passage, as in earlier passages in the book of Romans, between righteousness that is from God and received through faith, and righteousness that is inherent and obtained by works. Between these alternatives, there is no middle ground. As the apostle Paul puts it in the following verse, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (v. 4).
In the immediate context of this verse, Paul speaks of his fellow Jews who “have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (v. 2). This language parallels his observations at the end of Romans 9, that they “pursued a law that would lead to righteousness,” a pursuit that was not “by faith” but “by works” (vv. 31–32; cf. Philippians 3:9). When the language of these verses is coupled with that of Romans 10:3 and 10:5 (“For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them”), the conclusion seems un-avoidable: Paul is opposing a misguided endeavour to obtain righteousness by means of obedience to the law of God, rather than by faith. Either righteousness is received by faith or it is obtained by works. In this context, the language of the “righteousness of God,” which is revealed in God’s gracious work in Jesus Christ, refers most especially to the new status of acceptance with God that comes to those who believe.
In a manner that fully conforms to Paul’s usage elsewhere in Romans, the “righteousness of God” refers both to God’s gracious provision in Jesus Christ and to the gift of a new status (justification) to those who receive that gift in the way of faith, not works. As we have previously noted, moreover, the way of “works” in these verses is not limited to the so-called “boundary marker” requirements of the law, circumcision, dietary laws, and the like. Paul’s objection to those whose zeal for the law is misguided is not limited to their Jewish exclusivism; it includes also, and most emphatically, their attempts to establish a righteousness of their own that is based upon their obedience to the law as such.2
Based upon our review of the language of the “righteousness of God” in the book of Romans, it appears that this language probably includes several themes. It may refer in a general way to the covenant faithfulness of God in action, which secures the promise of salvation for His people. But it certainly refers more specifically to a special kind of saving action, namely, God’s work as Judge in securing the acquittal of His people from condemnation before Him. The righteousness of God, in this respect, includes both His saving work through Jesus Christ and the imparting of the benefit of that work to those who receive it through faith. God’s righteousness is objectively revealed in Christ’s death and resurrection for guilty sinners (cf. Rom. 4:15). But is also subjectively granted to those who acknowledge the benefit of Christ’s saving work with a believing heart. The language of the “righteousness of God,” therefore, clearly speaks of the justifying work of God in Christ and the reception of the benefit of that work through faith. In these respects, the Reformation’s understanding of this language seems quite closely conformed to the apostle’s usage.
1. For a fine exposition and defense of this understanding of Christ’s cross as a propitiation for sin, see Leon Morris. The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd ed. (1965; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001 [reprint]), pp. 144–78.
2. Cf. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 636: “The Jews failed to ‘submit’ to God’s righteousness not only because they did not recognize God’s righteousness when it arrived but also because they were too narrowly focused on seeking a righteousness in connection with their obedience to the law.”
Dr. Cornel Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies. Dr. Venema is a contributing editor to The Outlook.