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.
Justice and Justification
Paul has taught us so far that no man can be declared righteous (vindicated by acquittal before the law-court of God) by the law of God. The law of God does not dismiss the charges; it presses them. And the law finds all men guilty before God’s divine tribunal. And, more to the point, this is exactly what the law has done to Israel: Israel is found guilty before God. But, if this is so, then how shall the promises of God come to pass? How shall God “bless all nations” through Abraham if the seed of Abraham lives under the curse of exile because they broke the law? If “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22), and the Jews are proved by the law to be as guilty as the rest of mankind—indeed, more so—then how can God’s promises come to pass? Is Israel’s failure God’s failure? This is the question that Paul must address.
So, address it he does. Paul declares that God has demonstrated His righteousness “apart from the law.” However, Paul is quick to add that this “righteousness-apart-from the-law” does not mean that God has done an end run around the law, for “the law and the prophets bear witness” to this “righteousness-apart-from the-law.” The law and prophets bear witness to what? The law and the prophets bear witness to the covenant faithfulness of God, that God shall keep His promises to Abraham in spite of the failure of Abraham’s children to keep their promises to God.
Moreover, Paul will argue that the law and the prophets themselves bear witness, not only to the fact that God will be faithful, but that His faithfulness will be realized apart from circumcision and law keeping, which were the marks of Israel’s election. This means, as the argument develops, that the righteousness of God transcends the limits of particular election and manifests the grace of God to all nations.
Paul will show that the law and the prophets expect that the salvation of the world must come apart from the faithfulness of Israel. In fact, the law and prophets boldly proclaim that God Himself will save His people though His people are unfaithful. All of this comes into clearer focus as Paul unfolds his argument throughout Romans. The vindication of God through the resurrection of Jesus apart from the law was not a frantic stopgap measure by which God patched up His badly broken purpose with a desperate Plan B. God’s manifest “righteousness-apart-from-the-law” proves exactly what God intended to prove from the beginning: The just shall live by faith, and this faith shall be manifest in and imputed by the faithfulness of God.
This “bearing witness of the law and the prophets” is very important to Paul’s theology. He is very careful to show that his teaching is not at odds with the Old Testament scriptures. Paul is very much aware that his opponents accuse him of breaking the Scriptures, and he is determined to prove them wrong. Paul will argue forcefully and at length throughout the rest of Romans that the fulfillment of the law and the prophets in Christ through the Holy Spirit is indicated within the law and the prophets. God is fulfilling His purpose in the New Covenant through the death and resurrection of Christ and through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. This should not surprise us—at least, it should not surprise us if we read the law and the prophets with a Christ-centered, Spirit-led understanding. The law and the prophets foretold this day.
After Paul makes clear that the law and the prophets bear witness to this “righteousness-apart-from-the-law” idea, he sets out to describe what this righteousness apart from the law looks like. The righteousness of God that has been manifest apart from the law is “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Or, as the KJV renders it, “The righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ.” Many scholars argue that this is the better rendering, which has Paul saying that the righteousness of God is manifest by the faith of Jesus Christ rather than just faith in Jesus Christ. Of course, no one doubts that we must have faith in Jesus Christ to be saved, but that is not what Paul is saying here. He means to say that the righteousness of God—or, God’s covenant faithfulness—is manifest through the faith of Jesus Christ.
Moreover, the faith of Jesus Christ here entails the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. This means that the righteousness of God is manifest through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, the fact that Jesus was obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (Philippians 2:8). Though Israel was unfaithful, God demonstrated His covenant faithfulness through the obedience of Jesus Christ. Where Israel failed, Jesus succeeded.
Jesus’ faithfulness is the manifest faithfulness of God Himself. Because Jesus is the very embodiment of Yahweh, the faithfulness of Jesus is the incarnated faithfulness of God. So, God is vindicated in the obedience of Christ. God proves He is faithful by living out His faithfulness in the faithfulness of Christ.
And this faith of Jesus Christ has been manifested “for all who believe.” This means that God has given us access to the righteousness of God in Christ when we believe the gospel, the good news, about what God has done in Christ. It all comes back to believing the promises of God. God declared that He would bless all nations through the children of Abraham, and the ultimate child of Abraham is Jesus Christ. Therefore, those who believe in the righteousness of God revealed in the ministry and mission of Christ become partakers of that righteousness.
So, this is how the righteousness of God is manifested apart from the law: God’s faithfulness is manifest through the faithful obedience of Jesus, and the faithful obedience of Jesus is imputed and imparted to those who are faithfully obedient (faith entails faithfulness). The faithfulness of God is manifest through the faithfulness of Jesus, which is manifest through the faithfulness of those who believe.
Now, as we shall see, we cannot construe this to say that we are saved by our own faithfulness, as if we can be faithful in the flesh, for that is the very point that Paul has taken such pains to refute. No flesh can be faithful before God, which is why the righteousness of God must be manifest apart from the law. Fallen man cannot be faithful.
So then, follow this closely: if the faithfulness of God is manifest through the faithfulness of Jesus to all who are faithful—to “all who believe”—and if no man can be faithful—no man can truly believe in a saving way—then how in the world will all this work its way to a happy conclusion? How then can we be saved? It sounds like an impasse!
Paul is very well aware of the difficulty, which is exactly why wrote this epic epistle. However, Paul is not worried about the happy ending. He knows that God has made a way to save His people from their sins and redeem all creation. As Paul will lay out in the remainder of Romans, God has overcome the impasse and guaranteed the happy ending by sending the Spirit to impart the indwelling righteousness of God in Christ to those who believe.
In other words, as we shall see, God has sent forth the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, so that the necessary faithfulness that fallen man cannot muster will be imparted to him by the Spirit as a free gift. The Spirit of Christ descends to dwell within us, and we are filled with the Spirit of Christ so that the faith of Christ wells up within us like a spring of living water and provides to our faithless heart the faithful obedience of Christ Himself. To put it plainly, God is raising up a faithful people by indwelling them with His own faithful Spirit. The just shall live by faith.
Then, Paul brings the question of justification back to the matter of Jew-Gentile distinction.
“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.”
There is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, for the righteousness of God is not restricted to those who have been given the law. It has been manifest apart from the law. Both Jews and Gentiles have been unfaithful to the law of God and have fallen short of God’s glory; thus, both are equally condemned. However, in Christ, the righteousness of God is freely manifest to all. This means that both Jews and Gentiles can be saved by faith in Christ. Both Jews and Gentiles are acquitted before the judgment of God. Both are found guilty under the law, and both are declared righteous by grace as a free gift in Christ.
Therefore, God is found to be righteous. His promise of universal salvation is found to be true. God keeps His Word. In spite of Israel’s failure, God is vindicated through the free gift of redemption in Christ. The death of Jesus serves as the propitiation for sins to all who receive it by faith. Salvation by grace through faith shows “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.” By presenting Jesus as the propitiation for sins, God is able to declare His righteousness in spite of His forbearance and tolerance of sins in the past.
How can a holy God be just while justifying the ungodly? Through the perfect faithfulness of Jesus lived out on our behalf and imputed to us by grace through faith. This is the power of God to salvation to all who believe, to the Jews first and also to the Greeks.