“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 Christ 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, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 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.”
In his Bible, Martin Luther famously called this passage “the chief point, and the very central place of the Epistle, and of the whole Bible”—and with good reason. The opening words of verse 21 signal the turning point, not only of Paul’s letter but of the human race.
Up to this point, in both Paul’s letter and the history of the world, humanity stands guilty and condemned before the judgement seat of God. Paul has just summarized his long argument in chapters 1-3 by saying that no-one is good—not even one; no-one can stand before God justified by keeping the law; there is no excuse, and no escape. In fact, there are no words left to say. Every mouth is stopped and the whole world—Jew and Gentile—stands mute and accountable before God (3:19-20).
This courtroom image sets the scene for what follows in our passage. All stand guilty in the dock, but now the righteousness of God has been revealed, a righteousness that is quite apart from the Law, even though the Law and the Prophets foreshadowed it.
To understand this new righteousness of God, we need to understand two things about the word ‘righteousness’. Firstly, the word ‘righteousness’ refers to the character or status enjoyed by someone who ‘conforms to a standard’. Someone is ‘righteous’ before God if they measure up to God’s yardstick of holiness and goodness.
Secondly, if we want to say in English that someone has been demonstrated to be righteous (i.e. in conformity with the standard), we don’t say that they have been ‘righteousified’; we use the word ‘justified’. But in the Greek in which Paul wrote, they were different forms of the same word. To ‘justify’ means to ‘righteousify’ someone or something: to declare them to be in conformity with the standard.
What God has now revealed is the means by which humanity can conform to his standard—not via the demonstrably failed route of law-keeping, but “through faith in Jesus Christ”. And it is for everyone who believes. This justification is universally available, just as the sin that made it necessary was universal. It is extended to all, both Jew and Gentile, to everyone who stands guilty and dumbstruck before God’s throne. It comes not by the quality of our performance or law-keeping but “by his grace as a gift” (v. 24).
How is this possible? Everyone, without distinction, has shown how utterly without distinction they are. How can God suddenly declare guilty sinners to be worthy of the status of ‘righteous’ rather than worthy of his wrath and judgement?
The answer, and the hinge on which all of humanity turns, is the glorious phrase in verses 24-25: “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith”. God himself supplied the game-changer by which the guilty can be declared righteous. It was by putting forward Christ Jesus as a ‘propitiation’—that is, a sacrifice or offering which turns away wrath.
The wrath that hung over our heads has fallen on another: on Christ Jesus, the propitiating sacrifice. There is no debt now owing, no sin unforgiven, no charges outstanding. Sinners can now stand before God blameless and without stain. They now conform to the standard; they are now righteous.
Four times Paul emphasizes how this gracious gift is received: it is through faith (vv. 22a, 22b, 25, 26). Faith means to give someone trust and loyalty: to depend on them, to rest your weight on them, to rely on them. The gracious gift of right-standing before God is received simply by faith.
The final two verses return to the ‘righteousness of God’, and we discover that it refers not only to the righteousness that is received by faith, but to God’s own righteousness. For God has not only given righteousness to sinners as a gift, but he has done so in a totally righteous way, a way that demonstrates his complete conformity to his own standard. He put forward his own Son to bear the wrath due to guilty sinners, “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (v. 26).
At the end of this passage, we are left as speechless as we were at its beginning, no longer in guilt but in wonder and gratitude at God’s amazing grace.