The men’s group that I am a part of has started reading through Paul’s epistle to the Romans and a few weeks back we considered Romans 1:17, ‘In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”’ The question we discussed was one that has been asked throughout church history: how is the revelation of God’s righteousness good news?
Before his Turmerlebnis, or conversion, German Reformer Martin Luther understood what this verse meant, in part, and he hated it, deeming it decidedly bad news. Luther felt that God’s righteousness can only show up our own unrighteousness and wrestled with the claim that its revelation was desirable. In the Institutes, discussing the law, John Calvin writes, “It shows God’s righteousness, that is, the righteousness alone acceptable to God, it warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns, every man of his own unrighteousness” (2.7.6). If we advance no further than this view of God’s righteousness we can hardly call it gospel.
In his magisterial commentary on Romans, Douglas Moo provides a few options for understanding the “righteousness of God,” which explain Luther’s original disdain for the verse. Moo says that it has been understood to refer to the God’s attribute of righteousness and his just activity. Neither of these filled Luther with much hope, because he was a man well acquainted with his own sinfulness. But Moo offers another historical interpretation, one which both Luther would eventually champion: a righteousness attributed to us by God. In fact, upon consideration of these three options we hardly need to treat them as mutually exclusive, since Paul combines them in Romans 1-3.
Turning back to Romans 1:17, and the question over God’s righteousness being revealed in the gospel, a basic exercise in exegesis sets our course. For in the immediate context, Romans 1:16, we read, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Notice that the same gospel that reveals the righteousness of God (1:17) is the powerful salvation of God for all who believe (1:16), not those who possess their own righteousness. So the revelation of God’s righteousness in the gospel must mean more than simply his righteousness or his just activity being displayed; it is somehow related to those who have faith in Christ.
It is when we reach Romans 3:21 that Paul brings these ends together. Having repeatedly shown in 1:18-3:20 that we do not possess a righteousness of our own, Paul writes, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested” (3:21). This righteousness does not come through the law but faith and belief in Jesus Christ (3:21-22). But how does faith reveal God’s righteous character and behaviour? The answer: God shows his righteousness in giving us the righteousness of Christ, in justifying us “by his grace as a gift” (3:24). Paul concludes, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). Drawing our minds back to 1:17, the gospel reveals the righteousness of God in at least two ways: firstly we see that he is just, not merely forgetting unrighteousness but punishing it in Christ (3:25); secondly we learn that he is the God who justifies those with faith.
We have covered much ground in a short space. Our original question was how is the revelation of God’s righteousness a good thing, since alongside it our blemishes and sin are made clearer? Added to that was another questions, how does our faith in Christ reveal God’s righteousness while also achieving salvation (1:16)? The answer to these questions comes in Romans 3:21-26, for in the gospel God’s righteousness is manifest. This happens as he simultaneously works in a way that is perfectly just and justifies those who are not perfect. Thus Calvin writes, looking at Romans 5, “God, to whom we are hateful because of sin, was appeased by the death of his Son to become favourable toward us…As by the sin of Adam we were estranged from God and destined to perish, so by Christ’s obedience we are received into favour as righteous” (2.17.3). “To God be the glory forever” (Romans 11:36).