What does Paul mean when he says, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law” (Romans 3:21a)?
21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
Recently I asked this question to some of the students in my Missionary Epistles Class. I got some really great answers, however it seemed that the phrase “righteousness of God” kept tripping up a lot of students.
I was discussing this with a couple of students online and you could really tell that a certain understanding of this phrase has permeated our evangelical minds. Usually we take this to mean the righteousness that comes from God. In many cases this is the right way to understand the phrase – not in this passage though….
Here is my quick reply as to how we should understand the phrase “righteousness of God” in this passage:
I think a fair amount of confusion is coming up because of how we are understanding the phrase “righteousness of God.” This passage is implying that now the righteousness of God is being made known apart from the law. Implying that before the righteousness of God had been made known through the law. How we understand this concept hangs on what we understand by the phrase “righteousness of God.” If we read it as “God’s righteousness which he reckons to us” then it sure seems to imply that in the past God reckoned us righteous through the law. However we might read God’s righteousness in a different way, we might read that phrase and understand it as God’s own righteousness, i.e. his saving righteousness through which he is committed to restore humanity’s broken relationship with himself. (Or as N.T. Wright puts it – God’s righteousness is his unswerving commitment to be faithful to rescue humanity). If we read it this way then it really makes sense of the passage – in the past God revealed his commitment to rescue humanity through the law, primarily because that was one stage of the plan, however, now we have entered the final stage of the plan in which God reveals his commitment to rescue humanity through the atoning work of Christ. It is not as though plan A – the law failed – and now Plan B – Jesus – has to be enacted, no, Jesus was the point all along, and Jesus is how God is revealing his saving righteousness.
In other words in this particular passage “the righteousness of God” refers to God’s saving righteousness, not something he gives to us.