God’s Righteousness Revealed

For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.”

- Romans 1:17a

Today we arrive at what might be considered the most important verse in the book of Romans. Commentators agree that 1:17 is the letter’s thesis statement, an encapsulation of the message that Paul will exposit in greater detail in his epistle. This statement summarizes the Apostle’s God-given message, which he recorded in his letter to the church at Rome in order to introduce himself to the Christians there and ready them for his visit.

Because verse 17 is essential to the letter and introduces themes central to the Christian faith and key to understanding Romans, we will spend three days looking at Paul’s thesis statement, beginning today with its first half. Following upon verse 16, we read that the gospel is the power of salvation because “in it the righteousness of God is revealed” (v. 17a). The phrase the righteousness of God has prompted a great deal of discussion throughout church history, and getting the meaning right is important for understanding Romans properly.

In biblical categories, the righteousness of God can refer to an attribute of our Creator, but that is not how we should understand the phrase in Romans 1:17. Rather, it points us to two different but inseparable concepts, the first of which Martin Luther has presented and defended more forcefully than perhaps anyone else in church history: “By the righteousness of God we must not understand the righteousness by which he is righteous in himself but the righteousness by which we are made righteous by God” (from Luther’s lecture on Rom. 1:17). In other words, righteousness is a gift from God to His people, a status by which He regards us as just before Him. Paul indicates in Romans 3:21–26 that righteousness is the Lord’s gift to believers (the righteousness of God is for all who believe). Second Corinthians 5:21 says we become the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. Obviously, we cannot become one of our Creator’s attributes, but we can be gifted with a righteous status in Christ.

Scripture also uses the phrase the righteousness of God in relation to His acts of salvation. Psalm 145:1–7 proclaims the Lord’s righteousness in the context of His wondrous works and awesome deeds. Isaiah 46:13 speaks of God bringing near His righteousness and His work of salvation in the same context. Clearly, the gospel combines the salvation of our Creator with the revelation of His righteousness. When the Lord provides the gift of a righteous status to His people, He does so by intervening in history, saving His own through sending His Son to bear His wrath on our behalf (Rom. 3:21–26).

Coram Deo

The gift character of righteousness is underscored in Paul’s statement that “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.” Our position before the Lord is by faith alone from first to last, and nothing we do can merit a right standing before Him. As Luther also comments on today’s verse, “This happens through faith in the Gospel.” By trusting only in what God has done, we are reconciled to Him for all eternity.

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 65:5
Zechariah 8:1–8
Romans 10:1–4
1 Corinthians 1:30

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