“For in the Gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith, from first to last, just as it is written; ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ ” Romans 1:17
Many commentators consider verse 17 as the key to understanding Romans, and it has been argued that all the rest of the book is simply an exposition of this one verse. Regardless, there are few verses in Scripture that are as rich in encouragement and assurance as this one.
The verse is a fulfillment of Habakkuk 2:2-4, “Then the Lord replied; ‘write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright-but the righteous will live by His faith.’ ”
I think the great question of Romans 1:17 is simply what does Paul mean by the term righteousness of God? Once we understand that, the text becomes clear and gives understanding to the rest of the book.
First the righteousness of God may be thought of as a divine attribute or quality. Righteousness describes God’s character and His actions. We can trust that God always does right. I often cringe when insurance companies attribute storms and floods to “an act of God,” as if somehow God has brought such destruction on the homeowner and community. These are acts of evil and should be cast at Satan’s door and not attributed to a righteous God who only loves righteousness.
God’s personal righteousness is seen through the Cross of Christ. John Stott sums up this activity of God so well when he writes, “When God ‘presented Him as a sacrifice of atonement,’ He did it ‘to demonstrate His justice’ (dikaiosyne, 3:25 repeated in 3:26), and in order that He might be both Himself, ‘just’ and ‘the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus’ (3:26b) “ Romans, p. 62
Throughout Romans Paul makes it clear that all God is and does is based on righteousness. But the righteousness of God is more than a divine attribute; it is also related to God’s divine activity. We may understand this quality of God through His saving intervention on behalf of mankind. We simply call this salvation. In fact, salvation and righteousness are frequently connected or paralleled in Hebrew poetry and especially in Isaiah chapters 40-66.
We may understand God’s righteousness as “His loyalty to His covenant promises, in the light of which He may be implored-and expected-to come to the salvation of His people.” Stott, p. 62
John Ziesler s it this way, “salvation is the form that God’s righteousness takes.” N.T. Wright states about the righteousness of God that it is, “essentially the covenant of faithfulness, the covenant justice, of the God who made promises to Abraham, promises of a worldwide family characterized by faith, in and through whom the evil of the world would be undone.” The Climax of the Covenant, p. 234
The righteousness of God is also seen as a divine achievement. In this understanding we can state the righteousness of God as the righteousness from God (see Phil. 3:9). Once again I quote Stott for clarity, “It is a righteous status which God requires if we are ever to stand before Him, which He achieves through the atoning sacrifice of the cross, which He reveals in the gospel, and which He bestows freely on all who trust in Jesus Christ.” Stott, p. 63
God’s righteousness is a gift (5:17), which is offered to faith (3:22) and is ours to enjoy and revel in. Later in Romans 4 Paul talks about righteousness being “credited,” or “reckoned or imputed” to us. See also 1 Corinthians 1:30
In short the righteousness of God “can be thought of as a divine attribute (our God is a righteous God), or activity (He comes to our rescue) or achievement (He bestows on us a righteous status).” Stott, p. 63
I am so indebted to Stott for my understanding of the term “righteousness of God” in Romans that I must quote him again, “It seems legitimate to affirm, therefore, that the ‘righteousness of God,’ is God’s righteous initiative in putting sinners right with Himself, by bestowing on them a righteousness which is not their own but His. ‘The righteousness of God,’ is God’s justification of the unjust, His righteous way of pronouncing the unrighteous righteous, in which He both demonstrates and gives righteousness to us. He has done it through Christ, the righteous one, who died for the unrighteous, as Paul will explain later. And He does it by faith when we put our trust in Him, and cry to Him for mercy.” Stott, p. 64
This last quote quite literally takes your breath away when you contemplate upon it. What grace and love God pours out to us through His righteousness, and shame on any Christian that would hold his own righteousness up before God’s amazing gift of redemption. What evil lies in the doctrine of perfectionism that would seize and replace the righteousness of God with its own merits and righteousness.
We must never forget we are sinners through and through and it is only by the righteousness of a righteous God manifested in the cross that we obtain salvation. Our works, actions and deeds have no merit before a Holy and righteous God. Our works are as if we are asking credit for trying to drain the Atlantic Ocean with a plastic spoon that has a hole in it. Everything that we are is through God’s grace and His righteousness.