I wasn’t planning to write another whole blog post about Paul’s letter to Rome. But I started studying “righteousness,” and didn’t make it out of Romans so here we are.
There’s a lot of talk in the Bible about righteousness. Scripture is full of how we ought to behave righteously, what happens to those who aren’t righteous, and the righteousness of God. Today’s world doesn’t spend much time thinking or talking about righteousness, but when we turn to God’s word the pages are filled with this topic. It can be overwhelming to try and understand it all, and it would take a far longer article than this one to cover the whole topic in depth. But we can get a good understanding of God’s take on righteousness just from this one letter by the apostle Paul.
God’s Righteousness Comes First
The first time Paul brings up righteousness in this letter, it’s in relation to the gospel revelation of God’s righteousness in contrast to humanity’s unrighteousness. This lays groundwork for an analogy he’ll use later to explain the relationship between righteousness, law, and grace.
For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, “The righteous by faith will live.” For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousnessRomans 1:17-18, NET
Immediately, Paul sets up a stark contrast between the righteous God and those who practice unrighteousness (particularly the ones who ought to know better [Rom. 1:32]). He makes some strong accusations against the readers, too, challenging them to check if they’re following righteousness or unrighteousness using this test: “it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God, but those who do the law will be declared righteous” (Rom. 2:13, NET). Paul is laying an expectation on us that results from God’s righteous character. Listening to God’s words doesn’t do much for us, but putting them into action can. That’s not enough on it’s own, though.
The Pivotal Righteousness of Jesus
One reason it’s so important to read scripture in-context is because there’s often more said on the subject in the nearby chapters and verses. Nowhere is that more true than in Romans, where Paul continues adding on to his teachings about righteousness. If we stopped at 2:13, we might think that doing the law is enough to make us righteous. But Paul goes on to say “there is no one righteous, not even one,” and “no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law” (Rom. 3:10, 20, NET). God’s law is a good thing, but it can’t make us righteous; it can only tell us where we don’t measure-up to God’s standard of righteousness. And transgressing the law even once means we justly fall under condemnation from the perfectly righteous God. We’ve all sinned, we’re all unrighteous, and we can’t fix that problem by our own power (Rom. 3:4-20). God would be well within His rights to condemn us, but He very much wants us to accept the alternative He offers.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (although it is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed— namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.Romans 3:21-26, NET
We can be righteous because God chooses to apply Jesus’s righteousness to those who believe in Him. Jesus’s faithfulness and righteousness meant He could be–and was–the sacrifice needed to fulfill the righteous requirements of God’s law and redeem us from the consequences of sin (Rom. 6:23).
Before moving on to the next part of Paul’s argument we must, as Paul did, take the time to clarify a potential misunderstanding. Paul makes clear that “we uphold the law” by teaching righteousness through Jesus rather than (as some wrongly suppose) nullify the law through faith and grace (Rom. 3:31). We need to look at Paul’s whole teaching on this subject, and make sure we don’t jump to conclusions about his overall theology based on a single part of one verse like “you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14-15).
Compensation, Reward, and Credit
Paul continues to build on his explanation for how righteousness works by bringing in a money analogy. Chapter 4 breaks down the example of Abraham, to whom faith was “credited” as righteousness even before the law was given at Sinai. This shows righteousness was never about trying to keep the law perfectly; as if God would then “owe” you righteousness as wages for your works. Righteousness is something God “credits” to believers in response to their faith (Rom. 4:1-12, 20-25; the Greek word logizomai can “refer to deliberations of some sort” or “charging up a debt” [NET footnotes]). By sinning, we earned death because “the compensation due sin is death” (Rom. 6:23, LEB). However, Jesus’s actions on the cross credit us with righteousness that cancels out that debt.
Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have also obtained access into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of God’s glory. …
God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, because we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from God’s wrath.Romans 5:1-2, 8-9, NET
Righteousness by faith isn’t incompatible with law keeping (it would be strange if it was, considering how often scripture links obedience, love, and faith). Rather, Paul is showing that righteousness comes from God, not our own efforts. If we’re trying to make ourselves righteous–even by doing a good thing like obeying God–then our “zeal is not in line with the truth.” Righteousness only comes through God in response to our belief (Rom. 10:1-13).
Obligated to Walk in Righteousness
After explaining the method by which we can be credited with Jesus’s righteousness, Paul then explains what a life of righteousness looks like for someone justified by faith. Because we’re under grace, we must not permit sin to take mastery over us again by presenting ourselves as “instruments to be used for unrighteousness” (Rom. 6:12-14, NET).
Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to, and having been freed from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness. (I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.) For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.Romans 6:16-19, NET
Having established that we’re credited with righteousness as a result of Jesus’s life and death–not our own efforts–Paul now highlights that we still have a choice to make. Jesus’s righteousness applied to us covers over our sins, but it does not give us license to keep sinning (though if we do sin, He covers those sins as well after we repent and turn back to Him). Jesus’s righteousness frees us from being slaves of sin to become slaves of God, following His holy, righteous commandments (Rom. 7:12).
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.Romans 8:1-4, NET
As children of God, “we are under obligation” to live in the spirit rather than in the flesh (Rom. 8:12-14). It’s the same kind of obligation that’s inherent in covenant grace, which early Christians like Paul teach is both relational and reciprocal. We don’t follow the law in order to become righteous, but once God applies Jesus’s righteousness to us we keep the law as a result of aligning our lives spiritually with God’s righteousness. Now, we get to live with Jesus’s righteousness as a part of us, covering over the parts of us that don’t yet look like Him and enabling us to grow more and more like Him the longer we walk in His spirit.
Featured image by Pearl via Lightstock
Song Recommendation: “Your Great Name” by Krissy Nordhoff and Michael Neale